ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006) 
Author: Dr. Pramod Nayar
Review of: Paul Virilio. Art and Fear. Translated by Julie Rose. London: Continuum, 2004.

Paul Virilio’s vision of war, art and technology has informed contemporary debates about techno-capitalist modernity for some time. Often perceived as a prophet of doom and pessimism, Virilio has consistently interrogated the effects of modern technology on the human condition. Exploring the aesthetics of disappearance and the seductive powers of the virtual, Virilio offers a critique that grounds itself in what may appear, at first, to be a new humanism: centering the human (body, “soul”, the senses).

In the present essays he explores the “disappearance” of pity in an art that is excessively “sense-less” through its very emphasis on a continuous sensuality. The first essay is titled “pitiless art”, and is cast in terms both apocalyptic and prophetic. Virilio is absolutely horrified – and his tone captures the sense of revulsion and horror effectively – at the excessive images of carnage, death and destruction made available on television. Disfigurement and destruction, argues Virilio, end up negating any sympathy. Dead and dying human bodies, in such a presentation, appear to matter in so far as they have been brutalized. The human is only iconic of suffering and torture. It is Virilio’s staunch belief that such scientific reportage or art ironically erases the true extent and depth (and, we may add, “pitilessness”) of human cruelty. In an argument that is reminiscent of the earlier Virilio, he pleads for an art that offers an ethical perspective on such moments of carnage.

The dominance of “presentative”, as opposed to “representative”, art is directly linked, for Virilio, to the substitution of representative democracy with the virtual democracy of automatic voting and opinion polls. Such “pitiless” art, with its “new neurotic realism”,1 carries in it the profanity of the executioner. Transgenic art [symbolized in the work of Eduardo Kac and Alexis Rockman], which borrows from a science “deliberately deprived of a conscience”,2 might end up reproducing the monsters it sets out to draw”, warns Virilio. Virilio is willing to make a compromise with aesthetics if a sense of ethics is retained in such art.

In the second essay, “Silence on Art”  Virilio retains his essential quest for an ethical cultural criticism, this time of silences in art in an age where (perhaps) silence may not be possible. Should a work of art be seen or heard? More importantly, is the work of art saying anything rather than just producing noise? These are the two interrelated questions in Virilio who is distressed at the excessive reliance on sound and its speedy dissemination. We become, he argues, deaf to the sounds of art precisely because of the hyper-violence of artists like Stelarc or the ritual self-mutilation of much contemporary performance art. The listener/viewer is rendered helpless, a passive recipient of what masquerades as art: the “subject” of pitiless art’s terrorization of the human body through “sonorization”.

Virilio’s concern for the increasing disappearance of ethics in contemporary art’s excessive “presentative” formats is well taken. The exploration of silence, hyper-violence and the development of contemporary “aesthetics” – though it is difficult to see Virilio using that term, keeping his general tenor in mind – through a short history of modern art is, as we have come to expect, bristling with both erudition and anger. Virilio’s rejection of any aesthetic that glorifies disfigurement and violently destroyed bodies is timely when television and internet media de-sensitize audiences with the astonishing regularity, scale and graphic coverage of such images. Such “art” runs the risk of causing one human to lose any sense of empathy with another suffering human body. Pain, the threshold of human life, as Elaine Scarry has shown,3 is itself a commodity in contemporary art, as responses to the work of Orlan have frequently demonstrated.4 Commodified pain and mutilation in such art – where, it must be noted, the artist consciously invites pain – often ignores the corrosive effects of pain forcibly and undesirably inflicted by the Other. Pain here is not “virtual”.

John Armitage’s introduction offers a concise overture to both Art and Fear and to Virilio’s general trajectory of thought. Art and Fear itself, relying almost exclusively on the historical development of genres as transgenic art, does a commendable job of providing a stereoscopic view of the political contexts of such art – Auschwitz, genocide, war. Genocide, rape, ethnic cleansing and even industrial disaster are organized forms of such pain. Virilio’s critique warns us that the “pitiless” forms of art run the risk of translating such “events” into another set of images. And here homelessness, slow death by starvation, torture and exilic anguish are not merely symbolic. Hagiographies such as Anker and Nelkin ignore such contexts of contemporary art.5 Usually perceptive thinkers like Jonathan Crary (writing about Alexis Rockman), prefer to argue that such art “needs to be positioned within a larger historical and intellectual frame”,6 while maintaining a complete silence on the ethical frames (though Crary does frequently allude to the contexts of global flows of information and capital). Virilio, however, makes no attempt to draw out a “Situationist” critique of the epistemology, cultural forms and global geopolitics of information technology, biocolonialism and war that informs, and perhaps drives, such art. An alarmist critique has its uses, but is surely inadequate to provide a reified commentary on very complex issues as diverse as cloning, capitalist postmodernity and aesthetics. Other critiques of bio-art and transgenic art,7 I think, provide a better-nuanced interpretation, situating bio-media works, transgenic art, and molecular sculpture, within contexts of capitalist technologies.

About the Author:
Dr. Pramod Nayar is from the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India; 2005-2006: Department of English, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA.


1 – Paul Virilio. Art and Fear. Translated by Julie Rose. London: Continuum, 2004:36


3 – Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

4 – Editor’s Note: See also Kubilay Akman. “Orlan and the Work of Art in the Age of Organic Reproduction” in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, January 2006.

5 – Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin. The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2004.

6 – Crary, Jonathan. “Between Carnival and Catastrophe”. In Alexis Rockman. New York: Monacelli Press, 2003:13.

7 – Thacker, Eugene. The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture. Cambridge: MIT, 2005.