We must take hold of the riddle of technology and lay it on the table as the ancient philosophers and scientists put the riddle of Nature out in the open, the two being superimposed(1)
Born in Paris in 1932, Paul Virilio is a political theorist, architect, public intellectual, and critic of the art of technology. Over the course of his dozen or so books, he interrogates the integral relationships of security and territory, war and cinema, speed and politics, and technology and culture through the academic lens of semiology.
Virilio is probably best known for his 'war model' of the growth of the city and the evolution of culture. In an interview with John Armitage, he elaborates:
My aim was to understand the notion of 'Total War'. As I have said many times before, I was among the first people to experience the German Occupation of France during the Second World War. I was 7-13 years old during the War and did not really internalise its significance. More specifically, under the Occupation, we in Nantes were denied access to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It was therefore not until after the War was over that I saw the sea for the first time, in the vicinity of St Nazaire. It was there that I discovered the bunkers. But what I also discovered was that, during the War, the whole of Europe had become a fortress. And thus I saw to what extent an immense territory, a whole continent, had effectively been reorganised into one city, and just like the cities of old.(2)
According to Virilio, the fortified city of the feudal period was both a motionless, and generally unassailable war machine and an attempt to control the movement of the urban populace. As a result of this, the fortified city was an "apolitical space of habitual inertia"(3) - the physical and political base configuration of feudal life. Virilio's key interest was however, why this configuration disappeared. Drawing from Sun Tzu, his explanation is that the feudal city was fundamentally undermined by the speed of warfare. Increasingly portable and mobile weaponry not only physically dismantled the feudal city, but dismantled the efforts to govern the mobility of urban masses. Unlike Marx, Virilio's transition from feudalism to capitalism was driven by military, spatial, and political determinants rather than a strict economic determinism.
In Speed and Politics(1986), Virilio further elaborates on the influence of acceleration, mobility, and technologies of motion on modern culture. Subtitled "Essay on Dromology," Virilio proposes what he calls a "dromomatics" which interrogates the role of speed in history and its important functions in urban and social life, warfare, the economy, transportation and communication, and other aspects of everyday life.
"Dromology" comes from the Latin term, dromos, signifying "race", and dromology studies how innovations in speed influence social and political life. The "dromocratic revolution" for Virilio involves the means of creating speed with the steam engine, then the combustion engine, and in postmodernity, nuclear energy and instantaneous forms of warfare and communication.
Apart from pomo party pooper Alan Sokal rightfully accusing Virilio for rampantly misusing scientific language, much of the criticism of Virilio's work stems from his use of irony and wordplay. Virilio's work is densely written - as if he applying his ideas of speed and time-space compression to the language itself. This form of expression does not necessarily lead to a coherent explication of culture.
Methodologically, many critics see vast flaws in his work. Kellner comments;
Virilio's theoretical position and social sensibilities concerning technology thus remain beyond the realm of even the critical social sciences. He does not depend on intellectual `explanations' but on `the obvious quality of the implicit' (Virilio,1997a: 44). On the one hand, then, Virilio is a social theorist who movingly considers the tendencies of the present period. On the other, he is a social theorist who utterly rejects social theory and especially sociology (Virilio, 1997a: 17) (4)
Virilio retired from teaching in 1998, and currently spends his time writing and working with private organisations concerned with housing the homeless in Paris. Theorists following his theoretical work include Deleuze and Guattari, James der Derian, Douglas Kellner, and
(1) Paul Virilio & Lotringer S, (1983) Pure War New York: semiotext(e), p.30
(2) John Armitage, Ctheory Interview With Paul Virilio: The Kosovo War Took Place In Orbital Space
(3) James Der Derian (ed) Paul Virilio Reader (New York:Blackwell Press, 1999)
(4)John Armitage, (2000) "Beyond Postmodernism?", http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=133
Works by Virilio
- Virilio, P. (1976) L' insecurite du territoire. Paris: Stock.
- Virilio, P. (1986) Speed & Politics: An Essay on Dromology. New York: Semiotext(e).
- Virilio, P. (1989) War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London and New York: Verso.
- Virilio, P. (1990) Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles. New York: Semiotext(e).
- Virilio, P. (1991a) The Aesthetics of Disappearance. NewYork: Semiotext(e).
- Virilio, P. (1991b) The Lost Dimension. New York:Semiotext(e).
- Virilio, P. (1991c) L'ecran du desert: chroniques de guerre. Paris: Galilee.
- Virilio, P. (1994a) Bunker Archeology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.
- Virilio, P. (1994b) The Vision Machine. Bloomingtonand London: Indiana University Press and BritishFilm Institute.
- Virilio, P. (1995) The Art of the Motor. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press.
- Virilio, P. (1997a) Pure War: Revised Edition. New York:Semiotext(e).
- Virilio, P. (1997b) Open Sky. London: Verso.
- Virilio, P. (1998) La bombe informatique. Paris: Galilee.
- Virilio, P (1999a) Politics of the Very Worst. New York:Semiotext(e).
- Virilio, P. (1999b) Polar Inertia. London: Sage.