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How Philosopher Paul Virilio (1932–2018) Spoke to an Age of Acceleration and Total War

McKenzie Wark pays tribute to the French cultural theorist, who called our era one of ‘dromocracy’: the reign of speed

Strangely enough, Paul Virilio, who died on 10 September 2018 at the age of 86, breached the Anglophone world with a book he did not exactly write. Pure War came out in 1983 and is based on interviews he conducted with Sylvère Lotringer, the philosopher and founder of Semiotext(e), who put it together as a real act of friendship. That book burst like an incendiary shell in certain readers’s minds and highlighted his two consistent themes: war and speed.

Virilio’s first love had been architecture. But what is architecture in the age of total war? For centuries, the European city had defended itself against slings and arrows with ramparts and walls, but the city was no match for modern artillery and aerial bombardment. The balance between war and the city shifted decisively in the modern age. The vector trumps the location. This was the bittersweet theme of his first major book, Bunker Archaeology (1975), which, among other things, is a meditation on the German defenses that had failed to keep the Allies at bay when they stormed the beaches and ended the war.

But war doesn’t really end, as Virilio noted, it just accelerates, approximating ever more closely to its pure form. In an era infatuated with the ‘politics’ of everything, he thought instead in terms of war. Modernity is war on ever increasing scales: expanding from the tactical to the strategic to the logistic. World War II was won not by generals but by quartermasters, by the ones who kept the biggest flows of boots and bullets and bodies moving toward the front.

Modernity is also war on more and more kinds of terrain. Warfare not only took to the air but to the airwaves. The modern world is a condition of generalized information warfare. Not only is architecture vulnerable to bombs, it proves defenseless against information, passing through the doors and walls of our homes, rearranging the space and time we imagine we live within.

Cover of Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, 1975. Courtesy: Les Éditions Du Demi-Cercle

Cover of Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, 1975. Courtesy: Les Éditions Du Demi-Cercle

Cover of Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, 1975. Courtesy: Les Éditions Du Demi-Cercle

The information war reversed the power of architecture and communication. The home or the city is now exposed to its flows. The consequences may be even more far-reaching. The vectors of communication call into being a whole new geopolitics – not of territories and borders but of communication and computational infrastructure. Already in the late 20th century he saw coming the kinds of conflicts we experience now, where nameless hackers shut down power stations by remote control, and drone pilots in facilities in Nevada steer airborne killer robots on the other side of the world.  

The tone in which Virilio writes of such things is a deft balance between melancholia and fascination. There’s no going back. The old, slow, local world is gone. At his best, he avoids the clichéd style of both kinds of writers on technology: Those nostalgic for an old world, and those who enthuse about everything novel. He pulls off a style that makes the currently fashionable writers on the subject simply redundant. A fine example would be his other famous work, Unknown Quantity (2002), where he invites us to think about how each new technology brings with it its own specific and novel kind of accident.

Virilio was not a moralist. He observed, he speculated, he forged concepts to explain on the fly what is happening to us. He was not an optimist. Technical speed had already overcome the deliberative time of politics. This is an era, he said, not of democracy but of ‘dromocracy,’ the reign of speed. But he did think a lot about tactics in and against the accelerating world. The general line of tactics he advocated paid attention to time, and the possibility of interrupting accelerating time. A city is already a mesh of slow and fast times, but perhaps sometimes a new pocket of stillness can be created.

It would have given him no pleasure to see the general direction of his speculations so spectacularly borne out in our time. He is one of those special (and in a way accursed) writers who was right about things we don’t really want to know.

Main image: Paul Virilio, 2009. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Ulf Andersen

McKenzie Wark is the author of A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004), Gamer Theory (Harvard, 2007), Molecular Red (Verso, 2015) and various other things. Wark teaches at The New School in New York City.

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