- Accelerating Beyond the Horizon
Architect, political theorist, and cultural critic, Paul Virilio is best known for his phenomenological critique of technology and militarism. In this work, as in his other writings, Virilio contends that recent developments in technoculture can best be understood by studying changes in military and political transportation and information transmission. “Dromology,” his term for this study, emphasizes the impact of speed on the organization of territory and culture.
Originally published in French in 1996 under the title Un paysage d’événements, A Landscape of Events continues Virilio’s study of “dromocratic culture” and “the disastrous effects of speed on the interpretation of events” (31). Virilio’s major premise in this book is that space has been replaced by time; the Kantian argument for absolute space as the first principle of human experience is no longer applicable because space has imploded. In Kant’s discussions, the coherent visual field in which the multitude of appearances is organized is a consequence of spatiality, which is given a priori to our experience. Today, Virilio argues, what we see is not spatially organized: it is a swarm of fragmented images beamed at us at ever more furious speeds. Cyberspace is not a physical space—there are no coordinates of length, height, or depth; it exists only in time. The Internet is only one example of how space has drifted away from time. Virilio takes as his starting point mathematician Hermann Minkowski’s claim that only a union between space and time will preserve an independent reality and then works through various causes for the implosion of space.
Perhaps it is because Virilio so strenuously advocates for the redemption of space that his book begins in the least redeemed space of all—metropolitan cities. The sun never sets on the urban empires of New York, Paris, and London. Electric lights blaze 24/7; people move through the city at night as if it were daylight, and this gives him pause. In the book’s first chapter, “The Big Night,” Virilio argues that the constant flicker of urban light has prevented our bodies from producing melatonin, a chemical related in the body’s nocturnal phase. Melatonin tells our bodies that night has fallen and we should go to sleep. The increase in the number of prescriptions for melatonin suggests not only that our bodies’ ability to produce necessary chemicals and biological agents on its own is in jeopardy, but also that our bodies can no longer distinguish the difference between night and day. Our twenty-four-hour clock never winds down; we are speeding up, we are always on. The loss of this chemical, Virilio contends, indicates that our adaptation is no longer to our natural surroundings, but to our urban ones.
While our bodies are becoming synchronized with our man-made surroundings, these very spaces are undergoing similarly significant transformations. In Virilio’s view, space is dwindling into time not because of increased urbanization, but because of the increasing importance placed on information—the intangible data, facts, perceptions, interpretations, and propositions that obtain in different cases at different times. In an interview with Andreas Ruby (“Architecture,” 180), Virilio explains this process using the example of a mountain. In this case, the mass and energy of a mountain is linked to a fixed source or foundation: the density of the mountain. By contrast, information is not linked to a fixed source or foundation; it evolves constantly. The mountain’s name, its national location, climate, mineral composition, and topography are all relative to a particular point in time. In this sense the mountain is shaped and formed by technological advances in politics (the nation could change and thus the national location of the mountain could change, too), meteorology, geology, and cartography. Given the real impact of political events and technological developments, the information about the mountain matters more than the matter that composes the mountain.
One could easily insist that the density of a mountain matters less than its name, be it Mount Everest, Mont Blanc, or Kilimanjaro. Privileging the discourse produced about the mountain over its physical...