As we extend into screen life, we build a digital body. What is this techno-hybrid being you have become? French intellectual Paul Virilio, author of “The Information Bomb” & “The Administration of Fear” is our witness, along with guest John David Ebert. With short readings from Virilio by Brent Ragsdale.
Records of where we visited, shopped, blogged or Tweeted are fed into algorithms determining what we see – not just advertising, but content. Information and disinformation flow together. Who does that leave on the ground, in the chair, the physical foot of the Instrument?
A WEE WARNING
This radio project on Paul Virilio is a compressed summary of two months of research. I highly recommend downloading this show and listening to it again. God Help you with the following blog… it is the trail of crumbs from my pages of notes tracking down the vision of Paul Virilio. You will find some nugget quotes from Virilio. It may take more than one reading session. This is almost a book-length blog. THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT A TWEET.
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GUEST JOHN DAVID EBERT ON VIRILIO
There is very little online about the work of Paul Virilio in English. But you can find a two-part introduction and assessment on YouTube, from John David Ebert. Ebert is a cultural critic, intellectual, and author of 25 books. He investigates difficult minds and takes us along for the ride.
Before the pandemic, Virilio warned technology is moving people further away from each other, like stars becoming more distant in ever-expanding space. Now after self-isolation and lockdowns, I wonder if we will come back together in person. The pandemic, did it speed up Virilio’s nightmare?
Paul Virilio died in 2018, at the age of 86. He lived through the German invasion of France and then the age of mutually-assured atomic destruction. But Virilio did not see the novel virus that has invaded our global moment in time.
Not long after J.D. Ebert posted his two part YouTube on Virilio, Ebert published the book “Age of Catastrophe: Disaster and Humanity in Modern Times”. Virilio suggested accidents are themselves an important subject of study. He proposed “Accidentology” and wanted to build a Museum of the Accident in Paris. That did not happen.
Age of Catastrophe: Disaster and Humanity in Modern Times Paperback – Aug. 30 2012
Watch John David Ebert discuss Paul Virilio on YouTube PART 1
But Ebert realized there was little serious history about major accidents of the past century and decided to fill that gap. He discovered a pattern where accidents grow not just in size, but in the amount Earth and its species impacted by that accident. Ebert creates 3 periods. The earliest, say the sinking of the Titanic, affected only a small group of people and could be solved with more lifeboats and so on. Then we enter a period like the Bhopal gassing by pesticides in India. The impacts spread out over a wide area and could affect future generations. The melt-down and explosion of 4 nuclear reactors at Fukushima Japan showered the Northern Hemisphere with radioactive waste and could induce birth defects in Japan for decades. Add Chernobyl.
But now, Ebert says, we encounter the first planetary disasters. Climate change is a prime example. This spreads planet-wide, but also far into the future with melting ice and rising seas for at least a thousand years. The Age of Catastrophe includes Ebert’s study of global warming, which he updates briefly in this interview.
In his second video on Virilio, Ebert says:
“In the same way that Virilio says that fear has become the new surround – I think that catastrophe has become our new environment. We are so surrounded with it. It has become so ubiquitous … every day on this planet some new catastrophe, inflicted by technology is in the constant process of unfolding. And global warming is simply one giant accident that is happening in slow motion, with us inside of it. We don’t even see it. We don’t even realize that we are inside a catastrophe.”
Paul Virilio was very aware of climate change. But my impression is Virilio did not think global warming, or fear of it, shaped our predicament. Maybe he would have changed his mind if he saw the 2020’s.
THE ADMINISTRATION OF FEAR
J.D. Ebert also discusses a later Virilio book: “The Administration of Fear”. I read the book as a free .pdf. The book takes an interview format with Bertrand Richard and translated by Ames Hodges. Published by semiotext(e).
Virilio says in Administration of Fear:
“I use the expression “administration of fear” to refer to two things. First, that fear is now an environment, a surrounding, a world. It occupies and preoccupies us. Fear was once a phenomenon related to localized, identifiable events that were limited to a certain timeframe: wars, famines, epidemics. Today, the world itself is limited, saturated, reduced, restricting us to stressful claustrophobia: contagious stock crises, faceless terrorism, lightning pandemics, ‘professional’ suicides (think of France Telecom, but we will come back to them). Fear is a world, panic as a whole.”
Ebert wrote books and YouTube videos on other difficult French philosophers. We disscuss how Virilio fits in with ground-breakers like Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, or Félix Guattari. For one thing, Virilio was the only one of the group who was not a Marxist. Ebert highly recommends the Deleuze and Guattari book “A Thousand Plateaus.” Here is the first of his 4 part videos about that book.
Find the John David Ebert channel here. I don’t subscribe to all of his views, but learn from his introductions to major and lesser-known thinkers and artists. His latest is a multi-part teaching video on Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History”.
ALEX SMITH: PAUL VIRILIO FOR TODAY
When Paul Virilio passed away in Paris, 2018 he drew widespread tributes for books like “The Information Bomb”, “The Administration of Fear“, and University of Disaster”. In this program we examine Virilio in the very circumstances of breakdown he predicted. Can he help?
David Levi Strauss writes:
“I think theorists should be ranked according to their prescience, and Virilio is near the top in this vatic order. He predicted the Gulf War, 9/11, the Big Data surveillance state, and the coming Big Accident (when everything is finally connected, then everything can finally fail).”
In the same Tribute to Virilio, published in the Brooklyn Rail, Naief Yehya adds this update for our times, peppered with phrases from Virilio himself:
“Among many phenomena Virilio anticipated was the grotesque state of politics in the Trump era. Referring to the triumph of Silvio Berlusconi, he wrote in Ground Zero (2002), ‘Italy has just toppled over into a two-party system of the third kind in which the alternative is no longer between classical Left and Right, but between politics and the media.’He warned us that telereality was invading the sets of the Res publica—’telecracy over representative democracy’s man, the triumph of audience ratings over universal suffrage. ‘We are now witnessing and living through the surge of “genuine virtual democracy,’ a ‘ludic democracy for infantilized tele-citizens’ that he described.”
Paul Virilio was born in Paris in 1932, but he grew up in Brittany on the Northwest. He passed away in Paris September 10th, 2018, at the age of 86. In June 1940, Paul Virilio the nine-year-old boy was living in his home city of Nantes, on the Loire River in the Northwest of France. After an aerial bombing, German troops surprised everyone with a lightening-fast occupation of the town. That was a formative experience for young Virilio, to which he returned in many books.
In 1940, the expectation by all levels of society was: this war would be like the last. World War One was a plodding affair, advancing trench by trench. Besides, France had constructed the impregnable Maginot Line along the border with Germany. The speed of the German conquest of Northern France changed the conception of war, and of time itself.
THE EMPIRE OF SPEED
Robert Hassan wrote about acceleration of everything in his 2009 book “Empires of Speed: Time and the Acceleration of Politics and Society”. Hassan writes:
“The present Empire of Speed based upon computer-driven acceleration is one where the is no one in control because politics can no longer synchronize (keep up) with the pace of change that has become an end in itself.”
When complex systems speed up, there is more than increased production over time. There are cascading impacts that create different realities, and different demands on the minds required to comprehend that change. We see this in climate change. On Radio Ecoshock, Johannes Lohmann from the Neils Bohr Institute explained the speed of climate change is as important as the eventual amount of warming. For example, biological systems may adapt, or evolve, to survive in new environments, given enough time. Without that time, species shrink to patches or go extinct.
All through Virilio’s work we find this fascination and horror with speed. Virilio claims we need a science to investigate speed, which he calls “Dromology”. He assigns speed itself a kind of territory, the “Dromosphere”. All this becomes clearer as we talk with our guest John David Ebert. And like all of Virilio’s writing, we cross these boundaries in understanding several times before we see and understand them. Patience is required and rewarded.
NOTES BY ALEX SMITH…STARTING WITH THE INFORMATION BOMB
We begin our journey with Virilio’s powerful book “The Information Bomb.” These are my notes, also peppered with direct quotes from the book. “The Information Bomb” was originally published in French, in Paris 1998. The English language translation by Chris Turner was published in 2000 by Verso Books. It has since turned up as a free .pdf on a couple of Internet sites, or you can buy it from Amazon.
First, Virilio extends to all science and scientists responsibility for the creation of extinction levels of knowledge – in physics, chemistry, astronomy, genetics and medicine, mathematics and especially artificial intelligence, which he calls cybernetics. What “extinction level of knowledge” is he talking about? To name just a few: physics and the atomic bomb; genetics and genetic weapons; microbiology and germ weapons; chemical weapons; cyber-weapons within cyberspace and directed outside into real-world targets.
With his bitter childhood war experience behind him, Virilio suggests our society ventures into death science, allegedly in the name of patriotism and survival of “our side”. This drove science to become something else, an amoral Other. He says “there is no longer any really innocent science.”
Then Virilio says that time has not collapsed, as Francis Fukuyama claimed in “The End of History”. It is space, at least here on Earth, geography that has collapsed. However, in later works, Virilio seems to change his mind, finding in cyber-reality, time too has collapsed into a single rolling instant that erases its own past.
In his later book “The University of Disaster” Virilio gives the example of the stock market and interlocked financial bonds. Even a couple of decades ago, traders could watch waves of activity perhaps starting in the Japanese or Singapore stock market, rising also in Europe, and then New York. Now all that is hyper-connected, watched over 24 hours by computer algorithms. It is a global entity.
In the 1980’s, automated nuclear firing programs, called “The Doomsday Machine”, could trigger a massive exchange of nuclear missiles by computer – because human response might miss the event or be too slow to respond, especially where permissions from sleeping Presidents are required… The hyper stock/financial market is in the same state. We lived in the “Cold War” with the threat of annihilation by atomic weapons. This time, Virilio says in “The Information Bomb” – the war is hot but unseen. It is a war of breaking down the enemy while damaging the genetics of reproduction. It is a slower unseen war on the mind, body, and soul. The weapons are programmed information aimed at programmable people.
Virolio writes of “meta-geography” where “the continents have lost their geographical foundations and been supplanted by the ‘tele-continents’ of a global communication system which has become quasi-instantaneous.” Perhaps you have seen graphic maps of the major hubs and swirling connections of information wrapping around the globe. That Atlas has to be regenerated constantly. That is the new “meta-geography” where we spend more and more time, where we travel anywhere instantly, bouncing quick messages to a stranger in New Zealand or Newfoundland.
Virilio sees “a virtual reality that monopolizes the greater part of the economic activity of the nations and, conversely, destroys cultures which are precisely situation in the space of the physics of the globe.” The culture of a Kenyan village becomes displaced by images from the global media space.
Virilio saw “the end of geography“ beginning in the 1990’s, and it ends in the Information Bomb. In another accident after his death, Virilio’s vision of migration to cyerspace speeds up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Office, school, and social life goes virtual. It does not matter whether an employee is in London or Tokyo, or where the college student is relative to their professor. The web designer is in Mumbai and the Banker in Lithuania. What does it matter? We gravitate toward cyber-living for entertainment, our work, and our schools – all of which become obsolete in the explosive space of the instant. The information bomb has gone off, and the new plugged individual lives has body ties in the fragments of what used to be locality. As Virilio put it:
“Today, then, reality is merely a remnant, a residue of the growing progress of the instrument.”
DREAD OF MILITARISM
We get from Virilio this example of a surreal global entity becoming dominant over the local, the places where humans formerly identified themselves. He gives the example of a change of Pentagon strategy in the 1990’s, saying: “For American military leaders, the global is the interior of a finite world whose very finitude poses many logistical problems. And the local is the exterior, the periphery, if not indeed the ‘outer suburbs’ of the world.”
Earlier, in his 1978 work “Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles”, Virilio returned to his dread of militarism:
“We must therefore get it out of our heads that the military rushes to the aid of civilians, sets up emergency medical units and encampments for disaster victims, runs airlifts and clearing operations on the site of great natural or man-made cataclysms out of pure philanthropy. Ecological catastrophes are only terrifying for civilians. For the military, they are but a simulation of chaos and consequently a subject of study and an opportunity for large-scale maneuvers in open terrain. Even better; in the state of undeclared war in which we live, this study is not only useful but indispensable.”
“The more that time intervals are abolished, the more the image of space dilates: ‘You would think that an explosion had occurred all over the planet. The least nook and cranny are dragged out of the shade by a stark light,’ wrote Ernst Junger of that illumination which lights up the reality of the world.
The coming of the ‘live’, of ‘direct transmissions’, brought about by turning the limit-speed of waves to effect, transforms the old ‘tele-vision’ into a planetary grand-scale optics. With CNN and its various offshoots, domestic television has given way to tele-surveillance.”
– Paul Virilio
In some ways, Virilio is updating Marshall McLuhan’s “Gutenberg Galaxy” to include the computer.
Virilio speaks of coming “domestic tele-surveillance”. We think of the hundreds of thousands of cameras watching over streets, parks, and business. Then the “door-bell cameras”, all the cameras willingly installed in the home to detect burglars or watch over baby, all hooked up to wi-fi, ready for big tech or big hacking tech (hard to tell which is which) to devour.
Virilio constantly refers to “the development of globalitarianism, which is preparing to revive the totalitarianisms of the past” and the militarization of civilian life or civilianization of the military – their marriage in both function and form. For Virilio, the Germans are always marching into his beloved Nantes, to break us again into the collaborators and the resistance.
He says “the computer is no longer simply a device for consulting information sources, but an automatic ‘vision machine’, operating with the space of an entirely virtualized geographical reality.” The Net is a lens for looking at the world, but as it grows, the former real world of three dimensional objects around us shrinks and fades away.
THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE SCREEN
“‘The cinema involved putting the eye into uniform,’ claimed Kafka. What are we to say, then, of this dictatorship exerted for more than half a century by optical hardware which has become omniscient and omnipresent and which, like any totalitarian regime, encourages us to forget we are individuated beings”.
– Paul Virilio
Daily our images posted by us, or taken by security cameras, can be used by the military or police. Police regularly search social media pictures, often helped by other social media users. But corporations and advertisers, even artists, can appropriate your image, manipulate it, sell it, and misuse our “optical clones”.
THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIMS GO NUMB
“the long death throes of the planet assumed the familiar guise of one series of scoops among others. “
– Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb.
“Crashes, derailments, explosions, destruction, pollution, the greenhouse effect, acid rain… Minamata, Chernobyl, Seveso, etc. [Bhopal, Fukushima…] In those days of deterrence we eventually got used, after a fashion, to our new nightmare and, thanks among other things to live TV, the long death throes of the planet assumed the familiar guise of one series of scoops among others. Thus, having reached a high degrees of ‘soft stupor’, we simply contented ourselves with ticking off the events, with enumerating the unfortunate victims of our scientific reverses, our technical and industrial mistakes.”
– Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb.
THE ACCIDENT AS HERITABLE DISEASE
Virilio outlines how the advent of mass books via Gutenberg’s invention led to generations of deaf-mutes. Each with their own copy to read privately, silently, the former necessity of public reading of rare manuscripts disappeared. Then with optical technology, the image has replaced the word for many people, leading to a new kind of blindness of immediate and personal reality. We horde masses of images, become their curators. We become confused which we have seen and which we have seen in reality, and that matters less and less. Our consciousness lives in mounds of images prepared by others and offered in a planned stream by a mixture of vested interests, a trending fad, and chaos. You are what your mind eats.
“Without even suspecting it, we have become the heirs and descendants of some fearsome antecedents, the prisoners of hereditary defects transmitted now not through the genes, sperm or blood, but through an unutterable technical contamination.”
“After the first bomb, the atom bomb, which was capable of using the energy of radioactivity to smash matter, the spectre of a second bomb is looming at the end of this millennium. This is the information bomb, capable of using the interactivity of information to wreck the peace between nations.
‘On the Internet, there is a permanent temptation to engage in terrorism, as it is easy to inflict damage with impunity,’ declared a one-time hacker who is now a company director…”
– Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb.
The Presidents and other alleged leaders, says Virilio, “cease to address themselves to that nation. They would, all in all, go with the general flow of the silent revolution of the audiovisual world”. Leaders are now made by and out of images and impressions carried by telecommunications. They are puppets too, not puppet-masters.
“there is no longer, strictly speaking, either Right or Left, and that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, these things literally no longer have any meaning. All that remains is the great audiovisual dilemma, the conflict between the soft (the word) and the hard (the image).”
Our readings from Virilio come courtesy of Brent Ragsdale, co-host of EcoRadio KKFI Kansas City.
You may need to listen to this radio program twice.
IMMATURITY AND INFANTILISM
In his book, Virilio gives the example of Italian mimes, in a presentation in Paris, dressed in diapers and bibs. They acted out all the childish roles, though obviously adults in body size. This infantilism and immaturity is one of the greatest threats of tele-reality says Virilio.
“‘Immaturity and infantilism are the most effective categories for defining modern man,’ [Polish writer Witold] Gombrowicz wrote. …we had reached the Peter Pan stage – the stage of the child stubbornly determined to escape his future.”
Rather than evil or even mass stupidity, much strange human behavior these days may be enacted by individuals who have never grown up.
THE FUTURE NO LONGER EXISTS BECAUSE IT IS BROADCAST NOW
“to prefer the illusions of networks – drawing on the absolute speed of electronic impulses, which give, or claim to give, instantaneously what time accords only gradually – means not only making light of geographical dimensions as the acceleration of rapid vehicles has been doing for more than a century now, but, above all, hiding the future in the the ultra-short time-span of telematic ‘live transmissions’. It means making the future no longer appear to exist by having it happen now.”
– Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb
This is exactly what is already happening in finance of governments, companies and individuals. Governments and citizens have borrowed so heavily against the future – debts which can never be repaid. To build bridges now, we borrow from expected taxes next generation. But it would take a thousand years to pay off the money borrowed. People borrow against their future earnings to pay hundreds of thousands for a college education. We take so much from the future, it is happening now.
“…technologies would inevitably advance alone, leaving behind them a humanity without a future…”
– Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb
He calls “the coming technical revolution… a tragedy of knowledge”
THE NEED FOR SOCIAL DETERRENCE (OF THE INFORMATION BOMB)
“Thus, after the atom bomb and the deployment for over forty years of generalized nuclear deterrence, the information bomb which has just exploded will very soon require the establishment of a new type of deterrence – in this case, a societal one, with ‘automatic circuit-breakers’ put in place capable of avoiding the over-heating, if not indeed the fission, of the social cores of nations.”
“With the real-time globalization of telecommunications – the unofficial model for which is provided by the Internet – the information revolution shows itself to be also a systematic snooping operation, which triggers a panic phenomenon of rumour and suspicion, and which is set to ruin the foundations of ‘truth’ in a professional ethics and hence the freedom of the press.”
– Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb
He sees the Internet as “the most immense enterprise of opinion transformation ever attempted in ‘peacetime’…”
THE IMAGE CRASH
“We are thus moving imperceptibly towards a sort of image crash….the famous virtual bubble of the financial markets will be supplanted by the visual bubble of the collective imaginary, with the attendant risk of the explosion of the information bomb….”
– Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb
CANADIAN COMMUNICATIONS EXPERT kISTEN EMIKO MCALLISTER ON VIRILIO
“Vision machines also threaten memory because they reduce our ability to retain mental images. “Over time, with the reliance on vision machines, the human body decreasingly perceives and recollects. Instead it simply receives whatever images flash before it. Virilio concludes that the body is reduced to a simple organism drawn to phatic images and other stimuli. The phatic image is, quote,
’a targeted image that forces you to look and holds your attention—[it] is not only a pure product of photographic and cinematic focusing.… [It] is the result of an ever-brighter illumination, of the intensity of its definition, singling out only specific areas, the context mostly disappearing into a blur.’
Here Virilio suggests that, like infants, we are drawn to intense images, rather than exploring the underlying forces of what is at play.”
That was from Kirsten McAllister, Simon Fraser University.
EXPLAINING THE FOG OF THE PRESENT – AFTER THE DATA BOMB EXPLOSION
Writing after the Asian financial crash of 1997/8, Virilio says:
“the great ‘danger to the system’ is no longer that of the bankruptcy of companies or banks in a chain reaction, such as we have recently seen in Asia, but the formidable threat of a blinding, of a collective blindness on the part of humanity – the unprecedented possibility of a defeat of facts and hence a disorientation of our relation to reality.
The bankruptcy of phenomena, the catastrophic slump of the visible, from which economic and political disinformation alone could derive advantage: with the analogue yielding its prerogatives to the digital, and with the recently achieved ‘data compression’ making it possible henceforth to speed up – that is to say, to concertina, our relation to reality … but to do so on condition that we accept the increasing impoverishment of sensory appearances.”
– Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb
He sees virtualization will “pollute our sensory ecology once and for all.”
“…here no longer exists; everything is now”
Virilio published a 1984 book “Guerre et Cinema”, translated to English in 1989 as “War and Cinema: the Logistics of Perception.” His work became popular in the field of architectural design, but later also with anyone working in technology.
He tells us that technology is no longer just a tool to gain knowledge, but now defines what is knowable. That is true in many sciences which deal with events that cannot be seen without machine intervention, from paleoclimatology to astrophysics to genetics. To control the world no longer requires physical domination of geography or nations, but control of technology. I am reminded of the saying: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes”.
Where we once demanded “photographic proof” (doubting an actual eye-witness account) – now CGI, computer generated imagery – on anyone’s Smart Phone can distort or completely replace faces, backgrounds, everything.
The doubt about depending on our senses which developed during the technological age leads to strange scenes in a hospital where a patient near death with COVID-19 yells and spits on doctors and nurses giving the diagnosis. Where protesters claim COVID is a fraud, even after losing their spouse to it. Where people suffering unbearable never-before-seen heat and fires agree with the television pundit saying global warming is a hoax. We believe mediated reality over our own senses.
In the same way, people de-experience events by recording themselves in a “selfie”. Without that, the event cannot be perceived and may not have existed. Even in a unique spiritual event or a very dangerous situation, the phone comes out to replace awareness.
NOT ALL AGREE
Most of Virilio’s critics complain he is one-sided, being anti-technology without seeing any benefits to it. For example he does not see a possible democratization coming from computer access to knowledge and media production. He was preoccupied with war (perhaps based on his childhood during the Occupation in France) and military technology (like the atomic stand-off).
WELCOME TO THE NEW YOU
Welcome to your new alternative reality, custom-cut to fit the geography of your former mind, including the illusion of choices and control. Anything you say advancing understanding will be collected and mirrored back through a lens born by militarism, a will to power, and outright accidental birth.
Having lost the necessity of memory (the machine will do it), mathematics (the machine…), communication, imagination, even movement (travel and converse “online”) – the local body becomes a globalized appendage, a “bot”. Your emotions, spending, and votes can all be stimulated with the right programming, below the radar, pushing buttons, sending images as food to be ingested becoming your second digital body, transposable and some day, disposable… That is how I understand Virilio’s vision.
HOW MASS PRODUCED SIGNALS WEAKEN THE MIND
From Kirsten Emiko McAllister, SFU:
“According to Virilio we are not only losing the ability to perceive the world but also the ability to recollect our experiences. This has dire consequences for the second essential human attribute: the imagination. The techniques of mnemonics are especially important for the imagination, which in turn involves anticipation. Anticipation, the ability to conceive what may happen next, relies on the ability to remember. Virilio explains that we do not manufacture mental images on the basis of what [we] are immediately given to see, but on the basis of… memories, from which, by [ourselves we can fill] in the blanks and [our] minds with images created retrospectively, as in childhood. (p. 3, emphasis in original)
Thus our memories of previous events provide the basis for anticipating what might happen next. It is important to emphasize that for Virilio, like vision, memory does not consist of just virtual images. Memory entails bodily techniques: mnemonics.
Virilio cites Cicero’s ancient “Method of Loci” as his ideal mnemonic model, which he refers to as a “topographical system” (1994, p. 3). This “imagery-mnemonics” consists of selecting a sequence of places and items that can be ordered in time and space, such as the rooms and furniture in a house. The material to be remembered, for example, points in a speech, are associated with individual rooms and pieces of furniture. To recall your speech, you imagine yourself walking in sequence through the rooms past the furniture, which trigger your memory of the sequence of points. But with our increasing reliance on technological devices to store data, we have stopped practicing mnemonic techniques. As a result we find it difficult to recall both information and our own experiences of the world.
Vision machines also threaten memory also because they reduce our ability to retain mental images.”
THE IMPACT OF CLICK-BAIT ON EYE AND BRAIN
“Over time, with the reliance on vision machines, the human body decreasingly perceives and recollects. Instead it simply receives whatever images flash before it. Virilio concludes that the body is reduced to a simple organism drawn to phatic images and other stimuli. The phatic image is
’a targeted image that forces you to look and holds your attention—[it] is not only a pure product of photographic and cinematic focusing.… [It] is the result of an ever-brighter illumination, of the intensity of its definition, singling out only specific areas, the context mostly disappearing into a blur. (1994, p. 14)’
Here Virilio suggests that, like infants, we are drawn to intense images, rather than exploring the underlying forces of what is at play.”
– Kirsten Emiko McAllister, SFU
“With acceleration, there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal—a mix of history, stories and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies” (Virilio, 1995, p. 35).
MOURNING HUMANS AS ANIMALS OF KNOWLEDGE
From Kirsten Emiko McAllister, Simon Fraser University, 2008:
“I want to examine what Virilio appears to mourn. The claim that Virilio mourns “the phenomenological dimension that privileges experience” simplifies both Virilio’s position as well as phenomenology. More accurately, Virilio mourns a particular conception of human experience. It has similarities to the conception found in Heidegger’s description of humans as animals of knowledge, which is based on ancient Greek notions of teche. As I will argue below, it is humans as animals of knowledge that Virilio mourns.”
Kirsten McAllister continues:
“But I am less concerned with what is obviously Virilio’s ideal human subject than with the way his work appears to be trapped in mourning, in melancholy. He seems unable to let go of something he assumes has been lost. Grieving this loss, he refuses to reach beyond the terms of the model for the world. The inability to engage with the contemporary changing world is evident in his inability to contemplate anything other than the degeneration of human life. Even if his aim is to blow apart the fantasies of academics who blindly embrace technoscience, his focus on the techniques to effectively blow apart their fantasies point to the way he is enthralled by the destructive forces of modernity.10 And while Virilio asserts “Resistance is always possible!” (quoted in Armitage, 2000, p. 194, emphasis in original), resistance seems impossible in the worlds he paints in his texts.”
====== UNIVERSITY OF DISASTER =======
BOOK NOTES by Alex
We turn now to Paul Virilio’s later book “The University of Disaster”. It was first published in French in 2007, with English translation in 2010. I credit his translator Julie Rose, because Virilio develops mine-fields of words, invented or used in new ways. Translation could not have been easy. Even in English, I feel the need to translate some Virilio into ideas for the rest of us.
This Virilio book “The University of Disaster” comes with some assembly required. The introductory chapter “Intuition” assumes we are already familiar with his work and some of his terms. For example, there is no explanation when “dromology” and other words he coins appear. A few pages in, it all becomes clearer.
THE BACK COVER
Descriptions on the back of book covers are often poor guides to the work. In this case, the writing is mostly assembled from Virilio’s work itself. This back cover “blurb” is deep and thought-provoking on its own. I copy it here:
“Today we find ourselves faced not only with the greenhouse effect of global warming but also with confinement within the tighter and tighter limits of a ‘dromosphere’ where the depletion of spatial-temporal distances complements the destructive changes in the earth’s atmosphere and the loss of diversity in the biosphere.
The depth of time, the sense of a past and a future, is increasingly eclipsed by the eternal present: in London, New York and Tokyo, advertising displays are continuously updated on digital screens linked by the internet, so that the same message is conveyed at the same time in a present that has no depth of field.
An unanticipated victim of this spatial-temporal compression is science – not only biology but also physics, the ‘Big Science’, now confronted by the space-time contraction of the known world and of acquired knowledge.
The sciences have rushed forward to produce their biotechnologies of life and matter but have failed to address their own ethical and philosophical deficits – whence the need for a ‘university of disaster’ that would constitute the ’mea culpa’ of the sciences.
This university of disaster would include a kind of ‘hospital’ of science and technology that would face up the accident in knowledge resulting not so much from the failures of the sciences as from their spectacular successes, so that from now on, on this old Earth of ours, the climate necessary for the life of our minds, like that necessary for the life of our bodies, could be treated like a patient suffering from the fatal consequences of a long-term illness.”
A FUTURE THAT CAN ONLY BE IMAGINED AS DISASTER
and time now consists of a series of disasters…
“‘Time no longer escapes History here, History has killed it,’ the anthropologist Marc Auge specified in relation to Chernobyl. ‘Today only a catastrophe is likely to produce effects comparable to the slow action of time. […] Sunnden unforeseen death, the past is now dated: overnight the place has been declared a desert.’
‘Everything is happening,’ Auge continues, ‘ as though the future could no longer be imagined except as the memory of a disaster which we only have a foreboding of right now.’”
“In fact, if a ruin is what remains of what once was in the past, today what remains of what happens, more than anything else, it is ‘ex abrupto’, this ‘large-scale accident’ that now dominates the event, everywhere you turn, so to speak, in the contemporary world. This is not some malaise ‘in civilization’ anymore, but a malaise in the very actuality of cultural events!”
Virilio speaks of “…resentment towards the BLACK UTOPIA of a disaster that would force all of humanity , along with all humanity’s diverse ‘faculties’, to vacate the premises and go into exile God knows where, far from the her and now, in the otherworld of cybernetic illuminism.”
THE NEW METEOROLOGY
“The new meteorology will need to try and come to grips with the mysteries, the enigmas, of the space-time of an accelerating dromosphere that escapes our projections, with its terrorising high pressure systems, its unknown economic storms and precipitations, to say nothing of climate change and its repercussions on the settlement of a terrestrial globe that has turned into a ‘reduced-scale model’.”
He says not just governments but banks, insurance and investment companies are now employing catastrophe simulation software to anticipate the future.
Alex concludes: Everything, EVERYTHING, has to be translated or reduced to numbers to go into the matrix system of international communications and sales. Since most of our new “reality” comes through screens mediated by the algorithms of giant tech firms like Google and Facebook, most of our thoughts and activity take place there, and now HERE. The “here” has been replaced.
Virilio worries political wars will be replaced by “a ‘transpolitical’ state of emergency caused by an accident in history that will lead to chaos?” Science, he says, has led humanity to a state of uninhabitable disaster not by failure, but by “its catastrophic success, the very scope of its extremist feats.” The extension of our senses by all manner of tools, from microscopes to TV, has “…falsified our relationships to the real, as well as to the imaginary…”
WE ARE PROGRAMMED TO RECEIVE
The new techno-self, Virilio tells us, is like a plant: we absorb the light of information, images and opinions from the global instant system. This is a new kind of photosynthesis. The techno-self absorbs the light from a “Sun” it cannot look at directly (which risks losing vision altogether). The new “instant” absorbs us, and like the sun-facing heliotropism of plants, we all turn in unison to be fed synthetic experience.
Virilio says what was our local self is now our unconscious. We lose awareness of local selves. Incoming information of all kinds becomes out consciousness. Media provides our memories, conversation, and packaged stories to image we are living. (pgs 23, 24 University of Disaster).
Sir John Eccles said, circa 2002,
“the brain looks to be more a receiver of consciousness than a transmitter”
Were we already built for passive reception when the Accident occured and then evolved to both fit us and shape us?
It seems our minds have been colonized and anesthetized. The system takes over all calculations of numbers (who can multiply in their minds anymore?) so we become numerically illiterate. The global instant provides our topics of personal thoughts and conversations. We discuss Hollywood trivia, sports, or a missing white woman – and never see the homeless or the overdose bodies. Objectified lifestyles take over where our experiences used to be. The biggest disaster of all is to be unplugged, which leaves us thoughtless and blind. Anyway, without the torrent of amusing and frightening input from our screens, our own minds seem slow, boring, and small.
In the Great Disaster we also feel a need to be plugged in for safety and warnings – of the nearby fires, landslides, coming flash-floods, and random system breakdowns or changes.
For those till harboring the desire and wealth to unplug, there are escape routes with careful boundaries. This may drive millions to travel or buy expensive recreational vehicles. Many dream of sailing away. Billionaires dream of going to space. But few are able now to escape the gravitational pull of constant entertainment, games, porn, and disaster porn – at home, or anywhere with mobile phones and pads. An adventurer now is someone who spends a week off Facebook, Twitter, TV and Playstation.
The key to understanding Virilio’s warnings about progress in science and technology is the ironic universe, where every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Ships create ship wrecks, cars massive automobile deaths every year. Secrets of the atom, the genes, chemicals – lead to perceived benefits and the shadow weapons of mass death.
We might imagine a universe where trains never have accidents. But reality contains a great deal of chaos and unknowable developments. Things as solid as mountains give way or explodes, wrecking all below. It appears that ANY faster speed than the body can run includes a greater risk, the faster the sooner approach to accidents, which one essence of the “dromosphere”.
Virilio expects the spark that blows up reality constructed of electron patterns will not be failure, but the death sentence of completion, of final success. This is so counter-intuitive. When anything fails, we look for the weaknesses as causation, not the in-built probability of disaster in a system built of interconnected fragility, existing tenuously in the instant as an accident in time on a small planet.
Paul uses the image of the plant and photosynthetic existence in the dromosphere. We might also consider the Solar Power Tower. There, a wide field of mirrors, all synchronized by computer programming, reflect sunlight to a central tower, generating a blinding glow of intense heat. The central tower provides energy to the grid and converts any surplus energy to store in molten salt for later retrieval, providing steam to power turbines. It is also called a “Heliostat”.
In this analogy, each electronic citizen reflects energy to a central collector. Parts of that are fed back to the citizens. The rest is captured in large-scale finance mechanisms controlled by a relatively small group of people, likely one or two hundred thousand at most. As just one measurement, Forbes in 2021 calculates there are 2,755 billionaires worldwide. In some of those fortunes, there are upper level managers in actual control of the levers, along with board members, investors and bankers, and in some countries leaders, so the “control group” might be over 100,000 people.
But here I agree with Karl Marx when he said those at the top of capitalism are just as deluded as those at the bottom. All play an almost pre-determined role within a game with weak rules. The billionaires may be more delusional than people with less power and money. That becomes obvious when it comes to handling a global pandemic or global climate change. They don’t recognize disaster even when it floods their basement. Some think they will develop another home in space, as Jeff Bezos of Amazon recently suggested to an interviewer.
Considering physics, nature, and chaos in all things, no one is in control. We need to imagine someone is in control, even if they are incompetent or do not care about us. But that human need to believe in order has no power in reality. No one is in control. Virilio is firm: we are living in an accident.
MORE ALEX NOTES FROM UNIVERSITY OF DISASTER
In his study of the empire of speed (dromosphere) Virilio points out: the faster you go, the less you see. A fast bicycle ride through town requires focus of our mental aperture, so we see less than if walking, and even less in a car at high speed (“it’s all a blur”). High speed rail or a rocket flight further removes the background that is physical reality. The faster we all go, even through the Internet, the less we see and comprehend. (pg 76 Univ of Disaster).
In this developing compressed global instant humans are destabilized. Millions of people are upset to the point of quitting, revolution, crime or mass killings – but they do not know why. A minor matter triggers spreading rage splattering out against simple operators like teachers, nurses, taxi-drivers, any group at all. Other countries may swell the chorus with fake identities and bot “likes”. It is like living in a pressure-sensitive bomb. Almost anything could set it off. We are living in the information bomb which is exploding in the past, present and future.
A CRITICISM OF VIRILIO BY ALEX
Virilio assumes all of us have been swept away into a transformational Other with no locus. He misses the continuation of local experience by a large portion of humanity. In between souls living online and the unconnected peasant farmer is a middle – composed of bi-valent minds. Just at we recognize bisexuality, some of us maintain two homes. One is in the global digit-time; the other is still experiencing the physical present in all kinds of ways.
What if global connectivity is ADDED to our evolving minds rather than SUBTRACTING or replacing local existence as Virilio claims?
More VIRILIO QUOTES (from University of Disaster)
THE COLLAPSE OF REALITY
“Teleobjectivity is not a simulation, then, but the on-the-spot contraction of a unity of time without unity of place; we are its natives and it now conditions the vitality proper to each and every one of us.
“In this sense, the contraction of the semblance provided by the screen only ever simulates the accident to come, an accident in the self-sufficiency of the solid world….”
A WARNING ABOUT GIVING UP OUR SELF TO BECOME PART OF THE INSTANTANEOUS MANUFACTURED GLOBAL NETWORK...
“It is all about paving the way for a universal remote control… In such a remote-controlled existence, the individual will be kept in constant contact, in at every moment and at every point in their trajectory, so that they will no longer be left with an spare time. In other words, any free time, time for reflection, for prolonged introspection. For tomorrow we will all be monopolized by the growing outsourcing or our once immediate sensations; we will all suddenly be collectivized in our affects, in our most intimate emotions, slipping and sliding or, or precisely, ‘surfing’ as we will then be in a new sort of epidemic of cooperation; the pandemic of a mob once solitary, now plagued with the delirium of UNANIMISM that the prophets of Doom of the twentieth century foretold….”
A VIDEO TRIBUTE TO PAUL VIRILIO
You can watch a panel discussion and film by Sylvere Lotringer on YouTube. In the short film contained in this presentation, an aging Virilio explains the nature of catastrophe in French, with large-type easy to read subtitles. You get the face and flavor of the man, plus a panel hosted by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky. The evening presentation is over two hours long.
WHAT IS VIRILIO SELLING?
As far as I can see, Virilio does not call for action against something, nor does he suggest any realistic path backward, away from the Accident, is possible. As a Christian, he has another framework for operation based on religious beliefs. Yet, Virilio doesn’t sell his religion. If any beliefs are revealed as fundamental to his development, it is the chain of Phenomenology, from Kant through Husserl and the ultra Catholic-turned-Nazi phenomenologist Martin Heidegger. He most disapproves of the logic coming from Bertrand Russell as enabling the marriage of civil and military economies.
ALEX HAS RESERVATIONS ABOUT VIRILIO
In many other passages it becomes clear Virilio is lamenting the loss of Catholic belief and interpretation of reality. It seems to enrage him that humans leave Catholic myths behind to inhabit an entirely imaginary world produced and projected over the Internet, social media, and mass media. It is strange that Virilio the Catholic now becomes a champion of physical reality, when the Church itself proclaimed reality is an illusion created by a hostile force, the Devil. Science was in part developed to bring that reality back as measurable and “true”.
For Virilio, it seems science itself is evil, leading to the atomic bomb, genetic manipulation, climate change, and domination of the species. He almost seems to justify the Catholic treatment of Galileo for saying Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around. This pretzel twist becomes a weakness in Virilio which is barely camouflaged by ornate and sometime mysterious use of words.
In “The University of Disaster,” Virilio continues hostility to science, and especially to the work of Albert Einstein, but for all physicists and physicist projects, like the collider at CERN.
He dislikes Google Earth, a powerful tool available to all who can access the Net. He idolizes travel in physical space, which we now know leads to a climate disaster in a time when it depends on fossil fuels. Traveling by images, even a virtual reality of a beach bar for example, is anathema to him. At what point does Virilio become just another old man lamenting the disappearance of his time and a revolution in human experience? Why does he dig away at anything modern, while never speaking of love, of the ways which people use new “cybernetic” technology to educate and help one another? Why does he presume the individual will be annihilated? His claims seem mainly based on two things (a) a review of European alternative thinkers and scholars and (b) the vision of Virilio. While Virilio cherry picks events in history, there is seldom any counter-balance or limitation for his statements. There is no burden of proof. Information as a bomb, and almost everything framed as military, must be true because he says so.
Yet Virilio is a successful arsonist, sparking insights and ideas, as he burns everything down. He was more right than wrong about things that matter most.
If you take only one thing away from this program: Paul Virilio warns: do not dive fully into the whirlpool of the expanding global mind system. While Mark Zuckerberg invites you to move into his Metaverse, Virilio warns you may lose your self and your soul to it.
To my mind, the only hope to preserve the self that experiences living is to reserve large parts of your time for reality, for events, relationships and experiences available to every human since the beginning of our species. More than you browse through endless factoids, oddities, and fearful lies filling the screens, feed from nature and the sky. Use all your senses directly. Pour love and work into real people in real places in the physical world. That is the anchor that restores time, space, and your creative consciousness.
Alex Smith, Radio Ecoshock