Like a number of French thinkers during the twentieth century, Paul Virilio had a penchant for the concise summary, a talent for aphorisms adaptable to a variety of settings. “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash,” he remarks in Politics of the Very Worst (1999). “Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.” Against prevailing market ideologies of science and innovation – and against the humorless, irony-free character of such ideologies – Virilio pointed to the lurking death drive that inhabits the underside of such technological optimism. His passing last month at the age of eighty-six silenced a critical voice that countered the sanguine enthusiasm of our techno-consumptive age, one with an indispensable wit that leavened the claustrophobia of our times.
Born in Paris in 1932, Virilio belonged to a generation who experienced the German occupation, the Algerian War (where Virilio served in the French army), and the protests of May 1968, during which he became a professor in the École Spéciale d’Architecture. His work drew upon these pivotal moments in different ways, his firsthand experience of warfare being the most crucial. It informed such major works as Bunker Archaeology (1975), Speed and Politics (1977), and Pure War (1983). Unlike his peers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean Baudrillard, whose understandings of social power through images, language, and sexuality often took domesticated and therefore more elusive forms, Virilio approached power through more traditional means, examining how militarization, technological innovation, and, most significantly, speed defined modern life.
Virilio is a philosopher I came to late, being prompted by a book I was working on regarding jet lag. My early thinking concerned what jet lag might tell us about the constructed nature of time, but this gradually evolved into a focus on technology and global capitalism, how jet lag’s exhaustion was not an individual experience, but a physiological symptom of modernity – namely, the pervasive enervation that has come to inhabit everyday life under late capitalism. It is a fatigue without physical labor that nonetheless affects health and welfare. What is written about jet lag takes no account of such economic, cultural, and historical factors, focusing instead on treatment and alleged remedies, even though there is no “cure” for the desynchronization that results from the speed of air travel. Only patience and time, allowing for the resetting of one’s biological clock, can alleviate the exhaustion of jet lag. (Would that global capitalism be cured with only patience and time….)
Against this backdrop, Virilio’s work on speed and politics resonated immediately, yet his thinking on the “dictatorship of speed” was only one facet of his larger project. Indeed, he had little to say on jet lag specifically. Virilio’s initial work did not foreground acceleration, but it did evocatively outline the relationship between space and power, laying the groundwork for his later interventions. Bunker Archaeology is an eccentric book on an unlikely topic – the remains of military installations – based on his youth encounters with the vestiges of the Atlantic Wall built by the Nazis along the coast of France. In the same way that Foucault held the prison and the asylum up to scrutiny, Virilio positioned the bunker as a symbol of modern power. Yet Bunker Archaeology is a distinctly poetic work of criticism, blending history and memory, social theory and stark photographs he took of dozens of concrete ruins, which themselves convey a range of feelings – presence and absence, violence and defeat, strength and degradation, nature and humanity. As Virilio reflected in his lyrical preface, these edifices, which numbered in the thousands across France, Holland, and Belgium, constituted a formative mystery that he could not abandon, indicating a material and imaginary boundary between land and sea, war and peace, life and death – a forgotten architecture, provisional in purpose yet of unexpected longevity, that revealed more about the modern condition than any work by Le Corbusier. In his words, “As I concentrated on these forms in the middle of apartment buildings, in courtyards, and in public squares, I felt as though a subterranean civilization had sprung up from the ground.”
Virilio’s attention to ordinary forms of militarization contributed to a broader argument about the role of warfare in defining modern life. Pure War, a book of dialogues with Sylvère Lotringer, moved beyond the makeshift brutalism of the Second World War to reflect on the claustrophobic climate of the Cold War and its omnipresent threat of nuclear devastation. “Pure war” referred to the pervasiveness of military preparation, the totality of defense measures through science and technology and their attendant anxieties. Here, too, Virilio’s childhood proved essential. “I’m someone who became interested in war through personal history,” he describes in Pure War. “As a child I suffered the war; the destruction of the city of Nantes when I was ten was a traumatic event for me.” Such experiences informed his specialization as an urbanist and his arguments that cities were an effect of war, not commerce – a point illustrated in the “anti-city strategy” of modern conflict. Cities were defined by their barracks, not their markets.
Cities are also characterized by speed. Speed and Politics is perhaps best known for his remark, “history progresses at the speed of its weapons systems.” But urbanism remained central. With May 1968 in mind, Virilio discusses the incentives and risks of urban control, writing, “The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street, where for a moment it stops being a cog in the technical machine and itself becomes a motor (machine of attack), in other words a producer of speed.” Fascists, however, had also recognized this potential. Virilio cites Joseph Goebbels as declaring, “Whoever can conquer the streets also conquers the State!” Taken together, these observations contributed to what Virilio called “dromology” (drawn from the Greek word dromos, or race course) – the study of speed, its political effects, and its potent spectacle, as implied in the idea of the racetrack.
His conclusions in Speed and Politics ultimately regard the strategic value of speed over space, the diminishment of geography through the possibility of instantaneous destruction, drawing upon situations of the nuclear age – the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, and its condensed timeframe of only minutes to atomic annihilation. But the transference of these ideas to our Internet age is clear. Virilio’s notion of a “dictatorship of speed” harks back to the Italian Futurists, but it further seizes upon the shift from geopolitics to a “chronopolitics” abetted by technology. “Space is no longer in geography – it’s in electronics,” Virilio comments in Pure War. “It’s in the instantaneous time of command posts, multinational headquarters, control towers, etc. Politics is less in physical space than in the time systems administered by various technologies, from telecommunications to airplanes.” Without geography or space, there is no possibility of movement, of freedom, in Virilio’s eyes. Normandy again comes into focus, with abandoned bunkers strewn across a haunted warscape representing a primitive form of this delimitation of space, this ending of freedom.
This view of speed’s ascendance shares an affinity with Marx’s argument about capitalism auguring the “annihilation of space by time” as described in Grundrisse. Virilio, whose father was a communist, nonetheless distanced himself from Marx for reasons of interpretation as well as politics, specific to the Soviet Union and its militarization. Virilio was also open about his conversion to Christianity. Born to an Italian father and a Breton mother, he has arguably always had the credentials of an outsider. Yet Virilio is someone to think with alongside Marx. Accelerationism propelled by global capitalism is inescapable at present, whether through instantaneous information or the permanence of endless shift work, which has resulted in sleep disruption as a recurrent aspect of contemporary life. As an analog to Virilio’s condition of “pure war,” this communal condition of increasing desynchronization (without aircraft) might be called “pure jet lag” – a pending totality of constant exhaustion through technological speed, with which we are only now coming to terms. To paraphrase Virilio, we are reaching a state of “world time” where time zones are irrelevant, and day and night distinctions are obsolete. Everything is “live.”
Virilio, I think, would understand.