A Tribute to Paul Virilio
David Levi Strauss
It was Kathy Acker who first tipped me off to Paul Virilio, in the early 1980s in San Francisco. “He’s not a systematic philosopher or theorist,” she told me, “but he throws off sparks. I read his books like they're novels, for pleasure. You should too.” Pure War, in 1983, Speed and Politics, in 1986, Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles, in 1978, all published in the cheap paperbacks of Semiotext(e)’s “Foreign Agents” series, were incendiary treasures, and later, when the trickle of translations became a flood, I tried never to miss one. All of the interview books with Sylvère are exemplars of the form. All of Virilio's writings on art are controversial and much-needed. His writings on the nature of images and the coming icono-politics are essential.
I learned early on to pay attention to every source Virilio mentioned in passing. These are usually books I would never come to know otherwise, like Norman E. Spear’s The Processing of Memories: Forgetting and Retention.
I don’t know if it's entirely accurate, but I’ve always thought of Virilio in a constellation of other radical Catholic/Jesuit thinkers and theorists that are indispensible: Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Enrique Dussel, Paulo Freire.
I think theorists should be ranked according to their prescience, and Virilio is near the top in this vatic order. He predicted the Gulf War, 9/11, the Big Data surveillance state, and the coming Big Accident (when everything is finally connected, then everything can finally fail). Conversely, when a theorist predicts something that never happens, she or he should be held accountable for their prophetic failure. That would winnow the field considerably.
Paul Virilio, doomsaying oracle of speed and war in the Anthropocene, died of cardiac arrest on September 10. His passing was widely noted in the Francophone press; the America media took next to no notice. As I write these words, there is (unless I missed it) no mention of Virilio’s death in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, on NPR, on The New Yorker website—the result, most likely, of the knee-jerk anti-intellectualism and blithe unconcern with goings-on beyond our fruited plains that have made this The Greatest Country in the World. (Our longstanding distaste for all things froggy might have something to do with it, too.)
For my part, I’ve never understood why Virilio’s intellectual market share, among American intelligentsia, wasn’t anywhere near Jean Baudrillard’s. To be sure, he didn’t have J.B.’s sweepingly oracular style, typical of the French philosopher kings, nor his way with a zippy neologism. And his Catholicism and unrepentant humanism made him less than chic in academic circles, where a Marxist knowingness is the order of the day and religiosity is anathema. Even so, his analysis was every bit as penetrating and considerably more rigorous than Baudrillard’s, not to mention more bracingly Cartesian. McLuhan with afterburners, he clocked the speed trials of postmodernity, bore witness to the flash of the Information Bomb, and took stock of the militarization, in the 20th century, of the mass unconscious.
Now that he’s gone, we see him everywhere—the Posthumous Effect. McLuhan opining, in The Medium is the Massage (1967), that the Cold War was being “fought by subtle electric informational media...involving everybody—all the time—everywhere” sounds uncannily like a time-travelling Virilio: “The first deterrence, nuclear deterrence, is presently being superseded by the second deterrence: a type of deterrence based on what I call ‘the information bomb’ associated with the new weaponry of information and communications technologies” (Ctheory interview, “The Kosovo War Took Place In Orbital Space: Paul Virilio in Conversation with John Armitage,” 2000). Through his influence on Deleuze and Guattari (specifically the “Treatise on Nomadology: The War Machine” in Mille Plateaux), his fingerprints are all over Manuel DeLanda’s theorization of complex systems as self-assembled machines: massing in the streets, the revolutionary crowd “stops being a cog in the technical machine,” Virilio writes, in Speed and Politics (1977), “and itself becomes a motor (machine of attack), in other words a producer of speed.” Accelerationism, too, owes Virilio an obvious philosophical debt, though he’d be appalled by its strategy of putting the pedal to the metal on late capitalism’s worst tendencies in order to hasten its James Dean wipeout. In his insight that “every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress” (Politics of the Very Worst, 1999), he paves the way for the object-oriented ontologist Graham Harman’s implication that our technological environments are invisible to us until glitches or breakdowns make them visible. Virilio: “When you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash...” Speaking of which, J.G. Ballard’s Crash can be read through Virilio, just as Virilio can be read through Ballard: Bunker Archeology: Text and Photos, his dreamlike mixture of memoir, architectural history, ruin theory, and photo essay, is the perfect sequel to Ballard’s short story “The Terminal Beach” (“At night, as he lay asleep on the floor of the ruined bunker, Traven heard the waves breaking along the shore of the lagoon...”)
In the 1990s, when I was writing, in books like Escape Velocity and essays for Mondo 2000, about the harmonic convergence of corporate triumphalism, New Age utopianism, and libertarian ideology in Wired-style cyberculture, Virilio’s skepticism - hard won in the Nazi-occupied France of his childhood-was tonic to my soul. Like any French intellectual worth the name, he categorically refused to drink the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid. When Escape Velocity was published in France, the title was translated as Vitesse Virtuelle (“Virtual Speed”) because Virilio already had a book coming out with the title “Escape Velocity.” He’d beaten me to the punch, as he did everyone.
My copy of The Vision Machine contains an accident, made by the printing press. It’s a small one, but it proves its point. The first pages, including the colophon, comprise a separate book: a guide to training horses. It is a testament to the poetic texture of Paul Virilio’s thought that I first realized the printing error, which I assume to be the result of a rogue indexing algorithm, by the quality of the writer’s prose. The author of this misplaced equine guide notes, much as Virilio does in his book (which begins on page nineteen), that to place someone under your control, “you must understand his nature and behavior, and you must have his attention.” Virilio, like our greatest philosophers (of which he is one), had a writer’s talent. His books, like Vilém Flusser’s and Jean Baudrillard’s (with whom he’s often compared), read like good science fiction. Unlike Baudrillard’s, they’re actually true.
Virilio understood our condition as an uninterruptible war—a total surround. Less than two days after he died, this total war reached another generation in the United States. Teenagers born on or after September 12, 2001, can now enlist and die in a war that was set off by an event they were not even alive to witness, but which resounds today on TV—the redux of a war Baudrillard claimed (admittedly, with irony) “did not take place.” Virilio followed esoteric strands of thought to prescient conclusions, and knew better than to be deluded by his own physical vision, a sense which he understood to be a construction subject to external influence and cooptation. Though he was not a prophet for me—I began reading him too late—he’s someone who has always held answers. It would be an impossible task to trace where he gained his own information—David Levi Strauss said, in his Bases of Criticism seminar, that Virilio had a military informant—but a writer learns from reading him that meaning is to be found not where an event occurs or an image appears, but where it originates. Virilio’s literature is a literature of origins.
The Riddle of technology
We have lost a great mind, the last in a group of French thinkers unequalled in the second part of last century. Virilio was an urban planner and a visionary, not a philosopher, but he was the most important philosopher of technology since Martin Heidegger.
I met Virilio for the first time in 1980. I was in Italy researching an issue of Semiotext(e) on Italian terrorism. The conflict was getting out of hand and many people were in jail or in exile. I was discussing the situation with my Italian friends, when they mentioned that they were in touch with a specialist of war and guerilla warfare. His name was Paul Virilio. For him the essential thing was to make the enemy submit without combat, and avoid “setting off the mechanism.”1 Virilio was practically unknown in France at the time. He had just published a slight, but dense book, Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles,’2 a companion piece to Speed and Politics, esssay on dromology,”3 his most important essay to date and the first to raise the question of speed. It was an introduction to a new world which he called dromology, from dromos, race. Speed was a crucial but neglected factor in human history. One reason for this persistent disregard is that speed is not something concrete, a phenomenon onto itself, but a relation between phenomena.
War is considered a negative phenomenon, and technology a positive one. But war is the source of technology. The riddle of technology is a riddle of the accident. For Aristotle, accidents are supposed to happen unexpectedly while substance is absolute and necessary. Virilio believes the reverse. Accidents can be programmed (car tests) and even earthquakes become a revolution. In Popular Defense, he pointed out that ecological catastrophes are only terrifying for civilians. For the military, they are a military exercise, “a simulation of chaos, an opportunity for large-scale maneuvers in open terrain, beyond the constrains of national boundaries.”4 Accidents are something that one can learn from. They are a new form of warfare replacing revolution and war. As a result he advocated creating a “Museum of the Accidents,” a great idea which remained mostly unfulfilled.
I was intrigued and my Italian friend was amused by my enthusiasm. Why don’t you meet with him, he suggested. He lives in Paris. But he warned me: I heard that he may be an officer in the French army, but I am not sure.
Back in Paris I called Virilio up. We decided to meet in a petit café near Montparnasse. I expected to see a new Zarathustra, the Ur philosopher, someone capable of holding the world on his shoulders, but to my surprise he wasn’t wearing the uniform, he was dressed in black, like a priest. He was a little man with greyish hair and a prominent nose. It was amazing to think that he had managed to unravel on his own the complex edifice of his theory. He had never been in the army, he told me, just fought in the Algerian war as a conscript. Besides he had no special animosity towards the military. He only objects to the military class. They are technocrats, and they don’t have any limit. They take this absence from technology, from science and communication. The fusion of science and war signals the breakdown of the distinction between the military and the domestic.
Heidegger reminded us that the essence of the techne resides not in the making itself but rather in the fulfillment of an underlying project or scheme. His project was to investigate the nature of the threat technology presents to politics and democracy. Accidents are inventions in their own right. They reveal the essence of the machine and machines are machines in reverse. They produce accidents.
Clausewitz recognized the tendency for war to “go to extremes,” politics being the only way of preventing complete release. Only by going to extremes would theory be able to assess the nature of the threat. Moving from vehicular vectors to more intangible weapons of communication—visual technology like photography, film, television, and video, up to the most recent advances in electronic media technology, are all offshoots of military research, technology is now approaching the speed of light. Instantaneity and ubiquity of communications are now cancelling memory and history, triggering a generalized derealization of reality. Today we are experiencing an acceleration of the instant. The instant isn’t present anymore. The progress of acceleration is making the world uninhabitable.
All his life Virilio pursued an idea that illuminated every aspect of the contemporary world. He followed it uncompromisingly. He will be sorely missed.
- Paul Virilio, Popular Defense, and Ecological Struggles, Semiotext(e) tr. Mark Polizzotti, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e) (p. 22)
- Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, essay on dromology, (Semiotext(e) (1986/1977)
- S&P. Ibid, pp. 65-66.
Paul Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky
The Philosopher as Algorithm
Paul Virilio’s major books, Bunker Archeology (1967) The Lost Dimension (1983), Speed and Politics (1986), Pure War (1983), War and Cinema (1989), all had a foundation in his observation in The Lost Dimension: “Since the beginning of the 20th Century… the screen… became the city square.” It’s almost uncanny how prescient his writing on these topics was, and how deeply it speaks to our Anthropocene Era as there is no question that we now live in an era of the “quantified self,” where data drives almost every aspect of digital modernity.
Virilio’s first major impact in the English speaking world arrived like a lightning bolt. It was a collection of conversations between him and Semiotext(e) Publisher/Editor Sylvère Lotringer entitled Pure War that arrived on the scene in 1983. I was about 12 years old, and was reading stuff like this, comic books, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. You could get a copy of this book at Kramerbooks in Washington, DC, where I grew up. I remember seeing it in the window of the book store and thinking it was some cool collection of comic books, or some strange manifesto (Washington, DC bookstores had a lot of this kind of thing back in those days.).
Over the years I followed Virilio’s writings with dedicated obsession—and as someone who collects records and books, I ended up having many of his works. Most of my friends who are architects look at his work as a foundation for thinking about urban design and how the concept of warfare has shaped the digital modern landscape. He predicted our era where data defines contemporary thinking—but for Virilio's vision, these issues were all connected to how information and warfare are interwoven. His was the bittersweet observation that war, speed, perception, and information architecture all converge on the mobile screen of an ideological device we call the laptop, the cellphone, the unremembered spaces of the World Wide Web as it has evolved out of the Cold War. For Virilio, war was an uncanny tension between the logistic and the strategic, which reformed and dramatically reshaped our experience of the digital NOW. In other words, how the invisible world of signals warfare, cryptography, and Freud’s uncanny transferred to an urban dialectic, would disrupt our sense of space and time. After reading his work, there’s no question you will never look at concepts like space and time the same way.
His vision encompassed the world as it is, with the infinite potential of how the act of war is itself a theater of ideology and speedways, embodied in artifacts that embedded the logic of the Cold War in everyday consumption—like the iPhone or laptop. Where war is the organization of human activity into massive theaters of conflict, for him, information about war—the meta of the meta-data of war—was the actual process of dematerialization of all aspects of the physical infrastructures that made human habitation a kind of architectural vernacular. Where the founder of the TED conference, the architect Richard Saul Wurman, coined the term “information architecture,” Virilio made it the essential ontology of our time.
Virilio noticed that the arms race to make better protected spaces in the modern age had shifted to the virtual space of radar, satellite systems, and, of course, the Internet. Wars were no longer about generals—they were now the sum of the information each combatant had access to. In our time, hackers have more impact than any General or army. They can crash planes and markets, turn power grids on and off, and disrupt entire national economies. Today, buildings interact with satellite data to respond to forest fires and climate change is a condition that disrupts even how we can think of cities, water, and geospatial data. These are all examples that Virilio foresaw.
I can only say that his writing, like Nietzsche’s, offered lucid insight on how information’s rapid irreversible destabilizing effects on the global geopolitical reality of Post Cold War 21st Century has left a legacy of deeply and eerily clear visions of the world at the edge of human perception. One of his books, The Unknown Quantity puts this at the heart of our time. Virilio wasn't a moralist or even someone concerned with ethics per se, but someone acutely aware of the “invisible hand” of how human beings are fascinated with destruction as much as we are obsessed with disruption and innovation. For him, there was no pleasure in seeing our hyper accelerated rush to the edge of extinction. Like Heidegger, he felt space and time had been radically restructured by the advances we have made in such a short amount of time. He once wryly observed, “the speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalization is the speed of light.” For him, every technological advance has the seeds of its own destruction and the cult of speed at the heart of 21st Century info-culture is a kind of meditation on mortality at the heart of what it means to be human.
Allucquere Rosanne Stone
Paul was a fascinating gentleman. In the ’70s Donna Haraway and Jim Clifford recommended Speed and Politics, which I read in one gulp, suffered a bit of indigestion, and became an instant fan. When I met him at the EGS, he could hold forth at dinner when he felt the urge, which he frequently did. I think his abstractions of speed, violence, and militarism-as-progress will long outlast him, although it ought to be his concept of negativity––he was so damn prolific that it’s hard to tell. I miss him.
The Camera Bomb and the Telecitizen
On January 16, 1991, I was in living in Mexico City, and I was writing mainly about cyberculture and pornography. I watched in shock and awe (before the expression was appropriated by the Bush and Cheney team) as CNN broadcast a bomb with a camera attached reaching its target. It was an atrocious and fascinating spectacle where the illusion of tele-presence made the carnage domestic. It seemed very difficult to grasp the power of that indelible money shot, an act that was as close to the pornographic essence of showing the unshowable as the sadistic morbidity of a snuff film. At that moment I could only think of Paul Virilio’s writings on war. The so-called smart missile filming and documenting its own destruction became the emblematic event of that war as well of our relationship with representational technologies and aesthetics at the dusk of the 20th century. The killing camera was reminiscent of Michael Powell’s controversial film Peeping Tom, and the extreme fetishization of the male gaze. Those grainy images, ending in a white blur, repeated again and again, always threatening, and never revealing any more information, or wisdom or relief. They represented a real new world order where the obliteration of the infrastructure of a nation had become dinnertime entertainment sold as humanitarian endeavor. His work offered a blueprint of the frantic chaos and nihilism of the technological and spectacular military campaigns of our time and his ideas on the relevance of speed (“speed is power itself”) became essential to understanding the dynamics of postmodern conflict.
One of the many powerful ideas that inspired me to write my book War and Propaganda (2004) was Virilio’s assertion: “There is no war, then, without representation, no sophisticated weaponry without psychological mystification” (War and Cinema, 1984). Virilio was able to foretell the impact of communication technologies for their kinetic quality and their cinematic version of the events.
Among many phenomena Virilio anticipated was the grotesque state of politics in the Trump era. Referring to the triumph of Silvio Berlusconi, he wrote in Ground Zero (2002), “Italy has just toppled over into a two-party system of the third kind in which the alternative is no longer between classical Left and Right, but between politics and the media.” He warned us that telereality was invading the sets of the Res publica—“telecracy over representative democracy’s man, the triumph of audience ratings over universal suffrage.” We are now witnessing and living through the surge of “genuine virtual democracy,” a “ludic democracy for infantilized tele-citizens” that he described.
Virilio was my guide through the hyper-technologizing of everything, and the chaos and disintegration brought by American endless wars. His oracular voice will be greatly missed, now that we’re quickly sliding down the path of surrendering more and more control to artificial intelligences and algorithms with increasing power in dictating our lives.