Scott McQuire on Wed, 21 Oct 1998 21:47:15 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Pure Speed: From Transport to Teleport

Pure Speed: From Transport to Teleport
Scott McQuire

We must try to find a form to express the new absolute Q speed Q which any
true modern spirit cannot ignore Umberto Boccioni. 

Video isn't I see, it's I fly.
Nam June Paik.

In 1825, on a gentle twenty mile descent between Shildon and Stockton
Quay, George StephensonUs Locomotion became the first steam train to haul
passengers along a public railway.  Wild scenes ensued as an excited band
of riders accompanied it to its journeyUs end before a crowd of forty
thousand.  The twenty-one gun salute celebrating the achievement announced
the emergence of a new era in which mechanically powered vehicles would
finally sever traditional links between force and motion.  Subsequent
history has been so decisively shaped by this revolution that different
incarnations of the engine Q steam, combustion, jet, rocket Q have been
used to mark successive thresholds of a modern era which is itself
characterized by perpetual movement.  The train, the automobile and the
aeroplane have completely modified all human relations to distance and
speed, approaching a terminal point with rocketry in which the earth
itself becomes merely a launching pad for potentially infinite ! journeys
into endless space. 

If velocity has been at the heart of each of these revolutions, it is not
only the increased speed each new wave of vehicles has achieved, but also
the ascending rate at which they have transformed social and political
relations.  Over a century ago Marx noted the critical importance of rapid
movement to the development of a global capitalist economy: 

[W]hile capital on one side must strive to tear down every spatial barrier
to intercourse, i.e. to exchange, and conquer the whole earth for its
market, it strives on the other side to annihilate this space with time,
i.e. to reduce to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to
another.  The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive
the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its
circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater
extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space with time.1

This trajectory underpins the emergence of speed as the prime quotient of
modern social relations.  When Marinetti proclaimed in his Futurist
Manifesto of 1909 that 'Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in
the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed', he was
voicing a desire which became a destiny for the new century.2
Modernization has become synonymous with acceleration across all areas of
social life. Speed has been the mechanical soul of modernity; not only
for the avant-gardes whose aspirations to burn the libraries and wreck the
museums transformed art, but for entrepreneurs, inventors, adventurers and
all the other apostles of progress who were captivated by the impulse to
go faster and travel further, to dynamize life and propel it into the
future Q by force if necessary. 

In the excitement generated by the opening of transcontinental railways
and intercontinental sea-routes, and especially the unbounded public
adulation of early aviators such as Bleriot and Lindbergh, we can read
parables of the emergent culture of speed.3 Pleasure in the novelty of
dynamic vehicles and pride in the 'conquest of the skies' converged with
the immense possibilities for economic growth and colonial expansion that
they created. Imperialism was the political corollary of modern dynamism:
as Robinson, Gallagher and Denny observed: 'Expansion in all its modes not
only seemed natural and necessary, but inevitable: it was preordained and
irreproachably right.  It was the spontaneous expression of an inherently
dynamic society'.4 The rapid extension of 'the West' as a political and
economic force in the nineteenth century, which laid the foundation for
the systematization of world trade and the global division of labour in
the twentieth, has been paralleled on the do! mestic front by the
development of the distinct modern culture of auto-mobility: the Brownian
motion of mass urban populations for whom the 'freedom to drive' has
become a fundamental article of political faith.5

Under pressure of these new forms of circulation which mobilized people
and products on regional, national and transnational circuits, the centres
of lived existence have mutated in a process whose ends are still not
clearly defined. Suspended between house and car dwells an antagonism
internal to modern culture. A fault line stretches between the desire for
home as a stable site, a secure space of shelter and enclosure, and the
constant drift towards the frontier as a liminal space of perpetual
transformation and potential conquest. Modern identity belongs neither in
the home nor on the road, but is perpetually split by the psychic and
social contradictions of its attachments to both these poles. 

Despite constant acceleration throughout this century, and the
technological attainment of speeds beyond human endurance, locomotive
machines have themselves been overtaken by what Paul Virilio aptly termed
'the last vehicle': the audio-visual one.6 Following MarinettiUs tracks,
Marshall McLuhan remains perhaps the most famed post-war prophet of the
manner in which transport would be displaced by communication: 

During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space.  Today,
after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our
central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing space and
time as far as our planet is concerned... As electrically contracted, the
globe is no more than a village.7

If McLuhan's 'global village' was forever embedded in what could be called
Q perhaps for the first time Q Tglobal consciousnessU with the Apollo moon
landing telecast of July 20, 1969, the trajectory he indicated had been
evident for some time.8 The advent of the telegraph in 1794 inaugurated
the ability for messages to outpace messengers.  By the nineteenth
century, the expansion of telegraph services and the successive invention
of the camera (1839), the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1877), the
wireless radio (1894), and the cinematograph (1895) completely redefined
the practice of TcommunicationU and the notion of 'proximity'. The
dichotomy between being present in one place and therefore necessarily
absent elsewhere began to waver, as physically separated sites of action
were bridged and juxtaposed in new ways.  Stephen Kern points to the
spectacular blaze of publicity the wireless received in 1910 when it
enabled the arrest of Dr. Hawley Crippen (a US physician accused of
murdering his wife) while he was on board the ocean liner Montrose.  But
the new possibilities of Taction-at-a-distanceU went beyond merely
extending traditional forms of social interaction and political authority;
rather, they fundamentally changed the socio-political field itself. 

The instantaneous TliveU connection offered by the telephone (and then
radio) provided the model that other media sought to emulate.  When
Charles Lindbergh set off on his epoch making trans-Atlantic flight in
1927, Fox-Movietone rush-released a four minute sound newsreel of his
take-off to a packed cinema audience in New York's Roxy Theatre that same
night.9 It received a standing ovation, a response worth recalling when
the surpassing of such feats has become a part of daily life. Equally
notable is the fact that similar examples are spread across what are
usually posited as the great political divides of this period. The Soviet
cine-train project led by Alexander Medvedkin in the 1930s (adapted from
the civil war agit-trains) also strove to exhibit films the same day they
were shot.10 In Nazi Germany, propaganda Minister Goebbels ordered the
airlifting of footage from the battle front so that it could be included
in the latest newsreels, while the finished products were then flown
around the entire country so they could be released on the same day.11 All
these examples may be read as attempts to establish film services which
approach the speed of television. The desire for simultaneity, which
coursed through modern sensibility at the beginning of the century, has
transformed the social and political terrain, creating radical new
TcommunitiesU dispersed in space but joined in time.  What Paul Virilio
has termed the displacement of geo-politics by chrono-politics situates
the manner in which television has been able to present itself as the
destiny and destination of modernity.12
Television hybridized the camera with radio to fuse vision and speed in a
new way.  Rapid seeing Q spanning distance without losing time Q has
become the hallmark of modern perception, defined by the ubiquity of live
broadcasts which enable vast audiences distributed across continents to
see events happening outside the horizon of their own 'presence'.  The
fact that the appearance of broadcast television redefined the roles of
all other media, including print, radio, photography, and cinema, only
underlined the extent to which modernity is a speed driven culture, in
which the relative velocity of different media vehicles determines their
social utility.  With television, photographic and cinematic images lose
their edge and prove unable to keep up with demands for a rapid
information flow.  Finally, it is television and not the newspaper or
newsreel which works around the clock.13

Where it once took military organization to deliver images and information
at a speed which ensured that events did not outstrip communications,
today it is the media who are on permanent war alert and events which
cannot move fast enough.  If the Gulf War was notable for the extent to
which television cameras stalked each action and searched restlessly for
the decisive event, an even more striking threshold (but destined, one
suspects, to become banality itself) was the landing of US troops in
Somalia in December 1992: by the time the marines arrived, the camera
crews already had a beachhead, and were beaming the action live to
domestic audiences over breakfast.  The much prophesied creation of a
single terrestrial zone of total visibility suddenly seemed very close:
the world as global TV studio.  Decades earlier, Heidegger had evoked the
darker side of McLuhanUs Tglobal villageU by casting television as the
force of a new tyranny: 

All distances in time and space are shrinking... The peak of this
abolition of every possibility of remoteness is reached by television,
which will soon pervade and dominate the whole machinery of
communication... Yet this frantic abolition of all distances brings no
nearness; for nearness does not consist of shortness of distance...
despite all conquest of distances the nearness of things remains absent.14

'Nearness' is undoubtedly a complex and elusive quality.  For Heidegger,
it belonged to the essential distance which opens the dimensionality of
'true time'.15 For Benjamin (who was certainly no disciple of Heidegger),
'distance' was an essential attribute of aura, and, as is well known, it
is precisely the decay of aura that he posits as the revolutionary effect
of the camera.  By allowing viewers to approach the previously
unapproachable, Benjamin argued that the camera contributed to the
displacement of 'cult value' in every sphere, bringing the secular
disenchantment of the world to a new pitch.16 Yet, under the eye of
Hollywood and global television, the political effects of this revolution
have diverged from those Benjamin once envisaged.17

>From one man's first steps on the moon to a football match with an
audience a billion strong, the entirety of the world and its beyond has
been structured as the set of an ongoing spectacle. In his seminal
analysis, Guy Debord argued that this seizure of the world as spectacle
exceeds traditional questions of vision and representation, and points
instead to the historic moment in which technologies of vision effectively
penetrate the interstices of all social relations.18 For Debord, the
primary characteristic of the spectacle is the pervasive commodification
of time and space, manifested in the homogenization of territory and the
domination of temporality by 'pseudo-cyclical rhythms' of consumption.19
Yet, the prospect of a completely unified and totally homogenized world
has also produced counter-tendencies of conflict and contestation. Today,
the imposition of global media empires is marked by the resurgence of
cultural difference, and the re-assertion of claims of locality and
regionalism, even the much discussed TcollapseU of universalizing

For this reason, it is important to recognize that, inasmuch as television
provides an exemplary image of the capacity of communications technology
to produce a 'global culture', it also offers an powerful metaphor for the
disjunctive spatial and temporal experiences of the present.  The
confusion of near and far accentuated by television's drive for a global
horizon engineers a new psychogeography in which locality and universality
are no longer opposed but in series.  Television often seems to upset
something in our thinking: the fact that it so regularly slides to an
extremity of thought (recalling Heidegger: 'the peak of the abolition of
every possibility of remoteness') may yet constitute one of its most
strategic attributes. 


>From the first successful photographs of the moon taken in the 1840s to
space age images of the earth seen as a solitary luminous orb suspended in
a vast black universe Q perhaps the most long-awaited 'reverse shot' in
history Q the camera has been instrumental in opening new vistas to the
human eye.20 Images of the terrestrial surface seen from aeroplanes, or of
whole continents seen from satellites, or of entire galaxies imaged via
radio-photography are counterpointed by photomicrographs which penetrate
the bounds of the discrete atom.  The opacity of solid surfaces has
dissolved before x-rays, while the shades of darkness are everywhere
lifted by infra-red images and thermography. Even the integrity of the
living body has been penetrated, as if from within, by endoscopy. 
Movement of all kinds has been decomposed beyond the threshold of the
human eye, and the most transient phenomena, such as sub-atomic particles
whose longevity lies at the edge of nothingness, can now be 'seen' by
human observers.  Contemporary techniques of 'ideography', using positron
cameras to register the movement of air around the brain, once again raise
the age old dream of submitting the psychic to the physical by rendering
visible the TeventU of thought itself.21 In short, the bounds of the
perceptible universe have been completely redefined. 

Yet to focus solely on this series of spectacular limit cases would be
misleading.  The cameraUs most profound effects on contemporary
experiences of time and space are perhaps to be found in those perceptual
shifts which have today become so prosaic that they pass almost unnoticed:
the snapshot, the close-up, the moving-image, montage, the time-lapse
sequence, the live broadcast, the instant replay.  In what follows, I am
most interested in the profound modulation of social rhythms, the
reconstruction of living and working spaces, the emergence of new social
relationships and the deployment of new forms of power in a world in which
every site and situation is subject to potential incursion.  The
institutional forms different camera technologies have taken Q postcards,
illustrated magazines and newspapers, domestic photography, cinema,
broadcast television, and so on Q have been instrumental in the production
of a network of functional spaces, new scenes of watching which are both
sites of consumption and cells for surveillance. In the uncertainty
generated by the cameraUs disjunctive effects on the authority of embodied
perception, qualities of time and space long thought to be 'fundamental'
are themselves shifting. In one sense, TmodernityU can be defined by this
shift which affects both physical boundaries and psychic formations: the
destabilization of architectural and geographical borders (the room, the
nation) as much as the disruption of discursive traditions (the unity of
the book, the universality of reason) are part of the crisis of referents
and dimensions currently testing the limits of thought and experience. 

It is important to treat the emergent space-time of what is commonly
called Tmedia cultureU as more than a distorted manifestation of some
earlier, more 'genuine' social form.  Ever since the invention of the
telegraph, developments in transport and communication technologies Q from
the railway and cinema to television and the space age Q have been hailed
or condemned for engineering the 'disappearance' of space and time. Since
so many pronouncements of 'the end' have proved premature, it seems
prudent to be less hasty in equating transformation with annihilation. 
Contemporary challenges to the authority of values such as linearity,
continuity and homogeneity from discourses emphasizing relativity, rupture
and discontinuity have fundamentally affected the legitimation of the
political field.  In the process, the profound and often neglected links
between politics and time and space has been thrown into relief. 
Situating the camera in this scene is critical insofar as camera
technologies have themselves generated new spatio-temporal experiences
crucial to the political force lines of modernity and postmodernity. 
Today, our task is to reckon with a novel horizon in which 'direct' and
'indirect' perceptions gravitate towards a radical interchangeability in
everyday life.  This condition undermines the presumption of
spatio-temporal continuity which founded the Cartesian-Newtonian universe,
and orchestrates a new distribution of bodies, gazes and identities as the
frame of contemporary subjectivity.  If the front line of every war zone
has the potential to cross every living room as a present event, it is the
terms of this Tnew world orderU that we need to understand. 


Scott McQure is the author of Visions of Modernity (Sage), from which this
essay is extracted. 

1 Marx, K. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy
(trans. M.JNicolaus), London, Allen Lane/NLR, 1973, p. 539. 

2 Marinetti, F.T. The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism 1909 reprinted
in Apollonio, U. (ed.) Futurist Manifestos, p. 22.  Marinetti also
considered TDynamismU as the name for the movement. 

3 Louis Bleriot was the first pilot to fly the English Channel in 1909, an
act whose full strategic implications were scarcely appreciated until
1940.  Charles Lindbergh made his thirty-three and a half hour
trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, a feat acclaimed in a manner unrivalled
until the Apollo moon landings. 

4 Robinson, R, Gallagher, J. & Denny, A. Africa and the Victorians: The
Official Mind of Imperialism, London, MacMillan, 1972, p.J3. 

5 Although the Tfreedom to driveU has never been codified, it clearly
resembles the successive doctrines concerning the freedom of the seas,
freedom of the skies and freedom of space which have been integral to the
geopolitical order of capitalism. 

6 Virilio, P. TThe Last VehicleU in Kamper, D. & Wulf, C. (eds.) Looking
Back At The End Of The World, (trans. D Antal), New York, Semiotext(e),
1989, pp.J106-119. 

7 McLuhan, M. Understanding Media, p. 11, pp. 12-13.

8 Arthur C. Clarke discussed the possibilities of geostationary orbit and
the communications potential of satellites (now known as Tthe Clarke
belt) in his 1946 paper Extra-Terrestrial Relays. Television link-ups
to all five continents via satellite occurred in 1964, the year that
McLuhanUs Understanding Media was published. 

9 See Gomery, D. Towards an Economic History of Cinema: The Coming of
Sound to Hollywood in Heath, S. & De Lauretis, T. (eds.) The Cinematic
Apparatus, p. 44. 

10 The cine-train was equipped as a mobile film studio, processing plant
and cinema. It made six expeditions into the Ukraine and Caucasus between
1932-33, producing some seventy short films.  The aim was to use the
experience of seeing oneUs own community represented on film to generate
feelings of collective goodwill and national fervour.  See Crofts, S. &
Enzensberger, M. Medvedkin: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion,
Screen vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring 1978) pp. 71-89.  See also the films The
Train Rolls On (SLON Collective, 1971) and Chris MarkerUs The Last
Bolshevik (1993). 

11 See Kracauer, S. From Caligari To Hitler, Princeton, Princeton
University Press, 1974, pp. 276-277. 

12 See Virilio, P. The Lost Dimension, p. 124.

13 Although there had been experimental broadcasts since the 1920s,
television did not gain sizeable audiences until after the second world
war.  The direct relation between the rise of television and the decline
of cinematic newsreel and news-related programs can be seen in the demise
of the major US productions: The March of Time and This is America ceased
in 1951, Path News in 1956, Paramount News in 1957, Fox-Movietone News in
1963, MGM News of the Day and Universal News in 1967. 

14 Heidegger, M. 'The Thing', Poetry, Language, Thought, p.J165.   

15 See Heidegger, M.  On Time and Being (trans. J. Stambaugh), New York,
Harper and Row, 1972, p. 15. 

16 For Benjamin, cult value belonged to the myth-laden sacred world: 'The
definition of aura as a unique phenomenon of a distance however close it
may be represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the
work of art in categories of space and time perception. ... The
essentially distant object is the unapproachable one. Unapproachability
is indeed a major quality of the cult image'. Illuminations, p. 245,
pp.J224-228.  In contrast, he argues that the camera is characterized by
the dominance of exhibition value: its images exist to be seen, and this
fact instils them with new political possibilities. 

17 This point is complicated, insofar as Benjamin did not subscribe to the
thesis, most commonly attributed to Max Weber, equating post-Enlightenment
modernization with the process of 'disenchantment'. Rather, Benjamin
understood the rise of commodity culture in the nineteenth century as the
imposition of a new mode of enchantment. He posited the historic role of
the camera as its ability to 'awaken' the masses from their
commodity-induced slumber. 

18 For Debord: 'The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social
relation among people, mediated by images'. Society of the Spectacle,
paragraph 6. 

19 See Society of the Spectacle, especially chapters 6-7. It is worth
comparing Debord's text with Heidegger's analysis of the 'ground plan' of
science. See 'The Geometric Universe' above. 

20 The first full disc colour photographs of the earth taken from Apollo
17 in December, 1972 represented a new threshold of the Copernican
revolution P a previously unattainable perspective became visible to all

21 One scientist involved in this research, Jean-Pierre Changeaux, argues:
'It is not utopian one day to think we will be able to see the image of a
mental object appearing on a computer screen'. Quoted in Virilio, P. The
Lost Dimension, p.114. 

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