The Next Distraction

Paul Virilio, The Great Accelerator

Polity Press, 100pp, £9.99, ISBN 9780745653891

reviewed by Paul Ennis

This short little book, coming in at less than a hundred pages, is perhaps Paul Virilio’s most compact expression of ‘dromological’ reasoning to date (dromology being the logic of speed). The French cultural theorist is best known for his writings on technology and visual media, but the battlefield he addresses in The Great Accelerator is vaster. It is now a religious, planetary, and cosmological warzone. He has been building toward a universal statement on the state of our planet many years, but I am not sure this is it; the book’s tiny frame makes that impossible. However, it does achieve something else and that is to simultaneously mimic and critique the almost comical speed with which events today play out. The book was first published in French in 2010 and its frantic style likely may have proven more appropriate at that time, when its guiding events (the breakdown of the CERN Collider, the collapse of Lehman Brothers) were still fresh in people’s minds, but this actually helps confirm Virilio’s basic point about just how short our memories have become.

There is a quiet, implicit logic to The Great Accelerator. It is a book about time and more specifically about the war for time: having it, losing it, and underestimating it. In Virilio’s vision of our world we can be dispossessed of time, and this can mean losing the mundane (having time-to-waste) or the significant (having a future). Current trends are, from this perspective, conspiring to override any temporal sense we have that might seek to escape from the instant. This instant is a perverse rendering of the ‘moment’ that many contemplative forms of thinking concern themselves with. The instant grants ‘moments’ that arrive too fast and every single one is gobbled up by the next. Each occlusion chips away at the past and the power of memory ebbs away in a time of instant technological recall. The future becomes just the promise of other instants. The present, Virilio’s real focus in this text, is just confusing.

A peculiar effect of the logic of the instant is that it embeds itself across a range of systems and so influences them to be erratic, unpredictable, and prone to crashes. Re-booting just defers the next crash. And, contra Marx’s prediction, there does not seem to be any reason to expect a definitive crash. For Virilio what is at stake in all this is the excluded logic of the universal or, better yet, the Catholic. The instant is the enemy of the universal in that it promotes disintegration through individualism (in a broad sense), and in doing so denigrates the collective. At times, Virilio comes across as a prophet who has arrived with a message from the future only to find everyone is distracted by their iPhones.

The prophetic dimension has its down-to-earth angle in our current mania for modelling and forecasting. This predictive tendency affects us all since our democracies now operate according to the whims of the market: wild forms of insecurity are everywhere being generated and symptoms are spread so widely it is difficult to assign causes beyond the vague notion of ‘capital’. Virilio responds to the indeterminacy of capital by zeroing in on what he sees as some exemplary phenomena associated with it: market crashes, the erosion of private life, the hubris of CERN, and many others.

Squeezed in between Virilio’s remarks on current events is a critique of the ‘infinitely short term’ as a temporality that occludes all other temporalities. Intuitively we know this. In response to the loss of the past we rush to memorialise. The future is lost in advance. We encroach on this weekend because we want to create time for a future that will invariably be deferred by some other pressing task. Forms of entertainment render both precarious. As Virilio has long been pointing out, ours is an image-drenched society populated by people with cheap umbrellas. All this contributes to a sense that a life less plugged-in is a fantasy; never mind a life not tethered to the instant. Fractalisation is now the norm. But this ought not to be interpreted in a purely passive sense. Many benefit from the confusion, but Virilio is hinting that even they may slowly be realising just how tenuous our grip is on the tools we yield.

Stock traders are infuriated to discover that the spin of the Earth is distorting the purity of instantaneous trading, and so they aim to annul its effects. The result is the crash; the kind an online-gambler with unlimited credit might face when all temporal, spatial, and logical limits are removed. Physicists are ‘at war with time’ as they spend massive resources seeking to replicate conditions about whose consequences they are not sure . And meanwhile, back on Earth, the urban exodus continues alongside the online voyage that becomes increasingly less exciting as domestication stamps its authority of the terrain. Although the book’s blurb tells us that Virilio intends to rewrite ‘The Book of Exodus’, what we really find is something closer to a phenomenology of the motives of the agents of the instant. This theologically-inflected phenomenology reveals to us that speculators are secularists/atheists whose faith in progress is undermined by their actions. The physicists of CERN are cosmotheists who expend vast amounts of wealth on seeking to illuminate the nature of all-that-is. From their underground bunker they undertake this task with little concern for what Virilio terms ‘common reality’ . Where better to get oneself lost in an age of mass-suffering than in a cosmological landscape inhabited by a God particle?

While great minds remain distracted the collective is everywhere forced toward the ever-receding rural, toward self-imposed petty-distractions, and all manner of alternative zones of exclusion. In the era of the internet contemplative time no more exists in the country than in the city; ours is a world where monasteries are mostly online. The old-fashioned quest for God just doesn’t cut it anymore. The Hadron Collider is, as many have noted and Virilio agrees, a ‘cathedral,’. This is not just some pithy comparison. Recognising that the results may turn out to be momentous, it is difficult to disagree with the spirit behind CERN. And yet there is no doubt that when these results arrive they will be processed through a frenzied media, rendered unrecognisable in the instantaneous reaction of the internet, and then forgotten in the sense of becoming no longer exciting. Its meaning will be condensed, made palatable for reason in the age of the instant, and we’ll move onto the next distraction. The great acceleration will trundle ever onwards.