I admire Paul Virilio’s minute obsessions. They color his thought in unique ways. The beach-side bunkers, the cheesy 90s technologies – especially Howard Hughes. Howard Hughes, the brilliant technological entrepreneur who faded into obsessive behavior, appears multiple times in his writings, especially as a figure of “disappearance.” At the symbolic level, as well as literal level, no one could do better. To approach Howard Hughes as a disappeared figure, particularly from the 1960s until his death, requires arranging key actors and set pieces: power, the nowhere (the dark room, the desert), and the technological monk.
Power breeds isolation or, rather, anticipates it. We may refer to Nietzsche, on the need of the powerful to exercise distance from the herd, on the need of a pure and lonely mountain spring. First we must consider the mundane, however; for the masters and master-slaves alike, the power-solitude doublet appears. “Any man that seeks power isolates himself and tends naturally to exclude himself from the dimensions of the others, all techniques meant to unleash forces are techniques of disappearance,” (Virilio, 67). Disappearance, particularly within contemporary surveillance capitalism, is the hard-won prize of power, as is solitude. The manifest destiny dream in the sleeping American brain is an escape from the festering Old World cities into power and into solitude. In There Will be Blood, our rising oil-baron hunting down property in the far West tells us his life’s ambition: “I want to make enough money that I can move far away from everyone.” This is what Howard Hughes achieved by the middle of the century: he could buy rooms, buildings, hotels, corporations, in order to empty them. As Virilio writes, “the only purpose of his wealth, finally, was to purchase total reclusion in a dark room…[journalistic expert on Hughes, James Phelan] concludes: what Hughes was accumulating was not money, but power,” (Virilio, 68). But Virilio is careful to point out that Hughes, and the modern and postmodern race of isolated technocrats, are not the miserly kings living in their castle, which Virilio takes to be the dominating image of Citizen Kane. The castle, the palace, the ivory tower are loci, places, inhabitances. What Virilio discovers in the case of Hughes is isolated power which says: “to be is not to inhabit;” in other words, not just the disappearance of the emperor into his palace, but the disappearance of the palace as well – disappearance of the place, and into nowhere (Virilio, 69).
The general form of the nowhere is paradoxically both inertia and speed, as we must consider with Hughes:
14 July 1938, his Lockheed-Cyclone having flown around the world ‘in a great circular arc,’ lands at Floyd Bennett Field where he had taken off on 10 July. Then he guides his plane into the hanger to the exact point he left from. It isn’t long before Hughes recognizes that his desire for movement is only desire of inertia, desire to see arrive what is left behind.
Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance page 69.
To unpack this requires two important points: the non-place represented by speed and travel, and the power signified by inertia. The speed of the private plane in the open sky, the speed of the limo on a desert road, the monthly, weekly or even daily migration from one luxury hotel to another, all signify an absence of arrival and of destination. Though a familiar post-structuralist trope, the notion of the in-between importantly figures here in Virilio’s treatment of Hughes; Hughes inhabits the in-between and transitory (even making his actual departure and arrival point the same), and thus disappears from all particular places. Change thus becomes inertia; the moving blip of Hughes’ migration on the map his localized nowhere. This inertia came with the price tag of power. The power supplies the plane, the gallons of fuel, the attendants; but what it most importantly supplies is the disappearance. When Hughes disappears, he builds his own reference frame of time and space. He does not follow the clock-time of the masses. Famously, after his plane crash, Hughes entered his private theatre to watch some movies; he did not leave for four months. You and I have jobs, classes, appointments; we enter the space and time of a theatre (or now, Netflix) for two or three hours. Hughes attained the power to disappear into the movie screen for as long as he chooses. He dissolves the temporal boundaries of all his preferred activities. The two hour movie becomes the 860 hour movie. “To be all-powerful, to win in the game of life is to create a dichotomy between the marks of his own personal time and those of astronomical time,” (Virilio, 69). As with time, also with place; when Hughes roams in his “ubiquitous nowhere,” he is removed from the spatial grid of the masses. Thus Hughes “could believe himself everywhere and nowhere, yesterday and tomorrow, since all points of reference to astronomical space or time were eliminated,” (69). This inertia and this speed are power.
How can we get a handle on this sense of nowhere that Virilio is describing? Paradoxically, particular settings are symbolically nowheres.
First, there is the dark room. Inverting Plato’s allegorical cave, where people are chained up in the cave, Virilio envisions Hughes buying million-dollar caves – dark rooms. In his theatre, in his Las Vegas hotel room in the Desert Inn, whose curtains stayed closed for his nine-year stay, in his monk-like cell “where he lived nude, covered with bedsores, emaciated and destitute on a pallet,” Hughes disappears into the nowhere of a dark room (68). The dark room is nowhere because the blinds are shut, the clocks removed, and the only windows are the screen and piles of newspapers.
Second, there is the desert. Virilio draws a connection between the American West and the Biblical deserts of the Desert Fathers: “there is very little different between the dark room at the top of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas and the retreat to the desert of the ancient hermits in search of the Eternal,” (70). There are no places in empty expanses of deserts – except for the caves of monks and the penthouses of luxury hotels. I must add another desert which Virilio missed – the Arctic sea ice of the North. Howard Hughes became obsessed with the 1968 film Ice Station Zebra, a mediocre big budget Cold War espionage thriller set in the isolated outposts of the disputed far North. He allegedly watched it around 150 times.
Here is our central figure, our leading actor: the technological monk. Virilio makes the explicit connection between the ancient monks and Hughes – but what makes Hughes technological? There is his entrepreneurial past, particularly his love of aircraft. There is also the camera-technology of screens, projectors (“At the foot of the bed where he was lying was, however, an artificial window, a movie screen. At the head there was a projector and alongside it, within reach, the controls…”) (69). Phones, cars, absent involvement in government espionage.
But now we must leave Hughes. Hughes was famed for his reclusivity because of his power and the fame he’d already achieved. Now, however, the technological monk has arisen as a key figure (feared? Aspired to?) in our culture, and no power is needed. We may joke about the fat 30 year old virgins who live in their parents’ basement shitposting about movie trailers or comic books, but this form of existence, piecemeal weekends or as a whole life, are becoming common. The cost of disappearance is little to nothing – the dispersed information-technology mode of production in the West may even encourage it as a productive role. We must ask: what is the technological monk? Particularly now? And what do they do?
To exert the power of absence and separation of time and space, we may say the technological monk does nothing – or at least nothing which lasts. Virilio writes of Hughes that
This completely desocialized man, who vanished from the earth, who avoided human contact for fear of germs, who was terrified by the very breath of his rare visitors, nonetheless thought only of the media, from the aerospace industry to the cinema, from gasoline to airfields, from casinos to the star system, from the design of Jane Russell’s bra to that of a bomber. His existence could be considered exemplary. Hughes cared only about that which passes in transit. His life rebounded from one vector to another, as has, for 200 years, the power of the American nation he adored. Nothing else interested him. He died in the open sky, in an aeroplane.
Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, page 35.
Media, spectacle, entertainment, radiating from a screen in a dark room. Even if it is the popular image of the technological monk today, it is no less accurate. Refer, for instance, to the hikikomori of Japan, a veritable endemic lifestyle of complex socio-economic origins, and the collection of media products of all forms. We’ve all heard of the guy “that wants to end himself but the only reason he goes on is because he’s looking forward to the next major movie, comic book, and video game release,” (Berardi, Loc 354).
And if the technological monk has or develops the power to extend his reach out of the dark room and desert, or after a time descends from it, what then? Is it “like Simeon of Emesis, who comes down from his solitude, he said, so as to mock the world (or to play with the world, as Hughes)”? (Virilio, 71). In fact the technological monk of today does not have to come down from any solitude. The pure separation of the media-entertainment-political stream of Twitter, to say nothing of the assorted forums and chans and otherwise nowhere-factories of the internet, has bolstered the Alt-Right and NRx into a political force in real, yes real, life. Loathsome as it is to say so, technological monks and their Keks are mocking and playing with the world simultaneously.
What else may the technological monk do? Berardi touches upon what Virilio feared in his book on suicide and mass murder. Writing of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Berardi notes the need to understand
…the subjectivity of the perpetrators – the psychopathology of human beings exposed to electronic hyper-stimulation during their formative years, the special fragility of the first generation to grow up in the virtual age.
Francesco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, kindle location 589.
The technological monk may thus kill others and themselves in spectacular displays which dissolve the line between media and reality. It does not take a sci-fi imagination to envisage a suicidal mass murderer killing from within the dark room, either.
And now for the obligatory ray of hope. May a technological monk be an artist? A philosopher? Broadcasting from nowhere, from their unique time and place, from a cool dark room and through the screen? To arrive at what was left behind, what of Zarathustra at his lonesome spring? If anyone discussed so far prefigures this, it is Hughes. For hope’s sake we shall pluck Nietzsche out of the fresh air and mountain tops he prefers, and cast him into the virtual age of screens and dark rooms. Cast him into the desert, as Deleuze did:
But noology is confronted by counterthoughts, which are violent in their acts and discontinuous in their appearances, and whose existence is mobile in history. These are the acts of a ‘private thinker,’ as opposed to the public professor: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or even Shestov. Wherever they dwell, it is the steppe or the desert.
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, page 376.
It is not only broken ones who drift through the nowhere, the smooth spaces of deserts, steppes, and networks. It is also the nomad, the war machine: the thinker on the attack.