In a culture that likes to document and celebrate its successes, accidents are out of place. Yet no matter how big or how small, the accident has the potential to disrupt any event. Whether we believe the accident to be an essential part of an event or not, it is often in the accidental encounter, or the contingent, non-essential aspect of bodies and their relationships that we find materials for documentary engagement. The unintended slip, the malfunctioning machine, the plane or car crash, and the aftermath, all offer something about experience and our relationships with each other. What is accidental about documentary? How should the accident be documented? In what ways is the accident productive of new aesthetics and new ways of thinking? Weaving together three very different understandings of the accident, this session will examine productive, critical, and painful encounters with the glitch, gaps in transmission, and the blank page.
In a discussion of what it might be to be an “actant”, Jane Bennett raises the historical figure of the deodand (2004, p.355). Enshrined in English Law for nearly 600 years the deodand was an animal or inanimate thing that had caused the death of a human, and as a result must be legally forfeited to the Crown. Bennett highlights the active role of the deodand, for example, a carving knife or a tram or a pig were not necessarily an innocent party to the accident and thus could be tried by a court (pig) or confiscated (tram, carving knife). Furthermore, the law of the deodand distinguished between a thing in motion and a thing standing still. A cart in motion required the whole cart to be forfeited, whereas a fall from a stationary cart would require the forfeit of just the wheel. These guilty objects in motion were afforded agency. The practice of deodand was abolished in 1846; not coincidentally at the same time as the exponential rise of the railways. Too many accidents meant that the ongoing surrender of guilty things would remove most trains from the newly built tracks. Fault had to lie elsewhere. Increasingly complex laws of cause and effect replaced the deodand, but the machines and their accidents did not go away.
In philosophy the accident has a long and contentious history. Aristotle distinguished between substance and accident, arguing that the accidental is a recognition of a thing’s relationships with other things, beings or events. It is through the accident that the thing, being, or event presents itself to others. Aristotle’s accident is a relationship that reveals the substance of something, what it can do, but is not essential to that thing. The cat does not depend on its stripes. Its stripes are a specific accident that it presents to others. However, the stripes, like substances, are both universal and particular (Carriero 1995, p.256).
Fast forward a few thousand years, a few thousand accidents, and we find Gilles Deleuze writing about Frances Bacon’s paintings: “The form is no longer essence, but becomes accident; humankind is an accident. The accident opens up a space between the two planes, which is where the fall occurs” (Deleuze 2005, p.94). Deleuze ties a body back together with its accident. The body cannot be thought without accidents, and we know it not through what it is (striped) but through what it does (always falls on its feet). If humankind is an accident, documenting the fall could be a first step. But we might also want to think about where and how documentation occurs.
We all know that accidents are necessary. Experience is formed from them; as children this is how we begin to know nature, force, properties, gravity, and the limits and extents of our body. As parents we carefully document each faltering step. Nevertheless, the precise location of an accident remains a matter of ongoing debate. Mistakes come out of nowhere, accidents are more often than not a result of a special kind of event that occurs between bodies and bodies, or, bodies and machines, or, machines and machines – however we would like to define them. As the deodand demonstrated; to witness an accident is to play a part in the outcome.
In the contemporary world, complex machines bring their accidents with them. For example, Paul Virilio (2004; Lotringer 2005) argued that the ‘accident of art’ results from a proliferation of images that has lead to complex relations between seeing, knowing, and imagining a world: the generalized accident. In identifying a shift from the accidental as caused by relations between bodies (Aristotle’s specific accident), towards the intended affects of that body, Virilio’s generalised accident also (problematically) elides the difference between accident and attack. The lurking presence of catastrophe became the focus of Virilio’s ‘Museum of Accidents’ project at the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 2002 in which a disturbing romantic sheen was placed over the horror produced by accidental encounters between machines and architectures (Cubitt, 1999) and in particular the events of 9/11.
In the ‘Museum of Accidents’ images were placed together in order to encourage the appearance of some kind of essential connection; links between the nodes. The problem with this kind of exhibition of accidents is that the individual experience or event are not in themselves positioned or read as transformative or traumatic, but become fixed images. Once an accident is an image it can be traded and searched, and removed from context and affect it appears without properties. (Try a Google image search for ‘accidents’ – no longer tied to actuality, the Google accident does not require a subject for completeness). In harvesting machines or media into the service of accident, Virilio’s exhibition, like the Google search, demonstrates that in exhibiting, performing, or even reporting the accident there is a very real risk in aestheticizing trauma. If so, can the accident be documented? Is it at all possible to report on an accident without buying into the horror; or what we might understand as the perversely affective spectacle of another person’s pain. And conversely, do we have to take the accident so seriously that it removes our ability to speak? It seems that not all accidents are equal.
Of course prevention is the best cure. But risk management is just that, management. Control lies somewhere else. The accident can be humorous or catastrophic, personal or collective. America’s Funniest Home Videos – America’s longest running prime time television programme – is built on the predictability rather than unpredictability of the accident.
If each machine contains a concept of accident, encounters that recognize the creative potential of failure and instability are crucial to a twenty-first century understanding of ourselves, our relationships with others, and the catastrophes we live with and within. The accident as experimentation and exploration has contributed a particular aesthetics to practices in digital art and sound. Most of us curse the set top box as digital drop out prevents clear transmission and we spend our lives tweaking knobs to ensure glitches do not occur. Others relish the unexpected failure as creative possibility. The issue is not whether the accident occurs but where and how. How do we capture it? Reproduce it? Document it? The need to understand our own relationships with each other and the objects and things around us, still underlies the ongoing fascination and need for documentation of accidents in all their manifestations. Knowing something might go wrong keeps the news reporter at their desk and the experimental musician at their laptop.
Hillel Schwartz aligns noise with the accident of the machine. He says that working alongside a machine for long periods means we can intimately recognise its sounds, and that any shift implies a potential accident. Of necessity, the worker must remain attentive. A screech out of place could signal disaster. However, in this state of sustained and “tensed alertness” (Schwartz, p.349) we are more likely to slip up. At particular risk are the airline pilot and the long haul driver. As we listen to our machines, accidents occur.
Did you hear something?
Bennett, Jane. 2004. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory no. 32 (3, June): 347-372.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Bogost, Ian. 2012. The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder. The Atlantic. Accessed 26 June 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/
Carriero, John. 1995. “On the Relationship between Mode and Substance in Spinoza’s Metaphysics” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 33 no.2, April: 245-273
Cubitt, Sean. 1999. “Unnatural Reality: Review of Paul Virilio The Vision Machine.” Film-Philosophy no. 3 (9 February). Accessed 26 June 2012. http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n9cubitt
Deleuze, Gilles. 2005. Frances Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. New York: Continuum.
Lotringer, Sylvere, and Paul Virilio. 2005. The Accident of Art, Semiotext(e)/ Foreign Agents. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Schwartz, Hillel. 2011. Making Noise from Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.
Virilio, Paul. 2004. “The Museum of Accidents” in Steve Redhead. The Paul Virilio Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, p.255-262.