The Aesthetics of Disappearance by Paul Virilio

by Alan Ashton-Smith

6 August 2009

cover art

The Aesthetics of Disappearance

Paul Virilio

(Semiotexte / Smart Art)
US: May 2009

I wonder what Paul Virilio thought of Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. Hughes is one of the many points of reference in this examination of the society of speed, and he is a fitting example, as both aviation and filmmaking are seen as prime contributors to this society.

As befits a book about speed, The Aesthetics of Disappearance is a slender volume that can be comfortably digested in less time than the 170-minutes required to sit through Scorsese’s epic. But this is not to say that Scorsese portrays Hughes in an inappropriate style: we must remember that Hughes ended up choosing a sedentary life, that of the viewer of films, sitting in a darkened room with a movie projector. By shutting himself off from the world, says Virilio, Hughes surpassed temporality.

Perhaps Hughes requires further examination though, specifically in his role as a filmmaker. At screenings of his films, as was the case when I went to see The Aviator, as is the case in any cinema, the audience finds itself in the same time-surpassing position of Hughes. Virilio points out that at a concert, the musicians hold the audience in place, as to walk out is to criticise the performance. At the cinema, the hold of the performance is far looser, but it is still present. Hughes’ decision to exist entirely in the thrall of film is to submit to this hold and abandon the pace of the real world.

Although this book predates Scorsese’s film by almost a quarter of a century, the new edition of Philip Beitchman’s English translation shows that its concepts remain relevant. His use of cinema is of course timeless – he draws on Méliès’ notion that ‘cinema is not a seventh art, but an art that combines all of the others: drawing, painting, architecture, music, but also mechanical, electrical works, etc’. So it is a marriage of motionless media, and moving parts.

Méliès is also a reference point for Virilio’s examination of cinematic special effects. His illusionism results in something between the real and the unreal; Virilio describes his technique as ‘the production of appearance’.

The voyeur and the traveler are associated with one another; to view is to move. But sometimes there is an disappearance of both motion and viewing. The key concept introduced in The Aesthetics of Disappearance is picnolepsy – the condition of brief lapses in time, momentary absences of consciousness, in Virilio’s words, fleeting instances of life escaping. Picnolepsy is produced by speed, and is a characteristic of the pace at which we live our lives.

Virilio’s territory is vast, a terrain that could only be covered in its entirety at a supersonic speed. But he successfully negotiates myriad points of reference in a gratifying compact book. He deals not with landmarks, but with the wider landscape of the journey – the view from a car window, the moment in a train journey when one passes another train and both locomotives appear as though they are standing still, the drift between object and context.

Disneyland is a stopping point not for its cinematic references, but due to the circumstances of its conception – Walt Disney’s unceasing rate of thinking led him to envisage it whilst waiting for his daughter to finish a ride on a merry-go-round. In general though, there are no set destinations – we are simply along for the ride. Our vehicles are numerous and varied: fast cars, fighter planes and the dollies that carry movie cameras; our travel companions equally diverse, ranging from Huxley to Mountbatten to Liszt.

The text jumps regularly between the static and the moving, resulting in a narrative that continually accelerates and then halts. This fitful way of writing is an example of the picnoleptic; Virilio’s book does not simply show us how we live at high speed, but immerses us in this rate of existence.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has said that ‘if you are looking for what is in reality more real than reality itself – look into cinematic fiction’. Although the The Aesthetics of Disappearance is a non-fictional text, it is an unusual and fascinating book in that it demands to be received in the same way as both cinema and fiction. In other words, Virilio has produced a work of cinematic fiction that appears to us as a book of philosophy.

The Aesthetics of Disappearance


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