Paul Virilio: The Politics of "Real Time"

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Paul Virilio: The Politics of ‘Real Time’

The one constant in the twentieth-century was the speed of light. Celebrated quite naturally in physics in the only equation most of us know, light is also, in some fashion, the point of the ‘enlightenment’. Today, with the various postmodern turns light is juxtaposed against the dark, the secret, the invisible. Each of these melodramatic personae has now become an agent of a counter to the enlightenment — usually disguised in quite enlightened arguments.

Paul Virilio offers one such argument that takes the visible and the invisible to a ‘virtual’ conclusion. It is an argument that confronts a social world that has been permanently altered. This, of course, is the world of digital life where that subset of light in its electronic format powers the New World. It may also power the older world of nature though retrofitted as the environment or ecology.

It is to the character of this digital world that Virilio turns his attention. While deeply immersed in its ‘reality’ as an individual, Virilio is deeply repulsed by its fundamental attack on the basic propositions that underlie human existence. This creates a tension in Virilio that is part of the tension of digital culture. All too easily one can describe it as seductive and corrupting. It is more difficult to catch the algorithm by which this culture spreads and remakes the human social. That Virilio has an insight into this there can be no doubt; that Virilio retreats into his own bunkered world with his God there is also no doubt. Between these two utopias, these two ‘no places,’ lies the politics of ‘Real Time’.

Light

It is tempting to begin with fiat lux. However, before the lights come up, so to speak, the conceptual scene will be set out. This will take us back via way of Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry to the Greco-Roman period. Here is the foundation, not only for Virilio’s concepts of politics and religion, but in a more fundamental way his concepts of space and time. Epicurus will provide both the physics of the ‘original’ commonplace as well as an insight into perception. These are precursors to both Virilio’s vision machine and his logistics of perception. This path will continue on into the various geometries that culminate in the Einsteinian revolution, or, at least for our purposes, Einstein’s famous equation. Space/time becomes the step towards the mutation that we live with today as ‘real time’. Here light may be all that remains in its digital waveform ushering in a globalization of the ‘virtual’.

In a way, fiat lux is the first word in a number of big productions including Virilio’s. It can be followed, as we all know, with lights, camera, action. Not a bad summary of Virilio’s philosophy — a three dimensional unfolding that establishes the politics of the vision machine and with it Virilio’s own dark vision of the digital age. It will turn out to be a type of Cassandra production, or voyage, however, where Virilio tries to reach ‘escape velocity’ into/from the ‘real time’ of the digital culture. In the end, this will be, in a type of Leibnitzean fashion, the universe of God or of Maxwell’s demon. Take your pick.

Space

Let us begin though with an original geometry as appropriated by Virilio from the phenomenological tradition. Virilio in many ways remains a phenomenologist, as we shall see, mounting an unpopular attack on the postmodern turn that followed Merleau-Ponty’s death. In a late text, Open Sky [1], Virilio makes reference to Edmund Husserl’s The Origin of Geometry that might stand as an indication of Virilio’s early understanding of space.

Virilio begins by agreeing with Husserl that geometry’s origins are not to be found in a search for first geometers. This is not a philological question but rather, as Husserl states, a question of “reactivating the original activities contained within its (geometry’s) fundamental concepts.”[2] As Husserl goes on to point out we moderns, or postmoderns for Virilio, have lost these ‘origins’ precisely because we can no longer have access to the “human surrounding world”. As Husserl suggests, this world “… is the same today as always.”[3] This ‘sameness’ is, however, put in question by digital cultures but we will stick with Husserl a bit longer.

Hence, the problem for Husserl is that there is a ‘turn’ from this world that ‘surrounded’ to a world that has given rise to the “idealizing, spiritual act, one of ‘pure’ thinking … (which) creates ‘ideal objects'”.[4] Modernity though has cut itself off from the ‘original’ world leaving only the ‘idealized’ objects, again in Husserl’s words, “empty of meaning”.[5] This is, of course, the world that we now recognize in the development of geometry whether at the time in Euclid, for example, or later in non-Euclidean geometry. Geometry replaces the world experience with its science of idealized objects. Virilio will follow along this path finding at its end not only the ‘idealized objects’ but worse still ‘virtualized objects’.

There are a number of consequences that follow for Virilio in light of these occluded ‘origins.’ In particular, Virilio is able to establish his theory of space and time upon this reading of the classical past prior to the cutting loose of geometry from its origins. Thus a type of ‘nostalgia’ for the earlier world lurks behind Virilio’s criticism that is often in his writings hidden from view and explanation. This former world was open to all and still, in some manner, fuels Virilio’s ‘grey ecology’ as a possible recuperation of the natural world recognizing the rather difficult task this will pose. Virilio’s thought, which will turn from these open spaces to open skies, as detailed later, retains this first geometry.

This turning back to the ‘origins of geometry’ establishes the fundamentals of Virilio’s early thought. This ‘original’ world can be seen to underlie three other related concepts. These will be central to Virilio’s thought. First, the critique of geometry establishes his conception of the State. Second, it furnishes him with a reading of Christianity that proves to be influential throughout his later work. Third, it allows for a basic phenomenology of perception or, as Virilio notes, “… the phenomenology of figures, the origin of geometry, this is my territory.”[6] Each will be developed in turn.

It would appear that for Virilio there is, similar to the thought of Merleau-Ponty, a primacy given to the ‘original’ world as a ‘common place’, or ‘commonplace’ as it will be expressed later. This world holds a touch of Henri Bergson in that it primarily is a place where one endures and a place that can be experienced intuitively. That is, Virilio seems to take the primordial as a dwelling in a ‘lived’ time and space. Virilio’s early references to Martin Heidegger in Bunker Archaeology, his first major publication, would suggest that he was influenced by the type of ‘phenomenology’ that was conveyed to France, making Martin Heidegger an extension of Bergson.[7] Perhaps, to put it another way, there is a similarity to Heidegger in Virilio’s turn to the pre-Socratics and his concern for the turn taken by what are at hand, the tools of geometry. That is, the turn towards technology and science have both ontic and ontological implications though Virilio, not being a philosopher, does not follow Heidegger beyond the metaphysics of presence.

Thus, there is a place, as opposed to a no place, as we shall see, where one experiences time as duration, long or short. The appreciation of this space and time is the experience of the truly original ‘geometers’ who might very well be more like architects than mathematicians. This is a reading that is similar to Michel Serres’ reflections on the origins of geometry where the five senses form the basis of the early mathematics.[8] For Virilio, as for Serres, this is an immensely creative period free from the type of abstractions that will drive the history of the occidental ‘civilization’. That is, Virilio sets modern geometry against its experiential origins. We will return later to a description of the early social for Virilio that interweaves geometry as military architecture or, later, as logistics with the phenomenological.

The primordial ‘geometry’ with its sense of space and time as a lived experience or social practice did not last long for it gave rise to what we normally take for geometry or to what Husserl refers in his reference to ‘ideal objects’. Here is how Virilio describes it in L’insécurité du territoire.

And, in effect, our civilization begins at the moment where the Greeks exhumed geometry from their ethnological field, where they tear it from social practice in distinguishing the properties of forms of dimensions from their representations. They did not invent geometry, but the ecological utopia (the no place of the science of place!) In making it independent of the places and times of societies, they made of geometry a power in itself, that which these societies would have to imagine for themselves in recreating with their relations to space their relations to nature, and it is this type of liberating conviction that animates all ancient thought right up to their impossible mathematics.[9]

Here is a refrain that will appear countless times in Virilio’s work that the sense of time and space has been ‘torn’ from its field in what amounts to a nihilating moment, a moment of ‘no place’, of utopia or, more precisely, as a denial of time and space. The ‘common’ as the ground of the social disappears, becomes invisible. We are then sent on our long history of abstraction and negation that plays itself out, as we shall see later, in the ‘suicidal’ state.

The turning-point appears to be with Archimedes who is depicted as the last of the creative geometers for Virilio. After Archimedes there is the loss of an “ideal of a world essentially common as a proto-foundation of the forming of sense [sens]. *”[10] The asterisk on sens is Virilio’s reference back to Husserl’s text The Origin of Geometry. However, one can see that Virilio alters Husserl’s depiction of the dynamic of forming the senses. The play in French on sens captures both the five senses and the direction or movement implicit in geometry, especially as it will later appears in physics. It will be used, as well, in Virilio’s phenomenology. This description underlies how Virilio at heart retains a traditional metaphysics of a ground while acknowledging, as is apparent in his later criticism, that this ground is no longer experienced and may be threatened entirely in an ecological disaster. This brings about Virilio’s ‘grey ecology’.

Nonetheless, the retention of Christianity in Virilio’s ontological considerations makes of this metaphysics more of a theo-ontology.

Thus, this ‘foundation’ turns out to be only ‘proto’. It can give meaning to the origin of geometry if we can ‘think’ in an original fashion. Yet the prospect of such ‘thinking’ rapidly disappears after Archimedes. It then is hidden by the very success of geometry itself that goes beyond the ethnicity of the local practice in founding itself as a science. The overcoming of the singular for the universal will be played out as the history of the Occident that disorientates its own history by occluding the origins of events and experiences. The evil deed, to continue the above quotation from Virilio’s L’insécurité du territoire, is a military act of the Romans. “The sword of a Roman soldier cuts the thread, as tradition says.” Geometry, then, gives rise not only to a science of ‘no place’, it sets the stage in Virilio’s mind for the rise of the state.

The switch from local practices to geometrical ideals underlies the growth of the state. As Virilio puts it again in L’insécurité du territoire, “The problem of the permanence of morphological idealities is the key to our civilization; rarely posed at the level of the State, it is this problem that, nonetheless, directs indescribably its actions.”[11] In fact, the ‘ideals’ that form part of the understanding in geometry soon leave the realm of science for that of ideology. The Roman State, which for Virilio has killed ‘creative geometry’, puts in its place an imperial geometry that focuses on localizing and controlling space or, in other words, the state focuses on securing its territory. The imperialism of language and communications that follow eclipse the knowledge that is the foundation for freedom and creativity. Ideals become idolatry with the figure of the State, its geometry one might say, becoming an object of faith under which friends and enemies can be detected. Security then turns into its double — insecurity and politics is set on its course towards modernity as a control function of the spatial.

There are a number of other consequences that flow from this movement of phenomenological thought from ‘lived experience’ to idealities and finally to idolatry. It affects not only the basic sense of space and time but if one might express it this way, it sets the parameters of the City of man against the City of God. Virilio expresses this succinctly in a phrase. “… he (Christ) is dead under the blow of a single accusation, enemy of the State…”[12] Another way of expressing this is that when space changes from security of one’s ‘dwelling place’ to political space, space becomes a question of power and insecurity. The insecurity must come from a ‘threat’. Hence, the logic of the enemy of the state which continues rather unabated to this day.

The setting of Christ in this ‘historical’ reenactment is critical for it establishes the dynamic of Virilio’s commitment to religion against that of the idolatrous state. It also links the early geometers to Christ. “From that time, one sees better what was the struggle of Christians against the state idolatry [la statol‚trie] – the figure of the State – as object of faith, the crime against the State as vandalism (crime against its structure), the Greeks defenders of the young geometry find as well themselves as martyrs … and sometimes at the hand of the sectarian christians.”[13] ]

We might, undoubtedly in a rather exaggerated way, call Christ a type of original geometer because for Virilio He shares with geometry the ‘common place’ as the center of his ‘Being’ as host. That is, Christ dwells as well in the place/space of human community as a double host. He elevates the commonplace to the divine. By doing so He also fashions, if one will, the essence of a transgressive and hence revolutionary act when taken in the context of the Roman state.

Thus, bread and wine take on their divinity in part from their very commonness and the very distribution of the commonplace makes the community. The commonplace also stands as the essence of liberty in much the same way that ‘original’ thinking is by its nature free. This is Christ as the first host.

Christ is twice the host. The day before his death, he defined the object of sacrifice in taking and distributing bread and wine: this is I? the common place, the everyday, I am the principal of one who is for all, their liberty is common place, the most common is the most divine.[14]

Christ the second host shows that the State is against this freedom in the very withdrawal of space and time that occurs with the imperial geometry. One will note that not only is it a withdrawal, it is a withdrawal that stands against creativity and ‘secures’, ‘protects’ itself in the very act of destroying time. Again security demands that the chief source of insecurity be eliminated, that time itself which is part of all change must be eliminated.

The next day, the second host shows that the everyday which is Christ is incompatible in its principal of common liberty with the order that, by its conservative and prophylactic construction, withdraws from human time and space, from the everyday, one can think this today, plausibly, to the end of time or to time’s wasting away.[15]

The course of Virilio’s thought will see this playing out of the wasting away of time in the postmodern switch to ‘real time’.

Finally, Christ shows how this withdrawal creates the transgressive act that emerges from the blindness, the invisibility of the state and church bring forth a demand for visibility.

At Emma’s, conversely, Christ reemerges from the shadow of the commonplace, the blindness of the apostles ceases when he renews the gesture of transgression, this gesture that the Church covers in gold, in mud and innocent blood has, nevertheless, repeated over the course of centuries, deformed, sophisticated, and however, always facing the Occidental State as a sign that has become quasi unconscious and automatic of ultimate resistance, to the invention of the colony, the ghetto, the camps, the reserves, the proletarianization, the under-development, worse still, the destruction of sociality, of the socialism of the poor, of their products, of their inventions, of their cultures, of their knowledge, of their techniques…[16]

The lengthy quote from Virilio’s work gives the reader a sense of what is rarely explicit in his understanding as to the nature of the Christianity. It is also a text that has only appeared in partial translation in English so that the sense of Virilio’s early understanding of the relation of the commonplace to space and time is not well developed in North America.

Virilio’s belief also raises the question as to whether his historical references would not be better taken as, not so much history, for after all along with Husserl he denies that we ever really can know the ‘original situation’. Rather it is more useful to see Virilio’s comments as establishing a type of secularized theology giving at once an ontology based on a ‘plausible ontic’ that can be used, as he says, as a proto ground for later criticism. It is not without considerable irony that Virilio has managed in this early text to flip the essence of Christianity away from the timeless and the beyond of space, that is, the City of God has miraculously turned into a City of man or, at least, a community of the commonplace. However, the former Christianity comes along a bit later for Virilio in the juxtaposition to digital culture.

It is also apparent why Virilio’s commitment to Christianity is one that puts him at odds with the state. He is in this sense closer to the left in his support of political issues rather than holding the more conservative views usually associated with the French religious tradition.

Time

There can be little doubt that the early Greco-Roman period provided in its geometry one of the key elements for Virilio’s treatment of space. The classical Greeks also contributed to his understanding of time. This can be seen, again retrospectively, by the rather brief and not too precise references that Virilio makes in his later work Open Sky to the thought of Epicurus, understood primarily as a physicist.

The method that Epicurus employs is similar in nature to that of the early geometers. That is, Epicurus takes a ‘common’ sense view of how one experiences or intuits the world. From this one is given the general conception of objects and, more particularly, one is given a general conception of time.

Below is a paragraph that comes from Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus that, although Virilio does not quote it, the paragraph seems to capture much of what Virilio will take to be the nature of time.

Moreover, you must firmly grasp this point as well; we must look for time, as we do for all other things when we look for in an object, by referring them to the general conceptions which we perceive in or minds, but we must take direct intuition, in accordance with which we speak of ‘a long time’ or ‘a short time’, and examine it applying our intuition of time as we do other things…[17]

One can readily see here the type of ‘duration’, the long and short time that Virilio associates with local experiences of space and time. Time, then, is not abstracted as it will become under ‘scientific time’ but similar to Bergson and Virilio’s understanding of Heidegger, as has been remarked above, it forms part of existing itself. Epicurus continues in his letter as follows.

For indeed this requires no demonstration, but only reflection, to show that it is with days and nights and their divisions that we associate it, and likewise also with internal feelings or absence of feeling, and with movements and states of rest; in connexion with these last again we think of this very perception as a peculiar kind of accident, and in virtue of this we call it time.[18]

Three observations may be made of this selection. First, one can see a type of materialism rather similar to the one expounded later by Thomas Hobbes. Virilio will take similar categories of movement and states of rest to be fundamental to the dynamic of ‘politics and war’ captured in Virilio’s early work Speed and Politics.[19] This ‘materialism’ will be developed further in reference to Epicurus’ theory of perception.

Second, the alternation of day and night and our experience of it becomes a sign of the change in the way we are ‘human’. Once we lose the common sense of the alternation of night and day we become less human. As Virilio shows later, we also change our social and political environments.

This is precisely a threat come real for Virilio in the experiences of twentieth-century astronauts. Once leaving the earth, as the astronauts noted, one’s ‘time clock’ was easily overturned necessitating the use of ‘capsule time’. Night and day were, of course, directly effected by the angle to the sun and the speed of the capsule. Even more disorienting was the lunar orbit that transformed the length of nights turning into days by significantly shortening the cycle. Even on the moon the boundary between light and dark, night and day if you will, is sharp owing to the absence of diffraction of light. One passes from one to the other merely at the limit by putting out one’s hand or, more in line with Virilio’s later comments, one’s prosthesis.[20] The astronauts stand for the disorientation of experience, of the loss of the commonplace. The tragedy of Buzz Aldren’s personal life seems to bear out for Virilio the effects of this interruption in ‘normal’ life that we all live — if only at second hand.

A more earthly example that illustrates a similar phenomenon is the gambling casino where night and day, or for that matter clock time, no longer exists. The litany of problems of casino addicts or in a similar fashion of addicted Internet users is becoming well known.

The third observation has to do with the epistemological assumptions that Virilio uses. Virilio is not a philosopher and does not have a concern for a technical epistemology. In fact, his commitment to religious belief, as we have seen, provides a critical backdrop against which many of the prevailing epistemological statements are implicitly evaluated. The limitation of secular theories of knowledge, in some sense, reveal the problems of the degeneration of common life in the modern century though Virilio offers more than his theological beliefs.

With Epicurus, nonetheless, the origins of a reversal of common sense can be detected. What might ‘normally’, that is in the lived social practice referred to earlier, be considered substantial, permanent, or the essence of a ‘thing’ is reversed. The fundamental characteristics become relative and contingent. That is, substance, which intuitively is the primary essence of a ‘thing’, becomes less ‘substantial’ than its ‘accidental’ qualities. The nature of a ‘thing’ is ‘determined’ then more by ‘accidental’ qualities than by what, for lack of a better word, may be called ‘primary’ qualities. That is, the ‘changeable’ aspect of a thing as it exists in space and time, its ‘accidental’ characteristics, is in some sense more fundamental for Western thought.

The last sentence of the above quotation from Epicurus identifies ‘time’ as a ‘particular kind of accident’ consequent on the perception of the duration of movement and rest. Time is, then, the movement between accidental characteristics of things. This movement is often referred to as an interval by Virilio or, in his references to photography and film, as exposure. In particular, in Western science the most important measure of the interval will be that of the ‘speed of light’. Virilio contrasts the classical alternation of night and day, that is two ‘accidental’ states, to the alternation in states consequent on the speed of light in binary circuits that govern today’s digital revolution. We will return to the nature of the digital revolution later but the point is obvious that the world has a quite different sense of time and space in digital reality – ‘Real Time’ – than in classical times.

Virilio also understands ‘accident’ as meaning unpredictable and unknowable. That is, taking the sense of unknowable, the beginning and end of time are themselves ‘uncaused’ and hence, our cosmology is profoundly accidental. As the quotation from Virilio’s 1990 work L’inertie polaire suggests, the ‘accidental’ is central to our contemporary cosmology forming, as his ironic comments point towards, a type of secular religiosity with its own miracles.

However that might be [the debate over the ‘reality’ carried on by Einstein and others such as Gamov and LemaÓtre], catastrophe becomes the alpha and omega of contemporary cosmology: explosion of causality (BIG BANG), implosion of finality (BIG CRUNCH), the physicists are caught in the trap of their cosmological logic, constrained to accord to the accident the first importance that they yesterday accorded to the substance. Henceforth, whatever one may say, whatever one may do, the accident is absolute and necessary and the substance relative and contingent. For the materialists, convinced ‘anti-creationists’: the accident has become the lay form of the miracle![21]

Beyond the undermining of ‘causality’ and ‘finality’ that Virilio asserts follows from the ‘accident’ of time, is the sense of the ‘catastrophe’ that is implicit in the accidental. While in L’inertie polaire Virilio identifies catastrophe with two events outside of our experience, the beginning and end of the universe, in his most recent works he returns to the catastrophes that accompany the introduction of new ‘technologies’. Again, in a rather ironic manner, Virilio suggests we have need of museums of catastrophes to accompany our museums of science. Thus, for every advance in transportation, for example the train over the horse, the scale of damage increases from the fall from the horse to the train wreck. Needless to say nuclear power has escalated the degree of the catastrophic.

In some fundamental sense the essence of technological ‘advance’ couples with Virilio’s theory of war. The very nature of war is catastrophic. Speed almost always implies a collision and increases in speed imply greater and more devastating collisions. Virilio will pursue in his early works the architecture or logistics of this ‘science’ until contemporary warfare makes the question of catastrophe itself a threat to our very existence. Later we will see that there is a ‘meta’ level of accidents, what might be called the ‘accident of accidents’, where time itself as ‘Real Time’ becomes the catastrophe. In Epicurus’ words: “time is the accident to end all accidents.”[22] ]

The sense of time as accidental may also be found in the work of Paul Klee whose influence on Virilio is important as the many references to Klee attest. In particular, Klee’s 1939 drawing entitled Accident portrays a world where, in Klee’s words, there has been an “Exchange of the dimensions that govern our natural sense of up and down”.[23] Picture the usual Klee stick figure flipped on its head, yet still in the inverted position forming a type of figure after the reversal. The world is turned upside down creating a ‘mutant’ product. Klee, like Virilio, makes the new figure appear out of space.

Klee’s theory of perception as a ‘thinking eye’ is close to the ‘vision machine’ that the later Virilio will see as the revolution of contemporary sight. As Klee suggested, all space has a temporal dimension to it. A line is really a point in motion; it turns into movement, which takes time. The link to war made be made, in admittedly a rather unsystematic manner, to Klee’s African spear collection. The spear serves both roles as a point in motion, or line and as a weapon.

While Virilio’s references to Epicurus are without specifics, as noted earlier, one can speculate that a second important aspect of what Virilio may have taken from his work lies in the physics of perception. Again, Epicurus is better known for a materialism associated with the pleasure pain calculus but there is another dimension to his materialism evident in Cyril Bailey’s comments on the Letter to Herodotus given below.

Now the ‘images’ are mainly fine in texture: they are shot off from the body by the impulses of atomic movement within it, which starts the whole complex film in movement in one direction, they can move through space without encountering any – or only a few – obstacles, and there is little or no internal vibration. For these reasons the images are able to move almost at atomic speed: they are imperceptible in their transit, and it is only when they touch our eyes that we perceive them.[24]

There is a striking resemblance of this kinetic materialism to Thomas Hobbes’ psychology in the first part of the Leviathan that informs part of the infamous Hobbesian state of war. It will serve a similar purpose for one aspect of Virilio’s thinking. The images that are ‘shot off from the body’ are not far from the logistics of weapons that structure the very nature of war, or speed and politics for Virilio. One can also see the parallel with the ‘accidental’.

Once the ‘images’ ‘touch our eyes’ one can be ‘blinded by the light’ so to speak. Perhaps though of more importance, is the sense in which Epicurus may also be read as describing a ‘vision machine’. The whole perceptual apparatus is in some way a film turning each individual into both a cineaste and cinemagoer. Later concerns by Virilio with the cinema and war, as well as the current fashion for ‘home videos’, are extensions of this filmic imagery. In a rather uncanny fashion Bailey’s language summarizing the speed of the images – atomic speed – will also come to occupy Virilio as a central problem of vision. What happens to the world when it is run in fast forward at atomic speed?

In summary, while Virilio is by no means a classicist, his examination, in admittedly a rather eclectic fashion, of the past provides him with the ground for his later critiques. Here is at once an insight into his religious beliefs through his understanding of Christ and the ‘common place’. As well, we are given the primary experiences governing space as it is lived in the first geometry of dwelling and in architecture. Time is also given in the contrast of the time of the gospels versus the ‘accidental’ time of Epicurus.

Perception

It is not surprising that Virilio is critical of the way we now perceive the world. His initial reflections on the Western tradition give one the strong sense of a loss. This is not the loss of innocence but rather the reverse. The contemporary world has lost its ability to experience substituting a type of willful innocence. Virilio expresses this in his criticism that we are no longer ‘see-ers’ having become only ‘resee-ers’. That is, we no longer ‘construct’ the world with our vision but rather are constantly recycling what has been seen.

Our contemporary situation is the inverse of that of the primitive. It has to make its path in the midst of the proliferation of references, rules and orders. That is why the process of organizing perception seems to me so little suitable to the period. An actualization of perception ought to be at work in the composition of the immediate image: to see should not be constantly to re-see. Today we are no longer truly see-ers [voyants] but already resee-ers [revoyants], the tautological repetition of the same, at work in our mode of production (industrial) is at work equally in our mode of perception.[25]

Needless to point out, that there is nothing Nietzschean about the ‘repetition of the same’. Here is a vision the exact opposite of any Nietzschean creativity. Gilles Deleuze in his Difference and Repetition [26] makes a similar point about the loss of uniqueness, the loss of ‘singularities’ in an ontology of repeating rather than repetition. The closure of the self in a world of repeated forms becomes linked to the process of production that similarly drives the aesthetic vision from the field for the standardized object.

Nor is Virilio advocating a return to the ‘primitive’ though his earlier comments on geometry make clear that there is a more ‘original’, a rather better translation of ‘primitif’ in this context than the ‘primitive’ experience that we have lost by the organizing of perception. What is called for in ‘seeing’ things is a re thinking of the process of actualizing the image. Later Virilio will expand on his understanding of how the industrial mode of production/perception can be understood as a ‘motor’ of history. For the moment, we will look at how the image is actualized for Virilio himself in referencing the few autobiographical comments that he makes in L’horizon négatif.

Like Merleau-Ponty in his last uncompleted work, Virilio is concerned about the ‘visible and the invisible’. He poses the question of how, given that we are situated in the world that is no longer the world of original geometers, do we perceive? It is evident that we are no longer capable of the form of direct perception, of vision, that characterized both the original commonplace and the spiritual realm. The opposite is now the case in that ‘direct’ perception is a version of the ‘re-seeing’ mode of production — the continual seeing of the ‘same’ by the ‘same’. Hence, true vision is of what is not ‘re-seen’. True vision is, in part, the invisible made visible. “I then become a specialist in tropes as I had given myself the goal of rendering visible the invisible…”.[27] No doubt, in the end, the invisible is the spiritual for Virilio that is made visible in Christ and in the commonplace.

Unlike something that would be hidden by nature, things in Virilio’s world are only hidden because the visible occludes one’s perception. Thus, like the ‘revolutionary’ aspect of Christ’s challenge to the Western state’s way of seeing, there is imbedded in perception a need for challenging, for overthrowing or, in Virilio’s words, ‘unmasking’. This unmasking is, nonetheless, rather far from a politics of revolution though Virilio’s support for certain environmental causes might fall into this politic. Rather the unmasking is closer to a prophetic sense of vision. Virilio, in the following quotation, compares this to a voluntary blindness that, in many ways, facilitates the actual process of vision.

This way of visually feeling the parametric limits of things was comparable enough to a second Braille method, there was a part of voluntary blindness in my way of seeing, I was suddenly persuaded that vision gave less to see, that it was above all a process of occultation, a very ancient process where the old custom of referencing fashioned the everyday image, something chose for me the figure that I contemplated; “One sees well only that which one has already in one’s head…”, this maxim confirmed for me the clandestine will at work in the most ordinary vision, it made me indignant as well, me for whom vision consisted precisely to discover, to constantly unmask …”[28]

One could read Virilio’s ‘voluntary blindness’ as part of the long tradition of the blind seeing wisdom where the sighted fail. However, it appears more likely that Virilio intends not so much blindness itself but rather a breaking of the visual act to release it from the hold of the vision machine. That is to say, Virilio is probably closer to the artist who sees differently rather than the wise person — not a surprising fact given Virilio’s early association with Klee, Braque and Matisse. Of course, Virilio will eventually turn on the artists as imposing a ‘silence’ on the world that reinforces the ‘vision machine’.[29]

There is also a tendency for Virilio to look to those whose experience of the world has been disrupted. Notably, for example, in his The Aesthetics of Disappearance [30] he begins with a discussion of ‘picnolepsy’ a medical condition that, nonetheless, tells us about perception and time. The picnoleptic experiences first hand the break up of space and time in the vision process thereby having a quite different sense of the world. Virilio’s personal experience, as described below, seems to share some of the picnoleptic’s way of seeing.

Virilio provides in L’horizon négatif one long passage that is quoted below concerning how his perception of the world differs from ordinary vision. We can see again how he contrasts the ‘trivial geometries’ of today against a more creative geometry that, while he does not name it here, is clearly linked back to the early geometers. It is also evident how the banal becomes its opposite once the invisible becomes visible. This is the visibility of the earlier commonplace.

Suddenly, before me, new objects appeared, bizarre figures cut out, notched, a set of articulations has become suddenly visible and these observed objects were no longer banal, whatever, insignificant; they were on the contrary, diversified in the extreme. They were everywhere, all space, all the world was filled with new forms. They were nested in the hollows of the least forms. It was like an unknown vegetation that grew around me. Industrial objects without value provoked the appearance of objects temporarily given a great complexity. The position of things triggered new exotic forms, forms that escaped us despite their evidence. Accustomed as we are to trivial geometries, we perceive perfectly the circle, the sphere, the cube or the square, we perceive infinitely less well intervals, the interstices between things, between people.[31]

The above passage highlights another of the central aspects of Virilio’s perceptual schema. The geometry that intrigues him is not that of the completed forms, as he notes, but rather of the ‘intervals, the interstices’ that spawned a plethora of new forms. It is the relationship of objects, and especially objects in movement that, as we have seen with the references to Epicurus, are the fundamentals of this physics or physical geometry. By seeing the articulations of objects each object becomes unique forcing the ‘viewer’ to see and not just re-see. By seeing the intervals or the spaces we create the commonplace where the objects may appear. That is, the ‘intervals’ are the duration that ‘creates’ time for dwelling.

Thus, Virilio’s work will focus on an analysis not so much of the object but of the intervals between and amongst objects. In the acceleration of objects, as we shall see, the interval time, the time between people and things decreases, and with the collapsing of the interval time objects lose their creative, bizarre, exotic form and return to the world of industrial production. As the interval time decreases, time as ‘accident’ increases. Another way of expressing it is that real time and space goes ‘Real Time’ for Virilio.

As a consequence, in Virilio’s worldview, perception is a binary oscillator that flips from form to anti-form and then back to form. Always the creative, the anti-form takes the side of disappearance. Only the effort at perception brings it into the visible but, as Virilio makes clear, only for a short time. So the earlier voluntary blindness becomes a voluntary focusing on the ’emptiness’ between objects.

Henceforth, there was for me two evidences: the evidence of the explicit and the evidence of the implicit, this last irresistibly attracted me but here, something intrigued me: the vision of the between-world was fragile in the extreme, the image of transparence remained only by an effort of perception, the anti-form persisted only for the time of this effort, then the form retook its rights and occulted the empty field, the depth an instant ago perceived. Vision became a phenomena of voluntary focusing, similar to the camera, I must choose the object to aim at and to hold it there in order to be able to observe it in all the sharpness of its contours, as soon as I abandon this aiming at the depths, at the anti-form, at the transparence, it is the form that becomes clear again, all natural, to the detriment of the preceding seen emptiness.[32]

While Virilio expresses the mode of perception through the analogy to a camera, the taking aim may equally well refer to the rifle or canon. And as Virilio himself remarks the French translation for taking aim may as be rendered as the ‘line of faith’. Here is the trajectory of Virilio’s thought in the intertwining of God, war and culture that are each aspects of the same phenomenology of perception that creates the modern and postmodern concepts of time and space.

Virilio’s later reflections on what might be called the phenomenology of perception are taken from Irvin Rock’s The Logic of Perception.[33] In particular, his comments on the aesthetics of anorthoscopic vision tie in with the ‘slit’ vision of the camera. The slit experiments by restricting the visual field establish the limits of visibility and the manner in which ‘objectification’ becomes possible. The physical parameters of vision become important for Virilio, as the technology of the vision machine is able to exceed the ‘natural’ speeds at which vision may take place. For most of us more than sixty images per second results in life as a blur. Similarly a minimum of twenty milliseconds is required by our brain for image recognition. Beyond either of these thresholds there is “nothing to see.”[34]

What happens at this “degree zero of the visible” or, what also may be called the point of “perceptionless perception”, provides a type of forking path both for the see-er and for Virilio himself. A straightforward stimulus response type of phenomenology is, of course, ruled out in this modified Gestalt perspective. Perception is always mediated by its own blindness. That is, as you move the ‘slit’ more of the object comes into view but at no time is the complete object ‘seized’. Virilio calls this “shifting your blindness”.

There are, though, two ways in which Virilio describes the process of image formation at this point. The first harkens back to Bergson and his theory of time that introduces a ‘virtual’ dimension into the composing of the present. That is, for Bergson, the present as an event must be considered in the context of the understanding given by past events that, by definition, are completed. Hence, the event is, in part, knowable through re-presentation and memory. This process is a virtual one or, at least, contains a virtual dimension. Events are known ‘virtually’ as much as ‘actually’. Here is Virilio’s description following on from his reference to the degree zero of vision.

Numerous experiments have sought to analyze scientifically the reasons why such occultation is ineffective, but they have never managed to come to grips with the nature of such perceptionless perception. This degree zero of the visible becomes an enigma, not only in terms of the space of the image but especially of the time involved in its immediate perception, the real time of contemplation, during which the ‘actual’ image glimpsed through the slit is closely integrated with the ‘virtual’ image of the delayed interpretation that completes and supplies what is missing in the form perceived by eye movement, by the ‘tracking’ that is indispensable to contemplation.[35]

Here the ‘real’ is an interpretative integration of the ‘actual’ and the ‘virtual’. The ‘virtual’ at issue is not the demon that Virilio will make of it when it runs rampant in ‘Real Time’. In fact, this reference is not quite what Virilio will be comfortable with, as we will see in a moment. The ‘virtual’ will be chased from the scene but at an expense, in the end, of Virilio’s understanding of the current landscape. If the virtual is, indeed, part of the zero degree of perception one opens the postmodern as a necessary part of an exploration of the logistics of perception. That has been foreclosed for many by the assumption that the ‘actual’ is the ‘real’. However, this will not work in Virilio’s case. If the ‘virtual’ is in fact what is ‘missing’ to contemplation it will not do to dispense with it as a form of ‘missing in action’ of the rush to condemn this worldly contemplation.

For this is precisely the track that Virilio takes shortly after the ‘virtual’ makes its appearance – however briefly and spectrally. Back then to belief and faith that take the place of the overly active virtual. That is, in the composition of the ‘real’ the overcoming of blindness can occur by a virtualizing of the interval between the ‘actual’ or by filling the interval with ‘faith’ or belief’ that creates the ‘consistency’ of vision. On this fork in the perceptual road, a form of road to Damascus, the choices are clear, or at least, simplified.

If speed then serves to see, to conceive – that is, to seize reality, and not just to get around – this is because it is part and parcel of perceptual faith, that ocular belief that is inseparable from our immediate awareness. ‘Belief’ or ‘desire’: the choice offered by the forking path of perception is clear; the more readily you accede to the scenes that unfold before you, the more consistency you give your existence. Your existence suddenly becomes commutative with an environment to which you lend credence … Otherwise, you soon regress to a dogmatism of appearances not far removed from autism.[36]

The path of desire has never been an easy one and will not be here. The seizing of the object, all that glitters, whether dialectically ingested or not, will leave one with, as Virilio suggests, the senses denied. The polarity between the ‘actual’ and the ‘virtual’ is replicated between ‘faith’ and ‘desire’ with Virilio’s thought playing on the tension though with increasing virulence as ‘faith’ and the ‘actual’ become the sign of the ‘good’ while ‘desire’ and the ‘virtual’ taking the role of the evil mutant twin. This is the dynamic that awaits the cyber world but to get there we must ‘see’ what happens when speed is treated in the context of the landscape of the events where events are part of the Einsteinian revolution.

E=mc2

The bringing together of ocular belief and speed in current times creates what Virilio calls in The Information Bomb [37] ‘Grand-Scale Transhorizon Optics’. Hence, a theory of visualization that, in a similar fashion to the theory of optics for Newton, defines a new science. In this case the science is virtualization and the optics are Einsteinian.

Einstein, or perhaps more precisely, his famous equation, plays a significant role in what is for Virilio an historical process that leads to the prominence of time over space, the virtual over the actual and finally the real. The root of it is in the equivalence of energy, mass and light. One could envisage a short hand of the history as the translation of all matter and energy into light.

In a reprise of the revolution in physics Virilio declares that, far from eliminating absolutes, we still retain the absolute of the speed of light.

Time (duration) and space (extension) are now inconceivable without light (limit speed), the cosmological constant of the speed of light, an absolute philosophical contingency that supercedes, in Einstein’s wake, the absolute character till then accorded to space and to time by Newton and many others before him.[38]

Virilio works through the implication of this ‘cosmological constant’ on the concepts of the past, present and future that we will examine below. Afterwards we will return to the new relations of space as seen from the perspective of the ‘old’ geometer, Virilio himself, and the landscape of relief/accidents that emerges in the present.

Given the cosmological constant it is rather easy to find the ‘fountain of youth’ or at least, those who have benefited by it. That is, of course, the photon. The photon is a timeless ‘piece of matter/energy’. At the subatomic level there is no way to differentiate the past from the future. One could say particles live only in the present though more accurately it might be said that the concept of a time continuum breaks down at this point. Nonetheless, the revolution in physics constitutes a profound shift, not only in terms of origins but also in the nature of time as metaphysics of ‘presence’.

The eclipsing of the time continuum is understood in a number of ways. At times Virilio sees this in terms of the co existence of the past with the present that equates to a paralysis of the present by the past. He expresses it as “history has just crashed into the wall of time.”[39] In this version, culture recoils from its future taking shelter in the running of past ways of life. It is not hard to speculate that this is, in part, Virilio’s personal solution to the ‘real time’ barrier as he looks fondly back on periods where there is a history that influences the present. One could speculate this is also typical of the reaction of the intellectual class that tends to remain more comfortable with past discourses that retain traditional value premises even if they remain critical of the sociocultural world. As a perspective on ‘real time’ it is tied to the spatial continuum that is the attractiveness for Virilio and we will return to it when discussing the geographical concept of ‘relief’.

However, the view that ‘real time’ creates a barrier to one part of the time continuum by shutting out the future is a view that in the end cannot be sustained. Its weakness stems from the nature of the physics underlining the Einsteinian revolution. Here is how Virilio expresses it in a later essay in his work Open Sky. Open Sky, or as the French title of ‘Escape Velocity’ suggests, is a reflection on what happens outside the parameters of the global perspective evidenced in the use of the ‘wall’ as a boundary or horizon. It is precisely the absence of such horizons, as well as ground, that is the essence of the perspective of ‘Real Time’.

For Einstein, the present is already ‘the centre of time’; the past of the original big bang is not, and scientifically cannot be, that old centre. The true centre is always new, the centre is perpetual, or to put it even more precisely, the ‘present’ is an eternal present.[40]

Translated into technological terms the ‘eternal present’, to use Virilio’s words, is “killing ‘present’ time isolating it from its here and now, in favour of a commutative elsewhere that no longer has anything to do with our ‘concrete presence’ in the world…”[41] In this version, then, of Einstein’s revolution it is not so much that each clock is relative to each other, though this is an important aspect in overcoming any ‘concrete’ reference. The real challenge comes when this is coupled with the continual restarting of the ‘present’ outside of the fixed reference points of extension and duration.

In this analysis, Virilio may not have gone far enough. For example, recent attempts at understanding the universe would appear to be premised on eliminating the dependency on any given concept of time. In the passage below from Stephen Hawking, we are given what is charmingly called the ‘equation for the universe’. While acknowledging that Hawking does not claim that this has a reality in the conventional sense it is still a startling observation.

The Wheeler-DeWitt equation corresponds to the independence of the wave function Ω. One can think of it as the Schrödinger equation for the universe. But there is no time-derivative term because the wave function does not depend on time explicitly.[42]

Hawking and Penrose are arguing over the issue of the open and closed universe and whether there is a boundary or not. While acknowledging that none of this can really be translated into anything understandable in everyday terms, we can see the danger that these concepts hold for Virilio. Once time is rendered as independent of the wave equation it makes, in the world of the limit speed of light, the very nature of extension and duration incalculable. The universe, as a consequence, becomes indifferent to its own ‘lived experience’ resting on a metric that becomes a function of the mass and energy level. Here is another version of the above quotation where Σ represents a surface, conceivably the universe itself as dependent on matter in its field or, as Virilio will refer to it, in its ‘relief’.

Ψ is called the wave function of the universe. If there are matter fields ø, the wave function will also depend on their values ø on Σ. But it will not depend explicitly on time because there is no preferred time coordinate in a closed universe.[43]

Here again is the repetition that time itself is not a determinate variable in the wave function. However, what is important are the ‘matter fields’ that are clearly central in the theory of general relativity. In essence, this is the unresolved question of the effects of matter on the nature of the universe. Usually this is question of whether the so-called ‘dark matter’ will result in the universe as expanding or contracting. This is still an unresolved fact even given the recent ‘neutrino’ discoveries in the mineshaft in Northern Ontario.

In the case here, the controversy is more over the question of the nature of gravity that, as we know, is unresolved in cosmology. For Virilio, the question of the gravitational pull is what defines the earth as opposed to the ‘open skies’ where the gravitational pull is overcome in escape velocity.

Virilio is faced with a number of issues emanating from this cosmology. First, the nature of the ‘present’ would appear to be outside of the everyday time continuum. It is not a question of a relative time frame but more radically of a theory that has no determinate time variable at all. However, replacing the time dependent equations are the equations that depend on ‘matter’, which gives the universe its geometry. Thus, in a strange turn of the screw, the fall from time in to ‘real time’ marks as well the fall back into geometry and gravity.

Here, in summary form, is the history of the world, at least from the geometric perspective. It begins for Virilio, as shown earlier, with the original geometers who remain unknown but gave the sense of the ‘commonplace’. They are displaced by the Euclidean revolution. Euclid and, what amounts to his philosophical counterpart René Descartes, established time and space, or extension, as the basis of the modern world. It underscored the perspectives of science as well as the art world that later appears as the Quattrocento for Virilio. This geometry, as is well known, is itself displaced by the non-Euclidean geometries that prove essential to the Einsteinian revolution.

Even these geometries will be under transition in contemporary cosmology. This is precisely the center of the debate between Hawking and Penrose as each cosmology raises the nature of the geometry that underlies the universe. Consider the wave function Σ, expressed above by Hawking, as a matter field. Part of the field, one aspect of its phase space, can be understood in Euclidean terms. Basically the ‘world’ is comprehended in such terms as a variant of normal everyday experience. But part of the field takes the form of Lorentzian space. The Lorentzian-de Sitter metric captures that part of space not covered by the asymptotic Euclidean metric.[44] This, in a loose fashion, is the space outside of the light cone of the observer. It may also be expressed as a form of the virtual in the vocabulary used here. Again, the everyday meaning of these geometries is not readily understandable but the decoupling of the Cartesian co ordinates in non-boundary systems revolutionizes the concept of the universe and the place of the world.

Penrose will object to Hawking’s line of reason advancing solutions based on so-called ‘twister space’.[45] No matter which space is at issue, however, each of the phase spaces share the same reduction, whether of the wave equation or of the non-linear equations, to the wave form. Virilio is, of course, not at all happy with this cosmology. In fact, Virilio shares the long-standing skepticism over “cosmology-builders and flood makers” or “world makers” evidenced in the seventeenth century by many supporters of the church — to reference one of the studies that Virilio draws upon.[46]

Nonetheless, he does postulates the second order effect of this cosmological geometry on the social itself. The cosmological becomes the ‘actual’ as the amalgam of the virtual and the real replacing the lived experience of the actual of the commonplace. That is, contemporary cosmology replicates the fundamental binary of the virtual and the real, which is sending the world speedily to its binary death in the ‘real-time perspective’.

The conflict which rested on the geometric division between the opposites of Right and Left gives way to the axis of stereoscopic symmetry of that real-time perspective which revolutionizes historical time and the culture of nations by converting all present reality into wave form.[47]

The polarity of Virilio’s reaction to the Einsteinian revolution is stark here. If the geometry of the commonplace, not to mention the older revolutionary tradition of the left and right, is convertible into the waveform then one is facing a ‘revolution’ to be sure. The waveform gives rise to ‘Real Time’.

The question of whether Virilio can jettison the whole of twentieth century physics and perhaps the basis of the twenty first is implied in the unease with which he understands the waveform. However, the damage done is not yet complete for under its transforming powers ‘all that is solid melts into the air’ or at least into light. This is the case with gravity and the material world.

Einstein’s equation is generally presented in terms of energy juxtaposed to the speed of light and mass but, quite naturally, it can be expressed with either mass or light on the left hand side. This is precisely the logic of Virilio’s case. Take the commutation M=e/c2. Here matter/mass is converted in the waveform and the ‘hard’ world gives way to the virtual.

The matter-time of the hard geophysical reality of places gives way to this light-time of a virtual reality which modifies the very truth of all durée, thereby provoking, with the time accident, the acceleration, the acceleration of all reality: of things, living beings, social-cultural phenomena.[48]

The Bergsonian durée itself is transformed into the light interval, into ‘exposure’ intervals, away from the experience of time in its past, present, future modality. Along with the change in time goes the physical world. The loss of mass/matter, the very stuff of the commonplace, is the fundamental charge against the postmodern cybernetic world. The physical world gives way to the digital life world on the screen. As always when things speed up the time/accident is waiting.

The loss of mass to energy and light also means the loss of ‘gravity’ whether, as Virilio suggests, “our weight” or “the pull of earth’s gravity”.[49] As matter is turned into light a “double fall” occurs not only in the traditional sense above but, as well, with the “absence of mass of light” itself.[50] We are not far here from the revised theology of the fall, not from Eden, but from the entire planet. It also represents for Virilio the logical end of the Occident as all matter and mass implode into an “evacuated” physical field that has become only surface-to-surface interfaces.

One might imagine at this point a ‘landscape’ or ‘field theory’ that replaces traditional geography. The field is constituted not by its ‘physical’ dimensions but rather by events that happen in ‘accident time’. That is, events are only the ‘accidents’ of the waveforms interactivity as defined by the cosmological geometry. This ‘surface’ is that constituted by the union of the ‘actual’ and the ‘virtual’ in the interval that registers the ‘relief’ of the surface. More precisely, Virilio should have combined the ‘real’ with the ‘virtual’ in determining the ‘event’ rather than the ‘actual’ that is the ‘product’ of the process. In either case, the bubble chamber then takes over as the postmodern field where time invariant interactions leave traces in a form of a Derridean leftover or, more in accord with the cosmology here, the remainder is without trace. The event happened, but it disappears from the register if it ever appeared there in the first place.

Here is how Virilio expresses it, in a comparison to the perspectives of what he refers to as the Quattrocento, in a musical variant of the waveform.

At that point, far from setting the actual perspective of optical presence of the Quattrocento against the virtual perspective of electro-optic tele-presence, the real-time perspective of telecommunications combines the two, thus creating a ‘field effect’ in which the actual and the virtual together produce a new kind of relief, not unlike the ‘soundscape’ of hi-fi with its treble and base notes.[51]

Whichever of the formulations one picks the consequence is the destruction of the time continuum. By having space/time, the fourth dimension, invade the materiality of the world all is turned into light and time into a ‘tele-presence’.

Past, present and future – that old tripartite division of the time continuum – then cedes primacy to the immediacy of a tele-presence which is akin to a new type of relief. This is a relief not of the material thing, but of the event, in which the fourth dimension (that of time) suddenly substitutes for the third: the material volume loses its geometrical value as an ‘effective presence’ and yields to an audiovisual volume whose self-evident ‘tele-presence’ easily wins out over the nature of the facts.[52]

The geometry of the commonplace now has its time invariant future in the “place of the no-place of a teleaction”.[53] Teleaction takes over as the perpetual presence of the digital world. Time is condensed into the zone of the present much like a type of black hole that refuses to allow the future or the past. The ‘eternal’ present replaces eternity. We all become photons or, at least, are subject to a ‘photon’ effect. Our path interval becomes that of the shinning light, the sun, the screen. Thus all theories of ‘presencing’ come down to the cliché of ‘life in the fast lane’ for the ‘now generation’.

This is what the teletechnologies of real time are doing: they are killing ‘present’ time isolating it from its here and now, in favor of a commutative elsewhere that no longer has anything to do with our ‘concrete presence’ in the world, but is the elsewhere of a ‘discreet telepresence’ that remains a complete mystery.[54]

As Virilio suggests, the mystery remains. Of course, it must remain for the tension throughout Virilio’s work is over the ‘mystery’ that is part of the religious vision. Virilio is an oscillator for the culture unwittingly providing the bridge between the digital culture and the older Christian, in his case, tradition of mystery. Here he is part of a long French tradition that includes Jacques Ellul and Teillard de Chardin.

One can also sense the presence of Heidegger here. Take, as an example, the striking parallel with Virilio’s thought in this selection from the Introduction to Metaphysics.

At a time when the farthermost corner of the globe has been conquered by technology and opened to economic exploitation; when any incident whatever, regardless of where or when it occurs, can be communicated to the rest of the world at any desired speed; when the assassination of a king in France and a symphony concert in Tokyo can be ‘experienced’ simultaneously; when time has ceased to be anything other than velocity, instantaneousness, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from the lives of all people; when a boxer is regarded as a nation’s great man; when mass meetings attended by millions are looked on as a triumph – then, yes then, through all this turmoil a question still haunts us like a specter: What for? – Whither? – And what then?[55]

The ‘specter’ is no longer haunting Europe, as in Marx’s day, but the globe. It takes the form for Virilio of the ‘paranoid American’ Jane Houston who lives through a panoptic surveillance fieldscape where life is optically encoded into ‘real time’.[56] The fieldscape is not the enframed horizon of the reservoir but rather dissipation into the ‘open sky’ of electronic surveillance. However, it does share Heideggerian boredom as time becomes the ‘eventless’ enduring of passage. But here there is no event horizon, hence no longer even the metaphysics of being. The ‘question’ does, nonetheless, remain itself as a type of Derridean leftover. Or as Heidegger responds: the specter leads to/through the godding of the gods to enowning. For Virilio, the specter leads back to God.

Hence, the binary comes together over the question of the eternal presence. The are two paths. The one, the path of the evil demon, or if one prefers Maxwell’s Demon or the less demonic Jane, or the boxer, that ‘lives’ through the ‘Real Time’ teleaction. In this mode through perpetual surveillance one sees the little sparrow fall. The other path, of course, that of God’s cosmology, equals the telepresence of digital culture in the ‘co-presence’ of all events in the landscape as surveyed by the heavenly view. God becomes the competitor for Virilio to ‘Real Time’ as its flipped other. Each is a globalization of the eternal/co-presence.

For God, history is a landscape of events. For Him, nothing really follows sequentially since everything is co-present.[57]

The future is, then, either with the astronauts in their American version where they see God from the capsule or, with the former Soviet cosmonauts where God is not to be found. Each is a field theory. Each is an otherworldly theory. Each is a variant of the tension that defines much of French thought between the sacred and the secular. Each is defined in the advance of real time technologies and in the advance of the technological will.

Globalization

The return to earth will give rise to theories of globalization. Absent the gravitational field of the commonplace, facing the ‘open skies’ and demise of both the ‘theological vision’ and of ‘actual perspectives’, vision, the light effect, becomes the fieldscape of ‘real time’. This signals the full advent of the vision machine or screenal vision. One then enters the space of the Grand Scale Transhorizon Optics or what Virilio has referred to as “the site of all (strategic, economic, political…) virtualization.”[58] Digital culture becomes a cyclopean eye; a type of gargantuan CBS eye that has been inflated into the ‘globe’ itself. Or as Virilio says; “… the latest globalization: the globalization of the gaze of the single eye.”[59] This is a type of super panopticon that has overcome the observer/observed couplet. Not Michel Foucault’s geometry of a center and periphery but rather a surface that has its existence as an orbital life, a petrie dish of eye balls/cells that create the visual field within itself.

Thus, the dominant code of globalization is not networking nor the economic expansion of global corporations nor the global reach of terrorism. Rather it lies in the virtualization of the vision machine. This virtualization rests on the binary of the ‘actual’/’virtual’ which splits the ‘real’ creating a ‘reality effect’.

…it is essential today [for globalization] to effect a split in primary reality by developing a stereo-reality, made up on the one hand of the actual reality of immediate appearances and, on the other, of the virtual reality of media trans-appearances.

Not until this new ‘reality effect’ becomes generally accepted as commonplace will it be possible really to speak of globalization.[60]

The ‘reality effect’ amplifies the optical densities into a trans-appearance creating the bulging eye. While Virilio calls this the ushering in of the ‘information bomb,’ it is far more aptly a light vector that explodes to escape the old vectors of the ‘actual and the real’. Enter, then, the virtual in the guise of the most prominent of the exploding orbs as in the child’s rhyme, back to Mr. Golden Sun.

We are back as well to the cosmology of William Blake giving us the stark choice of John Locke’s sun as the gold guinea coin and that of the sun as a vision of Ezekiel’s fiery chariot. Virilio’s version of this fearful symmetry is between the apocalypse of Real Time and of God’s time. The latter-day Newtons with their compasses scribing the globe in non-Cartesian co-ordinates using Photoshop versus the Christ of the commomplace that has long ago gone to its reward — no marriage of heaven and hell here. Or so it seems in the vision of Virilio’s version of globalization.

However, the apocalyptic vision, the catastrophe theory of the attack and capture culture where we live, does not fit entirely into the classical binary end. The non-Euclidean field is still a long way from equilibrium. René Thom’s biology meets the metric of quantum geographies that resist the headlong rush back to Newton and God.[61] The field does not disappear in ‘escape velocity’ but creates in its path a relief that stalls the disappearance of the world. The path of least action, that route of light, jumps outside of its conic dimension creating structures that detain the fall, that turn it into geometric paths that return on themselves or accelerate into new spaces.

It is still, of course, a world of movement and with little rest but it is a world that resists the closing time of the certain. It spins beyond the probable into the virtual if only to be yanked back again towards the actual. Hence, we have the temporary (dis) equilibriums that sustain life.

Virilio is often enough right to see this world rushing headlong in its static form, at the bottom of a sink to be defined by the co-ordinates of heaven and hell. The problem though is that there is a bit of ‘virtual’ in the best of us, not to mention the worst of us. This is the spider that descends into Virilio’s bunker to disturb his rest.

Notes

[1] Paul Virilio, Open Sky, translated by Julie Rose, N.Y.: Verso, 1997. Where there are existing translations of Virilio’s work I have used them. Otherwise the translations are mine.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Edmund Husserl’s The Origin of Geometry, translated by John P. Leavey and edited by David B. Allison, Stony Brook, N.Y.: Nicolas Hays, 1978, p. 169.

[3] Ibid., p. 169.

[4] Ibid., p. 179.

[5] Ibid., p. 169.

[6] Paul Virilio, L’horizon négatif, Paris: Galiée, 1984, p. 16.

[7] Paul Virilio, Bunker Archéologie, Paris: Les editions du demi-cercle, 1991.

[8] Michel Serres, Les origins de la géomémtrie, Paris: Flammarion, 1993.

[9] Paul Virilio, L’insécurité du territoire, Paris: Galiée, 1993, p. 118.

[10] Ibid., p. 118.

[11] Ibid., p. 120.

[12] Ibid., p. 114. The lower case ‘he’ is in the original text rather than the standard use of ‘He’ as a reference to Christ.

[13] Ibid., p. 119. Again ‘christians’ is in lower case in the original text.

[14] Ibid., p. 136.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Epicurus: the Extant Remains, translated by Cyril Bailey, N.Y.: Georg Olms, 1975, ‘Letter Epicurus to Herodotus’, paragraph 72-73, p. 45 & 47.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, translated by Mark Polizzotti, N.Y.: Semiotext(e), 1977.

[20] Buzz Aldren & Malcolm McConnell, Men from Earth, N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1989, p. 241.

[21] Paul Virilio, L’inertie polaire, Christian Bourgois, 1990, p.88.

[22] Open Sky, op. cit., p. 14.

[23] Paul Klee, Notebooks, Vol. 1, translated by Ralph Manheim, N.Y.: George Wittenborn, 1969., p. 40.

[24] Cyril Bailey, ‘Letter Epicurus to Herodotus’, paragraph 46a – 47a.

[25] L’ horizon négatif, op. cit., p. 31.

[26] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

[27] L’ horizon négatif, op. Cit., p. 25.

[28] Ibid., p. 28-29.

[29] See Paul Virilio, La procédure silence, Paris: Galiée, 2000.

[30] Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, translated by Philip Beitchman, N.Y.: Semiotext(e), 1991.

[31] L’horizon négatif, op. cit., p. 18-19.

[32] Ibid., p. 21-22.

[33] Irwin Rock, The Logic of Perception, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983.

[34] Paul Virilio, Landscape of Events, translated by Julie Rose, Boston: MIT Press, 2000, p. 40.

[35] Ibid., p. 38-39.

[36] Ibid., p. 41-42.

[37] Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb, translated by Chris Turner, N.Y.: Verso, 2000.

[38] Open Sky , op. cit., p. 13.

[39] Landscape, op. cit., p. xii.

[40] Open Sky, op. cit., p. 136.

[41] Ibid., p. 10-11.

[42] Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 82.

[43] Ibid., p. 81.

[44] Ibid., p. 84-85.

[45] Ibid., p. 105.

[46] Pablo Rossi, The Abyss of Time, translated by G. Cochrane, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, p. 72.

[47] The Information Bomb, op. cit., p.120.

[48] Ibid., p. 115.

[49] Open Sky, op. cit., p.1.

[50] L’horizon negatif, op. cit., p. 170.

[51] The Information Bomb, op. cit., p. 117.

[52] Ibid., p.118.

[53] Open Sky, op. cit., p. 17.

[54] Ibid.,pp. 10-11.

[55] Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by Ralph Manheim, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974, pp., 37-38.

[56] The Information Bomb, op. cit., p. 67.

[57] Landscape of Events, op. cit., p. x.

[58] Open Sky, op. cit., p. 15.

[59] The Information Bomb, op. cit., p. 65.

[60] Ibid., p. 15.

[61] See René Thom, Paraboles et Castrophes, Paris: Flammarion, 1983., p. 23.

David Cook is author of Northfrop Frye: A Vision of the New World and co-author of The Postmodern Scene. He is a member of the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto and Principal, Victoria College.