“Paul Virilio: For the Love of Speed (Part Two)—The Death of a Thousand Cuts in the Soundtrack: An Introduction to Picnolepsy” by James L. Kelley

Before examining in-depth Paul Virilio’s “picnolepsy,” a brief definition of the term is in order, to be followed by a word about how this concept fits into the French theorist’s work as a whole. In Virilio’s words,

Epilepsy is little death and picnolepsy, tiny death. What is living, present, conscious, here, is only so because there’s an infinity of little deaths, little accidents, little breaks, little cuts in the sound track, as William Burroughs would say, in the sound track and the visual track of what’s lived. (-) Our vision is that of a montage, a montage of temporalities which are the product not only of the powers that be, but of the technologies that organize time [1].

So, Virilio’s idea has to do with the limitations of human consciousness; the “little deaths” of picnolepsy are an unremitting sequence of sensory deprivations that the sufferer is forced to “rhythmatize” (to borrow a term from Donald Fagen) [2]. That is, the perceiver takes sensory pictures that are punctuated by blank slides; the oscillation is swift enough to create a disequilibrium that carries with it a temptation to smooth over the contradictions resulting from the cinematic stutter. Such a papering-over of the picnoleptic gaps denies the “accident” (the negative potential of the fallen state, the intervals of knowledge that threaten survival) in favor of a Gnostic cocoon that is pure “essence,” that is, pure belief in one’s own power of self-preservation [3]. Further, since one person’s justice is often another’s injustice (think of border disputes between groups over limited resources), logistics and warfare become part of the speed-driven process. After all, the best way to guarantee self-preservation is to see others without being seen. We are right back where we began in part one, in the place of the hunter seduced by the mercurial, Sphinx-like qualities of the animotor.

Man’s psyche is conditioned ineluctably by the speed of his somatic machinery’s on-and-off flutter; the “tiny death” is linked to the dangers of technological speed, for the fallen mind’s cinema show is, first and foremost, a peculiar type of motor. This picnoleptic motor is the site of the zoophilic fascination with the metabolic motor that leads to man’s invention of the technological motor. Picnolepsy is thus the root explanation for why speed—for Virilio—is history’s master motif.

How has the academy received picnolepsy? Virilio scholar Steve Redhead avers that the Frenchman has not “formulated [his concept of picnolepsy] rigorously or pursued it at great length in his work” [4]. However, it could be countered that the pair of texts that say the most about picnolepsy—Aesthetics of Disappearance and Pure War—are among the more substantive in Virilio’s ouevre [5]. Redhead also states that “[p]icnolepsy has little connection to the other contemporary ways of seeing the self or subjectivity in the human or social sciences” [6]. Doubtless Redhead has in mind Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, and others whose theories of subjectivity are sufficiently “up-to-date.” However, Virilio’s distance from (even opposition to) these thinkers can be viewed as a strength if we consider that the weakest aspect of mainstream critical theory’s version of the self may be its re-packaged, secularized gnoseo-platonic core. Virilio has stressed that we live in an age which dares not deny the latest dogmas of scientism, but which nonetheless loves to imbibe the vinegary wine of old metaphysical systems (especially German Idealist ones deriving from Boehme) that—from the socio-political as well as the religio-cultural standpoints—are at best ineffectual, and at worst toxic [6a]. 

I. What is picnolepsy?

We could define picnolepsy as the unremitting alternation between tiny moments of consciousness and diminutive “deaths” of unconsciousness. The two poles of knowledge and unknowing are not absolute, however. Virilio notes that our senses are not turned off when the picnoeptic camera shutter claps; rather, a kind of blank (though luminous) screen is presented to us, radically simple and thus completely undetermined since it contains no sensory differentiation. This “blue screen of death” is a kind of apeiron that the picnolept—zealous to construct a defense against any who might question his knowledge and thus his integrity—sees as an invitation to indulge in fantasies of self-sufficiency achieved through speed. Put differently, picnolepsy is a relation: the rhythmic, pseudo-pathological alternation between consciousness and unconsciousness, between the seen and the unseen. One is drawn into the exhilarating Behmenist dream of “Man the Self-Creator”; in a heightened state of consciousness, the earthbound demiurge feels that the images flowing like so many Mélièsian “trick stops” out of the picnoleptic tabula rasa are divine revelations of the Gnostic higher self, invulnerable and free-floating. What the Gnostic speedmongerer denies is the finitude of man’s knowledge and his need for divine grace in the face of the greatest seizure of all—death:

…[A]ll interruptions interest me, from the smallest to the largest, which is death. Death is an interruption of knowledge. All interruptions are. And it’s because there is an interruption of knowledge that a time proper to it is constituted. The rhythm of the alternation of consciousness and unconsciousness is ‘picnolepsy,’ the picnoleptic interruption (from the Greek picnos, ‘frequent’), which helps us exist in a duration which is our own, of which we are conscious. All interruptions structure this consciousness and idealize it [7].

II. What does the picnolept do?

The picnolept “make[s] equivalents out of what [he] has seen and what he has not been able to see” [8]. This patch-up job the picnolept undertakes because those around him use his uncertainty to make the picnolept doubt himself and thus bend his behavior to suit the manipulative others’ agendas. The example Virilio leans upon is that of the awkward child, beleaguered by those adults who are in authority over him:

People want to persuade him of the existence of events that he has not seen, though they effectively happened in his presence; and as he can’t be made to believe in them he’s considered a half-wit and convicted of lies and dissimulation. Secretly bewildered and tormented by the demands of those near him, in order to find information he needs constantly to stretch the limits of his memory. When we place a bouquet under the eyes of the young picnoleptic and we ask him to draw it, he draws not only the bouquet but also the person who is supposed to have placed it in the vase, and even the field of flowers where it was possibly gathered [9].

Virilio is certain that this kind of picnoleptic conditioning tends to lead its sufferers into a kind of epistemological despair: “He’ll be inclined to believe (like Sextus Empiricus) that nothing really exists; that even if there is existence, it cannot be described; and that even if it could be described, it could certainly not be communicated or explained to others” [10]. This disbelief in socially-sustained knowledge, paradoxically, originates in the picnolept’s structured compensations for those almost instantaneous on-and-off shifts of consciousness, those tiny accidents that constitute a veritable background roar of anxiety for those living in the fallen world.

Of course, the papering-over of the “breaks in the [mind’s] soundtrack”  is the picnolept’s response, not merely to pressures from without, but also to internal “voices” or demands.

III. Why the -epsy conceptualization? Why is picnolepsy a sub-epilepsy?

We will close with a few thoughts that may shed light on why Virilio’s coinage “picnolepsy” is appropriate as a term for man’s condition as an imperfect yet perfective being.

1. The cause of epilepsy is unknown; thus, picnolepsy stands as an appropriate designation for the human condition, the latter being irreducible to any one of its aspects, among which are the existential, the psychological and the physiological.

2. A substantial number of children experience mild, frequent epileptic seizures, their condition often not evolving into the more severe syndrome that afflicts a much smaller number than does “mild epilepsy” (my term). Virilio is able to generalize the epileptic condition even further: if there is a lower-threshold epilepsy that affects a broader section of the population, why not an even less obvious form of neurological malfunction present in all human beings as a side-affect of “original sin”? Picnolepsy is so “mild” a form of bodily ailment that it shades over into the merely inconvenient aspects of somatic life, and here we feel the relevance of Virilio’s treatment of eudaemonia/happiness or “comfort,” as touched upon in our previous post.

An early student of the disease, J.H. Jackson, agreed that epilepsy is hard to pin down to a certain subset of humanity. Jackson noted that the seizure “occurs in all degrees; it occurs with all sorts of conditions of ill health at all ages, and under innumerable circumstances” [11].

3. Virilio’s insistence on linking picnolepsy to matters spiritual may be seen to garner some support from epilepsy’s original designation as the “sacred disease,” or from its later labels: “the falling evil,” “the falling sickness.” In the Middle Ages, many authorities attributed seizures to demonic possession, and Virilio continues this attentiveness to the diabolical, only his emphasis is on day-to-day struggles that seem to fall below the crisis level, but which actually have more to do with the warp and woof of our common lived existence [12].


[1] Paul Virilio, Pure War, translated by Mark Polizzotti (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008 [earlier edition New York: Semiotext(e), 1983]), 48.

[2] Donald Fagen, “Teahouse On the Tracks,” accessed 9 July, 2015, http://www.lyricsfreak.com/d/donald+fagen/teahouse+on+the+tracks_20680708.html.

[3] Virilio’s idiosyncratic interpretation of Aristotle’s distinction between the accidental and the essential will be discussed in a later section. See Paul Virilio, The Original Accident, translated by Julie Rose (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity, 2007): “…[I]f, for Aristotle…the accident reveals the substance, this is…because WHAT CROPS UP (accidens) is a sort of analysis, a techno-analysis of WHAT IS BENEATH (substare) any knowledge” (10); and Paul Virilio and Andreas Ruby (Interviewer), “Surfing the Accident,” accessed 14 June, 2015. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/paul-virilio/articles/surfing-the-accident/.

[4] Steve Redhead, Paul Virilio: Theorist for an Accelerated Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 159.

[5] Virilio’s Pure War even garnered the attention of two Marxist cultural critics—Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis—who composed a “Review Play” that, tongue-in-cheek, purported to be a transcript of an editorial meeting between Virilio and his interviewer/publisher Sylvere Lotringer! An amusing passage reads as follows:

P: “Speed is the real violence, the real dictator. Remember what I said about my fist, Sylvere? Its power comes from its speed.

S: I mentioned your example [to a friend of mine], but he laughed: “An elephant slowly sitting on my head—he said—could do much more damage than Virilio’s fist.”

P: Why do you bother me with such nonsense?” (Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis, “A Review Play on Paul Virilio/Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War,” Social Text 17 [Autumn, 1987], 97-105, here 101).

Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance, translated by Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991) is discussed in John Armitage’s Virilio and the Media, E-Book version (John Wiley and Sons, 2013, avail. https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=V-wbHKYTpyAC&rdid=book-V-wbHKYTpyAC&rdot=1&source=gbs_vpt_read&pcampaignid=books_booksearch_viewport) especially the section entitled “Aesthetics of Picnolepsy.” Countless other commentators have referenced Virilio’s account of Howard Hughes’ life in Aesthetics of Disappearance as emblematic of the French critic’s thought as a whole. Cf. “Paul Virilio (1932-)” in From Agamben to Žižek: Contemporary Critical Theorists, edited by Jon Simons (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

[6] Redhead, Paul Virilio, 159.

[6a] Virilio takes on all things Gnostic and Behmenist in his Ground Zero, translated by Chris Turner (London and New York: Verso, 2002), especially pp. 1-20. “In Leonardo one can already hear a Descartes, though one hears, above all, contemporaries of his, such as Jakob Böhme advocating ‘life beyond the senses’, the mystical ego of inner change and the techno-scientific ego of the changing of the Universe merging here in a single desire to annihilate sensory life, the heterogeneity of our consciousness of the world as such” (8).

[7] Virilio, Pure War, 47-48.

[8] Virilio, Aesthetics of Disappearance, 10.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 10-11.

[11] Cited in Thomas R. Browne and Gregory L. Holmes, Handbook of Epilepsy, Fourth Edition (Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2008), p. 1.

[12] “Historical Perspective and Overview” 3-15 in The Neuropsychology of Epilepsy, ed. Thomas L. Bennett (New York: Springer, 1992), here pp. 5-11.

This entry was posted in Centaurism, Cinema, Critical Theory, Dromology, Gnosticism, Paul Virilio, philosophy, postmodernism, Speed, Virilio and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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