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Revolution of the Head: Vilém Flusser

Adrian Martin



Heckler: He’s real abstract, he’s ... different.

James Dean: That’s right. I’m cute, too.

          Rebel Without a Cause (1955)


What is a film theory? What is it for, what does it cover, what is it meant to do? These might seem like simple, straightforward, even naive questions – especially in the context of a book like this one on film and philosophy – but I have found that they elicit curiously blank reactions from even the smartest, most sophisticated postgraduate students of cinema. Of course, these bright students can instantly reel off the names of any number of well-worn intellectual systems and methodologies: Marxism, feminism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, identity politics, and so forth. But when pressed to clarify the crucial distinction between (to use the scientific terms) analytical frameworks that one can apply (a feminist view of gender roles, a semiotic analysis of narrative, a psychoanalytic view of myths) and something else that might be considered a pure theory of cinema, these students quickly hit a wall of incomprehension.


The aporia is hardly theirs alone; the entire field of cinema studies has often gone about its business, brilliantly or banally, without bothering to distinguish between modes of criticism or interpretation – which usually centre on very specific elements of a film’s representational content – and genuine theories of cinema. Recklessly bandied-about terms like ‘queer theory’ or ‘trauma theory’ – whatever enabling uses they may have as analytical or cultural tools – do nothing to clear up the prevalent confusion about what a theory is and does.


Film theories are, in fact, rare. They cannot be endlessly multiplied, or invented on a whim. A theory is not an interpretive template that can be ‘read off’ or read into the plot events or situations of a narrative film – which is exactly what we do if we decide to focus on the enactments of Marxian class warfare, the Hegelian dialectic, the Freudian Oedipal complex, the Levinasian face, Agamben’s ‘bare life’ or the Derridean ‘economy of the gift’ in any given filmic text. Nor is it really true to say, as Andrew Britton passionately argued in the mid 1980s, that theory (for him, a blend of Marxism, Freudianism and feminism) provides the general principle in order for criticism to examine the particular case (i.e., specific films). (1) In critical performances like these (however interesting or revealing they may be, and in Britton’s case the performance was sublime), the domain of theory has been displaced: we are dealing with a theory of society or the psyche, not of film. Particular films, in this model, then become instances, illustrations or allegories of an idea formed about some larger entity situated elsewhere, on a more conventionally constituted level of experiential reality: the world, the self, politics, time, history ...






1. Andrew Britton, ‘In Defense of Criticism’, a 1986 essay reprinted in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton (Wayne State University Press, 2008), pp. 373-377.

So what is a film theory? Let us risk this definition: a theory is a general view of how a medium (or artform) works – Brian Henderson reminds us that ‘theoria in the classical Western sense’ is ‘an essential analysis of an unlimited object’, i.e., the object in its totality – while the type of prevalent, so-called theoretical approaches noted above would be, rather, the limited analysis of a limited object, defined and mapped according to a hopefully ‘scrupulous specification of pertinence’. (2) More especially, a theory (in the true sense) offers an account of the conditions of existence and possibilities of that medium. It asks what is essential to the medium, and what is specific to it. There are three broad kinds or realms of theory, each of which frames these questions somewhat differently: the aesthetic, the socio-cultural (which includes the psychic component), and the philosophical (which includes religious investigation). But in order for aesthetic, socio-cultural and philosophical approaches to cinema to be more than just readings of representational content in the mirror of the reigning issues in those intellectual fields, they will need to be addressing the basic properties of the cinema as a medium: light, space, duration, movement, photographic (or non- or post- ) photographic qualities ...


2. Brian Henderson, ‘Film Theory and the Avant-Garde’, The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 9/10 (1981), pp. 160-161.


Thus we come to the final essential question in my basic list: for every genuine act of cinema theorising, we must ask: how does it define its object, the film medium? This is why the basic model of film theory is what became known, during the ‘70s and beyond, as apparatus theory, or the investigation of what constitutes the ‘basic cinematic apparatus’; we shall see, however, that this term covers a two-headed Hydra, the complex nature of which has been obscured in its English-language rendition and circulation.


Of all the great philosophers whose work has brushed against cinema, Vilém Flusser may be the purest in his activity of theorising. In fact, this is a constant of his work in almost every domain. Whether speaking of film, still photography or the design arts – among the very many fields he addressed in his prolific output – Flusser eschews virtually all reference to specific works, artists, genres or movements. This can strike first-time readers of his texts as a highly unusual, possibly eccentric or wilful, perhaps excessively abstract procedure. Although it accords with the exclusively materialist focus on the medium practiced by some hard-line film theorists of the 1970s, such as Jean-Louis Baudry (to whom we shall crucially return), such a posture, severely voided of reference to art and artists, seems odd in an era of connoisseur-aesthetes like Gilles Deleuze (Cinema 1 & 2), Santos Zunzunegui (Pensar la imagen) or Jacques Rancière (Film Fables). (3) Flusser’s writings on design, for example, rarely even mention designers, famous or otherwise: Flusser prefers to meditate on certain prototypes of ‘the shape of things’ (the title of his collected essays on this topic): tent, typewriter, wall, wheel, desk. Occasionally, a very broad distinction will be drawn – between, say, family snapshots and artistic photography – but usually in order to be dissolved at a higher level of medium-related generality. In his discussion of cinema, even less particularity comes into play than in his celebrated book Towards a Philosophy of Photography. The distinction between, for instance, commercial-mainstream and alternative-experimental cinema does not register as significant for Flusser – indeed, as we shall see, his line of argument about film imperiously opposes any such distinction.









3. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1 and 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 & 1989); Jacques Rancière, Film Fables (London: Berg, 2006); and Santos Zunzunegui, Pensar la imagen [Thinking the Image] (Madrid: Cátedra, 1989).

Flusser is, quite simply, a theorist – a pure theorist. He passes over (for the most part) individual instances of an art or craft medium, because what concerns him is precisely the grounding of the medium itself: what defines it, and what it allows. An unshakeable tenet of his view of things is that, at least since the modern, industrialised, technological age, people (humble citizens or elevated artists) do not use media, as some means to an expressive end; they are used by these media, reduced to mere effects, mere operators of a mechanism that they scarcely understand (hence his vision of the camera as an unknowable ‘black box’). In a typical turn of phrase, he refers to ‘a human being in possession of a camera (or of a camera in possession of a human being)’ – and concludes that ‘the structure of the cultural condition is captured in the act of photography rather than in the object being photographed’. (4)


Such an analysis, coming from Flusser, is not a matter of an anti-humanist philosophy – akin to the post-structuralist maxim of the 1960s and 1970s that ‘we do not speak, we are spoken’ by language – but a simple fact of how he sees, on a grand scale, the so-called progress of civilisation. Once rational society has perfected first the camera and then the computer (among its many advanced machines), it abandons rational foundations for an inexorable trip back to the age of magic: ‘our’ images – Flusser calls them techno-images – come into being almost without us, or despite us, via intricate technical means that comparatively few of us truly understand. Like in a story by Jorge Luis Borges or Philip K. Dick, these images proliferate, connect up and cover the entire surface of the world, whether actual or virtual: they create a New World, one that may not, ultimately, be entirely hospitable or comprehensible to us.



4. Vilém Flusser (trans. Anthony Mathews), Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), pp. 33-35.

Yet Flusser, when he conjures such a destiny, although he may be circumspect and even droll, is never gloomy. He plays the part of neither the thundering Grand Pessimist (as a media critic like Neil Postman does) nor the cynical, resigned, nihilistic Man of Philosophy at world’s end (as Jean Baudrillard gleefully does). In Flusser’s view, we may be running out of time to grasp the New World coming into being around us, but we nonetheless have the chance to seize the day and reboot ourselves into a state of advanced consciousness. ‘One of my commitments is to teach people, as far as I can, to ask the right questions, not to become victims of the image, but to use the image as a tool for critical analysis.’ (5) For the world of techno-images is, for Flusser, concrete and therefore usable, and in this he opposes Baudrillard:





5. ‘Vilém Flusser interviewed by Miklós Peternák’,

  Baudrillard believes that we are living in a world where the simulations hide reality. I think this is a nonsensical proposition. ... Images are just as concrete as is the table on which your machine is standing now. We do not have any ontological tool any longer to distinguish between a simulation and a non-simulation. The critical tool which we have to use is concreticity as opposed to abstractness. (6)  



6. Peternák interview.

And there is no greater testament to this possibility of concrete, practical analysis than Flusser’s own writing – much of it produced on a daily or weekly basis, for newspapers and magazines, as well as academic journals, arts events, conferences and other types of presentation. On this level, Flusser must be considered on the same plane as André Bazin, Roland Barthes or Siegfried Kracauer during his early years in Germany – as, in other words, at least in part, a journalist. As Raymond Bellour once said of Serge Daney, they all, in delivering on demand and rising to the occasion, perpetually reconciled the ‘charming lightness’ of regular journalism with the ‘exacting duties of rationality’, and it is ‘from this tension ... that poetry is born’. (7)


The poetry of Flusser’s prose is born from a very particular variant of this tension inherent to the situation of an intellectual writing popular journalism. On the one hand, he honed his discourse to the point where it was perfectly simple, clear, lucid – and thus, as a side effect, fairly easily translatable from one language to another, a fact borne out by his practice of sometimes stopping the composition of a piece midway and beginning it over in another of the five languages (Czech, German, French, Portuguese and English) in which he was fully fluent as a writer. (8) Each of his pieces takes the form of an elegant, step-by-step demonstration of an idea; the terms and premises are defined, the consequences and ramifications are explored, and a sober, limpid conclusion is reached. There is nothing abstruse in his work; everything proceeds concretely, plainly.






7. Raymond Bellour, ‘Serge Daney’, Magazine littéraire, no. 232 (July 1986), p. 15 (my translation).  



8. Martin Pawley, ‘Introduction’, in Flusser (trans. Anthony Mathews), The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (London: Reaktion Books), p. 14.

At the same time, on the other hand, Flusser would exploit the freedom to range very widely very swiftly, across centuries and epochs, civilisations and historic revolutions, the births and deaths of vast social or cultural formations, in order to place whatever phenomenon was before his immediate attention into his large-scale story of Mankind. This is what gives a reader the impression of a certain sweeping generalisation, an overarching abstractness. Within a literary mode familiar from Eastern European tradition – the fictions and essays of Poland’s Stanislaw Lem, for instance – Flusser could thus, at times, extend his demonstrations into a whimsical realm (but still with an underlying, pedagogical seriousness), elaborating a kind of theory-fiction which he dubbed ‘philosophical science-fiction’, beyond the realms of the world as we so far know it. (9)


Flusser was the consummate Big Picture guy. He gave the impression – obviously a true one – of having processed and mastered thousands of documents of all sorts (written, pictorial, architectural, economic, technological); yet, despite his early schooling (during the late 1930s and 1940s) in Heidegger, Kant, Ortega, Husserl, Nietzsche, existentialism, Marxism and phenomenology, he scarcely ever provided a single footnote, or bowed to any of his philosophical contemporaries (among the ancients, Descartes sometimes gets a name-check, and among the moderns, Wittgenstein receives an ambiguous salute). He preferred to work on the level of identifying broad tendencies, in a dramatic and sometimes deliberately comical style of argumentative rhetoric – and these tendencies are so broad that they exclude what Flusser doubtless considered the unnecessarily distracting minutiae of this or that thinker working through this or that intellectual fashion in his or her tiny moment in time. Flusser’s pride, and perhaps too his occasional fall, resides in his assumption that he – maybe alone of all thinkers – can see the larger pattern beyond the consuming obsessions of the present. Certainly, it is a grandstanding style of thinking and writing not easily imitated or emulated – even by those, yesterday or today, who might consider themselves devoted students of Flusser and his work. As the French film critic Alain Masson once said of the American-born, cosmopolitan filmmaker Joseph Losey: ‘Lucid about his illusions, [he] entertains a fair number of illusions about his lucidity’. (10) But in the case of Flusser, the march of history seems to be tilting the balance of judgement towards his lucidity; so much of what he wrote is strikingly prescient of developments in the digital age.


Before delving into Flusser’s statements on film and video, it is necessary to briefly outline the rhetorical and argumentative structure of several of his typical, characteristic, short texts. A preliminary step towards this can be supplied from a characteristically succinct statement from the opening lines of Towards a Philosophy of Photography:




9. Pawley, ‘Introduction’, p. 13.  












10. Alain Masson, ‘Le Livre de Losey’, Positif, no. 229 (1980), p. 26.  


This book is based on the hypothesis that two fundamental turning points can be observed in human culture since its inception. The first, around the middle of the second millennium BC, can be summed up under the heading ‘the invention of linear writing’; the second, the one we are currently experiencing, could be called ‘the invention of technical images’.


This hypothesis contains the suspicion that the structure of culture – and therefore existence itself – is undergoing a fundamental change. (11)





11. Towards a Philosophy of Photography, p. 7.

In his essay ‘The Factory’ – one could call it a programmatic essay, but then almost every piece he wrote is devoted to laying out his overall program, usually from a surprising new angle – Flusser urges us to pay attention to the development of what he calls ‘working-floors’ throughout history, from the Neolithic pottery centre to modern factory layout. We will learn, for instance, more about ‘the roots of Humanism, the Reformation and the Renaissance’ by studying a fourteenth-century shoemaker’s workshop than by interpreting  ‘works of art and political, philosophical and theological texts’ of the time. (12) Flusser ‘sees human history as the history of manufacturing and everything else as mere footnotes’. (13) Our contemporary ‘information society’ is, for him, precisely, the point at which ‘inherited’, biological information is replaced by ‘acquired, cultural information’. (14) Manufacturing involves – in a rich example of Flusser’s linguistic-etymological excavation – the action of turning, which is a prime example of ‘genetically inherited information’: ‘Manufacturing means turning (entwenden) what is available in the environment to one’s own advantage, turning it into (umwenden) something manufactured, turning it over to use (anwenden) and thus turning it to account (verwenden)’.  (15) As we shall see, for Flusser, cinema also involves several types of turning.


Thus, Flusser sees four rough periods of turning in human history: by hands, tools, machines and robots. And – a point to which Flusser always returns – ‘factories are places in which new kinds of human beings are always being produced: first the hand-man, then the tool-man, then the machine-man, and finally the robot-man’. (16) Each mode of turning generates its own kind of workspace: the primitives could move about and use their hands anywhere, but tools require a space, which alienates us from nature and ensures we are ‘both protected and imprisoned by culture’. (17) From the humble potter’s studio we then pass, in the Industrial Revolution, to the model of the factory, where the machine is placed at the centre of the work space (and the entire site is placed at the centre of various sorts of social transportation flows), while humans become mere operatives; this is the era of the assembly line. The coming robot age, however, promises (at least in its hype) to free humans from the factory ‘madhouse’  (18) and return us to a condition akin to primitive times: we will be accompanied by or connected to our robot-prostheses wherever we go. Flusser’s prescience, on this point, is acute: ‘Everyone will be linked to everyone else everywhere and all the time by reversible cable, and via these cables (as well as the robots) they will turn to use everything available to be turned into something and thus turned to account’. (19)


As often, this piece by Flusser reserves an especially brilliant conceptual twist for its ending. He suddenly introduces the social model of the school which, as he notes, has been conceptualised, classically, as the opposite of the factory: the former is made for contemplation and leisure, the latter for practical, earthly endeavours. But in the future, everyone will need to be thoroughly educated in order to have the competence to cope with being telematically linked to a multitude of robots. Hence the factory of the future will have to be conceived ‘more in terms of scientific laboratories, arts academies and libraries and collections of recordings than in terms of present-day factories’. (20) And, at last, ‘homo faber becomes homo sapiens sapiens because he has realized that manufacturing means the same thing as learning’. (21)


A second example. In his breathtakingly brief (two and a half page) essay ‘Shelters, Screens and Tents’, Flusser muses on the idea of a wall, and on the difference between different types of walls – for him, the convenient key (like so many mundane, everyday phenomena) to understanding our civilisation and its discontents. The solid wall marks, for Flusser, a neurotic society – a society of houses and thus dark, Gothic secrets, of properties and possessions. And of folly, too, because the wall will always be razed, in the final instance, by the typhoon, flood or earthquake. But whereas the solid wall gathers and locks people in, what Flusser calls the screen wall – incarnated in history variously by the tent, the kite or the boating sail – is ‘a place where people assemble and disperse, a calming of the wind’. It is the site for the ‘assembly of experience’; it is woven, and thus a network. (22)


It is only a small step for Flusser to move from the physical, material kind of screen to the immaterial kind: the screen that receives projected images, or (increasingly) holds computerised images. From the Persian carpet to the Renaissance oil painting, from cinema to digital art: images (and thus memories) are stored within the surface of this woven wall. A wall that reflects movement, but itself increasingly moves within the everyday world – made portable with the development of the laptop computer and the mobile phone.


12. The Shape of Things, pp. 43-44.

13. The Shape of Things, p. 44.


14. Ibid.  


15. Ibid. (I have added Flusser’s original German terms for the varieties of turning; my thanks to Cristina Álvarez López for this precision).  



16. The Shape of Things, pp. 44-5.  

17. The Shape of Things, p. 45.  


18. The Shape of Things, p. 46.  


19. The Shape of Things, p. 48.  







20. The Shape of Things, p. 49.  

21. The Shape of Things, p. 50.  






22. The Shape of Things, p. 57.  


This essay on the idea of the screen, like many pieces by Flusser, makes only passing reference to the medium of cinema. In the material so far made available in the languages I can read (English and French), only two pieces tackle cinema – or its later outgrowth, video – directly, and at length: the key essay ‘On Film Production and Consumption’, dating from 1979; and the work on video/conceptual artist Fred Forest, which exists as a 1975 essay on the Internet, and as a book, L’Art sociologique et vidéo à travers la demarche de Fred Forest (Sociological Art and Video Through the Work of Fred Forest), from 1977. (There is also a brief discussion of film viewing – and of the ‘problem’ of sound in cinema – in the 1973 piece ‘Line and Surface’.) (23) Is the attention to Forest an exception to the no-artist rule in Flusser’s researches? In fact, no: as we shall see, his specific interest is in what he construes as the gesture of videography practiced by Forest, rather than any finished, consumable work of video art; and Forest (whom he admired greatly) counted as really the only kind of artist who deserved to figure in this theorist’s account of media-systems and techno-images – someone who, for a precious moment, upsets, re-routes, outwits (‘subverts’ is too strong a word for Flusser) what is called ‘the state of things’, which is, for Flusser, ‘a scenario in which what is significant are the relationships between things and not the things themselves’. Such playfulness – the possibility of play mattered a lot to Flusser – is the only form of revolution (social or aesthetic) he can countenance, no doubt partly as a result of the many years he spent negotiating, working and surviving under heavily controlling political regimes in Brazil during the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s, and the former Czechoslovakia during German Occupation of the late 1930s.


23. See Vilém Flusser (ed. Andreas Ströhl, trans. Erik Eisel), Writings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), pp. 21-34.  


There may be more – potentially much more – to be found on cinema amidst the complete archive of Flusser’s work (published and unpublished) in all languages, which is today held at the University of Arts (UDK) in Berlin. (24) He did, after all, spend time between 1967 and 1972, as Appointed Professor for Philosophy of Communication, teaching at the Escola Dramática and the Escola Superior de Cinema in São Paulo. And in interviews (more of which are now coming to light and being translated) he tended to be more unbuttoned, making more specific reference to contemporary artists, theorists (such as his retort to Baudrillard cited above) and pop-cultural trends (such as TV programs).


I will not dwell long here on Flusser’s piece on Fred Forest, an artist with whom he collaborated from the 1970s onwards. It takes its place within Flusser’s ongoing work on human gesture, its actuality (as a process of communication), recording and depiction. (The very last work he saw published in his lifetime was the 1991 German text Gestures: Towards a Phenomenology.) What attracts Flusser to Forest’s protean work in many artistic and cultural forms is the latter’s capacity to intervene in the situation or medium he addresses – to, in some sense, transform it (as in his celebrated project 150cm2 of Newspaper, involving the hiring of advertising space in Le Monde in 1972 to publish small blank squares accompanied by the invitation to readers to fill the space with their own artwork). (25) Related to Flusser’s reflections on the physical act or gesture of photographing in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, he eagerly observes the feedback loop or ‘curious dialogue’ created by Forest’s videographic recording of gestures (including his own gestures of pipe smoking!):


24. See information here.










25. For details, see here.

  The camera that Forest held between his hands naturally followed my gestures, via corresponding ‘gesture-movements’. But his gestures obliged my own gestures, in turn, to alter in response. So a dialogue was established, whose numerous levels were not entirely conscious, neither for Forest nor for me, because they were not entirely deliberate. My hands answered the camera’s gestures, and this modification of my hand movements changed, subtly, my words and my thoughts. And Forest moved not only in response to my movements, but also to the thoughts that I was articulating verbally. (26)  



26. Vilém Flusser, ‘Fred Forest ou la destruction des points de vue établis’, (my translation).

‘On the Production and Consumption of Films’ is a major essay on the cinematic apparatus. (27) On this point, however, we have two issues with which to deal. First, we must understand Flusser’s own use of the term, since it bears no necessary relation to its better-known uses and definitions within the annals of contemporary theory; and second, we must clear up a prevalent misunderstanding about the concept in English-language film cultures.


In the ‘Lexicon of Basic Concepts’ at the back of Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Flusser defines apparatus in a two-stroke movement as ‘a plaything or game that simulates thought’ and an ‘organization or system that enables something to function’. (28) The English translator feels compelled to amplify, after the first stroke, that an apparatus is any ‘non-human agency’, from the camera or computer to the State or market. (29) These two parts of Flusser’s definition in fact correspond fairly well to the two quite different ideas contained in film theory’s adoption of the term. It is poorly understood that, in translation, the word apparatus covers two separate concepts in the thought of Jean-Louis Baudry: the basic cinematic apparatus (camera, filmstrip, projector) is the appareil de base, while what he called the metapsychological situation of the spectator positioned before the screen image is a dispositif – the material set-up or system of elements in a social situation, like traffic lights or a factory layout. (30)


In Flusser’s essay, the gestures and processes of film production – staging, shooting, editing images – correspond to the game-like side of the apparatus, the use of its basic machinery; while the ritual act of film consumption belongs to the more sinister regime of the social system or dispositif. Where shooting involves various sorts of turning, whether physical, mechanical or conceptual – the film turns in the camera, the cinematographer moves about in his or her capturing of images, the editor re-arranges temporal relations at will – the moment of consumption in a sense forbids, or at least renders meaningless, another kind of turn: the turning of one’s head, away from the screen, to take in the surrounding theatre architecture or the materiality of the projection booth with its beam of light.


27. All quotations are from my translation of this text, forthcoming in LOLA. Flusser’s original appears as ‘Filmerzeugung und Filmverbrauch’ (1979), en Medienkultur (Frankfurt, 1997), pp. 89-102. The French translation by Claude Maillard, ‘De la production et de la consommation des films’, appears in Flusser, La Civilisation des médias (Belval: Circé, 2006), pp. 75-88; all further page references are to this edition. A Spanish translation by Breno Onetto, ‘Producción y consumo de películas’, can be found here.

28. Towards a Philosophy of Photography, p. 83.  

29. Ibid.  

30. See Jean-Louis Baudry, L’Effet cinéma (Paris: Albatros, 1978); English translations of his key essays can be found in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (ed.), Apparatus (New York: Tanam Press, 1980). For an excellent discussion of Baudry’s definitions of the apparatus, see Frank Kessler, ‘The Cinema of Attractions as Dispositif’, in Wanda Strauven (ed.), The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam University Press, 2007), pp. 57-69.  

Since this piece appears to be Flusser’s distillation of his theoretical thoughts on cinema, its moves are worth summarising in some detail. Its first part, on production, reiterates and extends certain meditations in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, particularly in relation to the physical gestures of photography and cinematography. A characteristically Flusserian formulation: ‘if what is meant by ‘ideology’ is the fact of always keeping the same viewpoint, the act of photographing is a post-ideological movement’ (31) – and thus the systematic expression or exercise of a doubt (in place of ideological certainty). Cinematography, however, changes this situation somewhat, because it involves a new gesture: gliding with the movie camera instead of leaping (or stalking one’s prey) with a still camera. (32) The process of doubt is thus no longer so decisive or dramatic: ‘The man with a movie camera does not jump from one decision to another; on the contrary, he lets his decisions dissolve in an indecisive blur’. (33)


But Flusser considers the central aspect of film production to be situated elsewhere – in editing. He waves away aesthetic debates concerning ‘two-dimensional screen, three-dimensional sound, the linear time of the film’s unfolding, the organised time of the story it tells’ (34) – and therefore much of what traditional film criticism addresses under the rubrics of mise en scène and storytelling. For him, the true ‘film producer’ is not the person with the money, or the manager of on-set resources, but the one in control of editing: ‘the man who cuts and splices, ‘on top’ of the celluloid so as to work it’ (35) – and for whom all the material staged for and captured by the camera (however intricately and artfully) is only raw material. It is this figure, whom Flusser dubs the producer-editor, who ‘makes use of a techno-imagination of a completely different order’. (36) Although Flusser makes no reference here to the work or theories of master Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, he is in accord with him on the central role accorded to processes of montage.


However, montage is not primarily an aesthetic question for Flusser (as it is for Eisenstein). In this essay on film, he returns to his essential, overarching distinction between the historical reign of linear writing and the new age of techno-images. For the producer-editor reveals a new type of social, intellectual and cultural competence, a more cerebral form of ‘turning to account’:



31. Flusser, ‘De la production’, p. 77.

32. See Towards a Philosophy of Photography, pp. 33-40.  


33. Flusser, ‘De la production’, p. 77.


34. Ibid, p.78.  


35. Ibid.  

36. Ibid.  



  Faced with the celluloid, the film’s ‘producer’ (its author) finds himself at a point which transcends linearity – writing, linear calculus, linear logic, in short: historical time – for linearity is, from his viewpoint, only the primary material that he proceeds to treat ‘from the outside’. The editor, he who cuts and splices, does not care, unlike the hero inside the story (the line), about modifying it; for him, the story is merely a pre-text that he uses, from without, to fabricate a message. His place is, in certain respects, comparable to that of the Judaeo-Christian God. Like Him, he sees simultaneously the beginning and end of the story (the film-strip) and can work miracles, i.e., intervene from beyond. But the editor’s omnipotence surpasses even God’s. He can repeat events, reverse their unfolding, leap over phases as a horse leaps over steeples, go from past to future and return from future to past, accelerate the course of time or slow it down, splice together the beginning and end of linear time and thus form a cyclical story; in short, he can play with linearity. (37)  






37. Ibid, pp. 78-79.  

Flusser’s conclusion, in this first part of his essay, signals a warning:


  Most of our films are ‘bad’ because they spring from a historical consciousness. If we are menaced by technocracy and apparatuses, it is because we are scarcely capable of leaving history in order to hurl ourselves into the techno-imagination. (38)  


38. Ibid, p. 81.  

The second section of the essay, on film consumption, is a tour de force of conceptual insight, invention and wit. Flusser especially fixes upon the architectural dispositifs of what he called the ‘codified world’ (the title of his 1974 book). In a likely nod to Baudry and like-minded theorists of the 1970s, Flusser acknowledges the popular equation of the cinema theatre with a cave – since ‘the Platonic myth of the cave can probably be considered the very first act of film criticism’. (39) But neither the cave nor the theatre – associated etymologically with the Greek theoria or theory – will do as a reference point for Flusser. Where live theatre is an emitter, the cinema theatre is only a transmitter; and it is ‘one of the rare places that allows us to sacrifice theory’ – or where, more exactly, theory reigns only at intermission, ‘in order to program us more completely’. (40)


Flusser pursues a comparison of the ‘picture theatre’ with the Roman basilica – since this is, for him, the prototype of the modern supermarket, but merged with the function of also serving as a temple or church. And the layout of today’s hypermarket, categorically for Flusser, ‘hides what such a space, in reality, is: a prison’. (41) The essay poses the cinema theatre as the ‘other face’ of the supermarket. With its open doors, free entry, and blinking advertising screens everywhere, a supermarket ‘offers the illusion of a public space’, (42) an agora (marketplace) for a polis (population). But to get out of this phony agora, this vast dispositif of ‘lure’, one must queue up and forfeit money. The cinema-going situation inverts this: we queue up to pay at the start and leave freely at the end. But – and here Flusser anticipated today’s merging of hypermarket with multiplex – ‘the price of entry into the cinema and the price of release from the supermarket are two sides of the same coin’: in the ‘metabolism’ of consumer society, filmgoers are programmed to visit the supermarket, and vice versa. (43)


This essay takes a prime place among Flusser’s most pessimistic meditations. The behaviour of the filmgoer, he muses, is ‘almost unbelievable: how can it be the case that people collaborate to such an extent with an apparatus which they know transforms them into passive receptors, into known units, into a mass?’ (44) There is a specific reason for this passivity, and it lies in our awareness of the serial diffuseness of the cinematic apparatus, its lack of a central point of emission that could be targeted or attacked (for instance, by the proponents of a radical counter-cinema, which Flusser regards as a vain, ineffectual illusion). Let the final, sombre, magisterial word go to Flusser himself:



39. Ibid.  


40. Ibid, p. 82.  


41. Ibid, p. 83.  


42. Ibid.  


43. Ibid.  


44. Ibid, p. 84.  

  We know that this projection apparatus, behind our heads and beyond us, is not the true sender of the message, but only the last link in a chain linking the theatre to this sender. We know that the celluloid which passes through this apparatus is not an original message, but merely the stereotype of an inaccessible prototype, and that there are innumerable identical stereotypes playing out right now in theatres ‘all over the world’. So we know that any ‘revolution’, any turning of the head towards the projection booth, and the message it delivers, would be a desperately vain enterprise. We cannot free ourselves from domination by the apparatus by smashing the projector or burning the celluloid, because the centres of this apparatus-formation will remain intact and entirely inaccessible. The cinema theatre is thus a place that excludes any treacherous revolution – and that is precisely one of the goals it pursues. (45)  





45. Ibid, pp. 84-85.

This is a revised and expanded version of a piece that first appeared in Felicity Colman (ed.), Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers (Acumen, 2009). A Spanish translation by Cristina Álvarez López of this new version appears in La Fuga (August 2012), see here.


from Issue 2: Devils


© Adrian Martin April 2009/June 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.