From a chapter drafted for John Armitage (ed) Virilio Now
To build a new future is the greatest of challenges. When Virilio forces us to look into the abyss of final catastrophe, he makes us consider not only what is at stake, but how we might address it. In his pioneering work on ecological politics he demonstrates how much depends on how we see ourselves in relatiuon to the world. Today, as the terrains of 'immaterial labour' and the physical infrastructure of the network coincide, Virilio, in common with feminist phenomenologists of digital media like N. Katherine Hayles (1999), Margaret Morse (1998) and Michelle White (2002), argues against the mind-body split that informs the cyber-visionary desire to leave behind the crumpled, painful 'meat' of the body. Instead, Virilio argues, we have to understand that the general accident is not just a technological flaw, as in his insight that the inventions of the train, the airplane, nuclear power, internet and bio-engineering are always simultaneously the invention of the train crash, the plane wreck, meltdown, information crash and genetic time-bomb. The condition is however more general and formative than that: Virilio notes that 'the production of any 'substance' is simultaneously the production of a typical accident (Virilio 1993: 212). As Jussi Parikka observes of this passage, 'An accident . . . is not in this context intended to mean the opposite of absolute and neccessary, as Aristotelian metaphysics has maintained. Instead, accidents are an inherent part of an entity' (Parikka 2007: 4). This might recall Adorno's praise of disappointment, and perhaps also signal the danger attendant on construing the future not as risk management but as unknowable other. In other words, Virilio points us towards an aesthetics of failure: of the inherent risk that any object – and phenomenologically therefore any subject – runs of failing to continue to be. It comes down then to a duty of care, for the planet, and consequently therefore also for the people who inhabit it. It seems then that Virilio is correct: a putative vectoral network, one that is not self-identical, that evolves without notice, that plunges into accident and disappointment, and in which machines have as much say as humans is a terrifying risk. But it may also be the only way to escape the stifling grid of destruction which is the military, economic, political and cultural standoff of a present which denies hope to the mass of humanity and the planet itself.