Surfing the Accident

Interview with Paul Virilio by Andreas Ruby, for the publication "The Art of the Accident," 1998.

Surfing the Accident

The Art of the Accident, 1998

Andreas Ruby: In your writings on the accident there are two different readings of an occurrence that is very characteristic of modern society: on the one hand, there is a positive interpretation highlighting the constituent role of the accident in the refining and development of technology. On the other hand, there is a negative judgement hinting at the fear of an accumulation of fragmentary accidents that will lead to the "integral accident." Why these differences in your diagnosis of the accident?

Paul Virilio: The original industrial accidents as, for instance, the derailment of a train or the crash of an airplane, were all specific, localized, and particular accidents. They were taking place at a certain place and at a certain moment in time. Now, however, the revolution of instantaneous transmissions brought about by telecommunications makes the accident global. The Millennium Bug is no longer a local accident, but a global one - because it will involve everybody. I have called this type of accident a integral accident because it causes other accidents in its wake. Just like there has been a change in the nature of the accident somewhere in the eighteenth and nineteenth century - from the natural accident towards the industrial accident - we now witness a fresh transmutation of the accident: from the industrial accident to its post-industrial successor. This transmutation is accompanied by a very substantial increase in scale. The industrial accident is still the kind of event that "takes place." The post-industrial accident, on the other hand, goes beyond a certain place, you may say that it does no longer "take place," but becomes an environment. The disaster that befell the Titanic involved only its passengers; the Millennium Bug will involve everybody on this Earth.

AR: But why then do you deny the integral accident that positive potential you are discerning in the specific accident?

PV: Because the global accident has not taken place yet, it is an accident in the making. Consequently, I can only speak about what it would be like in a speculative manner. But then, I am always speaking about things that have not happened yet, but which are in the process of becoming reality. I anticipate by thinking. Maybe the global accident will happen as a result of the Millennium Bug. From its start, one could proceed to argue in favor of politics of the global accident. That would be an accident within which we would have to live, an environment unto itself.

AR: At the end of August 1998, the Spa-Francorchamps circuit saw the biggest crash in the history of Formula One racing when thirteen racing cars smashed into each other. Fifteen million Deutschmarks went into thin air in a few seconds, yet none of the drivers suffered serious injuries. According to former Formula One champion Niki Lauda, such an accident would inevitably have resulted in people being killed if it had taken place only ten years earlier. Meanwhile, technology has made such progress as to preclude this. Could one infer from this that mankind will be able to abolish the accident some day?

PV: Certainly not. You cannot separate the accident from reality. The accident is merely the other face of substance, and Aristotle defined it already as such. According to Aristotle, reality is a mixture of "substans" (i.e. what is well established, from the Latin "substare"), and of "accidens" (what "falls into," from "accidere"). He characterized "substans" as absolute and necessary, and "accidens" as relative and fortuitous. Consequently, reality is made up of these two dimensions. As soon as something is well established (a substance), it is necessarily accompanied by something unreliable, which can trigger off forces difficult to contain at any moment. Technology can only progress in a struggle against the accident. For example: as part of the development of a new line of cars, the Renault factories conduct some 400 "crash tests" monitored by video cameras and computers. This is done in order to improve the car. Thus the accident is part of the production process. Causing accidents results in the amelioration of the production of substance. Hence the accident is an element of rationality.

AR: But in everyday language, the accident is still being viewed as something eminently bad - it would therefore seem necessary to change the associative meaning of the accident.

PV: Absolutely. Since I have a Judeo-Christian religious background, it is obvious to me that one must link any definition of the accident to the idea of original sin. The content of this idea is merely that any person has the potential to become a monster. Now, this idea of original sin, which materialist philosophy rejects so forcefully, comes back to us through technology: the accident is the original sin of the technical object. Every technical object contains its own negativity. It is impossible to invent a pure, innocent object, just as there is no innocent human being. It is only through acknowledged guilt that progress is possible. Just as it is through the recognized risk of the accident that it is possible to improve the technical object.

AR: The connection between "substans" and "accidens" itself is not stable, but subject to considerable transmutations: in the course of the development of civilization, the substance of things (i.e. what defines them from the inside) has been gradually augmented with elements of the "accidens" variety (i.e. what is being added from the outside). A technical gadget like a heart stimulator, for instance, becomes an inherent part of the body whose heart is no longer functioning properly. One could say that the accident becomes more and more part of the substance.

PV: As techno-sciences increasingly develop into life sciences through bio-technologies and nano-technologies, the ability to alter matter itself in its information cycle is also being enhanced. The moment one starts working on the genetic code of living matter, one intervenes in the genesis of substance itself. And thus, the resulting accident is of another nature, it has nothing in common anymore with the idea of accident previously described. Here the accident is inherent to the being itself, something that is almost a reversion of the Aristotelian definition: at that stage it is the accident that becomes absolute and necessary, whereas the substance appears to be relative and fortuitous. With "genetic engineering" one has clearly entered the realm of eugenics. Eugenics which pertain to everything industrial, that is everything that can be produced industrially in laboratories - and it promptly meets afresh its protagonists in the Frankensteinian fiction, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The integral accident is not simply a case of instantaneous contagion (as with the stock markets today), but a phenomenon that questions the exchange that has existed between substance and accident up till now. So now we have to ask ourselves: what are the limits of industrialization?

AR: But do we still have any options open in this? Take, for instance, economic globalization and the situation in Russia: a country which was systematically defeated in the 80s by Reagan's rearmament policy, and now it has to be bailed out by Clinton, because a total collapse would be far too dangerous to the global economy (and world peace). An entirely absurd outcome indeed, but nobody seems to be able to get out of this predicament.

PV: What you see here is a change in the nature of warfare. We are now witnessing the entering of a new stage in the history of warfare. The first stage was based on protective weaponry - the fortress. The fortress is the first political stage of warfare, and this is because it takes into account the social body. Over a long period in history, defensive weaponry dominated over destructive weaponry. The invention of artillery as a weapon marks the beginning of a second paradigm in the history of warfare. Defensive weaponry was no longer dominant: it became dominated by destructive weaponry. This situation would last till the nuclear era and the principle of deterrence. Nuclear weapons were so dangerous that nobody could use them without risking the complete destruction of the world. So, this marked the end of this stage and a new weapon system was called for. These were the information and communication weapons which are the mainstay of the "Info-war." This war will for the most part be fought out in the realm of knowledge. The Clinton-Lewinsky case is the best example. Publishing "information" about his private life on the Internet was an attempt to strip Clinton naked and disqualify him as President of the United States. The first shot fired in the Info-war is an integral accident. But we are only at the very beginning of this, at the zero hour.

AR: Nevertheless, reading your analyses, one often gets the impression that you are toying with the idea of going back in history.

PV: No, I have never said that going back in history was an option. I am not a pessimistic person, I am a person who believes through death. Therefore I do believe that it is necessary to go through the fires of the crisis of progress. Progress has caused the development of the accident, of a global accident that now threatens all life on Earth. This type of progress has been pre-programmed with the atomic bomb. But what happened in the nuclear realm can now happen in the biological realm as well. This is likely to occur through a form of eugenics that favors "biologically correct" beings above simians, like you and me, who one might call "Wombies" because they were born out of a womb. Right now, new beings can be created in a laboratory by manipulating the genetic code. In my opinion, the integral accident threatens us in the same way that ancient societies were threatened by large-scale fires, floods, or epidemics. But we will have to pass through this fire - fighting! Not to retrace our steps, but in order to move forward, beyond our present situation.

AR: Are you seeing yourself as a kind of whistleblower, who warns mankind about theupcoming integral accident?

PV: At this stage, I am already encountering a recurrent disbelief regarding an idea I put forward a few years ago. Wherever I speak, I am being branded as "apocalyptic" or as a "catastrophist." But I am not talking about an apocalypse. The integral accident does not mean the End of the World, it is just another situation. And the only thing I do is to bear witness to its existence. In 1910, there were people who warned of the risks of a world war - something hitherto unthinkable, because no war of that magnitude had ever occurred yet. So these people were laughed at. But then, 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War. And so, in the same vein, I am merely stating that we will experience an integral accident, which will incorporate other types of accident in a systematic manner, and which will affect the whole planet. This has nothing to do with a pessimistic approach, on the contrary: daring to put it in words is the beginning of a new optimism.

AR: And therefore the true challenge is: how to learn to live with the accident?

PV: Right! We must face the worst thing that we have created: science itself. Therefore we must fight it, not in order to return to a pre-scientific state of things, but to move beyond science as it is now. My feeling is that we must always be prepared for the worst possible scenario - because we are mortals. To be alive means to be mortal. Consequently, we are continuously facing death. Ancient societies mediated this relationship through religion. But atheistic societies cannot handle it anymore. Where do you see burials and death apart from Princess Diana's? I am not talking about the death of the individual here, but about collective death. One should approach Death the same way as the surfer takes the roller wave: by entering it. One must enter the catastrophe to reap its benefits without suffering its drawbacks. You cannot prohibit the catastrophe, you must surf it!

AR: That looks like a promising strategy for the United States right now. By launching 75 Tomahawks cruise missiles on Sudan and Afghanistan, the United States have to all practical purposes landed themselves in a permanent state of imminent, total war. Now each and every US citizen, wherever she or he finds himself on Earth, has become a target for terrorist counter-attacks by radical Islamists. Would this be the start of politics in a permanent state of accident?

PV: When Clinton launched these cruise missiles against Islamism, he was negating the civil politics of science in favor of military politics. There is a tendency in the foreign policy of the United States to go for automated strikes. But automated war technologies are a-political technologies. Because politics is characterized by cogitation, it is based on diplomatic dialogue. But Clinton substitutes war for diplomacy and depoliticizes politics. Therefore, Clausewitz's paradigm about ?war being the continuation of politics by other means? no longer applies. This is a dangerous development that clearly shows how necessary it is to invent a politics of science that is not merely military. At this juncture, science does no longer exist outside the realm of war. Since the nineteenth century, or even earlier, science has been militarized, think only of the work of Archimedes and Michelangelo on ballistics and artillery. Our task today is to civilize science, not as an option, but because it is a necessity.

AR: How would you value the self-learning capabilities of new computer systems, that is, their capacity to develop a form of intelligence that would enable them to cope with unexpected situations, such as, for instance, the occurrence of an integral accident?

PV: Well, it is true that the fifth generation computers will not only be able to learn but also to bring forth other computers. What bothers me most in this idea of self-learning computers is the closed circuit character of these systems. The world of computing generally is plagued by this closed loop problem, which is what makes it so dangerous in the hands of a totalitarian system. In order to avoid this "Gleichschaltung," as the Nazis called it, it is necessary to structure new computer systems as open systems.

AR: Bill Gates' house is a good example of such a closed computer system. It is the perfect digital slave, it automatically anticipates and satisfies every request of its master (such as closing the curtains when there is too much sunlight, etc.). It is a prototype of a kind of world cleansed from accident. But maybe a world without accident would be so boring that it would become necessary to reinvent the accident in order to escape the unbearable monotony of an over-protected life.

PV: The twentieth century can already be regarded as a museum of accidents. Take the history of film, of television, of video (including video games), and the biggest spectacle is the accident. It is not fortuitous that the Titanic has become a modern myth, or that television invents a new genre like "Reality-TV" to celebrate the accident. There certainly exists a desire to enjoy accidents. That is why I once proposed to set up a museum of accidents: a museum that would bring the accident to us instead of bringing us to the accident.

AR: And this while outside this museum, the accident is more than ever a life drug, a crucial stimulant. This is what couples are after who engage in dangerous sexual practices linking pleasure to death, or the parachutist who makes a sight jump (i.e. without altimeter, putting his life at risk).

PV: If the accident has become so desirable nowadays, it is because modern societies have erased death, they have removed it from daily life. But since death is an inherent part of life, we want to reinstate it. We are experiencing a desire to expose ourselves to risk in order to regain this suppressed part of our humanity.

AR: George Bataille described "potlatch" as a specific type of sacrifice practiced by so-called primitive societies: an act of divesting something valuable by giving it to a living person or deity in order to ward off a catastrophe. Could the accident be to our times what sacrifice was to ancient societies?

PV: It is indeed a fact that all gift and counter-gift practices, which were meant to protect oneself against an adversary, or to frighten him, are showing up again in an altered guise with the post-industrial accident. The large number of road accidents is truly a kind of sacrifice to the godhead of mobility to keep the wheels of traffic moving. It is a sacrifice made unconsciously, but one for which society is apparently prepared to pay the price nonetheless. Whereas ancient societies made their sacrifices in a conscious and voluntary manner, within a ritual of worship, we, on the other hand, have unlearned to practice sacrifice as a ritual - so we are overtaken by it. The accident is a present day sacrifice that is inflicted upon us from the outside.

© 1998 Andreas Ruby / V2_

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