“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”
Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller
Paul Virilio is a French media theorist, intrigued by speed and technology and the ways advancements in these areas challenge the logic of our perceptions related to time and space.
In his 1997 book, Open Sky, he explores the notion of reverse vertigo, which invites us to alter our perception and see the world anew.
“Preoccupied as we are, at the end of the millenium, with developing the absolute speed of our modern real-time transmission tools, we too often forget the comparable historic importance of this other limit-speed, the one which has enabled us to escape the real space of our planet and so to ‘fall upwards.’”
Paul Virilio is indebted to the phenomenology of the French thinker, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who says,
“Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system.”
This informs the danger that Paul Virilio intuits when it comes to the body’s relationship to speed as exercised in high intensity sports that deal with gravitational falls, like base-jumping, skydiving, and bungee jumping.
This is the underlying tension of Paul Virilio’s weariness in Open Sky. When we repress our curiosity and emphasizes utility and efficiency over knowledge as exploration, we turn into a skydiver, plunging down, waiting for the ground to open us up and swallow us whole.
“The reconciliation of nothing and reality and the suspension of time and space by high velocities replace the exoticism of journeys with a vast expanse of emptiness.”
He explains that the old ‘vanishing lines vertigo’ is coupled with the projection involved in focusing one’s eyes.
In a brief passage, he invites a parachutist to explain the difference between perception between the height of 2000 meters and 8-600 meters.
In other words, if your toes are dangling over the edge of an airplane at 13,000 feet, the fear this perspective inspires is radically different from your toes dangling over the edge of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas at 856 feet.
The path’s being defines the subject’s perception through the object’s mass. The falling body suddenly becomes the body of the fall.
Remember his cautionary posture toward progress. He makes a point about the world or the ground opening up to the person falling, and when he repeats it, it is as though he believes speed is literally causing the underworld to swallow us whole.
In much subtler language, he explains the way technological advancements are always accompanied by their negation. The imagery of the earth swallowing us whole is perhaps a stronger illustration of the negative consequences of social growth and progress that Paul Virilio intuits.
He explains that with every invention that boasts of progress, there is a simultaneous “accident.” For Virilio, these are not the happy little accidents like the trees in a Bob Ross painting. We cannot turn them into creative acts. Instead, he sees them as life-changing and detrimental to us all.
In Politics of the Very Worst, he writes:
“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution…Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”
What is really at stake with all of this technological progress? Where Paul Virilio is concerned, the journey is a stake. The journey that is a crucial part of intellectual becoming, and the inherent wonder hidden in a thousand eyes of our deepest curiosities.
“Loss of sight, or rather, loss of ground in a new kind of fall that is also a form of pollution of expanse, of that ‘art of the journey’ practised by the nomad, a peculiar form of vertigo brought on by the depth of field of the apparent horizon of the spectacle of the world.”
In other words, with the advances in technology that alter our perception, the earth opens us up to swallow us — not to transport us anywhere, after all, there is no rabbit hole to fall into. This is what Jean Baudrillard was weary of when he articulates the epistemic dangers of hyperreality. Instead, we’ll remain completely sedentary, inviting the world to come to us while sacrificing the art of the journey.
Soon we will have to learn to fly, to swim in the ether.