PRINT Summer 1989


Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.
—Christ (John 20:29)

RESEARCHERS AT NASA AND at the ophthalmological institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have created a revolutionary pair of eyeglasses. Through fiber optics, two miniature lenses affixed to a frame transmit images to two miniscule video cameras worn around the waist of a person with poor or impaired vision. An electronically processed image is sent back to the glasses, in which the old type of corrective lens has been replaced by screens. The optoelectric system automatically “reads” the wearer’s particular vision problem and corrects the image accordingly. What appears before the wearer is now perfectly clear.

This prosthesis has been tested on remote-control robots and should soon be on the market in the United States. One of several byproducts of military. research into a “vision machine” of the future, it reflects the aim of other recent studies in the automation of perception—the replacement of immediate perception with aided perception, an “indirect perception” that is accomplished by the speed of electrons rather than by the rays of the sun or of electric light.

Compared to more spectacular research at NASA, for instance, on the production of a helmet that simulates a virtually interactive environment (a portable simulator like those used in assault aviation), the video glasses are only a modest example of the future state of ocular optics. Direct vision is yielding to the unprecedented development of industrialized vision, of radio-electric insights into real time (time in which the occurrence of an event and the reporting or recording of it are almost simultaneous), insights that are capable of replacing, indeed superseding, the contemplation of the actual environment. Direct sunlight, candlelight, and lamplight will give way little by little to a light that is not only “artificial” but indirect: electronic or photonic (as in the example of the Japanese apartment that is windowless yet well lit, through fiber optics).

Let’s backtrack a bit and explore some of the conditions that have made these new ideas of real time optics possible. First, an initial question: What happens to the transparence of air, of water, of glass—one could say, of the “real space” of things surrounding us—when the interface of “real time” takes over from the classic “interval,” and when distance suddenly gives way to the power of transmission and instantaneous reception? And second, our chief problem: What happens when optoelectric commutation replaces classic optic communication? We may begin here by discussing the deregulation not only of what is apparent to our senses but of transparence itself—the unfettering of transparence, which no longer has anything in common with the density of any material, not even the earth’s atmosphere. In fact, if the definition of the word"transparence” is “that which is easily traversed by light,” or “that through whose density objects can easily be discerned” (ice, for example, or air), we notice that with the new notion of interface in real time, the nature of transparence changes. Transparence is no longer composed of light rays (solar or electric) but instead of elemental particles (electrons and photons) that are transmitted at the speed of light.

It is light alone that reveals what is apparent to our visual sense, but it is light’s speed that illuminates, that allows us to see. Transparence is therefore no longer simply a question of the objects in view at the moment of seeing, but suddenly becomes one of appearances instantly transmitted from a distance: hence we propose the term TRANSAPPERANCE of “real time,” no longer simply TRANSPARENCE of “real space.” The direct transmission of appearances will now take the place of the old transparence of the real space of air, water, or lens glass.

This displacement of the direct transparence of a material is due primarily to the emergence of a new theory of optics—active optics, the result of recent developments in optoelectronics, and of radio-electric insights that demonstrate the inferiority of the obsolete passive optics of the telescope, microscope, and camera lens. In other words, it is due to the effective use of undulatory optics alongside classic geometric optics. In the same way that alongside Euclidean geometry we find a non-Euclidean, topological geometry, the passive optics of the geometry of camera lenses and telescopes is accompanied by the active optics of the teletopology of optoelectric waves.

Furthermore, optical properties have developed in relation to computer programming. The optical adjustment of appearances is now a function not only of the geometry of the camera lens, but also of the calculation of an image dot by dot (pixel by pixel) with the help of a computer hooked up to a transmitter. The digitalization of the video image provides a better definition of appearances. The recently developed “adaptive-optic” telescope is a perfect example of this transformation: the purity of the lens is no longer necessary, since the optical adjustment of the light rays is actually assured by the calculating speed of a graphic computer. So here once again we discover the supremacy of the speed of light over light rays’ capacity for illumination. On the one hand, through the video reception of transmitted appearances, the speed of electrons and of photons illuminates indirectly what is situated at a distance. On the other, the speed of the electronic calculation of an image’s component pixels accelerates the image’s definition, its clarity, reducing the importance of the optic quality of objectives and lenses.

Thus it is not light as much as speed that is necessary for seeing, for measuring, and hence for comprehending the reality of appearances. Here, acceleration is a means not of movement (interval) but rather of seeing, of perceiving more or less clearly (interface); the “high definition of the real” depends solely upon the more or less rapid speed of the transmission of appearances, and no longer simply upon the transparence of the atmosphere, or of other diverse materials.

Let us return for a moment to the philosophical definition of speed: “Speed is not a phenomenon, it is a relation among phenomena”; in other words, relativity itself, the transparence of the reality of appearances, but also a spatiotemporal transparence, which then replaces the spatial transparence of the linear geometry of optic lenses. Hence the term “trans-appearance” to denote electronically transmitted appearances, whatever the spatial interval may be that separates them from the observer. That observer is now subordinate, yet, because of the immediacy of interface, is rendered inseparable from the observed object. Observer and observed are bonded by the instantaneous reception provided by this “terminal,” so appropriately named, that spans the length of the duration of the world now reduced to human/machine commutation. The “depth of space” of perspectivist geometry has given way before this “depth of time” to a “real time perspective,” which has now replaced the ancient real space perspective of the Renaissance.

BUT LET’S GO BACK to the origin of this situation, that is, to photography. Talking with Paul Gsell, who was arguing that a photograph of an action was an irrefutable document of it, Auguste Rodin retorted, “No . . . It is the artist who tells the truth and photography that lies. For in reality, time does not stand still. And if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a gesture that is executed in several instants, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific images where time is abruptly suspended.”1 This statement, used later by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is worth lingering over. The time that is in question here is that of CHRONOLOGY, time that does not stand still, time that perpetually passes, customary linear time. But the techniques of photosensibility had introduced a genuinely new development, which Rodin, it seems, hadn’t noticed: photography’s definition of time I was no longer one of time passing, but firstly, essentially, one of time “revealing itself,” one might dare to say of time “surfacing,” an exposure time that replaced historical and classic notions of successive time.

Shooting time, then, was from its origin light-time. Traditional chronology—future, present, past—has been succeeded by CHRONOSCOPY—underexposed, exposed, overexposed. The interval of the TIME genre (the positive sign) and the interval of the SPACE genre (the negative sign, with the same name as the inscription surface of film) are inscribed only by LIGHT, that interval of the third genre in which the zero sign means absolute speed.

The exposure time of the photographic plate is therefore merely time’s (space-time’s) exposure of its photosensitive material to the light of speed, which is to say, finally, to the frequency of photon-carrying waves. What Rodin hadn’t yet noticed, then, was that it is only the surface of the negative (the negative interval) that actually stops the time of the representation of movement. With the “instant photogram,” which will permit the invention of the cinematographic sequence, time will never be stopped again. The tape, the reel of recorded film, and, later on, the video cassette (a “real time” of permanent telesurveillance) will all illustrate this continuous light-time.

For more than 150 years, time’s acceleration has induced the progress of photocinematographic representation. The “light of time”—or, if you prefer, the “time of light-speed”—has illuminated our environment to the point where to our eyes it no longer seems a simple “mode of representation” comparable with painting, sculpture, or theater, but is now to be understood as a “mode of information.” From this stems the progress of information systems (from the era of electronic calculators to synthesized images), that is, the enumeration of video-signals that facilitate the “high-definition of vision” in which the unity of measurement is uniquely this BIT/SECOND that designates the amount of information carried by a “message.” The image thus remains the most sophisticated form of information.

In the 21s-century, whoever controls the screen will control the conscience, according to Timothy Leary. This control will not operate from a distance, through remote-control or tactile screens, as is usually assumed, but through what one might call optoactivity, the confusion among images: virtual images of conscience; ocular, optic images; and finally optoelectric, radio-electric images of videoinfography. This hookup among images is contained in the idea of trans-appearance.

Paul Virilio teaches at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris. He is the author of Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles, 1978, Speed and Politics, 1986, and The Esthetics of Disappearance, forthcoming from Semiotext(e), New York.

Translated from the French by Diana Stoll.



1. Auguste Rodin, Conversations with Paul Gsell, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 32.