Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)
Author: Dr. Anne-Marie Obajtek-Kirkwood
Review of: Paul Virilio. Ground Zero. New York: Verso, 2002. Translated by Chris Turner. and Paul Virilio, Sylvere Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotexte(e), 2002. Translated by Mike Taormina.
Both these books were written in French within a few months and translated into English the same year (Ground Zero bears the date October 2001 and Crepuscular Dawn, which continues the interview approach started over twenty years ago with Sylvere Lotringer in Pure War1 , is dated November 1999 to May 2001 with an Epilogue dated May 2002). Close in time, these texts therefore share common “ground”. Crepuscular Dawn, a chronological overview of Virilio’s work and life all in one, with a foreword by Sylvere Lotringer, is a very pleasant read due to Lotringer’s Socratic approach and humor. It constitutes a good introduction to Virilio or can be used as reference since all the sections start with a series of terms that are explained in the chapters. Ground Zero on the other hand, with a quotation prefacing the theme of chapters dealing with: science as “the only religion of the future”; history as “bunk”; the danger of every information system; “devoted priests of power” and their “impatience” towards the “limits of mankind”; the relationship of art to science and money, states and terrorism and democracy… on the wane; while shorter and pithier, is not always so clearly satisfying because its digressions make it less focused on the announced themes.
Ground Zero, translated from the French Ce qui arrive (What is happening) preceded an exhibition by the same name held at the Cartier Foundation2 , which illustrated one of Virilio’s main themes, the accident, in its various manifestations. To the man born in 1932, who grew up during WWII (he sometimes calls himself a “war baby”), this term is no abstract notion since he saw his city, Nantes, devastated by Allied bombings while under the Germans. War later also nourished his experience as he stayed eighteen months in Germany as part of the occupation army, and spent six more during the 1950’s in Algeria.
The line of German bunkers along the French Atlantic Coast up to the North Sea, another war-related vestige, influenced Virilio’s approach to architecture, one that favors the horizontal, the reality and materiality of the ground, but also inclined planes as opposed to the vertical, and the oblique as opposed to the orthogonal, that is – non-Euclidian forms, a kind of “defensive architecture which resists its users by setting obstacles”, as Lotringer puts it.3
Of that period and the team Virilio formed with Claude Parent in Architecture Principe, there is but one structure ever built, the Sainte-Bernadette-du-Banlay chapel in Nevers (1966). Virilio has a knack for phrases, catchy or provocative expressions, and at times draws from the Bible. He cannot help qualifying New York as an “agonizing giant” and decrying the verticality of its skyscrapers, linking them to the Tower of Babel, one of the two “total accidents”4 in the Bible, the other being the flood, according to him.
Accidents are indeed what threatens us and Virilio came to this conclusion after moving from architectural practice to teaching at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris from May 68.5 He worked there on urbanism, notions of time and acceleration, the city in terms of economy of speed, and developed his theory of dromology (from dromos: race), speed being relentlessly at the core of all our planetary development and functioning. Speed has taken such proportions that if mankind does not decelerate, slow down and take a critical pause, it may just face a/the total, global accident, unheard of as yet, well beyond computer viruses like “Melissa” or “I love you”, and past our imagination as Chernobyl or 9/11 have already been. Speed is thus the critical factor and combined to the advances of technology, may prove fatal. Virilio is not a critic of technology per se but stresses that every invention has a positive and negative side: planes fly across the Atlantic in six hours but also crash, electricity which is essential to modern life, can suddenly fail plunging parts of Canada and New York state into total darkness etc. Virilio who comes from the political left and terms himself “anarchist-Christian”6 incriminates globalization and its merchandising dictates, the millions spent on positive advertising, the politically correct optimism that accompanies every new invention and mutes its threats and dangers in this post-colonial, post-modern and soon to be post-human age, if “philofolly” and mad speed do not abate.
Virilio’s all-encompassing object of study is speed evidenced through technology and particularly the three bombs, which all combine to make our planet tick with greater instability. The “three bombs” expression is derived from Einstein7 who recognized the atomic bomb, the cyber or information bomb and the genetic bomb (actually Einstein named the latter the “demographic bomb”). These three bombs have massively altered our perceptions of self, the other, the world, and our relationship to them. Changes are on-going as, unlike Sisyphus who kept falling down and climbing up again, we appear to be bound forward, always more forward.
The atomic bomb, like the genetic bomb, was produced thanks to the information bomb (computers, starting with their ancestor, ENIAC). The cyber bomb is that of knowledge, but the three “work together in a relationship of all-out war; they reinforce one another”.8 And thus we go back to Virilio’s first investigation, war, which has been ever present, whether in the militarization of knowledge, or as an industry, producing and arming conflicts such as WWI and WWII, or afterwards the Cold War through the nuclear deterrent, and on to today. Virilio states that “nuclear deterrence marked the end of the distinction between wartime and peacetime, and cleared the way for a worldwide state of undeclared war“9 first between the Western and Soviet blocks, now between states and terrorism. The new war technology and the information bomb combined have also brought a radical transformation of warfare, the “art” of combat. We moved from the traditional, Clausewitzian field of battle opposing two adverse camps which still existed in the 1991 Gulf War, to an all air war as in Kosovo where the two officially declared enemies never met, since on one side there were the professionals who would no longer die on the field of battle, “but perish discreetly in a manner belonging more properly to epidemiology or to industrial accidents”.10 This has created a dichotomy between opposing factions, with in this specific case, Serbian, Albanian, and Kosovar armed bands on the ground (pillaging, racketeering, hostage-taking, etc), and regressing in their warfare towards “the anomie of tribal massacres”.11 In any conflict, visual dominance has always been of primal importance, from the watch-tower to elevated positions. Now it is enacted by satellite observation and its relay, the TV screen. Perception strategy has turned into deception strategy, image strategy, the earth battle-field becoming defunct, replaced by the primordial conquest of possessing and mastering the televisual screen.
In our postmodern world which brought great narratives their toll, consequently the end of faith in God or analysis or anything, as Elisabeth Roudinesco, a psychoanalyst, has it12 , there seems to remain, according to Virilio, some faith in science, elevated to the status of religion, or, more corrosively, “scientific integrism“.13 Virilio’s concern about the cult and dangerousness of science only mirrors what, over half a century earlier, Hannah Arendt expressed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, namely that “science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man”.14 Again, not a foe of new scientific developments per se, (in this instance genetic research and engineering), Virilio cautions against “science sans conscience”.15 Virilio fears that our scientific knowledge and ongoing far-reaching discoveries are running ahead of our moral consciousness, that man is playing God, tempering with the genetic map, the human genome or ” book of life” as he calls it, lending an obliging ear to the attractive “Thou shalt NOT surely die”. He sees similarities between ongoing genetic engineering and nineteenth century eugenics, and closer to the present, the mad experiments that Mengele and his cohorts performed in the concentration camp laboratories. He alerts us to the fact that we are infinitely beyond what the Nazis were able to perform. He also questions and denounces electronic transplants into the human body, which amount to no less than another form of colonization, endo-colonization this time but with greed at the root of it again. This to him signals the programmed disappearance of the human, a de-humanization by the taking over of machines, but also the immaturity and infantilism of adults, transferring to electronic or cybernetic toys the hopes of transcending the limitations of their actual bodies, a progress beyond good and evil.
Science reigning supreme also invades the domain of art to the point that both disciplines merge and one does not know anymore which is which, or whether it is a new hybrid version of both. Orlan with her temple implants and her clinical operation staged as artistic performance is a case in point as are transgenic artists, or those who through plasticized corpses as Günther von Hagen convey the abject.16
This type of art to Virilio smacks too much of mutilation, torture, the abject, some extreme experiments performed in the 1940’s, to be appreciated and enjoyed, and then again, this transgenic art, the envisioning of genetics and cloning as a form of free artistic expression verges on the realization of Mengele’s dream.19
The cyber bomb which shrinks time (and therefore space) changes our physical and mental perceptions of the world and engenders new practices. As it shrinks the world’s dimensions, it creates a sense of confinement, claustrophobia, increased by our living events live. It endows us with a sense of ubiquity, instantaneity, simultaneity, and immediacy, not really mankind’s prerogative before speed and cybernetics made it so. This “hic et nunc” world is then one where world time dominates local time, where time is money, and speed is power. It is a world where synchronization has followed 20th century standardization, a world which expresses itself by a fantastic will to free trade thanks to this synchronization, and is destroying the near and the neighbor, heterogeneity in favor of homogeneity, uniformity, a world that therefore balks at accepting cultural products as “cultural exceptions” since it would prefer to reduce them to plain commodities.
In this world, immediacy giving rise to the synchronization of opinion, the “chronopolitics of instantaneity” and the triumph of “telecracy” over universal suffrage20 is destroying democracy and republics, in the real sense of the term. In their will for extending their grasp, ruling powers in various fields are shifting from the politically correct to the optically correct so as to faster impress their citizens’ minds. It is a world where war has taken a new turn, without uniform or declaration on the part of terrorists who know how to use the new technologies and also need the instantaneity of communication. States which retaliate to their attacks in a more conventional manner are thus one war behind. We are actually, says Virilio, confronted with a destabilization that has never existed before and risking the first civil world war. New York on 9/11 2001 was “the attack in the first war of globalization”.21
Virilio’s apprehension of our age – real, potential or virtual, is pessimistic when not downright bleak and doomed. He affirms that our contemporary world is past that of Orwell, H.G. Wells and Mengele’s prospects. A caricature of his thinking turns it into nihilism and apocalyptic pronouncements but this is to miss his point. Virilio does not relish these cataclysmic prospects but feels that the only power left to him is critique, since we cannot go back. His thought-provoking analyses are incisive, creative and very lucid. May he arouse some goodwill among the inhabitants of our little blue planet to change in depth this present world in its ever increasing disfunctioning while there is still time!
About the Author:
Dr. Anne-Marie Obajtek-Kirkwood is from the French Department, International Area Studies, Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA.
1 – Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Pure War. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents, 1983; reprint 1997. Translated by Mark Polizotti, post-script translation by Brian O’Keefe.
2 – Elements of the exhibition with a foreword by Paul Virilio are still visible on the Foundation web site: http://www.onoci.net/virilio/index_uk.php and photographs from the Museum of accidents which comprise natural and industrial accidents, environmental pollution, air accidents, wrecks and derailments and lastly deliberate accidents. The exhibition ran from November 2002 through March 2003.
3 – Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotexte(e), 2002:15.
4 – Ibid.:34.
5 – He is now a Professor Emeritus of the school.
6 – Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotexte(e), 2002: 49.
7 – Ibid.: 135.
8 – Ibid.: 136.
9 – Paul Virilio. Ground Zero. New York: Verso, 2002: 52.
10 – Ibid.:43.
11 – Ibid.
12 – Ibid.:16. She is thus quoted by Virilio there.
13 – Ibid.:12, Virilio’s qualifier.
14 – Ibid.: 70, note 89.
15 – “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme” said François Rabelais (c1494-1553) in Chapter VIII of La Vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (“Science without conscience only ruins the soul”).
16 – Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotexte(e), 2002: 123-125.
17 – www.wiu.edu/users/ gjr100/orlan.jpg
18 – See http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/pages/plastination.asp
19 – Ibid.:118.
20 – Paul Virilio. Ground Zero. New York: Verso, 2002:30-31.
21 – Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotexte(e), 2002:178.