File spoon-archives/postanarchism.archive/postanarchism_2003/postanarchism.0307, message 48

Date: Sat, 19 Jul 2003 02:56:03 +1000
Subject: [postanarchism] Say Fear is a =?iso-8859-1?b?TWFuknM=?= Best Friend

Say Fear is a Man’s Best Friend
(You add it up it brings you down)
by Matthew Hyland

Like a horseman of the apocalypse, Virilio is riding the ever-popular tide of 
doom once again. Selecting 'accident' as his curatorial theme and the Cartier 
Foundation in Paris as his location, his recent show 'Ce qui arrive' points to 
a generalised psychic pestilence. 'We' have grown indifferent to the constant 
stream of mediated accidents. But, as Matthew Hyland argues, it's Virilio who 
needs the wake-up call. 

A preoccupation with management of risk has often been observed in post-
millennial culture's efforts to express itself. The immediate past and future, 
however, almost belabour the point that this is not some marginal, hysterical 
obsession: at its disposal is all the apparatus with which constituted power's 
deadly earnest will is done. April Fools' Day 2003 heralded the third week of a 
total war waged pre-emptively on the pretext that a subaltern state's remaining 
industrial capacity could be used in unauthorised slaughtering ventures 
(something true of any such infrastructure in the world). Meanwhile Britain 
awaits the passage of more legislation encouraging counsellors and other police 
to intervene, as the Home Secretary puts it, 'before bad behaviour becomes 
criminal behaviour’. Blunkett's Anti-Social Behaviour Bill deserves special 
mention, in fact, for its doubly anticipatory structure. The trigger for 
therapeutic enforcement is behaviour ‘likely to result in members of the public 
being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed’. Here the problem is twice 
removed into the future tense, once in the wager ‘likely to’ and again the 
way ‘alarm’ and ‘distress’ imply as yet unaccomplished cruelty. 

>> The Fall, 2002, Lebbeus Woods and Alexis Rochas, © 2002 by Lebbeus Woods

So it seems postmodern eschatologist Paul Virilio chose an opportune moment to 
curate a Cartier Foundation exhibition and write a book about risk, accident 
and disaster as zeitgeist-forming phenomena. The show opened on September 11 
2002, with video, photographic and installation work by 16 artists set up as 
a ‘museum of accident’ under the title Ce qui arrive – ‘what happens’. 
According to the accompanying essay of ‘Warning’, this high-profile 
mobilization of artmaking and curatorial capabilities fulfils ‘a responsibility 
to future generations to expose accident now’. For Virilio everyday life is 
becoming a ‘kaleidoscope’ in 
which ‘incidents...accidents...catastrophes...cataclysms’ appear ‘more and more 
often, but most of all faster and faster...’. As ‘the serial reproduction of 
catastrophes’ accelerates, experience of accident becomes automatic and 
unconscious. ‘Unless we are to accept the unacceptable’, intones the 
philosopher, the public (sic) must be cured of its ‘overexposure to terror’ by 
the ‘exposure of accident’ within ‘a new museology, a new museography’ 
of ‘critical distance vis-a-vis excess in every genre’. A ‘homage’, no 
less, ‘to discernment’, to the same ‘preventive intelligence’ that brought you 
SARS internment and demonstrations monitored by truancy patrols. 

Appropriately given that its subject matter is automatic exposure to what 
happens, the museum can be visited on the internet; no need to go all the way 
to Paris. The most immediately noticeable thing about the virtual galleries' 
contents is the prevalence of what amount to S11 readymades. Tony Oursler 
displays the digital camera pictures he took from his TriBeCa studio window 
that morning, while Jonas ‘Uncle Fishook’ Mekas alternates a generic shot of 
the towers burning, accompanied by ‘plaintive cries, calls for help and fire 
engine sirens’, with a sepia photograph of a little girl. Doubts about the sort 
of critical distance achieved by displacing familiar images and sentiments into 
an art context cry out as plaintively as trapped derivatives traders here. How 
do we tell numbing, serialised overexposure apart from ‘discerning’ exposure of 
the same things in the name of salutary precaution? Maybe Oursler's photos are 
supposed to cut through media-saturated indifference because they're honest, 
first-hand testimony from an accidental witness. Mekas’ invoking of innocence 
could similarly be read as laying claim to intimacy's strange authority. Yet in 
its content the official S11 saturation coverage was almost defined by its 
incessant appeal to first-hand personal testimony. Continuous public outpouring 
of intimate emotion gave the destruction (and what followed / is still 
following) ‘a human face’. 

The day the World Trade Center fell, Wolfgang Staehle happened to have a webcam 
already feeding real-time surveillance of the towers onto a gallery wall as 
part of an existing show. He runs his ‘unexpectedly tragic’ footage again here. 
The problem (at least for Virilio's project of homage) is similar to that 
encountered with Ourseler and Mekas. How can contemplating catastrophic images 
in a museum redeem earlier ‘automatic’ viewing from unconsciousness or nihilism 
when the museum-presentation’s format was already there waiting for the 
catastrophe to happen, and assimilated it fully, effortlessly and in ‘real 

Other artists seem to associate spectacular cataclysm with the aesthetics and 
imagined history of doomed, heroic mid-20th century industrial expansion. 
Artavzad Pelechian and Bruce Conner use archive pictures from the Soviet space 
programme (Pelachian) and the 1946 Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test (Conner, in 
the S11 pieces’ only rival for the prize for most egregious misuse of the 
term ‘accident’). Dominic Angerame filmed the dismantling of San Francisco's 
Embarcadero Freeway after the 1989 earthquake on 16 mm black and white stock in 
a disjunctive style vaguely evocative of European avant-garde cinema from 
Constructivism to Bauhaus. Aernout Mik's video installation Middlemen stages a 
subtly anachronistic stock market crash: amid overturned filing cabinets, 
cumbersome computer monitors and an avalanche of paper documents, traders 
maintain the buttoned-up reserve of IBM's Organization Man, a figure of 
ridicule for today's intuitive, organic executive. 

With considerable delicacy in the two latter cases, these artists knit together 
a few related historical inanities. Modernist high-style (whether in 1920s 
aesthetics, 1950s rocketry or 1980s finance) returns in melancholic ruin. Moira 
Tierney subtitles her film with the ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ 
of Shelley's Ozymandias. Such loving reconstruction of recent-past events 
depends on an illusion of epochal distance from them: disaster becomes a 
function of Western industrial and political hubris, in turn imagined as the 
problem of a ‘long’ but now exhausted century. Industrial capital's self-
immolating tendency is attributed to a pathology of vainglory now deemed 
obsolete, and so susceptible in equal measure to faintly flickering nostalgia 
and precocious displays of contempt. The most alarming thing about this 
attitude is the confidence implied that accident is better managed now a 
fundamentally unchanged social form speaks the language of ecology (which 
Virilio calls ‘the intelligence of a crisis of intelligence’) and has at its 
disposal hypersensitive risk-assessing algorithms and an obsession with 
precaution more richly nuanced than any known before. 

Such fascination with sublime worst-case scenarios, then, unwittingly expresses 
the fascinated subject's deep assurance of his or her own ultimate salvation. 
Fire sermons in the name of responsibility and humility before the unknown 
likewise manifest an unstated, ingenuous confidence in techniques of 
control. ‘Preventive intelligence’, whether social, scientific or astrological, 
shares with the systems of professional gambling its desperate claim to measure 
hazard and restrict potential for harm. But no calculus of probability can ever 
make accident intelligible; the effort of anticipation becomes voluntary 
servitude to doom. By contrast, rigorous attention to the enigma of risk would 
outwardly resemble naive unconcern in its refusal to adapt the present 
superstitiously to beliefs about the future. 


In Virilio's museum and his Warning statement there is no distinction between 
kinds of accident, ‘from the most banal to the most tragic, from natural 
catastrophes to industrial and scientific disasters’. One broad conceptual 
sweep unites S11, Chernobyl and the San Francisco earthquake. Top billing goes 
to Lebbeus Woods and Alexis Rochas’ installation La Chute (the Fall), in which 
900 aluminium tubes prefigure the Cartier Foundation building's collapse due 
EITHER to 'building or design faults OR the explosion of a bomb OR some other 
totally unforeseen phenomenon' [emphasis omitted in original]. In an ambitious 
piece of ontological levelling, focus is thus restricted to what the case 
studies in catastrophe have in common, with anything that differentiates them 
barely noted. The shared qualities, of course, are unexpectedness and 
impressive destruction, the immediately evident things that lend themselves to 
the eye-witness testimony and dramatic photography that globally mediated 
spectacle runs on. The differences ignored when disasters are categorized this 
way lie in the sudden events' particular, slow histories, and so are less 
easily offered to an audience for direct emotional response. By now the 
identification of all these various ‘happenings’ as accidents, which at first 
seemed inaccurate, begins to take on a certain sense. Addressing them in terms 
of their common shock effect makes accidents of the events by detaching them 
from every process of causality. 

Once again, the museum seems unable to avoid reproducing the same ‘loss of 
sense’ (sens, also direction) to automatic reflex that Virilio had set out to 
reverse. In fact the inevitability of this short-circuit is guaranteed by the 
conceptual apparatus the philosopher uses. His Warning concerns ‘the madness of 
voluntary blindness to the fatal consequences of our actions and our 
inventions’, most of all in genetics and biotechnology. In 1935 Paul Valèry 
wrote that ‘the instrument tends to disappear from consciousness’ as it comes 
to function automatically, with the result that ‘the only consciousness 
remaining is that of accidents’. Virilio updates this formula: with ‘serial 
accidents [en sèrie, also implying mass production or standardization] from the 
Titanic in 1912 to Chernobyl in 1986, not to speak of Seveso or Toulouse in 
2001’, banalized by the televisual 'instant-event', accident itself becomes 
automatic in turn. Thus ‘we’ plunge into an ‘unacceptable...crisis of 
intelligence’ where philosophy [literally love of knowledge] is overthrown by 
its opposite, ‘philofolie [love of madness]: love of the radically unthought, 
in which the senseless character of our acts not only ceases consciously to 
disturb us, but delights and seduces us...’ 

For all its prophetic vehemence, this argument is undone by its basic 
analytical category. Virilio cites Marc Bloch as authority for his own 
trademark idea that ‘our civilization’ is set apart from all those before it by 
the phenomenon of speed. As used by Bloch in the 1930s, the term ‘speed’ 
provides grounds for an observation like Valèry's about consciousness and 
accidents; in other words, it makes sense in the context of discourse 
about ‘perceptions and images’ (Valèry's own words) as such. Virilio, however, 
immediately makes speed the sole basis of accident, thus enshrining it as the 
centrepiece of his whole eschatological system. The concept of speed is 
stretched past the limits of coherence when it's raised to the status of a 
historical category, named as the key to a civilization. Such light as it 
throws on industrial and ‘postindustrial’ society reveals no room for critical 
distance from the crisis of ‘senselessness’ Virilio diagnoses. Attempting to 
interpret ‘Chernobyl’, ‘San Francisco’ or ‘Toulouse’ (not to speak of the 
sundry eruptions and train crashes depicted on the website as ‘image of the 
day’) through the common characteristic of the suddenness or speed of their 
appearance can only account for these events as accidents, in terms, that is, 
of the phenomenology of inarticulate ‘shock and awe’. 

Regardless of the distance it aspires to, this kind of criticism remains 
transfixed by the automatic ‘instant-event’, for it is only on the level of 
perceptions and images that catastrophes are truly characterized by speed, or 
history's constitutive tensions defined by the moments of their catastrophic 
manifesting. Virilio's museum and his theory artificially detach speed 
from ‘long’ historical duration, reducing one to a deadly but unintelligibile 
surface and the other to the trivial depth of Heritage. If ‘natural’ and ‘man-
made’ disasters are understood indifferently as accident it is always on the 
side of ‘nature’ that they are elided. What lies behind ‘what happens’ is 
infinitely mysterious, something either accessible solely through superstitious 
precautionary ritual or simply to be submitted to with due religious awe. The 
sense of Pierre Bourdieu's statement that ‘slowness’ has become a class 
privilege is clear when a bewildered Multitude seems collectively to undergo 
one shock after another while remaining individually in thrall to prevention's 
ever-renewed demands. This situation bears witness to 35 years in which long-
term strategic initiative has steadily been reclaimed by a section of the 
bourgeoisie, reducing the planetary working class to ad-hoc tactics and belief 
in the myth of its own ‘reactionary’ position against naturalized technological 
and economic ‘laws’. 

Virilio's project accidentally demonstrates that the contemporary mode of 
destruction can no more be explained by reifying speed and accident than it can 
be resisted by trusting in the mercenaries of preventive intelligence. Yet it 
also indirectly bestows intellectual prestige on longer-serving commonplaces. 
The philosopher echoes countless higher-turnover producers of commentary in 
blaming ‘our’ insensitivity to mass-mediated bloodletting on ‘excesses of every 
sort encountered daily in the major organs of information’. An almost 
reassuringly familiar line of reasoning connects numb cynicism or nihilistic 
philofolie to the ‘programming of outrage at all costs’ as pinnacle of the 
automatic and of course ‘accelerated’ form of spectacular mediation generally.

Subjective experience of vulnerability to the ‘accidents’ produced by shock 
events’ detachment from their contexts is a widespread empirical reality. But 
it doesn’t follow that this crisis must be understood in terms of 
superficiality, of mass seduction by aesthetics of speed and senselessness. On 
the contrary, recent examples suggest that superabundant ethical values and 
healthy depth of human feeling smother critical unrest more thoroughly than any 
love of madness could hope to. Witness the avalanche of automatic empathy 
following the S11 attack: few things paralyse ‘discernment’ as surely as the 
interactive staging of Tragedy. (An effect merely reproduced on a monumental 
scale when media sightbites are displaced into museums, where the contemplative 
silence is so thick with ‘emotional intelligence’ that there’s less possibility 
of critical distance than amid the distractions of a living room or workplace 
or pub). 

US military planners demonstrated their perfect understanding of all this in 
devising their media policy for the present war, the now famous doctrine 
of ‘embeddedness’. Expert commentators pondered the calculated risk of allowing 
journalists unprecedented frontline access in exchange for signing loyalty 
contracts, but the arrangement’s convenience for Central Command runs much 
deeper. Far more important than the direct supervision accepted by embedded 
journalists is the recasting of war reporting as Human Interest achieved by 
making personal, front line testimony the criterion of 
relevance. ‘Granularity’, Centcom called it, neatly encapsulating the way 
permanent close-up on the correspondent’s exciting, trivial impressions should 
dissolve more generalized inquiry. In the emotional heat of real-time battle 
narrative attention to causes beyond the immediate melts away. Thus, for 
example, Europe’s serious, left-liberal press grimly investigated whether a 
Coalition bomb or an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile was ‘responsible for’ the 
destruction of a Baghdad street market, without troubling to ‘factor in’ the 
reason why the city was being defended with missiles in the first place.

This cohabitation of violence and intimacy reveals more than Virilio’s ethical 
criticism is able to discover about how the class claiming ownership of 
strategy, of slowness, uses the image of catastrophe to stupefy its 
adversaries. The mechanism is the same one set in motion by an ‘insight’ 
commonly proffered unsought in speeches of personal condolence. ‘When someone 
close to you dies’, the comforter would have you believe, ‘everything else 
around you suddenly seems unimportant’. 

Ce qui arrive was at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain from 
November 29 2002 to March 30 2003 // Visit the show online at 


Driftline Main Page


Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005