Emeritus Professor, École Spéciale d’Architecture, Paris
Translated by Chris Turner
A society which rashly privileges the present – real time – to the detriment of both the past and the future, also privileges the accident.
Since, at every moment and most often unexpectedly, everything happens, a civilization that sets immediacy, ubiquity and instantaneity to work brings accidents and catastrophes on to the scene. The confirmation of this state of affairs is provided for us by insurance companies, and particularly by the recent Sigma study, carried out for the world’s second-largest reinsurance company Swiss Re. This recently published study, which each year lists man-made disasters (explosions, fires, terrorism etc.) and natural catastrophes (floods, earthquakes, storms etc.), takes into account only those disasters causing losses in excess of 35 million dollars. “For the first time”, the Swiss analysts observe, “since the 1990’s, a period when damage due to natural catastrophes predominated over man-made damage, the trend has reversed, with man-made damage standing at 70 percent”. 2
Proof, if proof were needed, that far from promoting quietude, our industrialized societies throughout the twentieth century have essentially developed disquiet and the major risk, and this is so even if we leave out of account the recent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. …Hence the urgent need to reverse this trend which consists in exposing us to the most catastrophic accidents produced by the techno-scientific spirit, and to establish the opposite approach which would consist in exposing or exhibiting the accident as the major enigma of modern progress.
Although some car companies carry out more than 400 crash tests annually in the attempt to improve the safety of their vehicles, this still does not prevent television channels from continually inflicting road-death statistics on us (not to mention the tragedies which see the present repeatedly plunged into mourning. It is certainly high time (alongside the ecological approaches that relate to the various ways in which the biosphere is polluted) for the beginnings of an eschatological approach to technical progress to emerge – an approach to that finitude without which the much-vaunted globalization is in danger of itself becoming a life-size catastrophe.
Both a natural and a man-made catastrophe, a general catastrophe and not one specific to any particular technology or region of the world, which would far exceed the disasters currently covered by the insurance companies – a catastrophe of which the long-term drama of Chernobyl remains emblematic.
So as to avoid in the near future an integral accident on a planetary scale, an accident capable of incorporating a whole host of incidents and disasters in a chain reaction, we should right now build, inhabit and plan a laboratory of cataclysms – the technical progress accident museum – so as to avoid the accident of substances, revealed by Aristotle, being succeeded by the knowledge accident – that major philosophical catastrophe which genetic engineering, coming on the heels of atomic power, bears within it.
Whether we like it or not, globalization is today the fateful mark of a finitude. Paraphrasing Paul Valéry, we might assert without fear of contradiction that “the time of the finite world is coming to an end” and that there is an urgent need to assert that knowledge marks the finitude of man, just as ecology marks that of his geophysical environment.
* * *
At the very moment when some are requesting, in an open letter to the president of the French Republic, that he create a “Museum of the Twentieth Century” in Paris,3 it seems appropriate to enquire not only into the historical sequence of the events of that fateful century, but also into the fundamentally catastrophic nature of those events.
If, indeed, “time is the accident of accidents”,4 the museums of history are already an anticipation of the time of that integral accident which the twentieth century foreshadowed, on the pretext of scientific revolution or ideological liberation.
All museology requires a museography, and the question of the presentation of the harm done by progress has not received any kind of answer; it therefore falls to us, as a primordial element of the project, to provide one. At this point we have to acknowledge that it is not so much in history books or in the press that this particular historical laboratory has been prefigured, as in radio, cinema newsreel and, above all, television.
Since cinema is time exhibiting itself, as the sequences succeed each other, so with television, it is the pace of its “trans-border” ubiquity that disrupts the history in the making before our eyes.
General history has, as a result, experienced a new type of accident, the accident of its perception at first hand (de visu): a “cinematic” – and soon to be “digital” – perception which modifies its meaning, its customary rhythm – the rhythm of almanacs and calendars, or, in other words, that of the long run – in favour of the ultra-short timescale of that televisual instantaneity which is revolutionizing our view of the world.
“With speed man has invented new types of accident …The fate of the motorist has become pure chance”, wrote Gaston Rageot in 1928.5 What are we to say, today, of the major accident of audiovisual speed and hence of the fate of the innumerable hosts of TV viewers?
Other than that, with that speed, it is history which is becoming “accidental” – through the sudden pile-up of facts, through events which were once successive, but are now simultaneous, cannoning into one another, in spite of the distances and time intervals that used to be required for their interpretation. Let us imagine, for example, the probable damage that will be done to the authenticity of the testimony of historical actors by the practice of live digital morphing.
Speaking of the preponderant influence of film on the conception of contemporary art, Dominique Païni has stated: “For a long time, the cinema came out of the other arts, now it is the plastic arts which come out of it”. But in fact it is the whole of history that comes out of cinematic acceleration, out of this movement in cinema and television!
Hence the ravages wrought by the circulation of images, this constant concertina-ing, this constant pile-up of dramatic scenes from everyday life on the evening news. And even if the written press has always been more interested in derailed trains than the ones that run on time, it is with the coming of audiovisual media that we have been able to look on, thunderstruck, at the overexposure of accidents, of catastrophes of all kinds – not to mention wars.
* * *
Where the broadcasting of horror is concerned, television has, since the end of the last century, been the (live) site of a constant raising of the stakes and, particularly with the increase in live coverage, it has provided us with an instantaneous transmission of cataclysms and incidents that have broadly anticipated disaster movies. Moreover, after the standardization of opinion, which began in the nineteenth century, we are now seeing the sudden synchronization of emotions. TV channels’ competition for viewers has turned the catastrophic accident into a scoop, if not indeed a fantastic spectacle which all pursue with equal vigour.
When Guy Debord spoke of the “society of the spectacle”, he omitted to mention that this scenarization of life was organized around sexuality and violence; a sexuality which the 1960s claimed to liberate, whereas what was actually happening was a progressive abolition of societal inhibitions, regarded by the Situationists as so many unbearable straitjackets. As was so well expressed at the time by one of the officials of the Festival du Film Fantastique d’Avoriaz, “At last death will have replaced sex and the serial killer the Latin lover”! Television – a “museum of horrors” or a “tunnel of death” – has, then, gradually transformed itself into a kind of altar of human sacrifice, using and abusing the terrorist scene and serial massacres; it now plays more on repulsion than on seduction. From the death twenty wars ago – allegedly “live on air” – of a little Colombian girl being swallowed by mud, to the execution this winter of little Mohammed struck down beside his father, when it comes to making horror banal, any pretest will serve.
By contrast, as we may recall, the mass media in the old Soviet Union never reported accidents or violent incidents. With the exception of natural catastrophes, which it would have been difficult to pass over, the media systematically censored any deviations from the norm, allowing only visions of a radiant future to filter through …until Chernobyl.
However, when it comes to censorship, liberalism and totalitarianism each had their particular method for stifling the true facts. For the former, the aim was, even then, to overexpose the viewer to the incessant repetition of tragedies; the latter, by contrast, opted for underexposure and the radical occultation of any singularity.
Two panic reactions, but an identical outcome: censorship by illumination – a fateful blinding by the light – for the democratic West, and censorship by the prohibition of any divergent representation – the darkness and fog of wilful blindness – for the dogmatic East.
* * *
So, just as there is a Richter scale of seismic catastrophes, so there is, surreptitiously, a scale of media catastrophes, the clearest effect of which is to cause, on the one hand, resentment against the perpetrators and, on the other, an effect of exemplarity, which leads, where terrorism is concerned, to the reproduction of the disaster, thanks to its dramaturgical amplification. So much is this the case that to Nietzsche’s study of the birth of tragedy we need to add the analysis of this media tragedy, in which the perfect synchronization of the collective emotion of TV viewers might be said to play the role of the ancient chorus – though no longer on the scale of the theatre at Epidauros, but on the life-size scale of entire continents. It is clearly here that the museum of the accident has its place…
The media scale of catastrophes and cataclysms that dress the world in mourning is, in fact, so vast that it must necessarily make the amplitude of the perceptual field the first stage of a new understanding – no longer solely that of the ecology of risks in the face of environmental pollution, but that of an ethology of threats in terms of the mystification of opinion, of a pollution of public emotion.
A pollution that always paves the way for intolerance followed by vengeance. In other words for a barbarism and chaos which quickly overwhelm human societies, as has recently been demonstrated by the massacres and genocides, those fruits of the baneful propaganda of the “media of hatred”.
After a period of waiting for the “integral accident” to occur, we are seeing the forceps birth of a “catastrophism” that bears no relation whatever (we really must make no mistake about this) to that of the “millenarian” obscurantism of yesteryear, but which requires just as much in the way of precautions, in the way of that Pascalian “subtlety” which our organs of mass information so cruelly lack!
Since one catastrophe may conceal another, if the major accident is indeed the consequence of the speed of acceleration of the phenomena engendered by progress, it is certainly time, in these early years of the twenty-first century, to take what is happening, what is emerging unexpectedly before our eyes and analyze it wisely. Hence the imperative need now to exhibit the accident.
Paul Virilio was chairman and director of the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris from 1968 to 1998. He is the author of over twenty books including: Pure War (New York: Semiotext(e), 1998); The Information Bomb (New York: Verso, 2001); Crepuscular Dawn (New York: Semiotext(e), 2002; Ground Zero (New York: Verso, 2002); Negative Horizon (London: Continuum, 2005); City of Panic (New York: Berg, 2005); and The Accident of Art (New York: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 2005). He is a former winner of the Grand Prix National de la Critique (France, 1987). He now lives and works in La Rochelle.
1 “The Museum of Accidents” is reprinted here with permission of Columbia University Press www.columbia.edu/cu/cup where it appears as Chapter 20 of: Steve Redhead. The Paul Virilio Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004:255-262. This chapter originally appeared in Paul Virilio. Unknown Quantity. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003:58-65 (Translated by Chris Turner), www.Thamesandhudsonusa.com . Steve Redhead’s introduction to the piece reads:
The year 2002 saw Paul Virilio’s long talked-about ‘museum of accidents’ come to fruition. Entitled Ce Qui Arrive, it showcased ‘the accident’ in hundreds of photographic, movie, webcam and video installations. The show opened on November 29, 2002 at the Fondation Cartier pour I’Art Contemporain in Paris until March 30, 2003. Virilio conceived the exhibition with curator Leanne Sacramone and wrote the substantial text of the catalogue. Thames and Hudson (London) published the English edition in 2003 under the title Unknown Quantity . … This article is the fourth of seven sections in the catalogue. Thames and Hudson had previously published Virilio’s collaboration with the Fondation Cartier – The Desert – which Virilio produced in the 1990s with Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Raymond Depardon and Mounira Khemir. The Unknown Quantity catalogue highlights, in colour and black and white, events such as 9/11 and Oklahoma City, 1995; ‘natural disasters’ such as earthquakes and air crashes; and controlled implosions of high-rise buildings. Virilio’s purpose in Unknown Quantity was to underline what he had been teaching those of us willing to listen for some years now: that much media imagery is a strategy of war, and that the modern accident is becoming indistinguishable from attack (Steve Redhead. The Paul Virilio Reader. New York: Columbia, 2004:255-256).
2 Le Monde. February 24, 2001.
3 Jacques Julliard. “Chronique” in Le Nouvel Observateur, January 30, 2002.
4 Aristotle. Physics.
5 Gaston Rageot. L’Homme Standard. Paris: Plon, a work contemporaneous with Paul Morand’s L’homme pressé”, Paris: Gallimard, 1941.