Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 42, November 2002



Ted Kafala


Cinematic Media in the Age of the Quantum Particle



Paul Virilio

_Polar Inertia_

London: Sage Publications, 2000

ISBN 0-7619-5802-9 (hb) 0-7619-5803-7 (pbk)

103 pp.


Paul Virilio's recent book, _Polar Inertia_, presents an elegant and sometimes artful analysis of two emerging technoscientific realities: 1, the cultural shift toward 'sightless', 'lensless' digital imaging and representation, with some focus on its effects on the cinematic sense of time and the remote transmission of online media; and 2, the effects of the emission as photonic light and other quantum phenomena of our 'bodies' (in remote *telepresence*) and our 'minds' (as virtual data and information), as the existential, live manifestations of the 'new physics'. With the recent release of Jennifer Leigh and Alan Cumming's _The Anniversary Party_, one of the the first full length, mainstream feature films to be shot and edited entirely with digital equipment (the transfer to 35mm celluloid appears as an unnecessary after-effect, or moot point in the film's production), and the sudden emergence of completely unreal, virtual leading actors in 3D animated films, such as _Final Fantasy_, the recent technocultural shifts to digital 'vision' are still eventful and topical.


Simulation in an era of post-photographic technologies involves the reproduction and consumption of multiple visual surfaces and images that are oftentimes photorealistic but also somehow 'unreal'. Virilio's ideas seem to raise the question: How do the capabilities behind digital imaging challenge the assumptions about real-time interaction and notions of time and space embodied in conventional film theory? This is too concrete a question for Virilio to answer directly in this book, but he does make inferences that lead his readers to conclude that computer imaging provides new horizons and thresholds for cinematic theory, particularly in deliberations over the nature of pure simulation.



The 'New Physics' of Digital Vision


Virilio heralds a major cultural shift in cinematic form, from conventional Renaissance perspective and depth of field, to sightless, digital, synthetic vision. The basis of this emerging *teletopological* cinematic representation are the rapid processes surrounding the *disintegration of indirect light*, or more precisely, the optics of photonic light. Virilio explains that the turn in favor of 'tele-videography' and the proliferation of small digital cameras, including Webcams, (of course) involves the compression of ordinary objects into scattered Cartesian arrays of 3D pixels, but also the rather new, instantaneous transmission of perceptible appearances over optic fiber networks in a way unrelated to 'ordinary' analog mass media communication (2). The resulting synthetic perspective is not unlike some kind of paraoptic perception, but deviates from all antecedents by its (trans)mutation of both appearances and distances into light energy.


Consequently, even the somewhat contemporary video signal is transformed and digitally rendered from electromagnetic wave to photonic energy, a process that Virilio marks as the possible union between wave optics and relativist cinema. However, I am convinced that Virilio often merges and fails to discern the distinctions between the electromagnetic and quantum light technologies around which he weaves tangled discursive threads throughout the book. Until Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, physics has rarely been accessible to the nonspecialist, and more seldom the stuff of trope and metaphor as it is here. Nevertheless, _Polar Inertia_ is an important book for beginning to assess the revolutionary cultural impact of digital *visionics* in media studies, for affirming the crisis of representation and ambiguity surrounding the factual in the visual domain, and for anticipating the age of paradoxical logic and *telepresence* (as the possibility of the 'actual' end of modernity).


In this context, one also has to wonder whether Virilio's acknowledgment of *speed* as the engine of the acceleration, breakdown, and parabolic distortion of images (and imaging) redeems an anti-ocularcentric turn in Western thought (particularly French poststructuralist thought); or does it forewarn of an active *hyperCartesianism* and extension of classical optical communication by 'electro-optical' communication. Species of anti-ocularcentric discourse resist the static taxonomies of a rigid space- time in modernist vision, whereby *knowing* was no longer an imitation of the world based on similitude, but a self-contained universal science whose function was to represent forms, magnitudes, quantities, and relations of objects in a homogenous, mechanical space. Virilio pays homage to Foucault and Merleau-Ponty in this regard for shaking up the order of things in the Western eye, disturbing the primacy of perception, and questioning the 'electronic apartheid' of the media world (although he perhaps deliberately neglects Gilles Deleuze and Luce Irigaray when they criticize Western thought for its reverence of mimetic representations, for its rejection of phantasms, its consumption of women for *specularization*, and its framed, visual reduplication of male-dominated ideas).


The reader of _Polar Inertia_, then, is led to believe that the shift toward sightless, digital vision is a movement away from the modernist perception that emphasizes the movement of visual information in a mechanical, linear, segmented time, and toward a new perceptual revolution deriving from past and present breakthroughs in quantum theory. Virilio, however, is highly critical of the effects of the 'lensless', synthetic, point to point digitalization/manipulation of appearances, and the accelerated 'photonic' transmission of those appearances. He suggests that the effects of the new 'active' optics are a deepening of some of the negative aspects of Cartesian objectivism and conventional camera cinematography, particularly regarding the emergence of paradoxical forms of duration and space-time regimes.



Digital Technologies and Regimes of Cinematic Space-Time


Virilio explains that the origins of the paradoxical logic and erasure of images in the digital realm lies in photography and cinematography: photography created a chronoscopic system of underexposed, exposed, and overexposed instant snapshots, leading to the consideration of the time of succession as a series of instants with little or no duration. Similarly, in cinematography, the reduction of the through-time of one frame of film (to 30 frames per second) over many years, offset by the spatial elongation of the graphic film itself (to 35mm, 70mm in Omnimax), has resulted in substantial temporal foreshortening (60). The progressive speeding up of space-time in this media both approaches and is dependent on the almost absolute zero interval of *light-time*, the speed and frequency of the photon-bearing wave, or time no longer stopped! Therefore, Virilio suggests a close relationship between camera photography (an epitome of modernist technology) and digital high-resolution perception based on binary information and photon particle transmission.


The 'direct lighting' associated with the camera obscura of Renaissance perspectivists conveyed a 'new representation of the world' that led to the 'passive' classical optics of the lens and, much more recently, to interactive computer-videography (31). However, the strength of this historical trajectory, and the role of conventional optics, if any, in digital *visionics*, remains to be debated. It is more difficult to dispute the obvious recent alterations in representation and display from wall surface to screen, multiple window, and various other forms of computer interface. The reliance on the rapid movement of light in digital technologies, beyond Virilio's fondness for the fusion of optics and kinematics, does necessitate the revision of the status of those space-time regimes and classical intervals of extension and duration known before modern photography. Virilio suggests as outcomes: 1, a relativist concept of temporality; and 2, a more immediate, intuitive 'real-time telereality' that supplants the real-space reality of objects and places.


With the 'new physics' and the crisis in temporal and spatial absolutism, the constant speed of quantum light (photons as 'active' quantum of light) becomes the yardstick that delimits the parameters of the perceived world, permitting multiple points of view and a relativist concept of time as successive moments. Virilio clarifies how Kant's premise (that time cannot be directly observed) collapses when we consider how Einstein's point-of-view theory corresponds to a realm of photonic, subatomic physical particles (39). In this dimension, quantum theories of representation lead to the infinite deepening of the temporal sense of the 'instant': the measure of duration is no longer 'duration', but minute measures of relativist space-speeds.


Virilio's return to Bergson's concept of multiple durations pushes him closer to Deleuze's study of the cinematic time-image in _Cinema 2_, and Deleuze's interpretation of Bergson's thought itself in _Bergsonism_. In his previous book, _Vision Machine_, Virilio draws on the Bergson of _Matter and Memory_ to delineate the virtual, phatic image, the image-time freeze, as the basis of Proustian multidimensional memories and thoughts. Now Virilio captures the Bergson of _Duration and Simultaneity_, and the intuitive time without duration in quantum events that implodes subject-object distinctions. Bergson, the futurist prophet of relative intensive moments of time, is turned on his head. Deleuze's notion of the time-image in contemporary cinematic approaches does not seem incongruent here as a break with direct representation that shatters the linear, empirical continuation of time, the empty and unfolded form of time, or the separation of the *before* and *after*. Neither does Virilio make a great leap to discuss the implications of an ethics based on perspectivism and a diversity of point-of-view as a consequence of new theories of representation; rather, he is disparaging of any ontological realities that may emerge in digital endo-space, implying that they could only result in distortion, hallucination, quantum dazing, or vertigo (40).



From the Abyss of Inertia


The book concludes with its final chapter, 'Polar Inertia', the state of the optical body in remote telepresence, in 'ersatz time' (Husserl), or at a point of absolute zero consumption and dissipation of kinaesthetic energy. How is such an absolute bodily inertia possible? Does Virilio believe that we are approaching ultimate 'couch potato' stasis through our remote control lifestyles and virtual reality environments? What are the ramifications of such a state of stasis for cinematic representation in online cyberspace realms, or 'sense surround' all encompassing home entertainment systems? Virilio attempts to sell this critical point by making references to Hawking's theory (in _A Brief History of Time_) of the possibilities of a pure dimension of imaginary time and virtual speed in quantum physical spaces, but there are no proofs of the existence of such 'quantum voids', black holes, or absolute infinities without animate organisms. The absence of movement in the non-place of 'interactive' cyberspace may therefore be considered a pure trope.


In _Polar Inertia_'s extremist conclusions, therefore, Virilio may join the group of ultra-pessimistic critics of simplistic portrayals of technoculture (his interesting analysis of the shifts in cinematic representation withstanding). The reader may be reminded of the Baudrillard of _The Illusion of the End_: the radical illusion of the material world that creates media simulations as both the producing and erasing of signs, which render each event as waste and residue in the dustbin of history. Some readers may also be reminded of Kevin Robin's contribution to this debate, _Into the Image_, which fails in its attempt to rupture virtual worlds by overestimating the intoxicating effects of alternative realities rather than firmly uprooting the progressivist technoscientific argument that surrounds virtual reality at its foundations. It all sounds very familiar: as a direct application of the closed Cartesian logic of disembodied and 'transcendental' vision, the new postmodern *scopic* regime disconnects image and experience, isolating images that find their basis in real cultural experience from those that are only *perceived* as real. We exist as phantom particles in a virtual void that encapsulates us like a sensory deprivation box. _Polar Inertia_ is an an interesting and valuable book by an esteemed scholar, but by denying that social ethics and values lie behind the production and consumption of synthetic, simulated environments, interpreting them only as pure appearance, or content-devoid aesthetic form, Virilio (like some who came before him) may be ignoring the importance of everyday language and experience in the understanding of images.


College of Applied Science

University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Ted Kafala, 'Cinematic Media in the Age of the Quantum Particle', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 42, November 2002 <>.




See also two more _Film-Philosophy_ reviews of Virilio books:

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

Douglas Kellner, 'Virilio on Vision Machines',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 30, October 1998 <>.


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