Paul Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance considers the motivations and repercussions of a contemporary society fascinated by speed.
Speed, or velocity, is understood literally as space (distance) mapped against time (duration), reaching its absolute limit in light, which collapses both space and time. Virilio is attuned precisely to the culturally correlated obsession with moving (driving, flying, riding) at high speeds and viewing (watching) moving (light) images. At this limit, light (absolute speed) dissolves the dualism suspended between these phenomena, that of embodied motion and that of disembodied stimulus.
Entwined within his writings is a socio-political narrative, one that Virilio articulates has a direct relationship between speed and power: a speed that affects invisibility, and an invisibility that affects power.
When writing of Howard Hughes, who was one of the wealthiest people in the world and setter of multiple air speed records, Virilio notes that for the last quarter of his life Hughes, having pursued traditional avenues of wealth and having indeed accumulated quite a fortune, became a recluse of a particular sort of reclusion predicated on conjuring an inertia via speed. Faced with his impending death and haunted by the seeming transience of his material fortune, Hughes attempted a certain spatio-temporal simultaneity, parking the same unused cars and airplanes at airports across country, watching from his bed the same films again and again, and, in 1938, breaking the world air record for circumnavigating the world and then parking his triumphant airplane in the precise place it had stood before he had departed.
In enacting such loops, Hughes effects a certain omnipresent banality, the effect of remaining same across time and space. In the obsession with speed that occupies the latter portion of Hughes’ life Virilio argues that the real object of Hughes’ desire is not speed but rather an absolute power, a power as much over ones own physical mortality as over other people.
The example of Hughes speaks more generally of the insidious duplicity of speed. Hughes is himself seduced by the reflexive narcotic of speed and its effectual weakening of embodied consciousness via the sensory dismissal of embodied temporality.
Reading this book has made me think further about how it is temporal events, accumulative or singular, that shape this space. I feel that it is these events that give this otherwise anonymous space an identity yet it is speed, movement and continuous transience that counteracts our ability to experience the non-space as an accumulation of our own incidences.