1. Hollis Frampton, Circles of Confusion: Film Photography—Video—Text: 1968–1980

(Rochester, N.Y.: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983), p. 97. Along with Frampton, I

draw on the following sources for my account of Breedlove’s crash: Shell—Spirit of

America, Shell Oil website, http://ms.shellus.com/SpiritofAmerica, accessed March 29,

1999; David Diamond, “The Fastest American Hero,” Wired 4:11 (November 1996):

184–187; Dean Kuipers, “The Need for Speed,” Wired 5:10 (October 1997): 108–115;

Paul Virilio, “Negative Horizons,” in Semiotext[e] USA, trans. Mark A. Polizzotti (New

York: Semiotext[e], 1987), pp. 163–180. Breedlove’s engine was a Korean War–era surplus

J–47, bought for $500.

2. Frampton, Circles of Confusion, p. 97.

October 15, 1964. A year later, Craig Breedlove will set the world

land speed record at 600 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah,

driving a metal shell with a B-47 bomber engine strapped to its backside,

but on this day he loses control at 400 mph, shears off a few

telephone poles, sails airborne and upside down, and lands in a

pond. I am less interested in the crash than in the resulting narrative.

According to filmmaker Hollis Frampton, an interview made

immediately after the wreck lasts “an hour and 35 minutes, during

which time Breedlove delivers a connected account of what he

thought and did during a period of some 8.7 seconds. His narrative

amounts to about 9,500 words.”1 Frampton helpfully calculates that,

compared to “the historic interval he refers to, [Breedlove’s] ecstatic

utterance represents . . . a temporal expansion in the ratio of some

655 to 1.”2 In this conversion rate—exactly so much, no more, no

less—is an index of incontrovertible reality, already framed by

Frampton’s reading of the utterance as “ecstatic” and uttered in rela-


On Speed and Ecstasy: Paul Virilio’s

“Aesthetics of Disappearance” and

the Rhetoric of Media

Sandy Baldwin, West Virginia University


Speed is the form of ecstasy the technological revolution has bestowed on man.

—Milan Kundera, Slowness

Configurations, 2002, 10:129–148   2003 by The Johns Hopkins

University Press and the Society for Literature and Science.

tion to an “interval” that must be “historic.” The crash is an epiphany

of speed converted into words, guaranteeing its repetition as a parable

of technical acceleration.

Richard Noble, a record setter in 1983 at 633.468 mph, whose latest

vehicle is powered by turbojet engines from an F-4 Phantom

fighter, records altered states similar to Breedlove’s: “your mental

processes speed up, just like when you’re about to have an auto

crash.” He remembers “hammering on the side of the car,” yelling

“Get on with it! Hurry up!” Everything happens “in very, very slow

motion. . . . there’s plenty of time for everything. It’s very relaxing,”

as if in “a stage of development where [you are] ahead of the car.”3

High velocity produces a delirium broken only by the crash. Indeed,

delirium turns out to be the very point of pursuing the land speed

record: Breedlove plans to supply live telecasts via on-board microwave

cameras and data-acquisition systems of his attempts to

pass the current record and smash the sound barrier, somewhere

near 765 mph.4

Frampton describes Breedlove’s crash with a terminology of ecstasy,

defined as when “we feel the measured passage of historic time

to be altered, or to stop entirely,” where “consciousness seems to enter

a separate temporal domain, one of whose chief characteristics is

its apparent imperviousness to language.”5 Other limit cases of ecstasy—“

erotolalia,” “saints, the berserk and the possessed”—are

sadly marred by “impatient terseness and an alien inflection.”6

Breedlove supplies the significant exception: not a linguistic substitute

for something appearing in experience, but a rare instance of

what Frampton calls “extended verbal reports from the domain of

ecstatic time.”7 Breedlove supplies words for what cannot be said:

not a description of ecstasy, but a report showing effects of ecstasy

manifest in language. Language is the vanishing point of ecstasy.

Immortalized by the Beach Boys as “The Greatest American

Hero,” Breedlove long maintained a low-grade fame, but his crash recently

reappeared as a parable explaining—in the words of one of

Wired magazine’s several articles on Breedlove—“what happens to

130 Configurations

3. Kuipers, “Need for Speed” (above, n. 1), p. 110.

4. The most recent attempts have failed. See the Shell—Spirit of America website (above,

n. 1).

5. Frampton, Circles of Confusion (above, n. 1), p. 96.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

the bag of bones we drag around attached to our heads” as “we trill

across the structures of cyberspace.”8 According to Wired, “digital

technology allows us to live much faster in our minds than we can

in our bodies,” and because “cyberspace reconfigures our sense of

time, we want our bodies and senses to respond as quickly as our

brains process information.”9 Breedlove’s crash “brings it all back to

earth.”10 According to Wired, the story’s improbable survival value

lies in our “intuitively understanding” the physicality underlying

the virtual—an intuition brought, interestingly enough, by reading

about Breedlove.11 Breedlove’s story reveals a crux in the discourse

on media technologies. I am less interested in the pseudo-Heideggerianism

of ecstasy, with its presumption of Being revealed in the

crash survivor’s words, than in the background presumption of language

as the medium of this revelation and, in turn, what this implies

for technological speed under real-time conditions. The central

premise of this essay is that all theories of media imply a moment of

ecstasy, an epiphany that grounds theory in perception.

When The Doors of Perception, a high-profile meeting of European

media theorists, designers, and artists, organized its 1996 conference

around speed, the conference program stated that we “live at ever

higher speeds. . . . in modern technological culture, speed has been

internalised as an end-in-itself.”12 The ecstasy of the crash illuminates

the internalization of speed. The cyberspatial reconfiguration

of time experienced in the merging of driver and machine, which

Frampton aligns with notions of history and measurement, runs in

something like “real time.” Real time is “the actual amount of time

a thing takes,” according to Wired Style, but the editors of Wired also

offer another, antithetical possibility derived from the requirements

of technical systems, where real time originated in the distinction

between batch and on-line processes: real time is “no lag time.”13

Real time captures a tension between an irreducible reality and the

mediation of virtual realities. And so, real time also suggests a “need

for speed” in the effort to resolve this tension, a drive with no outer

limit—as in a recent Motorola ad, promising that only extrasensory

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 131

8. Kuipers, “Need for Speed” (above, n. 1), p. 110.

9. Ibid., p. 108.

10. Ibid., p. 110.

11. Ibid., p. 108.

12. On-line at www.doorsofperception.com, accessed September 10, 2001.

13. Constance Hale, ed., Wired Style (San Francisco: HardWired, 1996), p. 55.

perception could be faster than the real-time functioning of handheld

e-mail; or as in the case of telecommuters, who no longer distinguish

work and leisure time from the real time of the computer,

and for whom the screen’s open window mediates previously localized

spaces. Real time brings the identification of speed with on-line

response time and processor power, assimilating the user to the system

(thus the metaphorics of “user friendliness”). Real-time stock

market quotations mean they are as fast as possible. There is no upper

limit when speed is the co-efficient of profit. The possibility of

twenty-four-hour real-time stock quotes shows the conditioning of

specific, local temporal orders by the regime of real time (in this

sense, real time may correspond to the operating hours of globalized

business). Real time refers to no specific time, but a generalized time

determined by response speed. No moment is fixed or present; each

tumbles into the next, each event already decided by the speed of

real time. Stock market quotes and nuclear deterrence follow the

same logic: insistent, instant computer-supplied information forcing

the user’s action.14

Sparing irony on the source value of Wired magazine, I suggest

that Breedlove’s ecstasy is a crucial topos for understanding real

time. The hallucinatory tendency of media is already a commonplace.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer famously defined cyberspace as

a “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate

operators,”15 echoing Marshall McLuhan’s definition of our

media-staged experiences in terms of numbness and hallucination,

on the one hand, and revelation, on the other.16 If media theory

promises to break down the immediacy and revelation of ecstasy, revealing

instead the delusiveness of hallucination, this theoretical

revelation involves a displaced repetition and revelation of ecstasy.17

If Breedlove’s story reveals cyberspace’s body-machine topology, it is

because the story literally shows the crash, a showing so literal that

132 Configurations

14. The definition of real time in systems design rests on factoring time constraints

into computations. Most computers can simulate real-time systems. Despite low-level

clocks and counters, real time essentially means fast response time. Human users are

bound by neither a particular response time—i.e., we can tolerate wide variations in lag

time—nor a need to respond in a particular time. Real-time operation is also limited in

most systems by the event-model of interface—i.e., interaction via mouse or keyboard.

15. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace, 1984), p. 51.

16. As well as echoing Walter Benjamin’s slightly more distant framing of the experience

of film in terms of “distraction.”

17. Similarly, Scott Bukatman claims that, in its role in cyberculture, “Neuromancer itself

represents a ‘consensual hallucination’” (Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in

Postmodern Science Fiction [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993], p. 38).

without it—without the crash—“we may expect that [he] would

have had nothing at all to say.”18 Breedlove exposes a presumption

that media technologies reconfigure our senses, and, more significantly,

that the theoretical discourse on media technology in some

way disrupts this reconfiguration, reconfiguring once again and implicitly

for the better. A perceptual surplus, however distorted in the

first place by the medium, is recovered at a higher level in theoretical

discourse on the medium. Media theory is on ecstasy.

The light of reflected ecstasy exposes a paradoxical yet deeply

seated presumption: media frame our perception, yet we nonetheless

have something to say about media. The paradox’s most pointed

version remains McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Friedrich

Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter begins with exactly this, formulated

as a kind of imperative: “Media determine our situation,

which—in spite or because of it—deserve a description.”19 He later

concludes: “Understanding media—despite McLuhan’s title—remains

an impossibility precisely because the dominant information

technologies of the day control all understanding and its illusions”;

however, he continues, “blueprints and diagrams, regardless of

whether they control printing presses or mainframe computers may

yield historical traces of the unknown called the body.”20 If there is

no understanding media, there are nonetheless traces for the media

theoretician to read, revealed in the persistent tendency toward hallucination

within historically contingent Aufschreibesysteme. I will

not further discuss Kittler’s important work here beyond remarking

on the place of the media paradox that interests me, a paradox displaced

in terms of a topology of technology and ecstasy.21 Every description

of media promises revelations transmitted beyond all mediation,

beyond all semiotic codes and distortions, transmitted

perceptions of immutable reality. As a result, Kittler can be set beside

a work like Erik Davis’s Techgnosis, with its unapologetic exploration

of what its subtitle calls “myth, magic + mysticism in the age of in-

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 133

18. Frampton, Circles of Confusion (above, n. 1), p. 97.

19. Friedrich Kittler, “Preface,” in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey

Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999),

p. xxxix.

20. Ibid., p. xl.

21. Kittler draws on Lacan’s cybernetic Seminar II, which shows a similar “materialist”

topology of the machine and resulting hallucination. In commenting on another essay

of Kittler’s, John Johnson states that Kittler “allows narrative no more significance than

a drug-induced hallucination” (Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of

Media Saturation [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998], pp. 280–281 n. 22).

formation.”22 If writing reveals ecstasy, the interest in this revelation

reflects and illuminates the presumption that the new digital images

of cyberspace persist as something to be read and decoded.

I am less interested in ecstasy for itself than in the fact of its occurrence.

My focus here will be on the “dromology” or speed philosophy

of Paul Virilio, whose frequent references to Breedlove highlight

the “aesthetics of disappearance” as the paradox at the center

of all media. Virilio’s arguments insistently turn from the content of

media to focus on an underlying ecstasy, and pursue the hyperreflection

of this ecstasy at every level of analysis. Indeed, Virilio indicts

the systematic claims of all discourses on media—presumably,

his own manic writing is in some way included—as a kind of “delirium

of interpretation” or “frantic interpret-osis.”23 Virilio’s work

seems particularly appropriate for understanding real-time media.

Translating McLuhan as “the message is the velocity of deliverance,”

24 Virilio uses speed to explain media, arriving at something

like the following: the aesthetics of immediate perception disappear

through dromologistical media techniques, replaced instead by proliferating

fantastical telepresent real-time images, and leading ultimately

to a complete “derealization” of the world. No doubt, Virilio’s

totalizing theory can seem labored and na ve in its insistence

on the phenomenology of perception.25 It is easy enough to overlook

the phenomenological motifs and to reference Virilio as the

theorist of speed, perhaps by shifting his analysis from phenomenology

to postmodern surfaces as the latest mutation of capitalism,

but one is left wondering what makes the theory so important and

yet so threatening. On the contrary, there is no need to reiterate the

cultural history of perception or to update Virilio on the sad fate of

aesthetics. The point is rather to grasp his paradox of speed as the

“causal idea, the idea before the idea.”26

In what follows, I read Virilio against the grain of his own hyperbole,

taking his shrill rhetoric as an unveiling of media theory’s pre-

134 Configurations

22. Erik Davis, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information (New York:

Three Rivers Press, 1998).

23. Paul Virilio, Lost Dimension, trans. Daniel Moshenberg (New York: Semiotext[e],

1991), pp. 35, 48. All of Virilio’s works since The Aesthetics of Disappearance include

similar attacks on the excesses and delusions of media theory.

24. Virilio, “Negative Horizons” (above, n. 1), p. 180.

25. For example, David Harvey’s critique of Virilio in The Condition of Postmodernity

(Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 351.

26. Paul Virilio,The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchman (New York:

Semiotext[e], 1991), p. 22; cited parenthetically hereafter as AD.

requisites. Virilio pushes media theory to extremes, dissolving media

into flows of speed. In doing so, he displays the aesthetic that makes

theorizing media so interesting in the first place. At the risk of

overemphasis, I defend Virilio’s stubborn insistence that speedmedia

fulfill what aesthetics always promised: if not exactly a perception

of what disappears, then at least an experience of its lack.

Vanished perception leaves inert and apathetic bodies, which turn

nonetheless into a source of experience. Our nonexperiences become

the basis for subjectivity in new media environments.

The panic aesthetics of real time, so persuasively dramatized by

Virilio, in fact result from a deeply seated misunderstanding of the

rhetorical structure of what we call speed. We only recognize the aesthetic

crux at the center of media through an overlay of rhetorical

terminology, and only read the paradoxical transcription of perception

through a metaphorical teleology. Virilio foregrounds speed to

extract the metaphoric potential of media technology, blurring materiality

into engines of appearance and delirium. In the words of

James Der Derian, Virilio’s leading English-language commentator:

“when Virilio’s dromology (the study of speed) crashes head-long

into semiology (the study of signs) the order of things starts to look



If it’s working, it’s already obsolete.

—Lord Mountbatten, director of British wartime technology

Virilio offers the enigmatic definition of his work as “epistemotechnical,”

implying a focus on the relation between technology and

knowledge, the technical implicated in knowledge.28 He asks: in

what space and time do the newly dominant images of digital technologies

exist? First answer: in a collapsed space with no dimensions.

What the computer displays has no permanence or reality beyond

the screen display, beyond afterimages of the persistence of

vision, those phantasms of code built on layers of translation and

substitution.29 Digital appearances are the medium of “the vision

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 135

27. James Der Derian, “An Interview with Paul Virilio,” on-line at Speed, 1.4:

http://proxy.arts.uci.edu/%7Enideffer/_SPEED_/1.4/articles/derderian.html, accessed September

10, 2001.

28. Paul Virilio, with Sylv re Lotringer, Pure War (New York: Semiotext[e], 1988), p. 23.

29. Der Derian’s summary of Virilio’s thought: “Television has become a ‘museum of

accidents’; cyberspace ‘an accident of the real.’ Globalization is a hoax, virtualization

is the reality, and we are fast approaching the day of the ‘big accident,’ when virtual reality

finally overpowers the real thing. Comprendez?” (“Interview” [above, n. 27]).

machine.”30 On the one hand, a generalized panopticism of constant

surveillance and omnipresent spy cams, where there can be no space

without cinema. On the other hand, a disappearance of public space

into the politics of telepresent systems, with our experience of national

and international events supplied by on-line information

feeds, network coverage, and virtual town halls. Interface logistics

hijack sight, ceding perception to an extended media sensorium,

with a resulting loss of control, turning over decision and agency to

technical systems. The embodied self disappears into the functionality

of user interfaces.

The persuasion of this argument lies in the way it reveals networks

of power operating through logistical control of perception.

Consider the Pilot’s Associate, an expert system for military fighter

cockpits described in a 1986 DARPA report, reprinted as a documentary

artifact among the academic essays of Routledge’s useful Cyborg

Handbook and frequently alluded to by Virilio.31 The system offers integrated

decision support, with AI-based situation assessment and

mission planning, all of which would “relieve the pilot of numerous

lower-level functions and present to him, for ultimate decision, the

best courses of action”; to make this work, the Pilot’s Associate utilizes

an “intent-driven” graphical “pilot-vehicle interface.”32 Although

currently envisioned as a computer display, the final model

would read brain waves, follow eye movements, and test “the conductivity

of sweaty palms” or galvanic skin response, all in order “to

gauge mental states.”33 In the long run, implanted silicon chips—or,

better, organic material grown onto chips, currently successful with

leech neurons—would establish human-machine communication by

allowing the nervous system to activate the chip directly.

The Pilot’s Associate is based on the “time-sharing” theory of

“cockpit-cognition,” developed in the 1960s, an early real-time interactive

computer system. For cognitive scientists, “time-sharing”

exemplified “augmentation of the human intellect” to the point of

136 Configurations

30. For the most concise summation of this notion, see Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine,

trans. Julie Rose (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); cited parenthetically

hereafter as VM.

31. DARPA, “Pilot’s Associate,” in The Cyborg Handbook, ed. Chris Hables Gray (New

York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 101–103. Virilio discusses the Pilot’s Associate in War and

Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1992), pp.

87–88. In fact, he alludes more or less directly to the Pilot’s Associate whenever discussing

militarized perception.

32. DARPA, “Pilot’s Associate,” pp. 101, 102.

33. Chris Hables Gray, “Science Fiction Becomes Military Fact,” in Gray, Cyborg Handbook

(above, n. 31), pp. 104–105.

“symbiosis.”34 The cockpit computer is “read” for the “cognitive

traces” that it screens, soon to be provided intracortically. This readability

is the relay to a pilot suffering hallucinatory possession when

mechanization takes command. Recall that cybernetics-founder Norbert

Wiener arrived at the fundamental concept of feedback while

working on antiaircraft guidance systems during the Second World

War. The result was one of the earliest real-time computational systems.

Wiener was faced with the multiple factors connected with

considering aircraft velocity and missile velocity, a problem not simply

of an object in motion toward a target but of relative motions—

that is, a problem of speed. The task was “to shoot the missile, not at

the target, but in such a way that missile and target may come together

in space at some time in the future.”35 The model of space in

this system is a function of “predicting the future position of the

plane”; thus, to “predict the future of a curve,” to map the curve in

space, “is to carry out a certain operation on its past.”36 The AA gunner

maneuvers in the depths of a pictorial field requiring feedback or

“hunting,” mapping of coordinates, flight patterns, air turbulence,

and so on.

Recent cultural theory keeps the Pilot’s Associate under tight surveillance

as the leading edge of a mass-produced psychopathology,

socializing the paranoid cyborg self. Elsewhere in the handbook, cyborg

scholar and artist David Thomas treats the fighter cockpit as a

site of “psychasthenic assimilation,” where the transformed human

body becomes a “sensory transducer between different experiential

domains,” one “product” among others in an “economy of artifacts

and environment.”37 Thomas’s enthusiastic reading considers the

objectification and depersonalization resulting from assimilation as

the conditions for a new concept of the self as a “mimetically integrated

technology.”38 For Thomas, the model of psychasthenic assimilation

assumes a mimetic affinity between cognitive states and technological

positivities. In this version of McLuhan’s “auto-amputation”

of the senses and exteriorization of consciousness, the interface be-

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 137

34. Douglas Noble, “Mental Material: The Militarization of Learning and Intelligence

in US Education,” in Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society, ed. Les Levidow

and Kevin Robins (London: Free Association Books, 1989), p. 26.

35. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the

Machine (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), p. 5.

36. Ibid., pp. 5–6.

37. David Thomas, “Art, Psychasthenic Assimilation, and the Cybernetic Automaton,”

in Gray, Cyborg Handbook (above, n. 31), pp. 256, 257.

38. Ibid., p. 258.

tween body and machine redistributes flows of cognitive affect.

Thomas draws on Roger Callois’s theories of cultural mimesis to argue

that the self breaks beyond bodily limits of identity and assimilates

to the medium, becoming “similar, not similar to something,

but just similar.”39

The direct neurocybernetic wirings predicted for the Pilot’s Associate

have yet to occur, and must be understood as rhetorical correlates

of state-of-the-art cognitive imaging. Human augmentation research

considers computers “extracortical organizers of thought,”

while the computer screen displays “cognitive traces” that “mirror”

thought processes.40 The complexity of the mirroring lies in the

screen trace as both representation and externalization of the user’s

thought processes. On the one hand, the pilot sees screen images responding

to and representing outcomes of subjective intention. On

the other hand, the pilot is a node assimilated to a larger cognitive

system. The cockpit becomes a topographical distribution of sensation,

an image readable as a theory of militarized cognition. Screen

interactivity, with its cognitive traces, displays processes already occurring

in cognition, picturing what occurs automatically. The neurocybernetic

claims confirm and reinforce the credibility of this display.

For Virilio, the Pilot’s Associate offers a kind of paradigm of real

time as derealization. The pilot’s reality disappears into the real time

of the interface. Wiener had to assume that the enemy pilot, and ultimately

the AA gunners as well, already behave as servomechanisms;

41 their actions could be coupled and optimized as dependent

variables. In the Pilot’s Associate, the pilot becomes a

real-time function of the total weapons system, assimilating

Wiener’s AA gunner and marking a fundamental disappearance of

space as depth into the flat screen’s total visibility. The enemy

plane’s image appears in no depth at all, but in a kind of technically

induced immediacy. To see the enemy is to fire at the enemy, the socalled

“first look–first kill” capability—or, as a former State Department

official put it: “once you can see the target you can expect to

destroy it.”42 It is “as if the image in the mirror were suddenly modifying

our face,” Virilio argues.43 The real-time image does not re-

138 Configurations

39. Ibid., p. 257.

40. Noble, “Mental Material” (above, n. 34), p. 26.

41. See Peter Galison, “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic

Vision,” Critical Inquiry 21:1 (1994): 228–266, at p. 240.

42. Quoted by Virilio in War and Cinema (above, n. 31), p. 4.

43. Paul Virilio, “Desert Screen,” in The Virilio Reader, ed. James Der Derian (New York:

Blackwell, 1998), p. 168.

present something absent, it is no longer a “picture” to be seen but

a disturbance in the time of the viewer. It is a simple step from here

to Stealth technology, where the plane is aerodynamically designed

to maximize invisibility, the design auto-guided by the potential

gaze, and where emergence into visibility means death.

Virilio targets the reality of the interface, a realism echoed as

much by critics as by proponents, marking the reflected delirium of

the aesthetics of perception. Les Levidow’s insistence that a teleoperator

“does behave as a virtual cyborg in a real-time, manmachine

interface, regardless of whether he or she structures military

weapons or children’s games and educational programs,”

repeats and in fact reinforces the functionality of the Pilot’s Associate.

44 The delirious belief in the readability of traces suffuses the pilot,

the DARPA report, and the resulting cultural criticism. The interfacing

of pilot and expert system in the Pilot’s Associate

transcribes perception into representation, but the occurrence of this

transcription does not necessarily make perception readable. Said

otherwise: bodily habit is assimilated, insofar as this can be automated

from the first. The diagram of interface and body reflects the

systematicity of cognitive states but not these states themselves. The

body is left in place as a blind spot, as what we all perceive anyhow,

what we all share, and what the interface merely confirms—confirming

for each of us this share without any possibility of representing

it. The body mimes what it is not in the first place—

mimetic—suckered through a vast charade intended to persuade

that perception and representation are one.

I do not wish to obscure the real necessity of thinking and intervening

in the military information complex. What I am questioning,

following Virilio’s discussions of “first look–first kill” interfaces

such as the Pilot’s Associate, is the way the theory of reading therein

applied presupposes that we see something—in this case, “cognitive

traces,” whatever this theoretical amalgam would be. An effect of

“seeing” is projected in advance of any theoretical appraisal. What

interests me here is the reflection of an ambiguous perceptual situation

into discourse. What Virilio terms the “frantic interpret-osis” is

no more than the seductive aesthetics of retinal persistence.


the problems of knowing what is the subject of the State, of war, etc., are exactly

of the same type as the problem of knowing what is the subject of perception:

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 139

44. Les Levidow, “The Eye of the Storm,” in Culture on the Brink : Ideologies of Technology,

ed. Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckery (Seattle: Bay Press, 1999), p. 318.

one will not clear up the philosophy of history except by working out the problem

of perception.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible

It is not sufficient, however, to discuss Virilio’s work in terms of a

phenomenology of media, even while insisting on the priority of

phenomenology over semiology and other theoretical approaches.

Not sufficient, because we are still faced with the underlying paradox

of the aesthetics of disappearance. For Virilio, if new media only resolve

the object’s “real-time presence,” there must be a different mode

of temporality, an “exposure time that allows or edits seeing,” a phenomenologically

irreducible experience of temporality that articulates

real time with the “reel” time of technical regimes that appropriate

and build on this experience (VM, pp. 60, 61). The real is preserved in

the reel. Virilio focuses not on a pictorial, perspectival field of vision,

but on a folded space of events. To understand the auto-induced blindness

brought by the logistics of perception is to foreground the event

of perception. Virtual images exist in terms of a basic phenomenological

scheme, their coherence resulting from processes of memorization

triggered by immediate perceptions. If what we see on the screen is

the computer’s imaginary projection, the imaginary repertoire drawn

on in “seeing” is nonetheless an outcome of some immediate perception

or another. In this argument, seeing is not the neutral taking

in of information, but something that occurs as an event. No matter

how artificial or mediated the object, we can see it only in terms of

“a distant visual memory without which there would be no act of

looking” (VM 62). The “paradoxical images” of real-time media thus

acquire “a status something like that of surprise, or more precisely, of

an ‘accidental transfer’” (VM 64). Surprise: the displaced effect of the

act of perception, obscured by real-time appearances. The immediacy

of the Pilot’s Associate mobilizes just this aesthetic effect.

The underlying explanation for this aesthetic surprise is disappearance.

“All techniques meant to unleash forces are techniques of

disappearance” writes Virilio, in 1981’s crucial Aesthetics of Disappearance

(AD 23). In a series of interviews with Sylv re Lotringer collected

as Pure War, Virilio alludes to The Aesthetics of Disappearance as

a juncture in his thinking, marking a more rigorous attention to issues

of perception. In fact, each subsequent book cites it as required

reading. It is a curious m lange of stories on topics such as epileptic

children, Howard Hughes, and early Christian desert hermits, all

contributing to the ascendance of real-time technologies. The book

collects tableaux, short stories that fascinate as images of disappearance:

images not of what has disappeared, but of the traces left by

140 Configurations

disappearance. Each story tells of the visibility of invisibility. The

perceptual paradox exposed underlies all Virilio’s subsequent claims.

For now, I will insist that Virilio is concerned with “aesthetics” as

immediate sense data and not as canonized in the aesthetics of the

beautiful. If the general semantics of appearances suggests a reference

to perceptual immediacy, the aesthetics of disappearance suggest

an irreducible perceptual a priori of a highly qualified and paradoxical

sort. An aesthetics of disappearance would show the effects

of a withdrawn cause—that is, not a cause occurring in the past or

elsewhere, but one that disappears from the first. Technological

speed thematizes what this cause leaves in its disappearance. The

aesthetic is felt as a force or energy, a kind of ineluctable reference to

what has occurred, referential only insofar as the occurrence is inaccessible.

The paradox involved is such that description proves impossible,

allowing only thematization of this failure as the aura of

impossible exclusion. The revelation is discovered only through the

inadequacy of experience, through a kind of curious foregrounding

of nonexperience, understood as the repeated supplementation of

what has disappeared.

The Aesthetics of Disappearance opens by describing gaps in consciousness,

followed by a return where “the arrested word and action

. . . picked up again where they have been interrupted” (AD 9). The

reader may feel that this first sentence is itself subject to the interruptions

of “picnolepsy.” The physiological condition of picnolepsy is

characterized by frequent epileptic absence, such that conscious time

is composed of constant interruptions that “come together again automatically,

forming a continuous time without apparent breaks. . . .

for the picnoleptic, nothing has really happened, the missing time

never existed” (AD 9). There is an absolute separation between picnoleptic

absence and consciousness. Present time is absent, but the

absence is not perceived, neither as a gap nor as a gap displaced.

Virilio promptly generalizes the condition to a “mass phenomenon,”

arguing that to “the question: who is picnoleptic?” the response

can only be: “who isn’t, or hasn’t been?” We are all picnoleptics

and our consciousness is “a state of paradoxical waking,”

leading Virilio to later describe the paradoxical logic of real time and

the paradoxical presence of contemporary existence (AD 15).45 This

unresolved paradox in consciousness is the crucial point in Virilio’s

argument. What interests him is the teleology or “tendency” emitted

by the paradox. While there are no “apparent breaks” in conscious

time, the absence is manifested nonetheless through the very

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 141

45. See also VM, p. 63.

narrativity of consciousness, in “a tendency to patch up sequences,

readjusting their contours to make equivalents out of what the picnoleptic

has seen and what he has not been able to see, what he remembers

and what, evidently, he cannot remember and that it is

necessary to invent, to recreate, in order to lend verisimilitude to his

discursus” (AD 10). The discursivity or narrativity of perception conceals

a caesura always filled by the readability of “patched-up” and

“readjusted” sequences. As Virilio notes, the Latin etymology of “discourse”

means “to run here and there, a term that very well conveys

the impression of haste and disturbance or normal mental operations

in the picnoleptic” (AD 113–114 n. 2). Discursive consciousness

speeds to overtake and occupy what it cannot. That the mental

operations of the picnoleptic are normally hasty and disturbed foregrounds

the underlying crux. Conscious perception is a fiction, an

invention compensating for the state of paradoxical waking. This

compensation is doubled, thematized as speed. The discourse on

speed is the reflexive result of picnoleptic absence, and the discursivity

of appearance a dance of signs distorted from without. Speed

unglues reality (AD 16). In fact, the “aesthetics of disappearance” has

a history and teleology as “the West’s unique and irresistible project

and projection toward a technical beyond” (AD 93). The efficacy of

speed accumulates disappearance in an increasingly delirious experience

of the world, an increasing loss of reality.

What results is a particular “schema” of the visible and invisible,

or the seen and unseen. The schema functions with whatever material

is at hand, visibility always conditioned by an unseen and unavailable

world. The schema is modeled as a causal chain. Speed

names the transfer of energy in perception, extracting kinetics from

surfaces and screens of digital imagery; thus, “the optic and kinematic

are indistinguishable” (AD 63). Virilio insists that we must accept

the “factual” nature of images: in every image there is an invisible

mark, an invisible reference. Certainly, one can see the influence

of Virilio’s former teacher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose late work

elaborated a paradoxical phenomenology of nothing, a limitphenomenology

of “the imaginary and the hidden.”46 In its most

pointed formulation, in his final work, Merleau-Ponty arrived at a

central crux of the punctum caecum, a blind spot within consciousness

that enables rather than excludes the invisible within the

visible. To see “is always to see more than one sees,”47 but also, as al-

142 Configurations

46. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis

(Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995), p. 229.

47. Ibid., p. 247.

ready set out in the earlier Phenomenology of Perception, “It is not seen

in itself, but causes us to see the rest.”48

In fact, recent cognitive science experiments return to the reality

and materiality of mental images through the aesthetics of computer

imagery. Steven Kosslyn, author of Ghosts in the Mind’s Machine, insists

that the brain functions as if there were a screen inside our

heads to view perceptions. His still-controversial experiments redistribute

cognition between the body and visualized image-objects.

Test subjects are asked to memorize a map marked with a rock, grass,

a tree, a beach, a well, a hut, and a lake. They are then asked to “image”

the map in their memory and “scan” from location to location.

What interests Kosslyn is that the time taken to “look” from one

item to the next varies linearly with the distance between the items

in the real map, as if the image were stored spatially, laid out before

the “mind’s eye” as on the page or the computer screen. The conclusion:

mental images “must occur in a medium that acts like a

space (though it need not be an actual space).”49 For Kosslyn, the

computer shows this medium. The relation between processing occurring

in computer memory and the CPU, on the one hand, and

the visual output or screen display, on the other hand, is “functional,”

in contrast to the more material or physical description of

current differentials, micro switches, and so on. This functional

“model” provides the schematic of mental imaging from the

metaphorics of “space” embedded in mental “storage.” Kosslyn severs

the famously paradoxical status of mental images by using the

metaphorics of “brain-as-computer” to salvage “the picture

metaphor without being stuck with the obvious absurdities of a literal

interpretation.”50 Images and data function heuristically, as if

they were pictorial, and the fact that computers do “function”

proves the point: the display supporting the initial comparison is a

supplement to the automatic processing going on within the machine.

As a result, it no longer makes sense to speak of images appearing

on a screen, or of pictures to be looked at; what appears is

“pictorialness,” a kind of ghostly outer limit of the imaging process.

The “pictorialness” of images allows them to be “interpreted in the

mind as if they were actual displays by means of operations similar

to those a CPU uses to interpret data as displays in a matrix.”51 The

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 143

48. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New

York: Routledge, 1992), p. 309.

49. Stephen Kosslyn, Ghosts in the Mind’s Machine (New York: Norton, 1983), p. 55.

50. Ibid., p. 21.

51. Ibid., p. 27.

similarity is a “medium” through which images arrive in the mind

or digital data appear on-screen. Image or data both produce a kind

of supplementary appearance, a ghost. The screen displays a doubling

within images that are essentially data. On the one hand, the

image seen is only a mark vanishing before the true image in memory,

as if memory were harder or more material than the illuminated

figure on-screen. Thus, on the other hand, there is a kind of an ineluctable

referentiality to what is screened. The vanishing marks correspond

to the transfer-mechanism of the image in and through

memory. The surfacing of this reference is the invention of “seeing.”

For Virilio, “the virtual images of the computer screen seem to

confirm not only the existence of certain forms of representation

but, more immediately, the objective presence of mental images.”52

Kosslyn pursues the analogy to its limit, describing the medium of

mental imaging within the mind, including the size and resolution

of the internal display screen. What the mind’s eye was is suddenly

running Windows. The result is a very specific, functional division

between the space of representation and the technical positivity of

machine-space. The functionality of the computer is conserved in its

outcome as imagery. The machine in the ghost takes the image to a

new place, carries the mind to its own place. The aesthetics of disappearance

are felt in the “pictorialness” of imagery and in the transfer

power of the interface. Pictoriality points to a kind of energetics

of seeing, which Virilio comes to call “image energy.”

Speed names what comes aesthetically from beyond all codes,

what can only be metaphorized and thus cannot be named, naming

a paradoxical movement of movement. The thematization of speed

provides a terminology for the prediscursive immediacy of an experience

we all share without being able to talk about it. Virilio returns

again and again to the chronophotography of  tienne Jules Marey,

whose studies of bodies in motion seem to exemplify the dematerialization

of the world and offer a vital precursor to cinematic reality,

truth at twenty-four frames per second. However, “dematerialization”

does not account for the complex techniques involved in

Marey’s work, where the illumination of bodies presumes a memory

traced in images caught by the camera, and inscribed by a range of

recording devices. For Virilio, the disappearance involved is

premised on “the readiness of a luminous emission” where “what is

given to see is due to the phenomenon of acceleration and deceleration

in every respect identifiable with intensities of light” (AD 19).

The protocinematic appearance is enabled by the persistence of light,

144 Configurations

52. Virilio, Lost Dimension (above, n. 23), p. 114.

light in motion transmitting disappearance. The aesthetics of disappearance

describe this transmission beyond the logistics of



truth is not a process of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation

which does justice to it.

—Walter Benjamin, “Epistemo-Critical Prologue”

Virilio’s critique of the real-time image conserves the priority of the

phenomenology of nothing, but his focus on aesthetic effects forces

the visibility of the invisible. While Merleau-Ponty insisted on the

paradoxical inaccessibility of the punctum caecum, Virilio makes its effects

appear in the light of speed. If the aesthetics of disappearance

inscribe a hidden point or disruption within appearances, reading the

effects of speed reveals the transmission and translation of this crucial

punctum. The result is a kind of transubstantiation of the medium,

perhaps reflecting the religious faith that Virilio frequently alludes to

as underlying his media theory. The inscribed point trembles.

Virilio seeks a guarantee certifying that the language of speed in

fact reports an underlying phenomenological situation; he finds the

answer in light, the oldest and most secure of metaphors for the

truth of appearances.53 The pixel of the computer screen supplies a

new concept of a “light interval,” as opposed to measurements based

in space or time. Illuminated pixels or “picture elements” compose

the images of new media. The pixel projects. It is a literal instance of

image energy. What is seen is light: real-time images are epiphanies

of light. The revelation of this perception of light modifies “the very

definition of the real and the figurative” and leads to the insight of a

background “illumination” or “clearing” which enables every realtime

technology (VM 72, 74).54 The ecstasy of light is the presence of

the world.

But what could it possibly mean to discover a “paradox” in perception?

Merleau-Ponty’s insistence on the paradoxical invisibility

of the punctum caecum carefully forbids its discovery; Virilio’s thematization

of picnolepsy as “paradoxical waking” is not so cautious. If

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 145

53. Compare Hans Blumenberg, “Light as a Metaphor for Truth: At the Preliminary

Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation,” trans. Joel Anderson, in Modernity and the

Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin (Berkeley: University of California Press,

1993), pp. 30–62; and Anselm Haverkamp, “The Memory of Pictures: Roland Barthes

and Augustine on Photography,” Comparative Literature 45:3 (1993): 258–279.

54. Similar photological arguments are presented in all of Virilio’s books since The Aesthetics

of Disappearance.

consciousness is a result of the discursive cover-up of picnoleptic absence,

how can we distinguish, consciously, between this cover-up

and the effects of absence? Picnoleptics—that is, all of us—invent

our consciousness and experience nothing outside this invention.

The paradox we are conscious of must be self-made, a “paradoxicalization”

of consciousness; or, at least, the paradox is supplied to

guarantee the aesthetic effects of disappearance. Paradoxical waking

is a kind of invented and projected beyond. Named paradoxical, the

discourse on consciousness brings out traces of the reality perceived.

It is necessary to induce the effect of a beyond, to make evident the

aesthetics that produce what is already, anyhow, the case, and thus

to supply sufficient evidence to guarantee the appearance of disappearance.

Consciousness as paradoxical waking is another way of saying

that we produce delirium anyway. On this, Virilio is very clear: picnolepsy

can be induced, and it does not matter a bit whether we perceive

anything at all.55 While Virilio’s references to Merleau-Ponty or

Edmund Husserl no doubt add evidence to the claim for the aesthetics

of disappearance, the surplus only attests to the failure of

phenomenology. It may be that nothing is perceived, and we name

it nonetheless, out of convention or habit. The purported inscription

of perception in representation—as in the factuality of mental

images—is a metaphor for the immediacy of these processes.

What can we make of Virilio’s hyperreflection on the ecstasies of

media theory? If at first the aesthetics of disappearance seemed to offer

a paradoxical perception encrypted in the unreality of real time,

this turns out to be an instituted mark, a sign of perception. Irreducible

reference is induced through the metaphoric potential of

light imagery. The metaphoricity of the digital image is grounded in

the literalness of the pixel, the metaphor of light as the placeholder

for the literal. We are within the Derridean metaphorics of the

“white mythology” framing philosophical concepts. “Image energy”

and “pictoriality” are nothing more than renewed expressions of the

rhetorical tradition of energia, the energy or pathos of pictures. The

suggestion of transcribed perception in technically induced appearance

is a rhetorical effect, and the notion of reading hidden inscriptions

as the act of perceiving perception is an activity within

processes of formalization and sign reading. But the unreality of real

time in no way destroys its efficacy. On the contrary, real time

strengthens the reality of an inaccessible real. Virilio ends up telling

less about the dominance of light-speed telecommunications (and is

146 Configurations

55. See, especially, the first chapter of The Aesthetics of Disappearance.

this news?) than about the renewed and restaged rhetorical structuring

of what we call experience. If real time characterizes contemporary

historical experience, what we grasp in the ecstasies of real-time

media is a kind of afterimage of tradition, historical reference

achieved through modes of figuration. Virilio’s phenomenological

rhetoric turns out to be a rhetoric of the phenomenology in theory.

I offer a few closing remarks on the ecstatic inscription of light in

the fixity of writing, and literature as the institution that continues

to exemplify reading the ecstasy of media. Recall that Italo Calvino’s

Memos for the Next Millennium chose values that “only literature can

give us, by means specific to it,” and one of these was quickness.56 Indeed,

Virilio cites Proust, declaring art the fastest in “the order of arrival

of information” (AD 35). Virilio’s own writing resists argumentation

and exposition for series of striking and allusive anecdotes. “I

always write with images,” he tells Louise Wilson in an interview;

elsewhere he describes writing to capture the “tendency” of

change.57 Writing continues to structure what we mean by medium,

and the notion that we write in images still offers the best metaphor

for the immediacy of perception. Here we should recall McLuhan’s

Cambridge Ph.D. in English, written on the influence of classical

rhetoric in eighteenth-century English poetry. Writing is the vanishing

point of media epiphanies, and media theory a transposed literary


The crash invents writing. According to Frampton, Breedlove

“everywhere gives evidence of condensing, curtailing; not wishing

to bore anyone, doing his polite best to make a long story short.”58

It would seem that the linguistic contexture of the narrative somehow

codes the revelation of the crash, perhaps in terms of structuralist

principles echoed in Breedlove’s “condensing” and “curtailing.”

Interestingly, the many accounts of Breedlove never tell what

he said, only make the point that he said it. For Virilio, this is exactly

the point. The interest is not in what is told, but the narrative is

nonetheless measured in a highly specific manner. Writing captures

Baldwin / On Speed and Ecstasy 147

56. Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (New York: Vintage, 1988), p. 1.

57. Louise Wilson, “Cyberwar, God and Television: Interview with Paul Virilio,” CTHEORY

web site: http://english-www.hss.cmu.edu/ctheory/a- cyberwar_god.html, accessed September

10, 2001. See also Patrick Crogan’s helpful essay “Metaphoric Vehicles,” on-line

at Speed 1.4: http://proxy.arts.uci.edu/%7Enideffer/_SPEED_/1.4/articles/crogan.html, accessed

September 10, 2001. Corgan aligns Virilio’s use of metaphors to his discourse on

speed. The neologisms of Virilio’s “metaphoric vehicles” enable his rapid and encompassing

cultural analysis. The metaphor employed becomes part of the phenomena

analyzed, and, indeed, is the unique optic through which speed is revealed.

58. Frampton, Circles of Confusion (above, n. 1), p. 97.

the singularity of an experience of technically induced ecstasy, captures

this singularity only in all its inaccessibility. The spatial displacement

of “ecstasy” remains an adequate metaphor for the transcription

of singularity as the condition of writing and resulting

tropisms of discourse. In Breedlove’s narrative, we read the nonexperience

characterizing the poetics of speed: writing as outcome, as

the fixation produced by the crash.

Near the end of The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Virilio quotes a

chapter title from Breedlove’s memoirs: “Doing something other than

merely living” (AD 62). Such a concentration of unquestionable and

utter subjectivity becomes proof of withdrawn experience. We are

meant to experience Breedlove experiencing, not the experience itself—

to read what was written in the crash: writing brings out the

absent experience of ecstasy. No description will reveal an exact

mark or code beyond this general principle. Frampton concludes

that compared to Breedlove, “Proust, Joyce, Beckett, seem occasionally

to achieve such explicatory plenitude.”59


My thanks to Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz for

the opportunity to complete this essay, and to Anselm Haverkamp

for advice and support.

148 Configurations

59. Ibid.