PRINT November 1995


ONCE THERE WAS AN “AVANT-GARDE.” It started in Europe, and came to the United States; some say it got “stolen.” But today we need new formations, new geographies, new styles of thinking, different from those of the avant-garde group with its popes and manifestos, even from the more “acephalous” group that attracted Georges Bataille. We need to think of “the city” in new ways, hence of how artists or thinkers fit into it—we need a new urbanism. Perhaps that’s the project Paul Virilio has been pursuing now over many years, through many passages and trajectories, as an author/critic as well as the director of the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris. It supplies him with perspectives to describe new forces that confront us.

Among these forces are those of the technologies of transport and transmission that have transmogrified the space and time of the city, and, tied up with the military, have become an integral part of our global electronic consumer culture. How do we attack them conceptually and politically? What sort of impact do they have on the way we think of what an “image” is, indeed what “art” is? Virilio believes we need to introduce questions of time—of duration and instantaneity, or “taking time” and “killing time”—into our analysis of this condition and its prehistory. From this perspective he finds what have become the clichés of a new “wired” or “digital” culture, with its biotechnical futurism and on-line populism, rather disquieting, even strangely immobilizing. He invents an essay style mixing striking quotations with formulations of the “strange world” that is already with us, as if to attain a “speed” in thought rather different from the redundancies of instantaneous transmission—the release of other unexpected lines and connections.

John Rajchman

“Speed provides in one blow what time accords only little by little.”
Paul Morand

“The train is to travel what the brothel is to love,” noted Leo Tolstoy. For two centuries, as a result of rationalism or functionalism, science and technology have showered us with products of substitution, objects of synthesis, and lures of every kind. In this strange universe of deception, the train in Tolstoy’s quote is as compelling an object as the brothel because it is the first great industrial medium in which differential duration, borne by each technological object, displaces not only the movements of the body (such as locomotion), but also those of the mind (desires, drives, dreams, etc.). Indeed, the train even became a source of therapy or a psychotropic substitute for idle individuals wracked by weltschmerz.1 For these invalids, time seemed almost to have stopped (the German word Langeweile, translated literally as “long while” but more usually rendered as “boredom,” captures this sense of time at a standstill nicely). It seems to desperately creep by, slowing the invalids’ “psychomotor” and preventing them from moving of their own accord.

Just as Schopenhauer could claim that “art is the suspension of the pain of living,” one might at one time have substituted the term “rapid transit” for “art.” But with the innovation of “static vehicles,” capable of transporting at the speed of light our whole perception of sensible things, from the intimacy of touch to the entirety of our narrow human environment—not only audiovisual vehicles (i.e., television) but the interactive ones peering at us from the horizon—the old psychotherapy of travel was paradoxically transformed into a universal pathology. What point is there in taking off again if you can make the world come to you, just as if you were whistling for your dog, and if new interfaces instantaneously restore your face-to-face contact with the boredom and hatred you thought had been left behind?

About a century ago, Auguste Rodin presaged our condition in his conversations with Paul Gsell: the “death of art” is due not to the damage inflicted on the various fields of representation by photographic “objectivity” but to a conflict of duration. Pitted against each other are the unceasing time of human perception (and thus of art) and the double, profoundly Cartesian invention of static and dynamic time that seems to interrupt itself (the instantaneous) and mechanically start up again (the photogram), each image in motion from the spectator’s perspective, but in reality inert on the strip of film.

In response to Henri Frédéric Amid’s Romantic description of a landscape as a slate of the soul, Edgar Degas, an inveterate photographer, retorted, “No, it is a state of the eyes” (why not even “artificial retinas,” as Nicéphore Niépce, a pioneer of photography, put it?). Our enraged Cartesian adds: “In liberating itself from the tyranny of nature, art does not expand, it boils down to itself.” Degas foresaw the therapeutic evolution of a technoculture of substitution that, having attacked the perception of the environment, would come to cling to presence in the world of bodies—those unbearable travel companions that up until then could not be gotten rid of.2 And this, while applying the standard exchange of parts detached from machinery to the human organism.

Xenografts or technografts soon permitting a possible substitution of bodies (even to the point of an interchangeability of new transhuman beings), and finally the definitive repression of the evil of living, since now, one could live having ceased to exist—such is the instant of the photogram.

The dogged pursuit over a span of more than two centuries of the suppression of duration for the exclusive profit of the instant (photographs) and soon of the instantaneity of a real pseudotime (television broadcasts), would eventually throw societies up against the wall of time, would drive them back against the uncrossable limit of the absolute speed of light of electromagnetic waves.

As a first alarming scenario, the strategy of least interference, the strategy of nuclear deterrence, followed the hyperactive conflicts of the past. Now, no longer mobilized, the population of the planet was held hostage. This concerted absence of movement—the physical paralysis of the two superpowers being more virtual than real—was simply a retreat before the absolute accident of the final instant of the end of time.

Though it seems to have already been forgotten, the privation of duration in favor of the instant—the last instant—is death, even the death sentence curiously abolished during “the balance of nuclear terror,” simply because it no longer served as an example, given that we were already all virtually dead, in the anti-cities strategy.

At the end of East/West deterrence, are we no longer hostages, sentenced to death, in this war that is already lost in advance, the war that consists of killing time? What happens to the face of a world no longer in the process of going by more and more quickly but of crashing against the wall of time? Is it, like the face of the overequipped pilot martyred by the acceleration of his apparatus, misshapen and as close as possible to disintegration? What have pictorial perspective, acoustic depth, and the cluster of phenomena variously known as “the arts” become if not the oracles of this strange, disfigured world?

Since the last century, a few merchants, businessmen, and perspicacious critics have contributed to rescuing the avant-gardes from the economic ghetto where the traffic jam of industrial metadesign placed them. But now, it is a question of extricating ourselves from a ghetto that closes our movements and actions in on themselves, in an effect of instantaneous return, a prodigious (cyber)feedback.

“The artist contributes first his body,” said Paul Valéry, “his body the center of energy.” The problem of art today is identical to the problem facing the idle and unemployed, those who previously contributed their body, center of energy, and no longer have a place in the metaphysical joke of technoculture.

Consider the proposals of some cyberpunks: “Technologies of communication and biotechnologies are important tools because they allow us to reinvent our body . . . .It is true that multimedia can be a formidable instrument of control and servitude, but it is up to us to generate tomorrow the codes and the specifications through which bodies will be represented in a cyberspace where everything exists as metaphor.”

Why tomorrow? Is it too modern to be described?

Our comfort today comes not in shelter from the darkness of night or the harshness of the seasons—in which elapsed time unceasingly renews itself—but in protection from the anguished perception of a final instant that has become perpetually present.3 In this retroactive context, “art” is no more than our point of view, a final material, a vein to be mined until it is exhausted like the others . . . like those old movies, always the same ones, viewed by Howard Hughes, the reclusive millionaire bunkered away from the world, lying drugged and naked, covered in bedsores and excrement, in a darkened room on the top floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.

With cyberculture dispensing energy to practically inert bodies, the perceiving active man would, over a few years, pass over to the perceiving inactive man, with neural and muscular activities reduced to a necessary minimum. From this new handicapped motor begins the great regression of the living, the reversal of the accepted logic of the evolution of the species, the most accomplished link in the chain (man?) putting himself back of his own accord, not far from where, it seems, the first glimmers of terrestrial life appeared. From the false survival of cryogenics, to the vogue for cocooning, to the Japanese otakus of the ’80s, to the multiplication of eschatological sects, to the power of virtual grafts and nanomachines, to in vitro and in vivo biocultures, the great organic mutation began with the constitution of embryonic communities, its survivors awaiting improbable technological springtimes.

It has been a long time since anyone dared to speak of progress in relation to the technological fundamentalism that has raged for two centuries. But how can one describe this new supraconservatism of living matter outside “natural paths,” which has developed insidiously in cultures and attitudes during that period of nuclear deterrence when we all effectively became the living dead? In fact, after the extinction of any hope of spiritually surviving materialism, there has been an inversion of human temporality, accompanied by the patent refusal on the part of our era to generate the next one.

“The French naturally dislike what they see,” declared Henry IV.

Are they wrong? Are they right? This is more than ever the question of the choice of perception. Is one truly free to choose what one sees and feels? Obviously not. Conversely, is one constrained to perceive against one’s will what proposes itself and now imposes itself on everyone’s gaze? Certainly not.

There would not be, in effect, “art” on the one side and a more or less informed criticism or spectatorship on the other, mirroring each other. Criticism and art are one, they are inherent to each other as phenomena, a “conscientious objection” in the most literal sense, as is demonstrated by their history.4

“In the age of the information highway, the last luxury is, in a sense, a context,” says Wired. We must admit that we find ourselves in a situation “that escapes us,” to such a degree that the dominant discourses heard here and there seem completely “out of step,” a “thousand miles” from what we experience and feel in reality. That is the permanent, carefully smothered scandal of a world that, since the beginning of the industrial era, has not ceased to go by faster and faster, marching past and disappearing at a rate that accelerates in accordance with the degree of progress in techniques of transmission and representation.

If art, in the words of Victor Hugo, once consisted of putting the mask of the visible on the invisible, our world, deprived at once of art and criticism, would then have an unhealthy tendency to “lose consciousness” and finally to “pass out.”

Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.


1. To cope with her splenetic temperament, Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary (Sissi), nicknamed “the locomotive empress,” would relocate an average of 300 days a year. During that same period, the historian Jules Michelet declared, “Thanks to the railway, the medicine of the future will be a preventive emigration.”

2. See Seneca, De brevitate vitae [On the brevity of life].

3. One no longer cures boredom with travel, but terror with video: the new “virtual therapy” is used to desensitize the chronically anxious. Helmet on head, they are comforted on the screen with the “limit situations” they fear until they are able to overcome their phobia.

4. “I am from the opposition that is called life”—thus, the famous adage recalling the organic bonds that exist between art and the perpetually critical state of a reality in the process of going by (Paul de Tarse). To eat, not to become prey, to survive, to survive oneself—from the first wall paintings (30,000 years before our era), to Su Tung-Po’s remarks—“Vision surges in front of you. You must seize this vision with the brush, because it can disappear as suddenly as the hare when the hunter approaches”—to Van Gogh’s disillusioned assertion, at the end of a 19th century already given over to the mechanical acceleration of perception: “Those who say I paint too quickly watch me too quickly.”