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