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Unknown Quantity

Paul Virilio

(Thames & Hudson (distributed on behalf of the Fondation Cartier, Paris))

A Science of the Accident

“Human power, excessively increased, transforms itself then into a cause of ruin.”
— Leon Poirier


Unknown Quantity has been published alongside a recent exhibition at the Fondation Cartier. The exhibition is a first step towards Paul Virilio’s call for a ‘Museum of Accidents’ in order to “take a stand against the fading of ethical and aesthetic points of reference, and the loss of meaning in which we are so often now not really actors, but witnesses or victims.” According to Paul Virilio, telecommunication and live broadcasting have overturned our traditional understanding of time and space. We are barraged by endless repetitions of accidents in media images. News coverage piles up accident over accident, wreckage over wreckage without ever allowing us space or time to think about them, to conceptualise them—to understand them.


The local accident has become global. Through live broadcasting, time has entered into a state of presence that never becomes a past. There are no proportions, time-scales or periods. News reports about accidents stand beside each other, without making the vaguest attempt to show how one might be interlinked with the other. Recently, in England, a news item was broadcast about the hysterical search for ‘smoking guns’ in Iraq and the inability of the Weapons Inspectors to find a single one. This was followed by an item about the enormous rise in gun ownership in England. However, no connection was made between these two phenomena.


Since we have lost the past, we can no longer reflect upon it and therefore conceptualise what happened in it. We are flooded with accidents by the news media, so much so that they have became a naturalised part of our everyday lives—so much so that the distinction between natural and man-made accident fades—so much so that there is no space for remembrance left. The accident has become routine.


Unknown Quantity is a book for the everyday, which counteracts the everyday naturalisation of the accident. Over 300 illustrations fuse documentary evidence of accidents with art works on accidents spanning through three centuries. News footage is here detached from its routinised and naturalised occurrence, and placed into a new space, the space of art, in which it can newly be looked at and conceptualised. Hannah Arendt said that “Progress and catastrophe are the opposite faces of the same coin”—this book is a compilation, a counterpart, the anti-history to any other histories of progress. Here we are facing the history of catastrophes and of accidents.


The book also seems to further develop themes which were central to David Cronenberg’s Crash—where the outcome of technologisation is the fusion of the human body with the machine and where the wounded body becomes a fact of everyday life. The pictures in this book are somewhat still more disturbing. Here, the human body as wounded body is not shown. Instead, the surface of the earth bears the wounds, its tissue ripped and scarred by catastrophes natural and man-made—blizzards, volcano explosions, earthquakes, nuclear catastrophes, leaking oil tanks. All of these accidents have engraved themselves and left their marks on the earth’s surface.


In most of these pictures, human beings have vanished. This disappearance is still more shocking, because the only things remaining are man-made wreckages which pile up onto each other—derailed trains, crashed cars, debris of smashed airplanes and space shuttles. One of the most horrific sights is a photograph of the tower block front after the Oklahoma City Bombing—humanity, or rather life, has been erased. The building is torn apart like an exploded feather pillow, the inside is turned outside and everyday items, private things, things which were once dear to people, appearing as light as feathers, now pour out of the torn walls, unorganised and uncontrolled, as reminders, as a trace of the humanity which seems to have ceased to exist.


These documentary evidences of accidents are accompanied by artistic works on accidents, which extend the seemingly utopian vision which is in truth the reality we live in. Like at the end of the first Planet of the Apes film they record the ceasing of mankind—its only remains being debris and chaos. This is wonderfully highlighted in art works by Nancy Rubin and Moira Tierney, and in Dominic Angerame’s stills from his short film In the Course of Human Events (1997).


Virilio’s logic is simple but powerful: “No gain without a corresponding loss,” or “to invent the sail is to invent the shipwreck”. It threads through his arguments about the accident, which are comprehensively mapped out and supported by astonishingly prescient remarks by past thinkers such as Aristotle, Nietzsche and Rabelais. These engagements are extended by dialogues and excerpts from Svetlana Aleksievich’s Chernobyl diary, Chernobyl being “An event totally outside the norm. It is an atypical event. It is part of what might be referred to by the term ‘unknown quantity.’ Alongside progress—that is to say, the, the qualitative achievements of science, there is a quantitative logic. The more intense the progress, the more catastrophic and painful the accidents, the tragedies”. Intelligently and carefully, Virilio introduces and exhibits disasters and catastrophes allowing the reader to re-visit and engage with the accident—with the other side of humanity’s achievements.


Unknown Quantity is a work of mourning—mourning for a humanity, an earth which has lost control through globalisation, through the irresponsibility of power-crazy politicians and businessmen. We are standing on the threshold of a new, pre-planned accident. The Bush/Blair sponsored witch trial, where innocence resides only in death, is coming to an end. War is offered up as another inevitable development for the world. Let us follow Virilio’s simple logic and let us imagine possible scenarios. This book is more than necessary; it is urgent.

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