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On Speed and Ecstasy: Paul Virilio's 'Aesthetics of Disappearance' and the Rhetoric of Media

From: Configurations
Volume 10, Number 1, Winter 2002
pp. 129-148 | 10.1353/con.2003.0001

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Configurations 10.1 (2002) 129-148


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

—Milan Kundera, Slowness

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." 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." 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 relation 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." 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.

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." Other limit cases of ecstasy—"erotolalia," "saints, the berserk and the possessed"—are sadly marred by "impatient terseness and an alien inflection." 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." 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 the bag of bones we drag around attached to our heads" as "we trill across the structures of cyberspace." 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." Breedlove's crash "brings it all back to earth." 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. 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...

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