Books

The Aesthetics of Disappearance by Paul Virilio

Alan Ashton-Smith

Virilio has produced a work of cinematic fiction that appears to us as a book of philosophy.


The Aesthetics of Disappearance

Publisher: Semiotexte / Smart Art
Length: 128 pages
Author: Paul Virilio
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2009-05
Amazon

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.