Dromologies: Paul Virilio: Speed, Cinema, and the End of the Political State (1994)

The news is making its way around the ‘net that Paul Virilio has died. It has now been quite a few years since I was immersed in the sort of theory that Virilio practiced, but in the 90s—my days as a pioneer in internet studies, critic of cyberpunk, student of poststructuralism, etc.—his work appeared as one of the sharpest cutting edges out there. And I found myself in an interesting position when, in 1994, having written a summary of translated works for a grad school seminar, I posted it to the then very new World Wide Web—and found myself very briefly among the “experts” in the still largely virtual school of Virilio Studies. That moment has long since passed, but this seems like an appropriate time to make sure that this very simple study is still archived somewhere online, apart from the Wayback Machine.

Dromologies: Paul Virilio: Speed, Cinema, and the End of the Political State

Shawn P. Wilbur

The revolution came, and we were sleeping. Or perhaps we just blinked, seized suddenly (as we are from time to time) by a sort of petit mal. Whatever the cause of our lapse, it seems that the world has changed–profoundly, but also almost imperceptibly. This, at least, is the story told by various threads of those philosophies we group together (however uncomfortably) under the signs postmodernism and poststructuralism. Reading the work of Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Arthur Kroker, Jean-Francois Lyotard or Paul Virilio, one often has the sense of having missed something terribly important–some quiet apocalypse which we may sense, but never quite recall. The “when it all changed” (to borrow a phrase from science fiction writers Joanna Russ and William Gibson) remains elusive.

Great quantities of ink have been spilled in the last decade or so over the merits of the various post-* philosophies. Derrida and Baudrillard have attracted particular attention, with theories of the “death of the author,” the textuality of the world, and the “disappearance of the real” into “hyperreality.” Lyotard’s “driftworks” and “peregrinations” have drawn both praise and accusations of lack of rigor, and Kroker’s “panic” mix of Baudrillard and McLuhan has reopened some of the old debates about the lines between academics, the “popular,” and the avant garde.

Scholars who find promise in postmodern theory most often celebrate it as an intellectual space (if not an innocent or completely safe one) for considering “otherness,” both in ourselves and at the margins of our cultures. There is a strong sense among many of these scholars that it is at the level of language (or at least of ideas and ideologies) that cultural battles are won and lost. This makes deconstructionist readings of “social texts” seem a powerful political tool, and the Baudrillardian empire of simulacra a frightening dystopia. Of course, this emphasis on the workings of language has lead critics–rationalists and materials, from both right and left–to criticize the lack of “real world” engagement, or hope for meaningful political action, that they see as a part of postmodernist philosophy.

It may be that these two camps are faced with a conceptual gap that is nearly unbridgeable. There are basic assumptions about what is “political” or “material” which separate them. However, there is also a field of polemics, often badly misinformed, which may be the more serious boundary between the two. In order for the “theory for theory’s sake” argument against (particularly the French) postmodernists to stand, certain facts have to be obscured or ignored, or certain ironies left unexamined. We might easily imagine (or perhaps merely recall) the English professor who will grant irony to a Swiftian “modest proposal,” but insists that Baudrillard is speaking quite literally. But we also need to remind ourselves of the real political activism of postmodern philosophers like Jean-François Lyotard–who was involved with the group Socialisme ou Barbarisme for some time before he became the primary purveyor of postmodernism, at least in the minds of Americans.

There is an odd story of selective publishing and translation which has had a rather unfortunate effect on the image of French postmodernists in America. The first translations of Lyotard’s early political writings have only appeared this year, almost ten years after the translation of The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. And, significantly for the reputation of postmodernism in this country, The Postmodern Condition was released in this country with a somewhat dismissive introduction by quasi-postmodernist Fredric Jameson–whose postmodernism is frequently indistinguishable from a sort of super-modernism. (It seems clear that, in Jameson’s view, there is little or nothing in postmodernism which is not suggested in a “proper” reading of Hegel and Sartre.) Lyotard’s most challenging work remains only intermittently in print, or has only recently been translated. Baudrillard’s early, more materialist, analyses–which ground all of his later work–are either untranslated or available only from small presses. A translation this year of his Symbolic Exchange and Death is a significant, but still partial, answer to this problem. The political writings of the late Felix Guattari are no longer in print–with the exception of Communists Like Us, a volume co-authored with Italian Workers’ Autonomy theorist Antonio Negri (himself a victim of rather spectacular neglect by American leftists)–and little notice has been taken of the political activities of his frequent co-writer Gilles Deleuze. Negri’s work is beginning to appear in American editions, but without fanfare and without much attention being drawn to his “postmodern” connections. Of course, the most puzzling of the untranslated works remains Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Happen, which has been rather thoroughly criticized by American academics, but which has not yet been translated. Of course, the absence of the work has not prevented a great deal of “hyper-argument” about its merits, and those of its author. It is an ironic situation which, one suspects, would not dismay Baudrillard too much, as it seems to verify his sense that the real–even “real texts,” it seems–are prone to disappearance into the realm of the symbolic. In that realm, Baudrillard’s “scandalous’ text can serve as an exemplar of “postmodernism” for those who wish to dismiss it without engaging its finer points, most often in the defense of “humanisms,” modernisms” or marxisms” now largely emptied of their critical content.

This sort of straw-man treatment of the “politics of postmodernism” is simply not sufficient, and points to something like a basic unwillingness to engage with potentially disturbing theoretical models–models which seem to have been judged “threatening” or “apolitical” strictly a priori. Strangely absent from much of this debate are challenges to its basic terms, or examples which cross the theoretical gap. This is particularly strange, since those examples do exist, even in translation. The work of Paul Virilio is one example of theoretical work which seems to engage more directly with “real world,” material concerns, but also maintains much of the content and feel of what we generally think of as “postmodernism.” Virilio has written prolifically, on a wide range of subjects, but throughout his work there are key threads which tend to unite it (although this unity may give us some problems) in a broad, fairly coherent reading of contemporary culture which focuses on the political state–or, more precisely, on its demise. But Virilio’s “evil demon” is not language or the image. Instead, it is speed, and specifically speed as it is an element of warfare, and militarism in general.

There has been no English-language synthesis of Virilio’s work to date, although at least six volumes of his writings have been translated and published in this country (mostly by Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia.) Arthur Kroker’s The Possessed Individual suggests some directions such a synthesis might follow, but Kroker’s treatment is unfortunately tied to his ongoing “panic” critique, in ways which perhaps obscure the originality of Virilio’s thought. However, we should not be too surprised at this lack of critical synthesis. Of the translations of Virilio’s work, only War and Cinema has been published by a mainstream academic publisher (Verso). (Translations of his Bunker Archeology and The Vision Machine, from Princeton Architectural Press and Indiana University, respectively, have been announced for later this year, so we may eventually see better translations of some of his work.) Also, the scope and style of Virilio’s work quite simply make synthesis difficult. Virilio is at once an urbanist, a historian of war and of cinema, a philosopher of speed, a theorist of human subjectivity, a postmodernist–sharing a great deal of terminology and approach with Baudrillard–and, as he frequently point out in interviews, a Christian. The potential difficulties, even contradictions, should be obvious. And he aggravates these problems by writing in a style which, as Arthur Kroker observes, is itself bound up in an “aesthetic of disappearance” and speed. In interviews, Virilio is explicit about his methods, emphasizing his interests in “trends” and “flows.” He has likened his work to a ladder, composed as it is of a series of “solid” steps and gaps, or interruptions. His figure of the picnoleptic modern subject–which I borrowed at the beginning of this piece–always suspecting that it has just missed something, is not too far from Virilio’s reader, forced to range across a culture now re-territorialized by the texts.

There are other difficulties, as well. Key texts–both by Virilio and by his colleagues and predecessors–remain untranslated, and the existing translations are said to be far from perfect. Some combination of Virilio’s philosophical “speed” and the flawed translations also obscures many of the connections to other works, so it becomes very difficult to establish what the sources ans influences of Virilio’s work might be.

However, if we are to gain a new perspective on the political aspects of the debate concerning postmodernism, it seems useful to attempt even a partial, flawed synthesis of Virilio’s work, if only to point out where more work is needed. This exploration will be an attempt at that sort of provisional synthesis, working with the existing translations, and the small secondary literature on Virilio. Where it seems appropriate, I will also attempt to draw in other important figures–particularly Derrida, Baudrillard, and Lacan–to perhaps clarify Virilio’s position within continental thought. In the spirit of “following the trend,” I will also explore other connections, for which I offer no particular guarantees, but which seem to open up the Virilio that we have been given in translation to greater political use.

Speed, Politics and Pure War

The volumes Speed and Politics (1977) and Pure War (1983) provide a general overview of Paul Virilio’s theoretical preoccupations. Virilio had written a considerable volume of material–including the forthcoming-in-translation Bunker Archeology (1975) and the untranslated L’insécurité du territoire–before writing Speed and Politics, the work which serves as the most general statement of his project for American audiences. We should lament the absence of the earlier works in translation, since Virilio understands his work as one large enterprise only artificially broken down into separate books, but until those volumes are translated, Speed and Politics remains the best place to start with Virilio. In it, he addresses his central concerns–the interactions of technologies of speed, military development, individual subjects and the political state–in broad, historical perspective. The interviews in Pure War, conducted by Sylvere Lotringer, provide useful clarifications from a later period.

While we might characterize some “postmodern” philosphers as creating “philosophies of appearance” – like Baudrillard’s screens and seductions–Virilio begins by constructing a philosophy–and a history–of appearances. His work is dominated by bodies in motion, a sort of theatrical philosophy of entrances and exits. Of course, given the “disappearance” of space-a notion which Virilio may take even further than Baudrillard – there cannot be any sort of simple “scene” within which these appearances take place. Instead, the expansion of the military “theatres” into all aspects of society, and the shift from war to to the preparation for war as the dominant mode of conflict – from Total War to Pure War (Total Peace) – stagecraft takes over from acting as the key role, and the “real” action disappears. The only possibility for the real to reassert its dominance is through interruption, accident, and the stakes of such accidents are raised with every “advance” of technology. While Baudrillard understands this as a dynamic primarily of simulation, Virilio concentrates on more material conditions. Thus, he places himself in a more traditionally oppositional position to what he calls “military intelligence” and the “trans-political.”

However, we would be missing the subtleties–and the characteristically “postmodern” elements–of Virilio’s thought if we were to assume that his “more material” subject matter assured us of some sort of epistemological ground. Although he presents us with a global narrative of speed-effects as the motor of conflict, and thus culture, he does not subscribe to any sort of traditional teleology. For instance, he follows Baudrillard and others in a rejection of labor and production as the constitutive element of culture. With Lafargue, Baudrillard, and perhaps Bataille, he acknowledges the importance of consumption-even of the production of consumption, or of destructive sacrifice–in the development of Western cultures. But, like at least Baudrillard and Bataille, he resists a story with a single, desirable end as his model. Instead, he is fascinated with a fatal end to the story, the accident, which is immanent in every technological “moment.” This is the traditional teleology in reverse, as history becomes a suspenseful tale of attempts to change states, and thus transform our accidents, before we reach an end which can only be catastrophic. This inverted teleology may owe something to the notion of “entropy.” Virilio reminds us frequently that for the fortress, as for the warrior, “stasis is death.”

We might also be cautious before we took Virilio’s accounts for “objective” studies, based in some sort of materialist epistemology. Although his invocations of the power of statistics and trends might sound comforting to some American sociologists, it seems fairly clear that Virilio is not in search of the perfect sample. Instead the “truth” of his analysis of trends is what we might characterize as the “truth of film.” In another of his favorite metaphors, one that has striking similarities to the Virilio’s methodological “ladder,” he reminds us of the film-maker who claimed that films was “true thirty times a second.” That is, each image is in some sense “true.” There was something there to film. But the film is more than just the frames, or even the combination of the frames. The interruptions themselves constitute an important part of the illusory “truth” of the aggregate. By describing his own work in terms of developed images and gaps, Virilio discourages us from assuming any sort of truth except an intermittent one. We must determine what to do with the trend–which Virilio himself emphasizes-with terms other than truth, or so it seems.

So we return to Virilio’s global history with some cautions about its nature and use. As an urbanist, Virilio begins his story with the development of the city, which he characterizes as initially primarily a crossroads. “Traffic control” in the sense of the regulation of the passage, and the speed, of commerce, and also of military traffic, became the motivation for developing the city. And the interconnections between military, urban and commercial concerns have a long history. This early form of city was primarily a roadblock. Virilio suggests that almost all of the early functions of fortification and traffic control were devoted to slowing down traffic through or toward the city, or of barring entrance to it. These “immobile machines”–the cities that finally developed into the great European castles–were not static. They were complex engines for delivering slowness to an enemy or outsider.

Of course, these urban concentrations did not contain–did not desire or intend to contain–all of the populations of their regions. A significant population was left to roam free, particularly to roam the roads. Some of this population was composed of what Virilio will term “dromomaniacs,” a lumpen class which rules the roads, in the absence of any centralized “highway patrols.” These highwaymen will play an important role in the conflicts between urban centers. They are, as Virilio sees them, speed and motion, only in need of more or less precise targeting. The term “dromomaniac” is particularly significant, since it refers both to a particular historic social group and to a medical condition characterized by “compulsive walking.” What Virilio is describing is a “dromocratic revolution” in which speed becomes a dominant factor in Western societies. He describes “dromocrats” and “dromomaniacs”–something like his version of the bourgousie and proletariat–and we are left to wonder where we stand, or where we walk.

Virilio explains portions of his dromological narrative in terms of the development of “vehicles,” although he uses this term in rather novel ways. At various times, Virilio speculates on the “first vehicle,” which he most often identifies with “woman.” Both in sexual intercourse, when “mounted” by man, or in the relation of support characteristic, he believes, of the human heterosexual couple, the woman in some sense “carries” the man. The couple constitues the simplest “war machine.” Of course, since every mode of carriage brings along its own accident, we should note here then “little death” of orgasm as the fatal accident of this particular vehicular relationship. Beyond this are more conventional forms of vehicles, beginning with the riding animal and beast of burden and extending through various wheeled, tracked and winged forms, then becoming strange again as various telecommunications forms begin to “carry” us afar in a variety of ways. That many of these earlier forms of communication techniques were in fact vehicular technologies only becomes more obvious in an era where we take certain forms of tele-presence for granted.

The obvious differences in these modes of transportation point to essential changes in the world, as it is organized by vectors of time-space-speed. We can fairly easily trace the “conquest of space” that involves an acceleration form the nearly static traveling of sexual intercourse to the escape velocity of spacecraft. It is harder to comprehend the subsequent “conquest of time” which telepresence, “live” satellite broadcast, and other “technologies of ubiquity” have nearly accomplished. When the time of transportation or transmission is relative, depending not on distance but on where you want to go, distant points become both nearer and sooner than those closer in strictly spatial terms. Virilio argues that what we are left with is finally only speed, the ability to manipulate the space-time matrix. This certainly seems to be the case in the virtual spaces of the internet, where speed of transmission–and the consequent ability to process greater “bandwidth”–has become the guiding criteria for nearly all hardware and software development decisions.

These “conquests” follow a particular pattern, one which seems tied to the Hegelian notion of aufhebung, and which surfaces in a variety of contexts in Virilio’s work–as in the work of many “postmodernists,” vulgar modernist/ postmodernist distinctions to the contrary. Again, while he does not assume any particular “progress” in the movement, Virilio observes a tendency of the technological dynamic to trump itself. In the space between a technology–or a dimension–and its immanent accident, it is often possible to to push the movement on to another level. There is a good deal of ambiguity about the relationships between these levels. There is something of Hegel’s dynamic in the movement by which the “problem” of a vehicular technology–or of space or time–is “solved,” but without doing so in a way which allows us to simply move on. The old problems are redistributed, or perhaps recombined, in new problems which are in some sense more complex. However, we have no sense that there is a golden “truth” or a fullness of “spirit” awaiting at the end of the road. Instead, there are the “choices” between the quantum collapse and reorganization of the “onward” movement, and the catastrophic collapse of the accident. Virilio is fond of quoting Marshall McLuhan, and there is something of the ambiguity of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” in the movement he describes. Old and new forms are joined by an inability to fully resolve the old–or to resolve them in time.

McLuhan’s thought resurfaces in Virilio’s discussion of one of the other aspects of vehicular development–the development of prostheses of speed. Here. McLuhan’s analysis of the “extensions of man”–another kind of aufhebung, in which problems of the senses are realized without being finally resolved–gives Virilio a way of understanding all vehicular relationships. All “carriage” is prosthesis and, since McLuhan notes that there is an “amputation” that corresponds to every “extension” of the human subject, all travel is travel away from our “proper” (in psychoanalytic terms) self. (See the analysis of The Aesthetics of Disappearance, below, for a more complete exploration of the issue of subjectivity in Virilio’s work.)

All of these movements help to establish the general movement through the eras of strategy and tactics, and on into the era of Total War. Total War confronts military power with a serious threat to its expansion–the inability of normal state peacetime economics to support it. The answer is the wartime economy, and finally the perpetual wartime economy. Virilio marks the end of state politics and political economy with the perpetuation of wartime economics into peacetime–the solidification of a military-industrial complex which possesses substantial autonomy from civilian life. In fact, so pervasive has this military power become that Virilio reserve the term “civilian” only for those actively involved against the ideology of that power, what he calls “military intelligence.” He is not anti-military, and takes a consistently postmodern “belly of the beast” position on the grounds of his opposition. To be anti-military, he says, is finally to be a “racist.” It is to hate a class of people, when what one ought to hate, and to combat, is an order or rationality. This is the basis for his own “epistemo-technical” work. (He provides very little explanation for that odd designation, except that it involves an engagement that is critical without being ad hominum.)

Total War confronts its realization, and it’s accident, in the form of the ultimate weapon. The atomic bomb forces another reorganization of cultural vectors which are now increasingly bound up with military technologies. What the threat of nuclear war institutes is deterrence, and the movement toward Total Peace. The logic of deterrence repeats on a global scale the lessons that were learned by by warriors in a variety of other conflicts, once the production and delivery of slowness ceased to be the predominant form of battlefield management. In the charge toward, with the aim of getting “beneath,” the enemy’s guns, we see a partial model for deterrence. Death kills death. The best defense is a good offense.

Virilio refers to the state of Total Peace as Pure War, war carried on by other means. It is the state we occupy after war has been “realized,” once war is ubiquitous. The cost of peace in our time seems to be our cybernetic incorporation into a global war machine. And the most disturbing questions raised by this final(?) “trumping” must be: What is the immanent accident of our age, and by what slight of hand of “development” might we forestall it? The stakes have undoubtedly become quite high. The rest of Virilio’s work, concentrating as it does on various aspects of his larger narrative, only demonstrate how high.

Endo-Colonization and Environmental Degradation

Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles (1978) was written in part as a response to the appropriation of Virilio’s earlier writings by members of the Italian autonomists, who had used it as a justification for a pro-technology stance within their struggle against the Italian state. The autonomists were leftists working beyond the confines of organized socialism within Italy. In 1977, they had been involved in significant victories involving both factory workers and generally marginalized sections of the working class, such as homeworkers. In Turin, they had managed to reduce transit fares by direct action and decentralized organization. However, the autonomist movement was to be dealt a series of serious blows by the Italian state, which alleged that the Red Brigades were autonomists, and used that excuse to crack down. Intellectuals associated with the movement–which resisted the notion of leaders–were singled out and imprisoned. Antonio Negri served time for alleged involvement in the Aldo Moro affair. (The Moro affair is a favorite episode for postmodernist analysis. Baudrillard returns to the figure of the hostage, who has been removed entirely from the social fabric, and who finally cannot be returned to his proper place. The situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti wrote a book arguing that the Red Brigades were essentially agents of the Italian state, useful for the damage they did to autonomous resistance, an assertion which has been taken seriously by a variety of contemporary leftists.)

What Virilio presents in this volume is a particularly grim picture of the ends of “military intelligence.” The first focus of the book is colonization. Virilio argues that the movement toward “decolonization” was no the abandonment of the logic of colonialism, but a change in its direction. As the world political scene has reoriented itself along the north-south axis, the colonial powers have employed the lessons of the colonial era at home. We have heard again and again the comparisons of the inner cities to jungles, or frontiers. However, we may be too optimistic if we imagine that the rest of the city not also colonized by this same logic. Certainly, the shape of the city is in part a response to the new economic imperatives of the post-war world. The suburb is a product of revolutions in mobility, but also of new notions of family and home. Some of those reorganizations have required literal or figurative demolitions. Virilio points to a general trend which has as its goal the destruction of the city. In an era in which only speed matters, the control of traffic by the city’s structure is no longer necessary or desirable. In an age of tele-presence, perhaps even the highways which have provided so many ways to travel away from ourselves are obsolete.

However, Virilio also presents a much grimmer explanation for the destruction of the city, which takes its place as part of the occupation of the world. He reminds us of the logics that drive Pure War. As he sees it, the assault on the is completely consistent with the military’s need to maintain a clear field of operations. In a particularly chilling passage he suggest that:

This Clausewitzian nowhere is essential, for, going beyond a resistance without body, we can already conceive of a resistance withiut territory, on an earth made uninhabitable by the military predator.

In this passage, Virilio finally shows the monstrous nature of military intelligence without any mitigation. The interests of the “military predator” lie precisely in making over the earth in a form which denies cover to any resistance. It seems that part of Virilio’s desire is to ask us to rethink a variety of forms of environmental degradation in a political context much different from “conserving nature” in some abstract sense, or saving the whales or the spotted owl. How does deforestation serve the interests of the military? Who is served by the inefficient use of cereals as feed for stock, rather than as food for humans?

The Aesthetics of Disappearance

Baudrillard has also claimed that communications media and the logic of capital have reduced postmodern subjects to mere “screens” on which images are projected from without (as fashion, etc…). This subject lacks even the depth of Lacan’s mirror. In The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Virilio plots a slightly different course, one which potentially gives us new ways of understanding the hold of ideology on human subjects. His model is, as I have mentioned, the picnoleptic. The postmodern subject is in the grip of a mild sort of epilepsy. This has interesting consequences in the realm of creativity, since it has been observed that picnoleptic children, faced with absences that they cannot explain and which they must account for, will begin to recall more than actually happened. In order to leave no telltale gaps, they will insert additional details to cover their tracks. This is a sort of deterrence in the realm of narrative and experience. The best memory is one which meets experience halfway, so to speak, manufacturing additional experiences. Virilio is not explicit about the significance of this state for political subjects–or at least the translations are less than clear–but we might imagine an extension of Virilio’s critique which asked where the additional “experiences” came from. According to what rules does the child, or political subject, “recall” what should have happened? We know the role that so-called “common sense” plays in short-circuiting critical thought and maintaining the hegemony of dominant groups. Can we discount the influence of this factor on our own “experience,” if we accept Virilio’s characterization of postmodern subjects?

The argument that he does develop is again one of increasing speed. He traces the development of vehicular relationships from the inside, marking the various amputations and extensions as they occur. He argues that we can trace the dominant diversions of various speeds of culture, from the locality of sex to the ubiquity of telepresence. Some of the transitions are surprising, as when he traces the movement out of the theaters and onto the freeways. The windshield of the automobile, he argues, is the “proper” screen for experiencing the world at a new speed. The driver is a voyeur-voyager, now dedicated to a kind of pure circulation which works against the possibility of contemplation or critical thought. In a particularly Baudrillardian sense, the real world becomes increasingly replaced by our preemptive engagements with it.

Missing from Virilio’s work thus far is a clear sense of what drives us toward our accidents, although we might consider several available models. The association between interruption and death calls to mind both Freud’s death drive and Bataille’s opposition of work and “the plethora”–his term for the natural, overwhelming excess which he believes forms the basis on which, or against which, cultures have developed. Perhaps we might wish for more engagement by Virilio of more traditionally “economic” issues, if only so that we could more easily chart his relationships with other cultural philosophers.

War and Cinema

Virilio’s study of the relationship between military tehnology and entertainment technologies returns us to many of the same themes we have already explored. War and Cinema (1984) shows the colonization of leisure time by military technologies, and the introduction of “military intelligence” into the training of the civilian eye. It is not insignificant that the motion picture camera is a descendent of the gatling gun. The movie-goer learns to watch with gunsight eyes. This cybernetic extension of vision is accomplished precisely at the loss of another sot of vision. It involves a new ordering of perspective, and perspectives. War and Cinema is among the clearest, most convincing of the Virilio translations, and poses his recurring concerns at the level of specific technological events and developments. Read with the other works, it provides specific cases which seem to confirm the trend of Virilio’s work in general.

Paul Virilio is clearly neither precisely what we have come to expect from “political” theorist, not a straw-man “postmodernist.” He does not play the coy political games of Jean Baudrillard, and he has–in an expression that I suspect we might make much of–“more gravity” than Arthur Kroker or the “libidinal” Jean-Francois Lyotard. He applies something we can recognize as a sort of dialectic to technology, surely a material issue, even if Virilio wants to speak more of “means of destruction” than “means of production.” His clarity of purpose is admirable, if the clarity of the translated texts is less so. Probably, we will be forced to wait for new translations–or to delve into the originals–to assess in any systematic way Virilio’s contributions to political philosophy. However, against claims that postmodernism provides only relativistic, reactionary “excuses” for political inaction, we can produce at least one suggestive counter-example which I suspect can be readily recognized as such by all but the most ideologically confirmed skeptics. And perhaps this opening might be enough to begin to open up the other, less obviously political postmodernisms to political examination (rather than just cross-examination.)

* * *

Interruption: Memorial Day Parade, 1994, Bowling Green, Ohio

In the midst of writing this essay, I witness the local Memorial Day Parade. In this context, the incident is, at the very least, suggestive. First, the parade–like the holiday it commemorates–constitutes an interruption in the normal flow of local life, with many businesses closed. Traffic flows are also subject to interruption or redirection, as the main streets are reserved for a kind of traffic that goes nowhere in particular–that is primarily significant in its privileged status of being able to interrupt. The sidewalks are filled with “ordinary citizens” gathered specifically to witness a particular class of movement.

The active participants of the parade–those who hold the streets–represent a variety of ages and occupations, but are distinguished by the wearing of a uniform. The holiday is set aside for remembering those who can no longer be present, those who have perished “in armed service.” In their stead, however, we are presented with a strange pageant of stand-ins. A few young, hale and hearty reservists lead the parade, but they are not the main event. The survivors of war are there, representatives of the various veterans’ organizations marching “in memory” of previous service, and previous marches. The elderly and handicapped predominate among this group, as if to emphasize the costs of “armed service.” However, it is clear that what we are to remember is not a cost that was too high, but rather a debt which “we, the people”–the “ordinary citizens,” the spectators to armed might–can never adequately repay. We have “invested” too much in the business of “armed service” to abandon it now.

This is the way that we should, perhaps, understand the predominance of well-drilled children in the Memorial Day spectacle. Discipline and uniforms–a principle of uniformity–suggest the logical continuation of this sort of service. And all the milling Cub Scouts tramping along in front of the assault vehicles ought to remind us that boy scouting was initially an early training enterprise for an empire concerned about a lack of soldiers. Nor should we forget the military contexts for rifle and flag corps. the youngest children, twirling batons perhaps, are amusing because they have not yet mastered perfect comformity to marching discipline. Sometimes they smile or break ranks, until they are put back on course by watchful adults.

The marchers are followed by the machines, a curious mix of “emergency vehicles.” Included are modern all-terrain asault vehicles, mounting machine guns and cannon, but also, following them, a series of ambulances, fire engines, “disaster response” vehicles, and police cars. Some of the machines, and not only the war machines, are seldom-seen. We can only imagine the uses of some of them, guess what particular “accidents” they exist to anticipate. Together, however, they form a powerful display of the potential interruptions that might mark the life of the community, even if some of those threatening event remain vague in character. In all of them, however, our fears are mobilized.

There is a certain irony in this particular parade, in which we surrender the streets to those forces to which we are already legal obliged to give way. It is as if we are called upon to bear witness to our surrender of the streets–a site once assumed to be the space in which resistance might find room to erupt. In a nation where fire hoses have been used to “put out the fire” of crowds as well as fires, the massive presence of a hook-and-ladder rig is not necessarily a politically neutral manifestation. This parade of “service” vehicles is most disturbing in the context of Memorial Day’s military focus. This year, the parade proper was preceeded by a marching military figure who barked orders to the civilian crowd:

“When the flag of the United States of America passes in review, everyone WILL rise. Gentlemen WILL remove their hats. You WILL place your right hand over your heart.”

Since nearly every vehicle was decorated with the flag, strict adherence to the “order” would have meant maintaining the position (or perhaps “assuming the position”) for most of the duration of the parade. The aggressive tone of the demands, and the grim expressions of the soldiers, suggest again the opposition between those in uniform, who have paid too much, and the civilian crowd, who can never pay enough for the “service” rendered. The parade leader attempted to “discipline” the crowd, in the sense of bringing them bodily into conformity with the rite being enacted, but failing that, at least to scold them, as one may discipline children. The military personnel were uniformly grim-visaged, often despite the children marching or riding with them. One assault vehicle’s gunner kept his position “guns up” throughout the parade, as if to remind the crowd how simply the streets could be taken. By contrast, the bored, friendly local police seemed genial. The waving Shriners seemed merely out of place amid so much uniformed authority, despite their function as “emergency rescue personnel” for crippled children, and their fire engine.

This occupation of the already-occupied streets of our semi-rural town should bring home, at the very least, the ambiguity of our relation to the forces that ensure “social security.” At the very least, it is a moment in which we can examine, at something like our leisure, those machines of the community which we ordinarily see only in a state of excessive speed–the machines that break the law to uphold the community, that rule the roads–as well as those dromocrats of the marching orders–soldiers, scouts, patriotic marching bands–who answer the call to abstract movement. And we are forced to experience all of this from the edge of traffic, from outside the main flow. While we are concentrated as spectators, and spectators precisely to the apparatus of accident, we may be better able to assess the kinds of conditions that dominate our ordinary existence. Under these circumstances, perhaps we have the space and the time to consider the work of a political thinker like Paul Virilio. But the question remains: is there any space left for us to occupy which is not the non-space of endless movement, of speed moving towards its limit, or, at the limit, the non-space of inertia?

Annotated Bibliography

Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London/Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994 (France 1976). This is the key text for understanding Baudrillard’s move “beyond” marxism. It is also a text which Virilio particularly notes as one of his breaking points with Baudrillard, citing the lack of attention to military matters as its major flaw.

Paul Virilio. The Aesthetics of Disappearance. New York: Semiotext(e), 1991 (France, 1980). A more individual exploration of the effects of speed in culture; Virilio describes the contemporary subject a approaching a state like epilepsy.

—. Lost Dimension. New York: Semiotext(e), 1991 (France, 1984). A philosophical exploration of the nature of time, space and speed in an advanced, militarized society. The emphasis on corellations with sciences of complexity makes this a particularly difficult work.

—. Popular Defense and Ecological Struggle. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990 (France, 1978). A discussion of the place of “radical resistance” and the role of ecological degradation in military strategy.

—. Pure War. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983. Interviews with Virilio, clarifying some of his views, particularly the relationship of Christianity to his work.

—. Speed and Politics. New York: Semiotext(e), 1986 (France, 1977). One of the clearest statements of Virilio’s philosophy; he traces the development of the city, alongside the development of military and transportation technologies.

—. War and Cinema. New York/London: Verso, 1989 (France, 1984). Virilio makes the connection between the technologies of war and those of leisure, showing how the military technologies of an earlier era have become the pervasive technologies of leisure in our own.

Related Readings

Arthur Kroker, The Possessed Individual. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. Kroker devotes a chapter to Virilio’s work. It is useful as an introduction, but Kroker may have a tendency to see more of his own projects in the work of others than is ‘really’ there.

Manuel DeLanda, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books, 1992. DeLanda parallels much of Virilio’s thinking about the military and the state, but adds a unique reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s “mechanic phyla” as well as dealing with computer technologies in a more comprehensive way.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2030 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.