|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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.