Inspired by Raymond K. Hessel and Joshua Hansen
Accidents Uncover Substance
On Paul Virilio and how unforeseen “accidents” help us identify what is philosophically “accidental,” suggesting possible glimpses of the hidden.
The great Raymond Hessel and Joshua Hansen spoke on Paul Virilio, and I have been convinced that I need to take a deep dive into his work. Mr. Daniel Fraga speaks of Virilio often in his book, Ontological Design, and I’m familiar with him, but it’s become clear to me that really diving into Virilio would be well-worth the time. He seems to have had the rare ability to focus in on details that unveil continents.
The main point I would like to focus on here is the notion that Virilio saw “accidents” like a trainwreck or a “black swan” as pivotal in unveiling the “substance” of a given thing, which is to say “what is really behind it.” In classical philosophy, an “accident” was something that was “unessential” for making a thing what it was; for example, a given cat might be white, but “whiteness” is not essential for a cat to be a cat, thus “whiteness” is an “accident.” The “substance” of the cat, on the other hand, might be its genetic code, because without that a cat couldn’t be a cat. In this way, we can generally say that “whiteness” is “accidental” to cats while a certain genetic sequence is “substantial,” which basically means that “accidents” are nonessential while “substance” is essential.
Virilio’s insight is that we really don’t know what constitutes “the accidental” from “the substantial” until an accident, which is to say that “accidents deconstruct the accidents,” suggesting “the substance.” We think we know what is “essential” to the functioning of Capitalism and what is “accidental.” Perhaps we believe that a thriving “small business sector” is pivotal along with small government — but then the 2008 Financial Crisis occurs and we realize that actually what “essentially” defines Capitalism today is the financial sector, that the banks are “too big to fail” and must be saved at all costs. For a long time, people easily saw banks as basically infrastructure and boring, but then suddenly it became clear that banks were deeply embedded into the functioning of the whole system. Until then, x could be seen as “accidental” and y “substantive,” but then the actual “accident” (“black swan”) occurred and unveiled that y was “accidental” while x was “substantive.” The literal and catastrophic “accident” thus proved essential for unveiling “substance.”
More examples could be made — we don’t know what politics is really about until something in the political system fails; we don’t know how the social order really values diversity until a form of diversity arises which the social order didn’t foresee; etc. — but basically the notion is that accidents are revelations, and where there are no accidents, there might be data and knowledge, but there will likely be no revelation. This is paradoxical, for this would suggest that it is the very “breaking” of a thing that tells us what it really is, and yet we make things precisely so that they don’t break, and “practically” consider say a dishwasher as only a dishwasher when it works. When something breaks, it seems to lose itself, and perhaps that is true, and yet at the same time it would seem to be only in that breaking that we “get” what the thing was that broke and left us. Revelation is always late, perhaps.
Perhaps a reason “the accident” is so important for unveiling truth is because we as humans are so prone to confirmation bias and countless other cognitive self-deceptions, and thus it is simply not possible for us really to “critically think” about ourselves and our ideas. Yes, we think we critically think and seek to falsify ourselves, but we never actually can do this perfectly. We are always biased, and we are always far more self-deceived than we think (that’s part of the self-deception). As a result, though “accidents” are not technically necessary for us to grasp “the substance’ of a thing, they end up being practically necessary, simply because of how we as humans are and operate.
We cannot plan “accidents” or they are not “accidents,” and it is precisely because we do everything in our power to avoid them that “accidents” can prove sources of revelation regarding the deepest “substance” of things. For Virilio, “accidents” seem inevitable, and so revelation will eventually come, but on this point a theological consideration comes to mind: will we be ready? Revelation can destroy the unprepared mind, and religions often warn that though we claim we want to see God, the sight of God can destroy us. For Virilio, the greater the invention, the greater the accident, and Virilio was particularly concerned with what kind of “accident” would occur regarding “the information bomb” (Big Data, AI, and other similar technologies). These technologies particularly pride themselves in being able to “think of everything” and avoid disaster, which is to say they seem “accident-proof.” And yet it is precisely when an “accident” seems most unlikely that it proves the greatest source of revelation — perhaps too much so, actually (like in Lovecraft). And actually if we did invent something that was “accident-proof,” that would just mean we could never get to “the substance of it” — the truth would always be concealed. Then, we would have no reason to believe that “the truth was the truth,” precisely because accidents give us “reason to think” that x is substantive, precisely because x emerges in and thanks to the accident. A world free of mistake is a world free of a truth it can confidently know is true.
Virilio is famous for his warnings about “the information bomb,” suggesting to the world that the explosion of information technologies would cause “unforeseeable accidents” which would in turn reveal truths that we would afterwards no longer be able to deny. Virilio indeed suggested that we can’t know “the substance” of a thing “until the accident,” and it doesn’t seem possible for us to know what “the accident” will be ahead of time (by definition). An accident is an accident because it is unforeseen, and yet if “accidents unveil substance,” that would mean we cannot predict when or how “substance/truth” will be unveiled. This would also suggest we can’t ever be ready for it, unless that is we just know each day we need to “prepare for something” that we cannot fully articulate or explain. This might be “the mode of being” of “the intrinsically motivated,” which is a topic O.G. Rose discusses often (say Episode #76) — but I will leave that to be elaborated on elsewhere.
What kind of unforeseen accidents will occur that unveil that actual ‘substance’ of the information bomb?” — this question is paramount and yet unanswerable until the moment when it feels like we should have had an answer ready, which sounds traumatic. “Accidents are needed to unveil substance,” for otherwise we will be identifying “accidents vs substance” in terms of our ideas and preset notions, which means our judgments will be ideologically conditioned. To “glimpse under” ideology, we require something to happen that we do not expect, but a function of ideology and worldview is to help us avoid trauma (and Lacan’s “The Real”), which is to say we “identify substance in traumatic situations.” Humans naturally avoid trauma, which suggests further reason why it isn’t until “the accident” that truth/substance has a chance of emerging (both socially and personally), and yet because we worked to avoid the trauma, we might not have what we need to handle it, again suggesting the need for “intrinsic motivation” (and to be “Deleuzian Individuals,” “Absolute Knowers” — terms employed in Belonging Again).
Accidents traumatize, as does truth, and so linking “accident” and “truth/substance” is a profoundly wise move for which we have Virilio to thank. And once we know something — once “the veil” is moved aside and something “uncovered” — we cannot unknow it, and thus must always operate and organize society accordingly. Once 2008 unveils to us that Capitalism today is mainly a financial enterprise, then politics and people must organize according to that truth, in a myriad of dynamic manners. Every “accident” and “revelation of substance” introduces a new world and demands a new response, and perhaps the natural dislike against change is another reason why we must “wait for the accident” to encounter the truth. Regardless how much we might claim to like change, we do everything in our power to stop things from changing, and so it isn’t until the “accident” that the world can become something new. When that “accident” occurs, the question will then be if we’re ready for it, which would suggest “substantive progress” is contingent (as we find in Hegel). Progress is accidental.