From Topology to Dromology: A Brief Sketch of Paul Virilio

virilio graffiti.jpg
Virilio portrait, via thierry ehrmann

Paul Virilio, born in 1932, spent his early life on the northern coast of France. His childhood, growing up alongside the Second World War, was marked by routine bombings, as Nantes became a Nazi occupied port. Like many other postmodern theorists, the French experience of the war and subsequent French political problems, like the Algerian war for independence (into which Virilio was conscripted), would form a lasting impression, existentially and theoretically. The biographical information, then, is not simply an introduction concerned with “the facts” but with articulating the backdrop that haunts Virilio’s work. Michel Serres, a contemporary of Virilio, puts the situation in perspective:

My contemporaries will recognize themselves in what 1 have to say first. Here is the vital environment of those who were born, like me, around 1930: at age six, the war of 1936 in Spain; at age nine, the blitzkrieg of 1939, defeat and debacle; at age twelve, the split between the Resistance and the collaborators, the tragedy of the concentration camps and deportations; at age fourteen, Liberation and the settling of scores it brought with it in France; at age fifteen. Hiroshima. In short, from age nine to seventeen, when the body and sensitivity are being formed, it was the reign of hunger and rationing, death and bombings, a thousand crimes. We continued immediately with the colonial wars, in Indochina and then in Algeria. Between birth and age twenty-five (the age of military service and of war again, since then it was North Africa, followed by the Suez expedition) around me, for me—for us, around us—there was nothing but battles War, a1ways war. Thus, I was six for my first dead bodies, twenty-six for the last ones. Have I answered you sufficiently about what has made my contemporaries “gun-shy”‘?1

Given a formative milieu of violence, war becomes the perennial problem for all of Virilio’s work, no matter the turns his theoretical interest takes. But there is another existential influence that needs to be mentioned up front, as another constitutive current in Virilio’s work. At 18, inspired by French worker-priests (priests dressing in plain clothes, subsisting by means of full time labor in working-class jobs), Virilio converted to Catholicism, the faith of his mother. Virilio’s Catholicism appears in his work by way of intervention and juxtaposition, sometimes critical of his own faith tradition and other times appearing to be the only way he musters the resolve to face the frightening insights he uncovers through his analyses. These two concerns, war and faith, remain constants in Virilio’s winding career.

Though he is known today for his examination of speed and accidents, Virilio was not always a theorist. After the war, as a young man in Paris he worked with Henri Matisse making stained-glass windows for churches. Contact with the arts allowed him to interpret his experience in WWII aesthetically, and in 1958 he undertook a project exploring the now-defunct bunkers of the North Atlantic Wall with an understanding of architecture, on the one hand, and phenomenology by way of lectures he attended by Merleau-Ponty, on the other. Virilio’s interest in architecture, and specifically military architecture, led him in the early 1960s to collaborate with Claude Parent (successful in his own right but also the teacher of renowned architect Jean Nouvel), and the two formed an ambitious collective known as Architecture Principe.

The intersections of these early interests of Virilio—war, Catholicism, and architecture—are summarized in the construction of a church designed by Virilio and Parent, the Church Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers, France (the site of the apparition of Mary at Lourdes). Colloquially known as the “bunker church,” the building asserts itself as a massive concrete monolith inspired not only by Virilio’s early explorations of bunkers but also the proliferating air raid shelters popping up around the world in an age of nuclear terror. “At the time I said that, in the present day, a church could only refer to the eventuality of total destruction,” Virilio reports in an interview.2 Completed in 1966, the church is a political and theological statement, expressing a growing Catholic anti-nuclear sentiment. It is also notable, however, for its deployment of what Parent called the “function of the oblique,” a theory of diagonal planes developed by Architecture Principe that utopically imagined the possibility of a total revolution in spatial awareness, one eschewing the sedentary lines of horizontal and vertical space in favor of a more kinetic and energetic series of planes that would, it was hoped, destabilize ideas of hierarchy and direction and allow for more habitable circulation. The oblique would provide a motor for creativity instead of the rote repetition of up/down, left/right.

Two years after the completion of the bunker church, in 1968, Paris would be the site of revolutionary energies so fervent that the year virtually controls the discourse of French philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century (and, in cases like Alain Badiou, still today). It marked a break between Virilio and Parent, with Virilio joining those squatting the Odeon Theatre in Paris and Parent going on to design nuclear power plants. Virilio was so admired by revolutionary students that they nominated him to a professorial position at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture, where he began a career as a theorist interrogating speed and military innovation.

After working with architecture students, Virilio gave up on the architectural revolution of the function of the oblique, but not on revolutionary politics as such. Virilio’s work shifts here from topology to “dromology,” the logic of speed, as marked in his seminal study Speed and Politics. The book interrogates the relation between the terms of its title by presenting a theory of social movements, urbanism, and military history as bound up with technical and strategic innovations that augment mobility. War remains an important influence, as Virilio considers the close affinity between military invention and the increasingly hegemonic momentum of the speed thereby produced. Deleuze and Guattari summarize this move in A Thousand Plateaus (which makes significant use of Virilio): “It is yet another contribution of Paul Virilio to have stressed this weapon-speed complementarity: the weapon invents speed, or the discovery of speed invents the weapon (the projective character of weapons is the result). The war machine releases a vector of speed so specific to it that it needs a special name; it is not only the power of destruction, but ‘dromocracy’ (=nomos).”3

By focusing on speed and military power as drivers of history, Virilio shows his commitment to a certain form of anarchism, as opposed to Marxism (even though his father was an Italian communist). Where Marxism classically considers the history of all of society as a history of class struggle, Virilio sees history as proceeding “at the speed of its weapons systems,”4 which leads also to an alternative understanding of revolutionary activity and organization. “The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production,” Virilio explains in an indirect critique of Marx, “but in the street, where for a moment it stops being a cog in the technical machine and itself becomes a motor (machine of attack), in other words a producer of speed.”5 In Speed and Politics, we find the theoretical reflection on Virilio’s ’68 experience along with a profound apparatus for leftist understandings of the state, resistance, and geopolitics. It also further displays Virilio’s rejection of the life of war he experienced so intimately and his commitment to peace, earlier shown in the warning of the bunker church.

As Virilio’s work progresses, he interrogates other dimensions of human experience and society along the lines of his dromocratic revelations—perception (The Aesthetics of Disappearance), cinema (War and Cinema), information technologies (The Information Bomb), surveillance (Open Sky), and more. In addition to his work on dromology, however, Virilio is known for considering another logic, the logic of the accident. “According to Aristotle, ‘the accident reveals the substance,’” Virilio explains. “If so, then the invention of the ‘substance’ is equally the invention of the ‘accident’. The shipwreck is consequently the ‘futurist’ invention of the ship, and the air crash the invention of the supersonic airliner, just as the Chernobyl meltdown is the invention of the nuclear power station.”6 Developing a logic of the accident (and thereby breaking with Aristotle, who said there can be no logic of the accident but only substance), Virilio does not stop at discrete technological objects. In The University of Disaster, he explores the accident of knowledge itself.

The dromocratic revolution has taken place, says Virilio, and the logic of speed dictates, as if by its own will (velocity), the trajectory of science. Alienated from local and historical life through the speed of globalization, science, or more properly to use Virilio’s specific phrase “BIG SCIENCE,” is less and less concerned with the earthly consequences of its work and projects and more obsessed with finding a place to live somewhere else. But the problem is not so much the possibility of space travel (which, given Virilio’s comments on technology generally, is not necessarily a problem at all) as the effect the alienation of acceleration has on the ability to understand and produce knowledge, where the “life sciences” turn their back on life itself. Inside the car of big science, all that exists outside it is only a motion blur.

Exhibiting a characteristically postmodern observation, Virilio explores the potential for and already existing examples of disaster emitting from “the age of exploded theories,”7 a situation of fragmented knowledge where accidents (and the possibility of an “integral accident”) cannot be dealt with since they cannot even be recognized and met with a valued judgment. As a solution, Virilio suggests a radical reformation of the university itself, one where the university becomes the site of profound apology on the part of science heretofore, “an indispensible MEA CULPA now essential to the credibility of a knowledge in the throes of becoming completely suicidal.”8 The model for this, Virilio playfully but seriously suggests, is the apologies issued from Roman Catholicism in the twentieth century, repenting of its universalism.9 The proposal is so ambitious as to be laughable, but Virilio makes the book-length recommendation with a straight-face.

As he continues to articulate a theory of the accident, Virilio’s work takes on a tone that a shallow reading might consider fatalist and depressive. The revolutionary fervor at the heart of Speed and Politics is harder to parse out, and Virilio begins to describe himself as a “disappointed man of the left,”10 not unlike many of his fellow ’68ers (his political project at the time of that self-description was working on housing projects, mostly with Christian associations, for homeless people in Paris). He also considers his later work the work of a “revelationary” rather than a “revolutionary,”11 as he tries to reveal the logic at work in what often reads like a disturbingly pervasive and inescapable collapse of space and time in human perception.

Here the risk of comparing Virilio to his friend and colleague Jean Baudrillard sounds appealing, but Virilio wards off the possibility that we are in an ultimate or endless simulacra in a way that is helpful also in order to offset what might be seen as a totalizing worry about technology (the kind of thing one finds in Virilio’s Protestant contemporary Christian anarchist, also an interrogator of technological problems, Jacques Ellul). Whereas Baudrillard was concerned with simulation, Virilio is concerned with substitution. “I chose substitution,” he explains, “in saying that there were periods of the real like there were periods of history and that simulation, via a proverb or literature, whether it is literal or not, the perspective announced by the renaissance, etc., leaves the place for a new real.”12 In other words, the real is culturally relative, never given, and as such is not able to be “lost” or “found” but only substituted by new understandings of the real. There is a significant moment of hope, here, as Virilio, despite being incredibly critical of screens, cars, etc. is not categorically against any of these innovations. Rather, when questioned about what we ought to do with technologies, Virilio appeals to a paraphrase of St. Augustine’s maxim: “Do whatever you want, but do it with love.”13 As a self-described “Christian anarchist,” Virilio deflects both optimism and pessimism, instead holding the present open for other possibilities, and though it takes a considerable degree of patience to refuse the temptation to see Virilio’s admonitions as a sign of resignation, it is important to take Virilio at his word insofar as it avoids all-too-easy misreadings.

Virilio is clearly a product of his time, of a bruised century, an age of extremes, belonging to the collective “us” Serres invokes above. For that very reason we are fortunate, blessed, to have Virilio’s continued work as we move through the twenty-first century, which threatens at once both to return to the abuses of the previous century and continue along its dromological path. Each week it seems some entrepreneur announces a new plan to colonize space all the while ignoring the material plight of those on earth. The integral accident continues to loom as companies like Facebook make it a part of their charitable mission to expand communications technologies across the globe. The relation between speed and politics keeps presenting itself as a problem, e.g. when Black Lives Matter activists hold the streets and make their stand against a violent and racist state. Meanwhile, the xenophobia surrounding Muslims and the cultural force of figures like Pope Francis or the evangelical voting block in the US make plain that issues of faith are still on the table, though their political fate is far from clear.

As we look to understand what is really going on, we would do well to hear from this revelationary, at one time (and indeed still) a revolutionary, such that we might find better ways to strategize, to witness to love in the midst of war, and to offer the mea culpas so long overdue from Western society.

1Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, 2.

2Virilio, Virilio Live, 175.

3Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 395.

4Virilio, Speed and Politics, 90.

5Virilio, Speed and Politics, 29.

6Virilio, Grey Ecology, 5.

7Virilio, The University of Disaster, 10.

8Virilio, The University of Disaster, 119.

9Virilio, The University of Disaster, 118.

10Virilio, Virilio Live, 29.

11Virilio, Grey Ecology, 49-50.

12Virilio, Grey Ecology, 78.

13Virilio, Grey Ecology, 80.

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