When Eyesight is Fully Industrialised

John Kerrigan

  • Open Sky by Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose
    Verso, 152 pp, £35.00, August 1997, ISBN 1 85984 880 X

Plunging in free-fall, a parachutist just out of an aeroplane sees the Earth spread out before him with the steadiness of a map. As his eyes resolve the detail, however, at about 600 metres, the ground seems to rush towards him, then split apart with dizzying speed: ‘The apparent diameter of objects increases faster and faster and you suddenly have the feeling you are not seeing them getting closer but seeing them move apart suddenly, as though the ground were splitting open.’

In Open Sky Paul Virilio cites this experience to secure an abstruse point about ‘the fractal nature of vision that results from high-speed adaptation’, but it also helps him connect, with typically swift insouciance, some of the leading themes of his book: gravity, light, information, and the cult of dangerous sports. For those unfamiliar with Virilio – one of the liveliest of contemporary French thinkers, whose works have only recently begun to accumulate in translation – the scope of Open Sky makes it an excellent starting-point: it synthesises many of the ideas which he has set out in 15 books over the last two decades. It is a demanding text, however, because Virilio mixes up his insights with speculative claims about physics, and because his writing has never before been so compressed and rapid. The reader, too, is thrown into free-fall, plunging from historical synopses into vivid passages of theorising which rush away in all directions.

Speed is Virilio’s obsession: the force he has analysed most tenaciously as well as the impulse, increasingly, of his thought. Even in his strange first book, Bunker archéologie (1975) – a study of the gun-emplacements left along the French coast by the Nazis – he is fascinated by the energy of Blitzkrieg, by the race to total war which threw up this concrete line of blindly gazing casemates. As his haunting photographs of the abandoned installations show, Virilio looks at the world with an artist’s eye (early in his career, he designed stained glass and worked with Braque and Matisse), yet the ambitions of his work are forensic. Observing that ‘in the modern arsenal, everything moves faster and faster,’ Virilio explores the dynamics of war technology and, more largely, the logic of logistics.

‘Dromology’ is the word he chooses for his subject. As he points out in Vitesse et politique (1977), Western culture has long been driven by a passion for competitive velocity, by an appetite for what the Greeks called dromos. Social systems have evolved, and powerful machines been invented, in order to manufacture speed. Like the Futurists, Virilio is thrilled by the roar of the racing-car. He is also aware, however, that Futurism was implicated in Fascism, and that the poetry of the engine can be used to inflict great harm. Along with many others marked by the politics of 1968, Virilio believes that Fascism was not defeated in the Second World War but survives in the ‘dromocratic totalitarianism’ of the military-industrial complex.

Open Sky breaks new ground by tracking the harm of velocity beyond Nazi rocket-science into the Soviet/American space race. The French title of the book, La Vitesse de libération, is sardonic: it catches Virilio’s sense that, when astronauts achieve ‘the speed of liberation from gravity’, their emancipation is illusory because they rush deeper into the dromosphere. Always inclined to argue that what he disapproves of is bad for your health, Virilio notes that the men who went to the Moon suffered ‘perceptual disorders’. Mike Collins, for example, had ‘the strange feeling of having been both present and absent at the same time, on Earth as on the Moon, testing out for us the loss of the hic et nunc’. Astronauts are the vanguard of humanity because they experience, to the point of breakdown, that derangement of time and place which is a consequence of high velocity.

The idea that speed is bad because it destroys temporal and locational co-ordinates is hardly unique to Virilio. Much modern literature and art laments the loss of habitable specificity brought about by what geographers call ‘time-space compression’. In his early books Virilio is unusually acute, however, about the way transport systems are shrinking and homogenising the globe, and he sustains that theme in Open Sky by writing about environmental damage. The maximisation of speed requires mountains to be levelled and lakes filled in so that journey times can be shortened. Even motor-racing circuits are being straightened out so that cars can go faster without crashing: the loops and kinks of place are being sacrificed to acceleration.

During the Eighties, Virilio’s argument about velocity was overtaken by a paradox which greatly enriched his work. As electronic networks built up, teletransmission replaced the jet plane as the epitome of speed. Fast workers became sedentary, slumped in front of computer-screens; the world began to experience that ‘revenge of speed in inertia’ which Jean Baudrillard has identified as a hallmark of Post-Modernity. No doubt because Virilio is a professor of architecture, he initially studied this phenomenon through its effect on the urban fabric. In L’Espace critique (1984) he claimed that ‘the architectonic element begins to drift and float in an electronic ether ... With the interfacing of computer terminals and video monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything.’

Open Sky shares that analysis, insisting that, in the developed world (Virilio says little about poorer countries), we are moving from wired-up localism into ‘omnipolitan’ cyber-space. This recycled version of McLuhan is not without its weak points. If it were true, the property market would be collapsing as people became indifferent to where they lived. All they’d want of a house would be access to the Internet. And is there really no difference between e-mailing New York and being there? Video conferencing can’t make location meaningless until bodies and computer terminals are identical.

Virilio would reply that, thanks to surgery, this is starting to happen. Open Sky describes ‘the implantation of new kinds of stimulators, much more effective than the pacemaker, and the imminent grafting of micromotors’ which can be remotely scanned. Having colonised outer space, science is invading man – first appropriating the power of the senses, as machines for seeing or smelling are built and linked up to computers, and then wiring elements of that technology back into the nervous system. As the sedentary body produced by speed is gingered up by teleaction, medicine makes the patient ‘a human terminal – as though the ultimate surface, or, rather, the ultimate interface were the occipital cortex’.

This version of the cyborg scenario is not a new one for Virilio: it was sketched out in his L’Art du moteur, a bestseller four years ago in France. Though the provision of detailed evidence is hardly the forte of Open Sky, Virilio does back up the claim that the body is being industrialised by examining advances in ophthalmology. This is why the book is interested in free-fall: the visual experiences of a parachutist show that the eye has its own mechanics, which are affected by gravity and speed. Virilio writes vividly about the techniques which ‘motorise sight’. The apparatus which once transmitted data and displayed it in front of the viewer is now inside the eye: computer-linked video-probes film the organ from within, and lasers produce inward cinema by playing directly onto the retina. In the air, pilots’ eyes are used as switches for turning controls on and off ‘thanks to an infrared sensor that recognises direction of gaze’.

It is one of the complexities of reading Virilio that such developments are made exciting only to show them up as insidious. Open Sky presents the ‘automation of perception’ as part of a conspiracy of surveillance. The argument takes a Foucauldian turn as Virilio laments the spread of the security cameras which now command space so comprehensively that taking photographs no longer seems an art of catching significant moments but a matter of selecting freeze-frames from the endless circuits of film which process the visible. The implications become nightmarish when he suggests that surveillance could be replaced by vision control when eyesight is fully ‘industrialised’, political conformity might be guaranteed by surgical interventions to standardise seeing.

As futurology this is wild, and philosophically it demands qualification. Is linking an ‘intelligent’ camera to an alarm worse than the time-honoured custom of having a watchdog on a lead? Spectacles adjust sight towards an artificially standardised norm. Am I morally bound to see the world as a blur because the blur is mine by nature? Such questions aren’t aired in Open Sky because they would impede Virilio’s campaign against technology. What was a love-hate relationship in his work has turned towards rejection, and the bias can produce perverse results, not least when disability is discussed. Oddly for a book which cites Stephen Hawking as an authority on space, Open Sky discounts the good that motorised aids can do and presses the theory that smart-buildings and computers are making the able-bodied no better than cripples. Soon, Virilio grumbles, the ‘citizen-terminal’ will be ‘decked out to the eyeballs with interactive prostheses based on the pathological model of the “spastic” wired to control his/her domestic environment without having physically to stir’.

Such insensitive remarks are not just a product of Virilio’s reluctance to qualify arguments when they can be pushed to oxymoronic extremes. They are the paradoxical outcome of a Catholic moralism which resists what is inhuman in modernity while revelling in an apocalyptic sense that the world as we know it is passing. As the blurb on the back of Julie Rose’s fine translation of Open Sky notes – under the chiliastic legend ‘one day the day will come when the day will not come’ – Virilio was inspired at the age of 18 by the Abbé Pierre and the movement of worker-priests and became a Christian and a militant. Those convictions still affect him 47 years later. Apparently unimpressed by the success of New Age cults and American-style evangelism, Virilio fears that we are losing touch with the soul and succumbing to ‘technoscientific fundamentalism’. Behind its intellectual pyrotechnics, Open Sky is a cry of protest against our subjection to the empire of speed.

An element of desperate moralism is certainly apparent when Virilio asserts that the teletransmission which brings us close to those who are far away estranges us from our nearest and dearest, ‘making strangers, if not actual enemies, of all who are close at hand’. Only an unstated assumption about the dysfunctionality of nerds in anoraks working obsessively on computers supports this unlikely thesis, but it becomes the basis of a meditation on the Biblical injunction that we should love our neighbours. The question ‘who is my neighbour?’ is harder than ever to answer, it seems, now that the websites of the world throng with cyber-folk.

Once everything is wired up, eros will be as confused as agape. Already, Virilio points out, electronic immediacy prompts ‘long-distance love’. He doesn’t have in mind anything as modest as telephone sex. By wearing ‘datasuits’ equipped with ‘biocybernetic (teledildonic) accoutrements’, lovers can couple remotely using the Internet as a condom. Nor need progress stop there. Your partner could be computer-generated, a luscious blonde or hairy hunk produced by virtual reality. Fornication with such idols would obviously be popular, and Virilio worries about its effect on the birth-rate. Most likely, he warns, only ‘underdeveloped’ and “ ‘media”-deprived’ societies will be left to continue the human race. Since Virilio seems to think that a future without electronic media would be a good thing, it isn’t clear why he regards this outcome as unattractive.

Though it is often solemnly absurd, this part of Open Sky raises ponderable questions about virtual reality. A moralist might be expected to denounce computer images which offer addictive escape routes into fantasy environments. Because he has bigger game in his sights, Virilio prefers to interpret the emergence of virtuality as of a piece with the development of data-networks and real-time cameras. All those systems congest the dromosphere, and together they warp the world into infinite cyber-space. The access of virtuality means that, on Earth as in orbit, we can get beyond place and time and enter a weightless universe limited only by the speed of light.

The outlook is, naturally, grim. Having damaged the physical environment by accelerating transportation we are now wrecking space-time itself. As virtuality penetrates life, the ‘apparent horizon’ of the phenomenal world and the ‘deep horizon’ of our collective imaginings are being confused by a ‘transapparent horizon’. Hence the woes of modernity, including mental illness and broken marriages. To prevent a global catastrophe, Green politics must be supplemented by a ‘grey ecology’ which recognises that speed pollution now extends to the ordering of reality. ‘Speed destroys colour,’ wrote Paul Morand in 1937: ‘when a gyroscope is spinning fast everything goes grey.’

Virilio is sure that the world is spinning towards apocalypse. At times he is literal about this, implying that war will follow the collapse of global markets made volatile by swift flows of data. More innovatively, he predicts an accelerating greyness: as distances lose their meaning, and instantaneity becomes all, the ‘end of the world’ will be present because beyonds will vanish. This is the sort of notion which must be either mystical or trite; and Virilio has to work hard, in his urgently italicised and bold-typed prose, to persuade the reader of its sublimity. He also enlists patristics. When the end comes, outwardly nothing will have changed, but the world will be ‘qualitatively discredited’ and leave no room for the spirit. St Jerome’s prophecy will come to pass: ‘The world is already full and no longer holds us.’

If Virilio stopped there, he could free-fall from theology and parachute to a safe landing. Unfortunately he is so seduced by the science he mistrusts that he wraps up his argument in layers of garbled cosmology. The results are embarrassing enough when he uses pop physics against philosophical rivals – slapping down Marxism, for instance, because it assumes the linearity of time; but the consequences are bizarre when he forgets that the words which cosmology borrows from ordinary language to label its mind-bending concepts can’t be taken back into social theory and used against science without great caution. Virilio invokes Einstein as an excuse for being generally relative about space, time and matter. Convinced that speed closes the gap between physics and metaphysics, he offers a new theory of the universe devoid of observation, experimentation and mathematics.

The problem is partly one of recognising the limits of analogy. When Virilio calls the omnipolitan employee of the future ‘a virtual particle in a basically non-existent firm’, no one is going to doubt that his usage is metaphorical. But to say that the time-space changes introduced by telecommunications are governed by ‘relativity’ is to begin to run fields together. As loose analogies accumulate, they create a textual climate in which the routine error of Post-Modernist theory can take hold: the idea that, since the structures of scientific knowledge are in the mind, they can be refuted through social psychology. By the end of Open Sky, a number of cosmological findings widely accepted by scientists have been seen off as ‘optical illusions’.

The rot is in the foundations. By page 3 we are being told that astrophysicists believe ‘time is in fact matter.’ From this it would apparently follow that much of the ‘dark matter’ in the universe is ‘the absent mass of time’, and that the virtual delusion known as the Big Bang is the product of a ‘luminocentric’ obsession among scientists with the speed of light. Put any of this to a cosmologist and the response will be amused contempt, but Virilio blithely ends by promoting ‘the time of information’ to a special place in the ‘relativity continuum’ – as though it were the case that, because information is zapped around by electrons, the sociology of its movement could say something about particle physics. Virilio calls the science which frames his book ‘eminently probabilist’, which is presumably just a French way of admitting that it’s unlikely. If so, it is regrettable that he should weaken his core polemic with conceits he isn’t committed to, for the sake of a theoretical rush which disregards his own advice about the dangers of speed.