ISSN 1466-4615



Sean Cubitt

Unnatural Reality





Paul Virilio

_The Vision Machine_

Translated by Julie Rose

London: British Film Institute, 1994

ISBN 0-253-32574-9 (hbk) 0-253-20901-3 pbk

81 pages


If we are to make any use of Virilio, we will have to stand him on his head. Virilio's position is liberal-humanist. His liberalism stems from a belief that we inhabit a militarised society on a trajectory towards the classical liberal scenario of apocalypse. His humanism arises from a Christian phenomenology curiously akin to that of Andre Bazin. _The Vision Machine_ addresses the intersection of these two themes in 'the logistics of perception'.


'It is a war of images and sounds, rather than objects and things, in which winning is simply a matter of not losing sight of the opposition. The will to see all, to know all, at every moment, everywhere, the will to universalised illumination: a scientific permutation on the eye of God which would forever rule out the surprise, the accident, the irruption of the unforeseen' (70)


Here Virilio's themes are brought together. War has changed, in the era of stealth bombers and smart weapons, by a process of absolute acceleration, from the face-to-face struggle for occupation of physical space to a thoroughly mediated struggle for absolute surveillance. This absolute surveillance and its counter, camouflage and deception, are extended to the politics of the militarised state. In the meantime, visual media accelerated to the point of instantaneity has altered the terms of perception, through the ambition to emulate God, in the erasure of the contingent which marks the perception of reality.


Here as elsewhere, Virilio's translators do not serve his sense of the word 'accident' well. The term not only refers us to catastrophe but to the Aristotelian distinction between accidence and substance. In Virilio's terms, mediation eradicates first the substance, the immutable essence of objects, and later, in a second movement from mechanical to electronic media, obliterates even the accidence, the material form in which substance presents itself to perception. The reality of an object's image is thus displacing the virtuality of its presence (64); that is, in transmission, even the materiality of the image is substituted in a process of virtualisation in some ways the offspring of military dissimulation. We are then faced with the 'fusion of the object with its equivalent image' (68) tending towards 'an artificial reality involving digital simulation that would oppose the 'natural reality' of classical experience' (76).


Here as throughout his work, Virilio depends upon a belief in the wholeness of perception independent of cognition. This depends upon i) a whole event or state of affairs in the world which is ii) simultaneous with iii) a whole perception of that state of affairs. This phenomenology of perception, which appears to derive from Husserl, shares Husserl's dilemma over the relation between perception, memory (retentions) and expectation (protensions). Immediate perception is ascribed, in both Husserl and Virilio, with temporal and spatial contiguity and with instantaneous and mutual wholeness of both perception and perceived. Yet the duration introduced by cognitive functions of retention and protension shatters the wholeness of both. Virilio correctly notes that mediated perception does not share this immediacy. However, since he does not believe that perception is in every case mediated, both by the phenomenal aspect that the perceived takes on in the moment of perception, and by the retentions and protensions of the perceiver, he understands mediation as a fall from grace, from a natural perception which, in its integration of human and world, provided the basis of human identity. He is therefore free to declare that higher degrees and velocities of mechanical perception are the phenomenal form of a collapse of both humanity and reality, 'as though our society were sinking into the darkness of a voluntary blindness' (76).


To turn Virilio on his head, it is sufficient to point out, with Derrida, [1] that consciousness has no present. Moreover, since the world is never self-present either, mediation is perception. This is not to say that we should therefore embrace uncritically the loss of human identity, or that we should abandon the Bazinian project for a cinema in which 'life might . . . be the self into which film finally changes it'. [2] It does suggest, however, that we proceed beyond a state in which social relations appear in 'the fantastical form of relations between things'. [3]


Liverpool John Moores University, England





1. Jacques Derrida, _Speech and Phenomena_, trans. David B Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 60-69.


2. Andre Bazin, 'Umberto D: A Great Work', in _What is Cinema?_, Volume 2, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 82.


3. Karl Marx, _Capital: A Critique of Political Economy_, Volume 1, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: NLB/Penguin, 1976), p. 165.




Sean Cubitt, 'Unnatural Reality',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 9, February 1999 <>.


Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999




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