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Date Published: 6/5/2012
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


Postmodern Pollution

Paul Virilio
Grey Ecology
University of Disaster Series (Hubertus von Amelunxen, Editor, & Drew Burk, Translator)
New York: Atropos Press, 2010

Duane Rousselle

"So, my interest here today, via the dromosphere, is the passage and the acceleration of history and the acceleration of reality through new technologies, it is the foreclosure of the world. It is the closing-in of the world. The pollution of time and distance is much more severe, in my opinion than the pollution of material substances."

-- Paul Virilio

Politics as the surplus of need rendering possible an activity of novelty in the scopic field; this, in essence, defines the public realm as the sphere of action. Hannah Arendt insisted that those who acted in the public realm were courageous -- but for so long courage referred to inner-most feelings rather than to the natality of action in the public realm. What could be more inner than that which is outside? What this something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me is, for Lacan, is precisely the real of things from which we are barred. It is an outside that is paradoxically at the very heart of the subject. Things have withdrawn from our viewing of them and, as such, the fear that they arouse does not and can not relate to the public realm of perception. Contrarily, politics begins with our frightening relationship to things in the world and with our inability to become the thing among things that we are. Walter Benjamin knew very well that children had no need for politics. He took pleasure in his childhood relationship to things, a pleasure surmounted by an extreme discomfort on the verge of collapse. Very nearly had the young Benjamin become a thing among the things that inhabited the space of his hiding place. By encasing himself within the world of things, he threatened to destroy himself and become a thing with them: "The child who stands behind the doorway curtain himself becomes something white that flutters [...] and behind a door, he is himself a door."[1] The human intruder invited panic in Benjamin: "In my hiding place, I realized what was true about all of this. Whoever discovered me could hold me petrified [...] [and] confine me for life within the heavy door. Should the person looking for me uncover my lair, I would therefore give a loud shout [...] with a cry of self-liberation."[2] A cry, perchance for having failed in his impossible task, for having chosen to be human in the face of abjection; a cry that sounded in the memory of an adult day-dreaming of his more capable childhood. In the withdrawal of things from view, fear and anxiety are primordial -- and the distance (however close) of things to view is the foundation of politics. Politics involves the administration of fear, it is the fear of fear.

Fear is primordial. There is an activity to things. It is the subject who is subjected to things and it is things that object to the subject. Lacan believed that the subject was born prematurely, weak. In defence of the anxiety-provoking gaze of things, the subject projects a stain/screen upon the landscape; thus begins the subject's administration of fear. Under postmodern conditions of late capitalism fear is administered on the subject's behalf by unseen symbolic forces -- this is the perversity of postmodern ideology. Politics under postmodern capitalism consists of being seen as a political agent in public: candlelight vigils, Facebook pages, a veritable Kierkegaardian moment where everybody wins (i.e., the state wins for ostensibly 'allowing' protesters to set up camp and protesters win by bringing themselves and their issues into view). Paul Virilio's work centres around this problem of the stain as the accelerated bringing into view of things under postmodern capitalism. Bertrand Richard writes in the preface to Virilio's newest book: "The administration of fear is a world discovering that there are things to be afraid of but still convinced that more speed and ubiquity are the answer."[3] Grey Ecology is the discovery of the accident of postmodern capitalism -- an accident that is revealed as a movement from perversion toward psychosis, from disavowal toward foreclosure, a shift in the cultural logic of late capitalism. Today we glimpse the emergence of a new regime of power that sustains itself through an ideology of claustrophobia: "imagine this universe where things will already be there, already viewed, already given."[4] Beneath the postmodern 'circuits of drive' a disaster is looming: "The fear of acceleration is not there yet, but certain people, who are claustrophobic, or asthmatic, already feel this fear: the fear of exhausting the geo-diversity of the world."[5] The fear of acceleration represents the onset of postmodern psychosis and the decline of symbolic efficiency, with claustrophobia as the symptom of a world of speed, of the loss of the nom-de-pere. It is a fear of fear itself insofar as claustrophobia is the foreclosure of the distance separating ourselves from things.

Virilio contends that today "[w]e are in a world of madness,"[6] the onset of which, I maintain, occurs as a response to the acceleration of the image through the geometral point of the eye. We are reminded that the first machine of acceleration was "not the locomotive of the industrial revolution [...] but the photographic apparatus."[7] Virilio thereby relegates the problem of acceleration to the operations performed across the scopic field, to the acceleration of the stain: "[t]he machine of acceleration is the machine of vision."[8] The question of the scopic field relates to the distance between two unities in geometral space -- the stain is the pollution of a distance and this pollution becomes the central problem of postmodern politics. Virilio writes, "[t]he pollution of distance is grey ecology. One must keep one's distance."[9] The pollution of our space from things occurs as a consequence of the proliferation of images and as the ostensible elimination of that distance. In the photo-graph one quickly brings the world out there into one's hands -- a deceptive picture of the world that paradoxically pushes reality further from view. A fitting aphorism: 'relationships are like sand in the grip of your hand -- held loosely and the sand remains where it is, but gripped too tightly and the sand trickles out.' We have gripped things too tightly in our hands -- acceleration, hyper-conformity has only made capitalism less perverse and more psychotic! Today, one has the image or the photograph without the sufficient number of point-de-capiton [quilting points]. Virilio's 'University of Disaster' is the place from which the discovery of accidents inherent to the acceleration of progress might occur -- and these discoveries are crucial because they contribute, in whatever minimal way, to the possibility of regaining some sense of the world, of earth. The discovery of the airplane brought with it the accident of the plane crash -- and yet, to protect ourselves from the fear of flying, we forget about the accident and focus on the tele-vision folded-out into view just a foot from our eyes. Perhaps the appropriate counter-accident was JetBlue's in-flight movie of 'Air Emergency'.

Accidents are un-intentional byproducts inherent to the intentional narcissism of progress. In the scopic field they are best examined through contemporary art. According to Virilio, the accident of abstract art was that it made possible an aesthetics of the invisible -- i.e., the task of post-war abstract art was to bring the invisible into the geometral space, into the visible. Virilio's response to modern abstract art is crucial for continental aesthetics: he reveals the pollution of the visual field by the narcissism of the imaginary. Thus, the symptom or accident of postmodern capitalism is not just claustrophobia but also glaucoma: "[w]ithout knowing it, there is a restriction of the visual spectrum, and one loses laterality. [...] Tele-objectivity is a glaucoma [...] In the here and now, in the divine perception, and not by way of a screen, of a microscope, or the screen of a television, there is a very important element. I am surprised to what degree people are no longer able to orient themselves in life. They have lost perception of their lateral environment."[10] The glaucoma of postmodern capitalism: 'eyes so that they might not see.' Lacan was clear on this point: "In the scopic field, everything is articulated between two terms that act in an antinomic way -- on the side of things, there is the gaze, that is to say, things look at me, and yet I see them. This is how one should understand those words, so strongly stressed in the Gospel, they have eyes that they might not see. That they might not see what? Precisely, that things are looking at them."[11] "To see," Virilio claims, "is not to know."[12] Virilio teaches us that acceleration brings with it the accident of seeing but not knowing, of acting without knowing the intention or accidents inherent to one's acts or presentations, and so on. Eyes so that they may not see: Virilio intends to remove our eyes so that we might see.

Postmodern politics as the public activity of those who do not act, postmodern aesthetics as the visibility of that which the eyes can not see -- Virilio's theory of aesthetics reveals the invisibility of visibility itself. We ought to remember the Lacanian dictum that the foreclosure of the nom-de-pere results in the return of the symptom in the real. In other words, what is rejected from the symbolic register re-appears as an imaginary guise in the real. Hubertus von Amelunxen, in an admittedly confused conversation with Virilio, has put this quite well: "Having read basically everything that you have published, I have never understood Art and Silence, because you turn the fundamental argument of modernism, to render visible, [...] around [by] saying that abstraction anticipated the becoming-invisible of the world of the visible."[13] This is why Virilio's work on aesthetics is better read alongside Alain Badiou (cf., his fifteen theses on art), Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Lacan, rather than Gilles Deleuze, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Francios Lyotard or Jacques Ranciere. For example, the accident of Malevich's Black Square is fully exposed in Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting: in the former, a 'new threshold' for painting is breached -- a black square disrupts the hegemony of the figurative line. But in the latter, the accident of the 'new threshold' is made possible -- after distancing oneself from the painting, shifting one's eyes and perspective, one begins to see beneath the real of the black square a re-emergence of the figurative line. The accident, an accidental encounter with the things of the world through over-proximity, through the foreclosure of distance, this is the visible hidden within the invisible. As Virilio puts it, "[a]lthough the accident -- the inherent potential for derailment -- is intentionally much less visible than the ostensible benefits of any given development, this 'hidden face' deserves critical attention."[14] It is this hidden face that challenges the Left's contemporary fascination with a 'politics without politics'.[15]

Postmodern politics, after Virilio, must overcome the problem of the 'wall of language', for it is also the problem of the culture industry, as Virilo writes: "We do not debate in the same manner if we are in a lifeboat, an amphitheatre, or a classroom. You see already the modification of the debate for tele-vision, with the quickness of the exchanges. This disrupts the contents between the presenter and the so well-named, his 'guest'. I call this type of debate 'ping-pong'. 'You have five seconds to respond.' 'ping-pong.' [...] When I go on television, I hate it. [...] I do not want to play 'ping-pong'."[16] Growing up I've become familiar with the best way to practice for ping-pong tournaments: one takes the table and folds one side of it up so that it is against a wall. The 'other' player becomes the wall itself. The ball bounces from the player's paddle toward the wall and bounces back to the player in an inverted form. Perhaps it is time to stop practicing our politics the way we practice for a ping-pong tournament.

Grey Ecology is an essential read for those looking to diagnose the accident of contemporary politics. It is also of interest to those dissatisfied with the current democratic turn in the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics. The book proves that there is the possibility for a 'Lacanian' Virilio as well as an 'Virilio inspired' Lacanianism. Virilio's advice is to look Medusa in the eye, face our fears, and traverse the fantasy of postmodern politics: "We must start at the end and head towards the beginning, because the end is here. The finitude of all art and the world is here. Finitude is in front of us, and we must start from the end, not in order to cry, 'Oh, it's horrible.' No, we must do this in order to confront the end and be able to go beyond it. I don't know where this will lead, by the way."[17]



[1] Walter Benjamin. Berlin Childhood Around 1900. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 99.

[2] Ibid, 100.

[3] Virilio, Paul. The Administration of Fear, Intervention Series. (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012) 10-11.

[4] Virilio, Paul. Grey Ecology, University of Disaster Series. (New York: Atropos Press, 2010), 34.

[5] Virilio, 33.

[6] Ibid, 92.

[7] Ibid, 58.

[8] Ibid, 58.

[9] Ibid, 81.

[10] Ibid, 56.

[11] Jacques Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Ed., J.A. Miller. Trans., A. Sheridan. (New York: Norton, 1988), 109.

[12] Virilio, 79.

[13] Ibid, 57.

[14] Ibid, 136.

[15] cf., Jodi Dean. "Politics without Politics," Paralax, 15, no. (3) (2009): 20-36.

[16] Virilio, 65.

[17] Ibid, 72.


Duane Rousselle is the founder and editor of the journal Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies. His last published book was Post-Anarchism: A Reader (2011, Pluto Press) with Sureyyya Evren. His forthcoming books include, Jacques Lacan and Radical Politics with Saul Newman (2013) and After Post-Anarchism (LBC Books, 2012). His work has been published in the Journal of Political Ideologies, the Journal for the Study of Radicalism, and the International Journal of Žižek Studies.

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