Electric Life: Virilio & Levinas

“Horror is somehow a movement which will strip consciousness of its very “subjectivity”.”
— Emmanuel Levinas | Existence and Existents

The power is back on! Last weekend, Kansas City was bombarded by a winter storm. It was the type of snow that comes once every ten years or so. Wet, thick, heavy, clumpy. It gathered on the old tress and power lines like the menacing little birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 classic. Nature? This is the snow that gives zero fucks about our lives. This winter hell got underway Friday afternoon. My power went out at around 3 AM on Saturday and didn’t come back on until late Sunday night (many people are still without power). As I laid there in the cold dark underneath three blankets conserving what little smartphone battery I had left, one thing kept returning to my thoughts: Virilio and Levinas were right.

Paul Virilio, the philosopher of speed, has discussed the connections between speed, light, time, space and energy throughout the course of his whole career. For him, different configurations of speed and technology give rise to extremely different worlds.

“Ever since we open not just our curtains but also turn on the television, the light of day has been modified: to the solar day of astronomy, the uncertain day of candlelight, to electric light, is now added an electronic false day whose calendar is solely that of ‘commutations’ of information without any relation to real time. In this way a time which is instantaneously exposed succeeds the time which passes of chronology and history.”
(The Lost Dimension, p. 14)

Our time is an electric time. Our world is an electric world. Our life is an electric life. We exist in a certain speed-light-electricity-climate assemblage. We have a 24/7 Sun. We have a synthetic temporality. We know nothing of what it used to be like to live on this planet. When human life was lived in accordance to nature’s rhythms. I, for one, do not romanticize that past. Good fucking riddance! However, we must not kid ourselves about the situation. The “safety” and “security” of Electric Land is a sort of fantasy come to life, but with all the vulnerability of fantasy preserved inside its coordinates. Our electricity is the fragile electric. The plasma Sun will rise tomorrow, but what about the 24/7 Sun?

Every new dromosphere (speed-space) brings with it new potential catastrophes. A novel and “progressive” acceleration of a society’s technological order will bring with it all kinds of new and unforeseeable risks and dangers. Virilio refers to this sort of threat as the accident.

“Every technology produces, provokes, programs a specific accident. For example: when they invented the railroad, what did they invent? An object that allowed you to go fast, which allowed you to progress — a vision à la Jules Verne, positivism, evolutionism. But at the same time they invented the railway catastrophe.”
(Pure War, p. 46)

In other words, any given regime of techno-speed will be haunted by the accident and the destabilizing effects it would have on the world. To borrow a term from Jacques Derrida and Mark Fisher, we can speak of the hauntology of the accident. In Lacanian terms, the accident is the Real of the Symbolic dromosphere. The accident is always there in the background waiting to explode from out of the gap in our comfy predicability. But what is waiting for us on the other side of the accident? What monster will we face if the 24/7 Sun burns out? What is truly haunting the electric functionality of our lives and routines? Nothing other than the elements.

Emmanuel Levinas reflected a great deal on the elements or the elemental. He used the French term il y a (translated “there is”) to designate this threatening dimension of reality. The impersonal and anonymous aspect of reality, that mute slice of the Real lacking in concern and consideration, the cold night of nature’s blank stare, is il y a. Simply put, the elements of il y a have to do with the forces of nature that are completely indifferent to human wellbeing. Of course, human existence would be impossible without these elements. Levinas even talks about how our homes or dwellings enable our “bathing in the element” (Totality and Infinity, p. 132). Nevertheless, in themselves, elements care nothing for us.

“. . . “there is” is the phenomenon of impersonal being: “it”. My reflection on this subject starts with childhood memories. One sleeps alone, the adults continue life; the child feels the silence of his bedroom as “rumbling.” . . . It is something resembling what one hears when one puts an empty shell close to the ear, as if the emptiness were full, as if the silence were a noise. It is something one can also feel when one thinks that even if there were nothing, the fact that “there is” is undeniable. Not that there is this or that; but the very scene of being is open: there is. In the absolute emptiness that one can imagine before creation — there is. . . . I insist in fact on the impersonality of the “there is”; “there is,” as “it rains,” or “its night.” And there is neither joy nor abundance: it is a noise returning after every negation of this noise. Neither nothingness nor being. I sometimes use the expression: the excluded middle. One cannot say of this “there is” which persists that it is an event of being. One can neither say that it is nothingness, even though there is nothing. Existence and Existents tries to describe this horrible thing, and moreover describes it as horror and panic.”
(Ethics and Infinity, pp. 48–9)

There is horror in the there is. “The rustling of the there is . . . is horror” (Existence and Existents, p. 55). One reason it is horrifying is precisely because it stands to shatter our very being-in-the-world. To devour the world is to devour Dasein (humankind). And insofar as our world is an electric one, the “there is” stands as an ominous threat to our electric selfhood.

“In horror a subject is stripped of his subjectivity, of his power to have private existence. The subject is depersonalized. “Nausea,” as a feeling for existence, is not yet a depersonalization; but horror turns the subjectivity of the subject, his particularity qua entity, inside out. It is a participation in the there is, in the there is which returns in the heart of every negation, in the there is that has “no exits.” It is, if we may say so, the impossibility of death, the universality of existence even in its annihilation. . . . The haunting spectre, the phantom, constitutes the very element of horror.”
(Existence and Existents, p. 56)

We are all dependent on the sparking substance for the “substance” of our subjectivities. To lose electricity is to lose my basic existential coordinates, my fundamental familiarity and orientation with my world and my position in it. The snow that fell on Kansas City over the weekend is one of the elements of il y a. In the freezing darkness, I was presented with a hint of the horror. The bone-chilling element tucked within the accident. Yes, the power came back on this time. However, climate change looms. What if the fragile electric turns out to be a wee bit too fragile? What if, one day, the power does not come back on? Colonial Kurtz’ last words echo in il y a: “The horror! The horror!” If the day comes when the lights go out and stay out, if the Accident with a capital “A” eventually happens, if the elements engulf us, if the electric life is shallowed up by il y a, we electric consumers all be crying along with David Bryne: “Don’t leave me stranded here! I can’t get used to this lifestyle!”

All the photos in this post were taken by yours truly.

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I would prefer not to.

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