Paul Virilio sees accidents as something that is created at the same time as the inventions they happen to. With the invention of the train followed the concurrent invention of the train accident – the one cannot exist without the other. The only way to completely eliminate the risk of accidents is to stop using the inventions that give rise to them; as long as the trains keep rolling, the accident looms as an eternal possibility just one routine mishap away.
Of course, accidents for Virilio are not only spectacular local events that happen once in a while (albeit with oh so many photo opportunities). They are also slow, gradual events that take place over large periods of time – and, in the case of railways, over large distances. As the number of trains and railways expanded historically, so did the number of local accidents. But it also brought with it more subtle systemic accidents, which even to this day are so subtle as to be unnoticeable lest someone points them out.
Railway systems need stations in order to work. Passengers need to be able to get onboard the trains at some point, and they also need someplace to disembark at journey’s end. This fact is trivial in and of itself, but it needs to be mentioned in order to make the distinction that there are places with train stations, and places without. The social, economic and geographic implications of this distinction, are the slow accidents of the railway system.
The fact that a certain place has a train station is not an insignificant fact. It means that this place is connected to other places with train stations, and that these places thus are linked closer than they would be otherwise. Being a node on the railway network brings with it all the advantages of being connected to the other nodes – people, goods and other things of importance can traverse the distance between here and there with relative ease. Which means that there will be more of these things moving about, by sheer virtue of access – especially in economic matters, where the profits of setting things in motion will perpetuate matters for as long as it can.
Conversely – accidentally – places that are off the railway grid suffer, as social and economic activity gather around the network nodes. Especially in more rural areas, where whole regions are depopulated as the process of urbanization keeps moving forward. To be sure, this was not intended by the inventors of the train (or the various machines, large and small, that make up the railway network), but nevertheless this is the accident that is produced by the invention working as promised. Even when there are no train crashes, the accidents of the railway system take place on a routine basis.
Accidents, then, are the unintended consequences of things that work just as they are intended to do. Accidents do not happen despite efforts to prevent them, but as a side effect of business as usual. They are, to use a common expression, the cost of doing business.
This metaphorical use of the notion of accidents can of course be extended to things other than trains. Virilio, for his part, applies the metaphor to most parts of society as we know it (such as war, cinema and aesthetics). But for the purposes of this particular post, we are going to apply it to one particular discursive anomaly:
The President of the United States, Donald Trump.
It is tempting to view it as an anomaly proper. Something that according to all known rules and predictive methods should not happen, yet which happened anyway. Something so out of left field that it leaves scientists baffled and pundits grasping at straws in order to fill the airtime they are paid to fill (if ever so vacuously). It is tempting, but such an approach would not lead us forward. Especially not if we, after having had months to digest the news, still manage to return to bewilderment time and again. The paradigm of the anomaly simply will not cut it.
If we view it as an accident, however, a different picture emerges. Even more so if we view it as an aggregate of accidents, where all the many moving parts are doing more or less what they are supposed to be doing, but the net result is the state of things as we know them. We did not end up with status quo despite the best efforts of all involved to avoid it, but because of an overall institutional configuration that made such an accident a very distinct possibility. Trump was not a result of everything spectacularly backfiring all at once, but rather an unintended result of everything doing exactly what it was meant to do – the accident inherent in the normal operations of business as usual.