Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


future war: a discussion with Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, urbanist and militant, lives in Paris. He has published, among other works, Speed and Politics, War and Cinema, Pure War (with Sylvère Lotringer), Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, The Vision Machine, The Art of the Motor, Open Sky, and The Politics of the Very Worst. Reviews of The Art of the Motor and Open Sky by James Der Derian and Ian R. Douglas respectively appear in the dialogues directory of this site. Virilio is currently working on two projects: a book his notion of "the accident", and a book on media and Kosovo. He is best known as the protagonist of what he calls "dromology"; the science of, and study of speed. James Der Derian, professor of international relations at Brown University, has published, among other works, On Diplomacy, International Relations: Critical Investigations (Ed.) and Antidiplomacy: Spies, Speed, Terror and War. His forthcoming book is entitled Virtual Security.

by James Der Derian

    Accidents fascinate Paul Virilio. From the first train derailment to the crash of the stock market, accidents have served as a kind of diagnostic by which Virilio assesses the value and danger of new technologies. Television has become a "museum of accidents"; cyberspace ‘an accident of the real". Globalization is a hoax, virtualization is the reality, and we are fast approaching the day of the ‘big accident", when virtual reality finally overpowers the real thing. Comprendez?

    It is no accident - as French intellectuals before Virilio liked to say - that when Virilio's dromology (the study of speed) crashes head-long into semiology (the study of signs) the order of things starts to look precarious. Over a diverse career as professor of architecture, film critic, urbanist, military historian, peace strategist, and in the course of over a dozen books, Virilio has interrogated the integral relationships of security and territory, war and cinema, speed and politics, technology and culture, and left no prisoners: what stale thought he does not liquidate with corrosive intellect, he liberates with rhetorical excess. This makes for a difficult, sometimes frustrating, but almost always an inspiring read.

    Accidents surrounded our interview. In 1976, I discovered Virilio when I wandered by chance into an Paris museum exhibition on "Bunker Archeology," Virilio's remarkable compilation of photographs, documents, and text on Hitler's Atlantic Wall. At the end of our interview, I discovered that twenty years ago we both had been attacked by street-fighters from the same neo-fascist party. We swapped war stories and compared scars at La Coupole Restaurant in Paris.


JAMES DER DERIAN: Is the author dead?

PAUL VIRILIO: There is a great threat to writing. The written work is threatened by the screen, not by the image. There have always been images in books. There have always been images in architecture, like frescoes or stain glass windows. No, it is the evocative power of the screen, and in particular the live screen. It is real time that threatens writing. Writing is always, always, in a deferred time, always delayed. Once the image is live, there is a conflict between deferred time and real time, and in this there is a serious threat to writing and the author.

JAMES DER DERIAN: You seem to write in a kind of perpetual war-time.

PAUL VIRILIO: Yes, I am a victim of war, a "war baby." I was born in 1932, along with the rise of fascism. As a child I lived through the horrors of the Second World War, through the reign of technology as absolute terror. I was in a city, Nantes, which was destroyed by our allies, the Americans and English, by bombardments. I lived through this extraordinary event, to hear on the radio that "the Germans are in Orleans." Ten minutes later I heard noise in the street; it was the Germans. They were already there, we were occupied. I lived through the full power of technology: Blitzkrieg. For a child it is extraordinary to see to what degree a city can be obliterated in a single bombardment. For a kid, a city is like the Alps, it's eternal, like the mountains. One single bombardment and all is razed. These are the traumatizing events which shaped my thinking. War was my university. Everything has proceeded from there. And it would seem from cinema as well.

Cinema interested me enormously for its kinematic roots; all my work is dromological. After having treated metabolic speed, the role of the cavalry in history, the speed of the human body, the athletic body, I became interested in technological speed. It goes without saying that after relative speed (the railroad, aviation) there was inevitably absolute speed, the transition to the limit of electro-magnetic waves. In fact, cinema interested me as a stage, up to the point of the advent of electromagnetic speed. I was interested in cinema as cinematisme, that is the putting into movement of images. We are approaching the limit that is the speed of light. This is a significant historical event.

JAMES DER DERIAN: Has this changed the nature of war?

PAUL VIRILIO: Of course. It changes with the logistics of perception. The logistics of perception began by encompassing immediate perception, which is to say that of elevated sites, of the tower, of the telescope. War is waged from high points. The logistics of perception was from the start the geographic logistics of domination from an elevated site. Thus the "field of battle" which is also a "field of perception" - a theater of operation - will develop on the level of perception of the tower, of the fortified castle or on the level of perception of the bombardier. Such is the Second World War and the bombings over Europe. The battlefield is at first local, then it becomes worldwide and finally global; which is to say expanded to the level of orbit with the invention of video and with reconnaissance satellites. Thus we have a development of the battlefield corresponding to the development of the field of perception made possible by technical advancements, successively through the technologies of geometrical optics: that of the telescope, of wave-optics, of electro-optics; that of the electro-magnetic transmission of a signal in video; and, of course, computer graphics, that is to say the new multi-media. Henceforth the battlefield is global. It is no longer "worldwide" [mondialisée] in the sense of the First or Second World Wars. It is global in the sense of the planet. For every war implicates the "rotundity" [rotondité] of the earth, the sphere, the geosphere.

JAMES DER DERIAN: Is this true of the Gulf War? Did it even take place, as Jean Baudrillard claims, anywhere outside of the media?

PAUL VIRILIO: Baudrillard's statement is negational, and I have criticized him for it. The Gulf War was a world war in miniature. Let me explain. The monitoring of the globe by American satellites was required to win a local war. Therefore we can say that this was a fractal war: at once local and global. With the new technologies and with the new logistics of perception, the battlefield was also developing the field of perception. The Gulf War, for example, was a local war in comparison with the Second World War, with regard to its battlefield. But it was a worldwide war on the temporal level of representation, on the level of media, thanks to the satellite acquisition of targets, thanks to the tele-command of the war. I am thinking of Patriot anti-missiles which were commanded from the Pentagon and from a satellite positioned high above the Gulf countries. On the one side, it was a local war, of little interest, without many deaths, without many consequences. But, by contrast, on the other side, it was a unique field of perception. For the first time, as opposed to the Vietnam War, it was a war rendered live, worldwide - with, of course, the special effects, all the information processing organized by the Pentagon and the censorship by the major states. In fact, it is a war that took place in the artifice of television, much more than in the reality of the field of battle, in the sense that real time prevailed over real space.

JAMES DER DERIAN: How does this differ from the war in Bosnia?

PAUL VIRILIO: The Gulf War and the Bosnian War are not comparable. First of all because the territory is very different. The Iraqi territory is a desert whereas Bosnia is a territory extremely broken up by its topography. Its people fight under guerrilla conditions. We are looking at two radically different wars: a "civil" war and an "international" war. When one cannot wage war, one plays the role of police. At this moment in time, NATO forces and those of the UN are police forces, that is, a police army. The situation, on the scale of Europe, is very close to that which takes place in the suburbs of cities. When a situation is very close to civil war, the only thing possible is the police. This said, the role of the media in these two cases is comparable. Let me explain. Without the media, without television, the war in Yugoslavia would not have taken place. The triggering of the civil war was linked to the media, to the call to war by the media. The geostrategic and geopolitical dimension: this is the power assumed by those who control television. Moreover, the photographic and televisual coverage are not of the same nature. Every war has a particular personality. Each is unique in itself, even if there are similar armaments, rifles, machine guns, airplanes or tanks.

JAMES DER DERIAN: Are you saying that we are moving from geopolitical to geostrategic wars?

PAUL VIRILIO: The geopolitical is essentially dependent upon geography. The geopolitical is older than the geostrategic. I want to say that in order for there to be "geostrategy," a technological means must be developed. For example, there was a naval geostrategy before there was an aerial and spatial geostrategy with satellites. The geopolitical: this is Julius Caesar and the war of the Gaules, the Peloponnesian war and Thucydides. It is a war of territory, the conquest of sites, of cities. The domination of territory is a determining element of the battle. The war in Yugoslavia is still tied to territory. It is for this reason that the West is afraid of it. They fear having an Afghanistan or a Vietnam in Europe. Something inextricable. And Yugoslavia was the first to implement a strategy of popular self-defense. The Yugoslavians had a self-managed society including the sphere of defense. The civil war could develop so quickly in Yugoslavia, because the armaments were distributed throughout the territory, except for the tanks that were located in the barracks of large cities. So we have a very particular structure that is a structure of guerrilla or civil war tied to a specific area. For example, a civil war would not have been possible in the Iraqi desert, just as a "Desert Storm" would not work in Yugoslavia. The geography does not allow for a very developed geopolitical war. On the other hand, the Iraqi desert permits a very developed geostrategical war because the territory is like billiards, like the sea.

JAMES DER DERIAN: Will military technological superiority eventually efface these national and geographical differences?

PAUL VIRILIO: A terrible question, philosophically speaking. One must speak of the unequal development of nations. National identity is linked to the industrial and technological development of the country in question. Now we are in a world where there is unequal technical development of the means of production and the means of destruction, that is to say, of arms. The proliferation of conflict has been favored by the countries which have at their disposal the means of mass destruction. They have put up for sale, for reasons of the market, their technology of destruction. We have thus created a disequilibrium in the relations amongst nations. The worst example is, of course, that of nuclear proliferation.

JAMES DER DERIAN: What about the impact of technology on individuality of culture?

PAUL VIRILIO: There have been three industrial revolutions. The first important revolution on the technical plane is that of transportation, which favors an equipping of the territory with railroads, airports, highways, electric lines, cables, etc. It has a geopolitical element. The second revolution which is almost concomitant, is the transmissions revolution, including Marconi, Edison, radio, television. From this point on, technology is set loose. It becomes immaterial and electromagnetic. The third revolution, which it seems to me we are on the verge of, is the revolution of transplantations. All these technologies of telecommunication which had been employed in aviation and missiles, favor nano-technology, the possibility of miniaturizing technology to the point of introducing it into the human body, to achieve what the futurists wished for: to sustain the human body through "technology" and not just through "chemistry." In the future, just as the geographic world was colonized by means of transportation or communication, we will have the possibility of a colonization of the human body by technology,. That which favors the equipping of territories, of cities, in particular, threatens to apply to the human body, as if we had the city in the body and not the city around the body. The city "at home", in vitro, in vivo .. Here there is a sort of anthropomorphism of technology. We see this with supplementary technologies, cardiac stimulators, with the possibility of grafts, of techno-grafts, supplementary memory, as Marvin Minsky proposes. We are on the verge of the biomachine. Personally, I critique this, as the advent of the hyperstimulated man.

JAMES DER DERIAN: What happens when hardware and software merge? Are there any ethical choices left?

PAUL VIRILIO: First, I believe that these three revolutions and all that we were just saying lead to a technical "essentialism" [integrisme], a "cybercult". Just as there is religious "essentialism", there is a technical "essentialism" through technical fundamentalism, just as frightening as religious fundamentalism. Modern man, who killed the Judaeo-Christian god, the one of transcendence, invented a god machine, a deus ex machina. It is necessary to be an atheist of technology! This is not simply anti-technology. I am an amateur of technology. My fetish image is that of the battle of Jacob and the angel. Jacob is a believer, he meets the angel of God, but to remain a free man, he is obliged to do battle. This is the great figure. It is necessary to obey - but also to resist.

JAMES DER DERIAN: What about accidents?

PAUL VIRILIO: Accidents have always fascinated me. It is the intellectual scapegoat of the technological; accident is diagnostic of technology. To invent the train is to invent derailment; to invent the ship is to invent the shipwreck. The ship that sinks says much more to me about technology than the ship that floats! Today the question of the accident arises with new technologies, like the image of the stock market crash on Wall Street. Program trading: here there is the image of the general accident, no longer the particular accident like the derailment or the shipwreck. In old technologies, the accident is "local"; with information technologies it is "global." We do not yet understand very well this negative innovation. We have not understood the power of the virtual accident. We are faced with a new type of accident for which the only reference is the analogy to the stock market crash, but this is not sufficient.

JAMES DER DERIAN: What comes next?

PAUL VIRILIO: I think that the infosphere - the sphere of information - is going to impose itself on the geosphere. We are going to be living in a reduced world. The capacity of interactivity is going to reduce the world, real space to nearly nothing. Therefore, in the near future, people will have a feeling of being enclosed in a small, confined, environment. In fact, there is already a speed pollution which reduces the world to nothing. Just as Foucault spoke of this feeling among the imprisoned, I believe that there will be for future generations a feeling of confinement in the world, of incarceration which will certainly be at the limit of tolerability, by virtue of the speed of information. If I were to give a last image, interactivity is to real space what radioactivity is to the atmosphere.

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