That Paul Virilio converted to Catholicism as a young man is part of history, data that one will remember when reading his works. That WWII and its impact of the blitzkrieg on that young boy from Nantes would bring with it a lifelong passion to know and understand technosocial acceleration is another facet one will take under advisement. “I think that modernity will only come to a halt within the ambit of what I call the `integral accident’.” The End of the World as we know it. “I believe that technical modernity, modernity taken as the outcome of technical inventions over the past two centuries, can only be stopped by an integral ecological accident, which, in a certain way, I am forecasting.”1
The bare facts. Born in Paris in 1932 to a Breton mother and an Italian Communist father, Virilio was evacuated in 1939 to the port of Nantes, where he was traumatised by the spectacle of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg during World War II. After training at the Ecole des Metiers d’ Art in Paris, Virilio became an artist in stained glass and worked alongside Matisse in various churches in the French capital. In 1950, he converted to Christianity in the company of ‘worker-priests’ and, following military conscription into the colonial army during the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), Virilio studied phenomenology with Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne. Captivated by the military, spatial, and organizational features of urban territory, Virilio’s early writings began to appear while he was acting as a self-styled ‘urbanist’, in Architecture Principe (Virilio and Parent, 1996), the group and review of the same name he established with the architect Claude Parent in 1963.2
He’d tell anyone who asked: “I am an anarcho-Christian. …For me, there is nothing beyond man. Forget about technology, eugenism, robotics, prostheses. … I do not believe these ideas are at all humanist. I think they’re far worse. This is a very important point for me, because I am absolutely against this newfangled form of totalitarianism which I call technoscience and its cult. I see there a yet unheard-of eugenics programme, eugenics written very large…” (6). He believed that technology and the sciences in our time had come under the control of both the State and Corporations, that it was controlled and shaped by an ideology of Progress that was seeking a new form and mode of human engineering. He felt we were heading into a time of mutant change, when technology and information would merge into the human, and organic evolution would be replaced or substituted by artificial evolution and biogenetic modification of the human genome which would become the ‘integral accident’ that would bring about the End of Man.
Behind all this was a new ideology of perfectionism and self-improvement. “The idea behind this new brand of eugenicism being to perfect man, to make a better man. Well, there is no such thing as the possibility of `improving’ man, of tinkering man into something better.” (6) Asked if he was opposed to all forms of technology, and specifically the social networks like the internet he responded, saying, “I do not criticize the internet as such. What I criticize is the propaganda unleashed by Bill Gates and everything that goes with it. What I loathe are the monopolies of Microsoft, of Time Warner, etc. I cannot stand those!” (10)
Speaking of his fascination throughout his oeuvre of speed and acceleration which he brought under the critical rubric of Dromology, he said: Dromology originates from the Greek word, dromos. Hence, dromology is the science of the ride, the journey, the drive, the way. To me, this means that speed and riches are totally linked concepts. And that the history of the world is not only about the political economy of riches, that is, wealth,
money, capital, but also about the political economy of speed. If time is money, as they say, then speed is power.” (11) What he was against was the fusion of technics and technological power harnessed to economics and war,
“This work is of course about unrelenting acceleration, but it is mostly about the fact that all societies are pyramidal in nature: the higher speeds belong to the upper reaches of society, the slower to the bottom. The wealth pyramid is the replica of the velocity pyramid.”(11)
He was adamant that one must analyse acceleration as a “major political phenomenon, a phenomenon without which no understanding of history, and especially history-that-is-in-the-making since the 18th century is possible” (11). In our time, the 21st Century acceleration is mainly about the increasing speed of information transmission:
“Information transmission is thus no longer concerned with the bringing about of a relative gain in velocity, as was the case with railway transport compared to horse power, or jet aircraft compared to trains, but about the absolute velocity of electromagnetic waves.”(12)
Armitage would ask him “Why is speed inextricably bound up with inertia?” He’d answer, saying,
“That is quite simple. When what is being put to work are relative speeds, no inertia obtains, but acceleration or deceleration. We are then in the realm of mobility and emancipation. But when absolute speed, that is the speed of light, is put to work, then one hits a wall, a barrier, which is the barrier of light. Let me remind you that there exist three recognized barriers: the sound barrier, which was passed in 1947 by Chuck Jaeger, the barrier of heat, which was crossed in the 1960s with rockets, at what is called `escape velocity’ and, finally, the speed of light, which is the effectuation of the `live’ in almost all realms of human activity.”(15)
For him we have become imprisoned in time, living in a virtual time reduced to Zero. “The world is reduced, both in terms of surface and extension, to nothing, and this results in a kind of incarceration, in a stasis, which means that it is no longer necessary to go towards the world, to journey, to stand up, to depart, to go to things. Everything is already there. This is, again, an effect of relativity. Why? Because the earth is so small. In the cosmos, absolute speed amounts to little, but at that scale, it is earth which amounts to nothing. This is the meaning of inertia. There is a definite relationship between inertia and absolute speed which is based on the stasis which results from absolute speed.”(16)
He is asked about his notion of the ‘aesthetics of disappearance’. He’ll describe both religious and humanist art up to our time as one based on the image as material and persistant object, while we have entered a cinematic and computer driven digital world of moving images in which nothing persists and nothing remains but rather disappears in the moment we know it. A fleeting world of ghosts rather than idols we can physically touch and sense. We lost our senses to the fractal flickers of vanishing images of knowledge.
Against Baudrillard’s totalised nihilist he offered substitution rather than simulation, a concept of reality making rather than of copy of copies in flickering parade of the same. By this he meant that cultures through history produce reality, and that those who adopt realities from previous cultures modify them beyond recognition so that we cannot know those realities from former times. “Well, reality is produced by a society’s culture, it is not given. A reality that has been produced by one society will be taken over, and changed by another, younger society, producing a fresh reality. This happens first by mimicry, then by substitution, and the original reality will, by that time, be totally forgotten.”(19)
Asked “Don’t you think that some people invest technology with a mystical
dimension already?” He replied: “Yes, of course. `Transhumans’, New Age types, cyberpunks and the like. … Just like there is a Jewish fundamentalism, or an Islamic or Christian one, you have also now got a technological fundamentalism. It is the religion of those who believe in the absolute power of technology, a ubiquitous, instantaneous and immediate technology.”(20) He believed such technological fundamentalism was giving birth to a new form of eugenicism that would provide the elite and rich a platform for a vicious new ascent and racism. This collusion of technoscience and transhuman ideology he believed was based on perfectionist forms of improvement and progress that would bring about a great divide in the human species.
He was also leery of the surveillance technologies that were becoming more and more independent of humans, leading to AI and a “vision without a gaze”(24). Systems that would work independent of the human participant and spectator, make decisions, perform judgments, and police humans based of deep learning curves of knowledge. But more than this he feared the nanotech explosion. “Here is an icon of the transplant revolution, of the human body being eaten up, being possessed by technology. Technology no longer spreads over the body of the territory, as with railways, motorways, bridges and large factories, but now enters the innards of the human body . . . (25)”.
He would see this as the ultimate endo-colonization of technology into the human, a replacement and substitution of the human by technology. “Thus technology colonizes the world, through globalitarianism, as we have seen earlier, but it also colonizes bodies, their attitudes and behaviours. You need only to watch all those nerdy `internaut’ types to see to what extent their behaviour is already being shaped by technology. So we have this technology of absorption, or as the Futurists used to say: man will be fed by technology, and technology will colonize human behaviour, just as television and the computer are doing, but this last form of colonization is a much more intimate, and a much more irresistible form. This is scary! It is neo-eugenicism, endo-technological eugenicism!” (27)
In many ways Paul Virilio was a victim of his own religious ideology, a viewpoint that feared rather than welcomed the end of humanity. His own nihilism, never admitted, was to hold onto an outmoded form of existence, steeped in humanist traditions and Catholic religious perspectives that saw the technological inhumanism of present social transformation as apocalypse rather than mutation and transformation of those very value systems he held so dear. That we are in the midst of sloughing off the reality matrix of humanist and liberal systems that have guided the western psychospehre for two millennia is without doubt, and that the metamorphosis into machinic existence is to be promoted rather than denied is apparent to many. Yet, as we look back over the past two thousand years of bloody conflict what are we actually leaving behind? Isn’t it the truth of our own fake perspectives, the shambles of religious wars and our supposed human-centric systems that always already were artificial masks for the inhuman other we’ve always known we’re becoming. Isn’t it time to stop denying our nature, the monstrosity of being technological beings, alienated from our inhuman core? Always in search of a more fulfilling and permanent body we advance toward the end, our technosocial systems exponentially accelerating into the lightworlds of oblivion, where the realms of the Multiverse and the alien other drift toward the Singularity…
- Armitage, John. From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond: Interview with Paul Virilio. Theory Culture & Society 16(5-6):25-55 · November 1999. (here)
- Armitage, John. Beyond Postmodernism? Paul Virilio’s Hypermodern Cultural Theory. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors. Date Published: 11/15/2000 (here)