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Sylvère Lotringer, 2001

WITH MIKE EDISON






Sylvère changed intellectual life in America by introducing French critical theorists such as jean Baudrillard through his homegrown imprint, semiotext(e). His latest effort, Crepuscular Dawn, is an extended conversation with the philosopher Paul Virilio.








MIKE: One of the ideas you discuss with Paul Virilio is that, while McLuhan said, "the medium is the message," it's not just the medium anymore. It's the speed of the medium that is significant now. Velocity actually becomes the message.
SYLVÈRE: Right. Well, first of all, McLuhan had a very optimistic vision of the world. He thought that the world would become a global village, that we would all communicate, and in spite of our differences, that the medium was going to unite us. But instead of becoming active, we are all stuck at home with our telephones, our computers, our faxes, and the internet. We have all these prostheses, as if we somehow became disabled. We are prisoners of the technology. And the medium itself, which is only electronic transmissions, is also changing us.

MIKE: How so?
SYLVÈRE: Well, it does something to us, in the sense that we can have access to the whole world instantly. But what do we really access? Images. They may be in real time now, but what do you know about the world when you see an image which is totally uprooted from a given context, from a given language, from a given culture? We see only flashes that we take for reality.

MIKE: That's true. I could turn on CNN right now and look at the world news, but what do I really know?
SYLVÈRE: Exactly. And the images we see have no staying power — they are constantly being substituted and replaced. Instead of bringing us information and knowledge, the speed with which they circulate produces an instant cancellation and forgetting.

MIKE: People are now transferring information at such high speeds, through cell phones and e-mail, that it's becoming impossible to maintain any sort of hierarchy as to the quality or importance of the information.
SYLVÈRE: We used to be defined historically, geographically, linguistically, and culturally. Now, who we are is much less clear, because everyone is exposed to the same images. We are unified, but only unified to the benefit of the medium itself.

MIKE: In fact, people have become the medium.
SYLVÈRE: But what does "people" mean? The media has changed us.

MIKE: From the "individual" to the "dividual."
SYLVÈRE: Right. Now we have what Gilles Deleuze called the "dividual." It is not who you are that is important, but where you belong in society as determined by the numbers that you leave everywhere.

MIKE: Exactly. Micromarketing is the ultimate segmentation of the market according to highly individual taste. For instance, there used to be only a few different kinds of beer available, a domestic beer, Budweiser, and an imported beer, Heineken. Then twenty or thirty different kinds of beer became available everywhere, each with a specialized attribute or image. Each one is marketed for a specific occasion or a specific type of person. That's niche marketing. With micromarketing, when you log onto Amazon.com, for example, it says, "Hello SylvÈre, here are some books you would like," based on the information you left behind on your last visit. And it's shockingly accurate. If you bought a book on Virilio, of course you are going to enjoy a new biography of Deleuze. So books are no longer being marketed to people like you, they're being marketed to you exactly, or at least to a trail you left digitally.
SYLVÈRE: We've become a society of products, and that's a huge switch from being a society of producers. We've left behind perspective, images that had depth. Now we are basically just numbers. But not just anonymous numbers. On the contrary, we have made people more and more individualized as dividuals. Just think about it — you break a person down into small units, project them into space, and reconstitute them on the other side.

MIKE: That's Star Trek.
SYLVÈRE: Correct. What we do, in social terms, is create fragments of people and then reassemble them in a way that is only meaningful for those who want to target them to sell them products.

MIKE: It's extremely efficient.
SYLVÈRE: It works, but what has disappeared is the notion we had of reality as something stable. The individual was reality.

MIKE: How could someone take advantage of this phenomenon to gain power?
SYLVÈRE: Well, you see, there is very little possibility of doing anything with it. McLuhan was a bit too optimistic — he thought communication technology was going to enhance life and create some sort of community. But unfortunately we are more and more isolated.

MIKE: Despite the incredible web of communication now in place.
SYLVÈRE: There's been a huge mutation in our culture. For the Greeks, the city was a place for direct dialogue between people. People would meet collectively, debate, and then make a decision — what we call a democracy, power given to the people. As soon as the speed of communication accelerates enough, people stop gathering. Thus, the faster the access to information, the less possibility of direct democracy. In other words, when you look at your screen, you accept the function of the media as an intermediary between what is supposed to be reality and yourself.

MIKE: Is politics a reality or just an illusion?
SYLVÈRE: It is the media that creates politics. The idea that the media is dangerous or the media facilitates politics is outdated. Now politics and the media are one and the same thing.

MIKE: Because it's all about controlling decision-making?
SYLVÈRE: Well, no. It's not because our whole environment is controlled by politics or by the media. Our environment is produced by the media. That's what Jean Baudrillard was trying to express in the early '80s, when he said that the image is a reality, which he called simulation. It was an extension of McLuhan. It is not the content of the image that counts — the image is the medium. And the medium has become so prevalent that reality itself is becoming an image. The difference with Virilio is the emphasis he puts on velocity. By being transmitted at the speed of light, reality becomes insubstantial. If something goes very fast, it loses its substance — it becomes pure energy.

MIKE: And what have we lost?
SYLVÈRE: There is no reality other than speed itself. Speed is information, speed is reality. People say that television can teach you something, but the speed at which the information is being transmitted makes you basically forget everything you see. It is a process of unlearning.

MIKE: How well do you think the people in control of the electronic media — the people who are running television networks — understand what we've been talking about?
SYLVÈRE: What they think is irrelevant. The question is, what program has the best ratings? If it doesn't sell, they don't show it. In other words, the media is autoregulated. They only address an audience which allows them to exist.

MIKE: Right. They're regulated by negative feedback — the lack of an audience.
SYLVÈRE: You give the people what they want. It was amazing, for about eight months after September 11, there was no dissident voice in the media. No objective reporting, no attempt to explain what happened or the whole mechanism of terrorism. The fact is, terrorists are produced by the media. Take away the media, and you have no more terrorists. Terrorism is totally predicated on the existence of the media.

MIKE: Because terrorrists need the media to get their message to the masses.
SYLVÈRE: The media feeds on violence, whether it's a revolution or an earthquake. As soon as it is violent, it is reported by the media. But as soon as it is reported, it just becomes shock value, and it loses its ideological context.

MIKE: Do you think it's still possible to have a political revolution?
SYLVÈRE: No. For instance, when the L.A. riots occurred a few years ago, I watched the news twenty-four hours a day. I was just about to go to L.A. I heard that a terrible event was happening, and that it was a product of poverty and black oppression. The media was trying to explain it away. When I arrived in L.A., I found people in a total state of excitement. The police had pulled out, and the media with them. It was an incredible two or three days where people were becoming politicized with the sense of their own lives. They were discovering each other. They were going to South Central to help people. Everyone was alive for the first time because there was no more media.

MIKE: So what would be the effect of a complete absence of media?
SYLVÈRE: Imagine, as Virilio does, that some day the electric power grid breaks down, creating a huge blackout all over the world. That's what he calls "the accident." Nothing we have now would work without electricity. People couldn't leave their apartments on the thirty-fifth floor, people couldn't circulate, the gas station couldn't function without electricity, families would be thrust back into some kind of pedestrian, pragmatic life. It would be total chaos, in a sense. But people would knock at their neighbors' doors. People would not be able to spend their lives in their houses. We feel that technology is progress, because it helps us cure illness and gets us from here to there. But Virilio's great insight is that every time we invent something, we invent a new form of accident.

MIKE: So where do we think it's all heading?
SYLVÈRE: Well, for Virilio, who is a Christian, it is heading towards some sort of absolute accident, some sort of apocalypse, from which only God can save us. I am not Christian, so I am not going that far. Without trashing technology and going back to the Luddites, we have to become aware that technology is not always working just for the better. The problem is that we are working towards making replicas of ourselves, simulations of ourselves, to the point that there is no more self, and there is no more world.

MIKE: That's pretty strong.
SYLVÈRE: You don't have to follow this scenario up to its logical conclusion. We can't be that pessimistic. We have to know where we are. We have to constantly shift technology and shift ourselves as a society, in order to be able to maintain some elements of life.  

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Sylvère Lotringer courtesy of Sylvère Lotringer, 2001
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