Always keen to bridge and connect seemingly unrelated intellectual territories, I tend to dip into essays of poet-philosophers and cultural theorists stacked near my bed.
Paul Virilio’s ‘Open Sky’ is a recent addition, translated by Julie Rose in 1997. Not an easy read, but the analysis of the social destruction wrought by modern technologies of communication and surveillance drew me in. The last chapter, Escape Velocity, relates a striking experience by Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission. I share it here, within a short excerpt from the chapter, curious to discover what my readers make of it:
… Inflated to fill the dimensions of the world’s space, the time of the present world flashes us a glimpse on our screens of another regime of temporality … Outrageously puffed up by all the commotion of our communication technology, the perpetual present suddenly serves to illuminate duration. Reproducing the alternation between night and the solar day that once organised our ephemerides, the endless day of the reception of events produces an instantaneous lighting of reality that leaves the customary importance of the successive nature of facts in the shade; factual sequences little by little lose their mnemonic value …
… In his memoirs of the first moon landing, Buzz Aldrin in his own way confirms this disqualification of sunlight. Listen to what he has to say from the surface of the night star:
‘The light is also weird. Since there’s no atmosphere, the phenomenon of refraction disappears, so much so that you go directly from total shadow into sunlight, without any transition. When I hold my hand out to stick it in the light, you’d think I was crossing the barrier to another dimension.’
It is as though, for the astronaut, shadow and light were two new dimensions, inasmuch as any kind of transition no longer exists for him. The loss of the phenomena of atmospheric refraction produces a different perception of reality …
Virilio draws a comparison to a similar loss for earthlings … the different degree of illumination which, before the invention of electricity, still marked the hours of the day or the days of the year has become of diminished importance. Under the indirect light from screens and other control centres of the transmission of events, the time of chronological succession evaporates, paving the way for the instantaneous exposure time as harsh as that floodlighting of which Aldrin tells us:
‘On the moon, the sun shines on us like a gigantic spotlight.’
All three astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission had problems after their return to earth. Spatial and temporal disorientation are not easily reconciled with one’s reality identification. Virilio writes … as for Aldrin, after two nervous breakdowns, several detoxification treatments for alcohol abuse and a divorce, he was to wind up in a psychiatric ward.
Struck by Aldrin’s experience, I thought about the increased screen time, especially now so many of us engage in since the corona virus changed our rhythm of interaction with nature, local environments, family, friends, and the wider world.
I first pondered the cultural implications of the digital advent during a mid-1990s film degree as a mature student. For those interested – my post from 2018 gives a flavour of my dissertation – click here for ‘Body Electric- – it’s worth a visit.
John Wheeler came up with the idea of the universe as self-observing system (being.) Light travels at 186 000 miles per second. When we look into deep space we are seeing galaxies over ten billion years old. In that sense everything we see is in a past, which our observing consciousness creates. So I ask myself what realities do we envision during this surreal corona time, individually and collectively?
Is Paul Virilio’s bleak vision justified? Is the hyper centre of present time becoming the sole reference axis of worldwide activity? Is the individual of the scientific age, with diminished positional reference, losing the capacity to experience him/herself at the centre of energy?
Click here for an article from the Frieze magazine.
And if you’re brave, read this fascinating & sobering interview of Paul Virilio by Caroline Dumoucel.
Or – can we create enough pockets of stillness to counter the acceleration of the fall upwards, of progress propaganda, and instead re-connect to body, earth and roots?
P. S. All links in the post open a new window.