Paul Virilio (1932 – 2018)
Paul Virilio (1932 – 2018) is not for everyone. Books with strange, alien titles such as Negative Horizon, Polar Inertia, Bunker Archaeology and the Lost Dimension – and books written in a style that can be equally strange (and alienating), filled with concepts such as endo-colonization, dromology, the integral accident and the aesthetics of disappearance.
But running through books that could come across like academic counter-points to the novels of J.G. Ballard were the reflections of a man who as a child – like Ballard – had experienced the trauma of the Second World War and wanted to understand the role of war in our past and how it might shape our futures: he mentions in a collection of interviews the death of a girl from his neighbourhood who was shot by a German Patrol and how the experience of war gave him the sense that the world had all the permanence of a film set. His work went on to examine the ‘accidents’ that resulted from our desire for safer, more technologically advanced lives and to examine the conditions of possibility of future accidents, and victims, that might be produced in a world of climate change, biotechnology, artificial intelligence and advances in robotics. In this sense, Virilio is for everyone.
Virilio passed away on the 18th of September 2018 at the age of 86, in many ways the last of the generation of French intellectuals that emerged from the new possibilities opened up after the events of May ’68. While not as famous (or infamous) as Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard and Derrida, Virilio leaves us with a body of work that seems to grow in importance in the 21st century as we deal with the ‘pace of change’ in technology and international politics.
I think one of the keys to understanding Virilio is his friendship with the poet George Perec. In books such W or Memory of a Childhood Perec’s work experimented with ways to examine the fascism and anti-semitism that had destroyed his family during the war – there was a playful, experimental but deadly serious project in his writing. Virilio also developed a style of writing that often feels experimental, searching for a new way of understanding of the world, as if the impact of the Second World War generated the need to write differently, to live differently, to build differently, to escape all that had come before.
For Virilio, this project for building a different world began in his thinking about architecture, thinking that had been inspired by his obsession with the bunkers on the Atlantic Coast (in an interview he tells of how as a child he drew plans of the bunkers that he would pass on to the resistance). His architectural work developed alongside the work of his partner Claude Parent in the group Architecture Principe: there is a photograph of the two driving around Paris in what looks like a jeep with ‘Architecture Principe’ painted on the front. Virilio and Parent wanted an architecture of the ‘oblique function’ that would engage the body in a way that was disappearing in the passivity-inducing consumer worlds of comfort, conformity and efficiency.
Drawing on their ideas, they built the Church of St Bernadette in Nevers between 1963 and 1966 but the group disbanded after the events of 1968. Virilio took part in the occupation of Parisian universities, teaching students about the importance of military bunkers (and supposedly had to escape back to Brittany after the unrest of May); Parent had no time for the student movements of May ‘68 and went off to make money and buildings: he designed French nuclear power stations, among other projects. He later described Virilio - perhaps rather defensively – as Mr Catastrophe.
Reading about Virilio’s life you get the sense of a man who loved Paris, building his life and career there, moving through the worlds of cinema (he was friends with the film director Eric Rohmer), the worlds of literature (Virilio even pops up in a description of everyday life in Paris written by Perec, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris from 1974), the academic world populated by Deleuze, Foucault and Baudrillard (who appear to always be involved in healthy and not so healthy competition) and the worlds of politics. But while Virilio may have loved Paris, central to his work was the darkside of cities. Modern cities have been the experimental laboratories in new types of policing and control: and his work in the 1970s and 1980s anticipates a world where cities would become increasingly like airports, filled with new technologies to ensure that the urban environment would not descend into disorder, crime and terror. During the 1990s he also anticipated the way in which cities would become the key terrains of conflict and terror in a world where information technologies would create the possibility for new types of global event.
There are three broad areas that emerge from Virilio’s interest in cities that give us a sense of what makes his work so fascinating and often disturbing: movement, vision and the accident.
Throughout his work Virilio is interested in movement. The modern city creates messy, complex environments where individuals, groups and vehicles move around the city in greater numbers: for the police and politicians one of the key concerns was with preventing this movement becoming chaotic or dangerous. You want your police forces to be able to move quickly and efficiently around the city- and you don’t want a revolutionary group being able to block your movement and disrupt the political and economic life of the city. Virilio suggests that the design of Paris during the Nineteenth century was profoundly concerned with urban planning for security and order: for example, making boulevards that were so wide blockades and barricades were impossible. But in one of Virilio’s most influential books - Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (1977) - he makes the argument that it was this revolution in the technologies of movement that made modern, industrial scale war possible. To be able to move greater and greater numbers of people and objects across larger and larger territories (and at faster and faster speeds) produced the age of industrial scale killing and war. This history of movement, logistics and war – and the future of war - is fundamental to Virilio’s work.
To be able to move faster and faster – and then to have machines move faster and faster – becomes one of the primary military obsessions. The culmination of this obsession with speed and war is the nuclear age where for Virilio the concern is that the price of deterrence is the possibility of the accident and the proliferation of weapons that can end life on earth. But the concern is also that we enter into an ‘arms race’ that now extends to a range of new technologies and sciences. In our search for security and better defence we might be on a path that changes life - and what it means to be human - in radical and unpredictable ways. Indeed, in current U.S. military thinking - and in initiatives like the Third Offset Strategy - there is very clearly a sense that the race is on: new technologies are emerging and we might not be able to control their impact on society and warfare – and it might also be that rival states and non-state actors might get access to these technologies of biotechnology, robotics, machine learning or cyberweaponry before us and use them against us. So we need to stay ahead when it comes to the innovations; this race for technological supremacy is the logic that drives our societies.
The next key area of Virilio’s work is vision. Again, returning to Paris: the city became one the most ‘visible’ modern cities because of one of the most fundamental technologies of security – the streetlight. The streetlight transforms zones of insecurity into zones of surveillance and safety, expanding the economic potential of a city, transforming Paris into the city of lights. Virilio suggests that the policing and military obsession with vision takes us from the castle turret, to the street light, to the CCTV camera, to the drone surveying the territory and ‘patterns of life’ below, to the big data and artificial intelligence that will try to see deeper into every aspect of our lives and behaviour.
In War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1989) Virilio shows how the military obsession with ‘vision machines’ – from the early cameras used to map the activities on the battlefield through to the creation of propaganda films in Nazi Germnay- transformed how we could see the world (and how we could be seen), culminating in a world where screens are everywhere and where ‘vision machines’ to record all aspects of life are ubiquitous. Virilio is interested in how an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’ not only comes to shape how we experience the media presentation of increasingly ‘invisible war’ but also how images and photographs continue to contain the possibility of being able to change our perception of the world. Exploring this, Virilio curated a number of exhibitions in Paris such as the Unknown Quantity and Native Lands that used visual techniques to challenge how we come to understand the world. For Virilio media technologies would come to transform politics in the 21st century. During the 1990s Virilio anticipated the negative consequences of the information age or the network society, warning of the age of the information bomb ‘Disinformation is achieved by flooding TV viewers with information, with apparently contradictory data.’ Anticipating the concern with fake news and election hacking, Virilio was concerned that politics would be profoundly transformed by the information bomb.
The other key element in his work is on what he sometimes describes as the integral accident. Throughout his work, Virilio suggests we are heading into a disturbing new age of technology, paranoia, inequality, authoritarianism and what he calls ‘impure war’ (the type of conflict that some say we see being orchestrated by Russia, the ‘hybrid wars’ that use new techniques and technologies to infiltrate informational spaces rather territorial space). Writing at the end of the 1970s, he concludes Speed and Politics by suggesting we are entering an age of anarcho-capitalists, a type of capitalism that will celebrate the idea of the privatized utopia: there might be utopias for some but they will be utopias within gated communities. The rest of us will be left to buy our protection. During the 1990s, Virilio suggested that Europe and America should look to Africa and South Africa to see our future: it is unclear what he means by this – it might mean the creation of urban environments that depend more and more on gated communities or it might mean the emergence of a different type of politics and politician. As Mario Vargas Llosa recently told an interviewer, “Trump is so Third World-esque. Who would have thought that the US would succumb to such demagoguery?”
What concerns Virilio here is the idea that the liberal story or myth of progress might just be a story we tell ourselves, a story about to reach a critical stage as we deal with the consequences of the technologies that promise the path to a better future for all. Whether it is the idea of robotics and artificial intelligence leading to a world of perpetual underemployment and new techniques of control (rather than a world of new possibilities for work and leisure, basic incomes and so on), or that climate change will create a world of climate refugees and new territories and trade routes to fight over as we search for technological fixes through geo engineering (rather than developing new types of energy and economy), Virilio leaves us with a bleak vision of the future, the type of future depicted in the films Elysium or Blade Runner 2049, a world of cascading accidents and catastrophes in which the financial crisis and the war or terror are just the trailer. And a situation where our information bombed politics might be unwilling – or unable – to deal with.
But what Virilio aimed to do was encourage thinking that constantly sought to undermine the type of ‘magical thinking’ that politicians, technologists and bureaucrats sometimes become entranced by in matters of economy, war and technology. There is a purpose to his ‘negativity’, a vision of politics and society that we see in the activist work he did for the homeless in Paris, a political position that I think still holds on to his worldview from the 1960s: that we can - and must - build something different. As thinkers – if we want to try to understand the world – we must search wide, exploring worlds that might be alien to us, from architecture, to computer science, to military history, to philosophy, to whatever we need to make sense of this accelerating 21st century world.
In the last two years I have been waiting to read Virilio’s observations on the state of the world today with Trump, populism, climate change, artificial intelligence, hybrid war and cybersecurity. But there was silence and now there will be no more writings on the broad range of issues he explored so often since the 1960s. But really it’s all there anyway, in the writings and questions he leaves us with.
Dr Mark Lacy is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University. He has written about Paul Virilio’s work in Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio (Routledge, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the future of war.