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.

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