Film/Telecommunication -- Benjamin/Virilio by Lev Manovich
A summary of some of Paul Virilio's most important ideas.
Writing about telecommunication and telepresence, Virilio  [like Benjamin] uses the concept of distance to understand their effect. In Virilio's reading, these technologies collapse the physical distances, uprooting the familiar patterns of perception which grounded our 
culture and politics. 
        Virilio introduces the terms Small Optics and Big Optics to underline the dramatic nature of this change. Small Optics are based on geometric perspective and shared by human vision, painting and film. It involves the distinctions between near and far, between an object and 
a horizon against which the object stands out. Big Optics is real-time electronic transmission of information, "the active optics of time passing at the speed of light." 
        As Small Optics are being replaced by Big Optics, the distinctions characteristic of the former are erased. If information from any point can be transmitted with the same speed, the concepts of near and far, horizon, distance and space itself no longer have any meaning. (So, if for Benjamin the industrial age displaced, dislocated every object from its original setting, for Virilio the post-industrial age eliminates the dimension of space altogether.) At least in principle, every point on Earth is now instantly accessible from any other point on Earth. As a consequence, Big Optics locks us in a claustrophobic world without any depth or horizon; the Earth becomes our prison. 
        Virilio asks us to notice "the progressive derealization of the terrestrial horizon, ... resulting in an impending primacy of real time perspective, of undulatory optics over the real space of the linear geometrical optics of the Quattrocento." He mourns the destruction of 
distance, geographic grandeur, the vastness of natural space, the vastness which guaranteed time delay between events and our reactions, giving us time for critical reflection necessary to arrive at a correct decision. The regime of Big Optics inevitably leads to real time politics, the politics which requires instant reactions to the events transmitted with the speed of light, and which ultimately can only be efficiently handled by computers responding to each other. 
        Given the surprising similarity of Benjamin's and Virilio's accounts of new technologies, it is telling how differently they draw the boundaries between natural and cultural, between what is already assimilated within the human nature and what is still new and threatening. Writing in 1936, Benjamin uses the real landscape and a painting as examples of what is natural for human perception. This natural state is invaded by film which collapses distances, bringing everything equally close and destroys aura. 
        Virilio, writing half a century later, draws lines quite differently. By now film, which for Benjamin still represented an alien presence, became part of our human nature, the continuation of our natural sight. Virilio considers human vision, Renaissance perspective, 
painting and film as all belonging to Small Optics of geometric perspective in contrast to the Big Optics of instant electronic transmission. 
        Virilio postulates a historical break between film and telecommunication, between Small Optics and Big Optics. It is also possible to read the movement from the first to the second in terms of continuity --  if we are to use the concept of modernization. Modernization is ccompanied by the process of disruption of the physical space and matter, the process which privileges interchangeable and mobile signs over the original objects and relations. In the words of Jonathan Crary (who draws on Deleuze and Guattari's ANTI-OEDIPUS and on Marx's GRANDRISSE)  "Modernization is the process by which capitalism uproots and makes mobile that which is grounded, clears away or obliterates that which impedes circulation, and makes exchangeable what is singular." This definition fits equally well 
Benjamin's account of film and Virilio's account of telecommunication, the latter just being more advanced stage in this continual process of turning objects into mobile signs. 
Before, different physical locations met within a single magazine spread or a film newsreel; now, they meet within a single electronic screen.  Of course, the signs now themselves exist as digital data which makes their transmission and manipulation even easier. Also, in 
contrast to photographs, which remain fixed once they are printed, digital representation makes every image inherently mutable -- creating signs which are no longer just mobile but also forever modifiable. Yet, significant as they are, these are ultimately quantitative 
rather than qualitative differences -- with one exception.
        What may be radically new in electronic telecommunication, in contrast to film, is that it can function as a two-way communication. Not only the user can immediately obtain images of various locations, bringing them together with a single electronic screen, but, via 
telepresence, she can also be "present" in these locations. In other words, she can affect change on material reality over physical distance in real time. In this way, electronic communication makes instantaneous not only the process by which objects are turned into 
signs but also the reverse process -- manipulation of objects through these signs.
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