On Paul Virilio’s New Book The University of Disaster
Reviewed by John David Ebert
Virilio’s latest book in English is an examination of the state of the planet and the humanities, both under siege by the arrogance of Big Science gone out of control, endocolonizing the body and dreaming of fantasies of exocolonizing outer space. The book is full of the same old brilliant Virilianisms: his wonderful point, for instance, about how the first photographs taken of a city from the air by the French photographer Nadar in 1858, when he floated above the city of Paris in a hot air balloon, created the earliest beginnings of the aerial view of the earth — displacing and replacing Atget’s intimate perspectival view of Paris streets and shops and merchants — that eventually led to the firebombings of European cities in World War II, then to the satellization of the earth during the Cold War and now to our present fantasies of escaping from the earth in order to transform it into a star in the sky of some exotic planet.
Virilio’s great insight, omnipresent throughout his books, is that human perception, including aesthetics, is changed by the increase of speed. In the early, slow exposure photographs of Atget or the panoramic photos of American cities in the 1920s, the duration of the exposure eliminated human beings from the photographs in favor of the photographer’s obsession with fixity of place. But later, during the time of the interstate highways of the 1950s in America, automobiles are moving individuals so fast through the countryside that the city has all but disappeared from human perception. All one can see on the road is what’s in the mirrors: rearview and sideview mirrors lock the attention into a state of stasis that makes everything else functionally invisible. Thus, alterations in speed change what the human mind perceives.
The advent of the vision machine, as he says in his earlier books, beginning with photography but especially in the audiovisual arts, has led to an aesthetics of disappearance and evanescence. Persistence of vision in film is fixated on the constant process of the vanishing of the image. But with the globalization of this audiovisual sensorium, and with the creation of a mediatized world in which real time replaces deferred time, even cities are affected: in this case, the “persistence of site” gives way to the delocalization and decentralization of cities as they escape into orbit about the earth and become floating satellites of electronified perception. The global world-village displaces the local geographically contained city.
Meanwhile, the rise of the Internet together with the omnipresence of video screens has served to decontextualize the human being from a particular place and time, in short, from a given “world.” With the elimination of things like tactility, presence and empathy–collateral damage of life online–one’s human relations become distant and numbed, and one is encapsulated and surrounded by a uterine sphere made out of video images that serve to displace and replace “reality.” The disoriented individual, especially our children, has no idea that his sense of ability to discern what is real and what is not no longer functions properly. He has become colonized by a sinister media based upon the manipulation of crowd dynamics that has transformed him into a mere carrier of viral images.
And now, Virilio insists, Big Science is obsessed with leaving the earth behind and heading off for the stars in hopes of colonizing an extrasolar planet somewhere. There is no point in fixing our ecological and environmental problems when there is so much prime real estate out there waiting to be exploited. Humanity, as Stephen Hawking points out, will be just fine once it has escaped the earth and any potential cosmic collisions in which life could be wiped out and has colonized the solar system. For Virilio, these fantasies are misguided descendants of the aerial views pioneered by Nadar in 1858. Human beings–as the word “humus” or “soil” indicates–are not star-begotten but earth-begotten and it is upon the earth that they belong.
In short, Virilio takes a dim view of the “progress” of electronic man. Almost alone among the French po-mo thinkers, he is a Christian humanist–not a Marxist– with a proper sense of perspective on all things human and humane, and he understands very well the dangers of science and technology.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Virilio’s company, this latest translation from the French by Polity Press isn’t a bad place to start.