Why Paul Virilio’s critiques of warfare, acceleration, and media technologies remain prescient and essential
Chris Petit’s 1979 film Radio On features a striking opening scene with the camera zooming in on a note with the words: “We are the children of Fritz Lang and Wernher von Braun. We are the link between the 1920s and the 1980s.” The line could have easily been lifted from a number of French theorist Paul Virilio’s books that outlined exactly the link between modern technologies of visuality and the parallel history of forms of scientific weaponry: war and cinema. Virilio, who passed away on September 10th, was a major influence across disciplines from art and architecture to film and media studies. His impact in media studies was also important in the formative years of the discipline; since the 1970s his work elaborated the argument that a major part of modern media technologies, including those designed to relay information, is not about entertainment, consumption and audiences but targeting, weaponization and, in Harun Farocki’s terms, the operational images of the military-entertainment complex. The result is the militarization of everyday life, so deeply embedded, so fundamentally accelerated in our collective consciousness, that it is difficult to discern. It is the stuff of the quotidian; it is the mundane infrastructure of operations we refer to as “media.”
Besides its appeal to a variety of analyses and analysts of media culture, Virilio’s work was firmly situated in architectural institutions and collaborations. From 1969 to 1997 he worked at the École Spéciale d’Architecture; he worked as a city planner; he was the co-founder of the Architecture Principe, and, almost needless to add, his work had a massive impact in architectural research into how computer technologies shaped physical space. In the early 1960s, Virilio and Claude Parent developed “the oblique function” of space, a theory informed by phenomenology that eschewed standard uses of vertical and horizontal axes in favor of inclined planes. Such interventions reflected the increased speed of bodies in motion within the built urban environment: a theme that would provide the basis for many variations of Virilio’s thought.
In many ways, Virilio’s corpus is a set of volumes for one larger book that he composed his entire life: a philosophical equivalent to Proust’s massive work but with memory replaced by movement and warfare. A key concept in Virilio’s work is acceleration. Speed becomes the primary relation between phenomena and perception, in a drive to achieve maximum velocity to a point where information and historical time encounter the speed of light. This is the teleology of accelerative technologies. This is also where he found the nature of technological accidents lurking: the disaster of things going awry is not only the shadow potential of any new technology, but also technologies are already accidents in the sense that they transform the scope and operation of the senses. Virilio’s take is always tightly coupled to an analysis of circa 150 years of technological change that concerns transport, cinema, information and projectiles (weaponry); the accident, then, is a McLuhanesque transformation of our perspective that comes about also with acceleration.
Virilio writes: “Speed treats vision like its basic element; with acceleration, to travel is like filming, not so much producing images as new mnemonic traces, unlikely, supernatural. In such a context death itself can no longer be felt as mortal; it becomes, as in William Burroughs, a simple technical accident, the final separation of sound from the picture track.” In this sense, Virilio extends Einstein’s physics to relative relations. When these are constituted by the speed of technologies of perception as opposed to biological technics, then humans (for Virilio is consistently a very human-centric thinker) lose this capacity to hold that relativity, a loss to be mourned as well as feared.
Developed in relation to the theme of acceleration, “dromology” is one of Virilio’s major theoretical contributions. The Greek term dromos means “race” and “race track;” it thus encapsulates the performative and conceptual concerns of speed and the spatial materiality that allows it to operate. The architectural elements that underpin all of Virilio’s thought are never far away from his most elaborate analyses. The titles of two pivotal books sum up the intersecting areas of his inquiry: War and Cinema and Speed and Politics. Operating in the interstices of these substantial slabs of human endeavorr and failings, is the “critique of the art of technology” that emerges from Virilio’s readings of Husserl, Heidegger and Bergson, as well as from his discussions with his good friend Jean Baudrillard. This critique was operationalized in theorizing the impact of military technology on spatial organization and the distribution of power, defense and ballistics, which find their most apparent manifestation in the generation of and desire for ever-increasing technologies of acceleration: ever-faster perception, detection, information and destruction. “If we can see it,” Virilio quotes a Pentagon general, “we can destroy it.” Furthermore, the never-ending wars take up a form of endo-colonialization, argued Virilio: “no longer civil war, but war waged against civilians — this perpetual menace which, sooner or later, causes the emigration, in panic, of (pillaged, ransomed and raped) local populations towards the last lands of Cockaigne where the rule of law still exists.”
While his analyses of war and speed were greatly motivated by the major military disasters of the 20th century, Virilio was quick to point out that the war never really ended, suggesting the need to continue his theoretical work in ways that spoke to the long durée of normalized violence that becomes infrastructured as part of the everyday. One could also continue to ask in which ways is the continuous environmental violence part of this extended war, too, as his books Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles, The Landscape of Events, and Grey Ecology, amongst others, manifest.
If Virilio’s work is (media) archaeological, it is not solely because of his significant work on Bunker Archaeology, the visual essay on the Atlantic coast remnants of World War II. Instead, or in addition, it is well captured in Benjamin Bratton’s characterization that Virilio is a thinker of logistics — and hence, one might add, a crucial early developer of the past years of extensive work that has contributed to this significant field of media studies (from Ned Rossiter to Nicole Starosielski to Lisa Parks and others). Bratton writes: “[Modernity] begins as an archaeology of naval routes, strategic techniques and urban distributions, and becomes an integrated world of events reduced to shapes and symbols, viewed and manipulated instantaneously on screens.”
Furthermore, both methodologically and stylistically, Virilio’s writing resists his work as an architect that demands “clear systems” and “machines that work well.” His writing does not follow linear argument but takes the exploded elements found in cubism and the disfiguration of the human body in early 20th century art to reshape the corpus of traditional analytic writing. Virilio’s rhetoric turns logistical plans into psychic realities in a manner that for some might resemble J. G. Ballard and other psychogeographically-tuned writers who emerged from the post WWII urban transformations, but that in this case presents a psycho-dromology that rests both on a temporalization of urban forms, and a subsequent transformation of forms of subjectivity. Anecdotal, insightful mentions of physiology, posture, sense and sensation fill pages of analysis by this urbanist-turned-media-scholar-turned-polemical-essayist whose prose is full of various gems: “The inexplicable enthusiasm precedes the accident, the shipwreck of the senses, that of the body.” Hence Virilio’s work helps to backtrack from the contemporary discourses inhabited by the likes of Elon Musk to the archaeology of such exposed techno-celebrity in figures such as Howard Hughes.
The real figures populating his books also start to feel fictitious in that they became expressions not of personal impulses but the results of larger anonymous forces of the 20th century. Virilio’s own critique was constantly not only personal but also, and mostly, an expression of his own work being an after-effect of the particular stretch of time he inhabited. Aptly, he acknowledged this when speaking of himself as a “War baby,” even a “Blitzkrieg baby.” But to read Virilio’s wincingly prescient analyses of aesthetics and techno-cultural logics is to be reminded that we are all also blitzkrieg babies born with Cold War targets on our heads, 9/11 debris dusting our clothes, War on Terror stutters in our speech and drone hums rumbling in our ears, as we seek the sanctuary of interrupted acceleration and techno-perceptual systems in what Virilio called “the aesthetics of disappearance.”
Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka are Professors at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. They are the founding directors of the Archaeologies of Media and Technology Research Unit (AMT).