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You add it up it brings you down

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.

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 Ourseler 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 Ourseler’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 time’?

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 Valéry 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 série, 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 Valéry’s about consciousness and accidents; in other words, it makes sense in the context of discourse about ‘perceptions and images’ (Valéry’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’.

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