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Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


//.dialogues./


virtually wagging the dog

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



Paul Virilio is the kind of writer that gives the likes of Alan Sokal, professor of physics, perpetrator of academic hoaxes, and the keeper of scientific correctness, the heebie-jeebies. Stained-glass maker, museum curator, urban architect, military critic, peace strategist, and author of a dozen books in as many years, Virilio also likes to dabble in the sciences, especially post-Newtonian physics. He comes up with pronouncements that give cause for many scientists to reach for their formulaic responses. Consider a sampling of Virilio-isms. In the past, reality was matter, then it became mass+force, and now, traveling and arriving at warp-speed, it has gone three-dimensional as mass+force+information. Through increasingly ubiquitous technologies of reproduction, the speed of light collapses distance, illuminating, replicating, and finally disappearing the autonomous subject into the infosphere. The cosmos is overtaken by 'dromos' (Greek for speed-race), and the relativization of everything results. In a relentless war of images, reality loses out to virtuality.

This is heady stuff, not easily rendered into the causal, hypothesis-testing language of the social, let alone physical sciences. But Virilio has little patience for disciplinary methodologies that always seem to lag behind his curve of events. Like the alchemists, those proto-scientists who tried to 'educe' - synonymous at the time with 'torture' (and still so in some educational settings) - pure gold from base lead, Virilio is busy laying down the tracks for a critical human science of technology. Like quantum physicists and Agent Mulder from X-Files, Virilio does believes the 'truth is out there', but verification has become corrupted by conventional processes of investigation.

Have our philosophies have been worthy, as Deleuze and Guattari or Garth and Wayne would put it, of some recent events?

A flyer comes in the mail for ISDN service from the newly synergized Telamon/Bell
Atlantic/EarthLink Network. It invokes our 'need for speed': 'You feel it every time a big file
or complex web page crawls through your modem. Every time you're sitting and waiting,
instead of getting what you want, when you want it.'

The Defense Department reveals that it is buying up MIG-29s from Moldava to keep them
out of the hands of 'rogue states' . 'We're going to analyze them,' says Secretary of Defense
Cohen, 'and I'm sure that the Air Force may come up with some utilitarian use of them.'

A bus goes out of control on Fifth Avenue, and a bystander remarks that 'it was like the
movie "Speed"...When I saw the movie, I thought it looked fake, but I guess they did a good
job, because it looked like this.'

Prompted by Intel's announcement chip memory will double every nine months rather than
the industry standard of 18 months, a commentator in an op-ed piece decries the increased
pace of life: 'So it goes with technology. As we speed it up, we also speed up our
expectations...When the pace of change is so blistering, people who stand still feel as if
they are falling behind.'

Chinese President Jiang Zemin, in between doffing a colonial tricorner hat in Williamsburg
and giving a Chinese history lesson at Harvard, informs the American public that just as
Einstein posited the relativity of science so too must we recognize the relativism of
cultures, and back-off on any righteous claims to a universal human rights.

And finally, tragicomically, Monica Lewinsky. As the news breaks, PBS's Jim Lehrer
assembles his experts, and speed becomes the primary discussion point after Doris
Kearns Goodwin contrasts the slow deliberative process of Watergate to the accelerated
news cycle of today; Haynes Johnson responds that 'Speed has conditioned us to daily
scandal'; and David Gergen evokes a 'Wag-the-Dog Syndrome', to state why it is essential
for the President to get this behind him as quickly as possible. Albania beware.

Against this backdrop of the everyday bizarre, the apocalyptic hype and rhetorical hyperbole of Virilio plays a purpose. His remarkable array of concepts act as a dispositif, as both investigatory instrument and prescriptive strategy,to produce mental images which disturb commonsensical views of the world to capture the highly mutable and often peculiar forms of the truth. They mimic the visual warp of a life lived at the speed of cinema, video, light itself. The exemplary case is Virilio's use of speed as a variable, chrono-politics as a concept, and dromology as a method to produce new understandings of an ever-accelerating global politics. In practically every book, he coins new concepts which take on new heuristic as well as political value as they are reinterpreted and re-circulated by others.

For instance, long before Derrida spotted the ghost ofglobalization haunting post-communist Europe, Virilio was writing in his first book that Europe's future would not be decided in the various nations' foreign ministries or on the battlefield, but in the electromagnetic spectrum of informational, cybernetic wars of persuasion and dissuasion - that is, a form of global deterrence that exceeds its nuclear origins (Bunker Archeology, 1975). In his next book (The Insecurity of Territory, 1976), Virilio introduces the concepts of deterritorialization, nomadism, and the suicidal state, which Deleuze and Guatarri pick up and brilliantly elaborate in their most significant work, A Thousand Plateaus.

Displaying no anxiety of influence, Virilio takes Foucault's panopticon model to an extra-terrestrial level of discipline and control, offering a micro-analysis of how new technologies ofoversight and organizations of control, innovated by strategic alliances of the military, industrial, and scientific communities, have made the cross-over into civilian and political sectors to create a global administration of fear (Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles, 1978). It is not so much the acuity and reach of Foucault's analysis that is extended by Virilio, as it is the dimensionality, showing how the control of space has been force-multiplied if not displaced by the control of pace (Speed and Politics, 1977).

Virilio draws on Benjamin's fear of an aestheticized politics, but pushes it further, to show how the politics of subjectivity, no longer willing, no longer able to maintain representational distinctions between the real, the visual, and the virtual, disappears into the aesthetic (The Aesthetics of Disappearance, 1980). This disappearance is facilitated by the melding of military, cinematic, and techno-scientific 'logistics of perception' (War and Cinema, 1984). All economies of sight and might, remnants of presence like quattrocento linear fields of perception, national-territorial politics, Cartesian subjectivity, Newtonian physics, become coordinated, and eventually subordinated by a relativist, quantum, transpolitical war machine (Negative Horizon, 1984). In political terms, this means that the geopolitics of extensivity and exo-colonization is displaced by the chronopolitics of intensivity and endo-colonization (Critical Space, 1984). In turn, episodic war gives way, through the infinite requirements and preparations of deterrence and simulations, to a permanent, logistical pure war (Pure War, 1983). As the individual historically moves from geocentric (Copernican) to egocentric (Husserlian) to exocentric (Einsteinian) perspectival fields, and the species from the sedentariness of the agricultural biosphere to the mobility of the industrial technosphere to the velocity of the informational dromosphere, the once-progressivist identity politics of location loses out to the inertial motility of a realtime telepresence. (Polar Inertia, 1990).

Similarly, he presaged an ever-expanding hierarchy of contemporary virtual realities (The Vision Machine, 1988), where the pseudo-proximity of live news and faux military interventions were displacing the consumptive spectacles of Debord and the seductive simulations of Baudrillard with constant irruptive spasms of 'media-staged strategic events' ["stratégico-médiatique"]. This was a diagnosis which Virilio applied early on to a critique of the Gulf War (Desert Screen, 1991), predicting a real-time war of short duration with high if hidden [furtive]intensity and costs, in contrast to most intellectuals who were stunned into silence or even support by the spectacle of excess as well as seeming success of the war machine.

Virilio's next book, The Art of the Motor, proved to be his most prescient yet. Writing at time when the internet was only just moving from its dark origins as a hardened communication system for the military-industrial-scientific complex to become the darling technology of the new virtual communitarians (think Al Gore and Newt Gingrich, fiber-optically joined at the hip), Virilio offers a big-screen critique of the new media. And at a time when military strategists and think-tank courtiers were still trying to find the right name for a new kind of warfare without war - media war, netwar, cyberwar, infowar - Virilio was writing a detailed account of the conflicts, dangers and accidents inherent to the new information technologies.

Chief among them is 'mediatization', a feudal concept for the stripping hereditary princes of 'immediate rights', which Virilio updates to encompass 'the joint race for ubiquity and instantaneity' by the commercialized media, interpellating into our lives a power 'outside any effective democratic control', beyond 'any independent criticism' (p. 1-7). The media mimics the pervasive and dissuasive force of nuclear proliferation; but with the emergence of near real-time, live-feeds shifts, the source of its power shifts form dissimulations to simulations of reality. Advertisement, as the motor of the complex, takes mediatization to new martial as well as global levels:

Beating an enemy involves not so much capturing as captivating them. The economic battlefield would soon blur into the field of military perception, and the project of the american communicaitons complex would then be less explicit: it would aim at world mediatization. (p. 14)

The second chapter, 'The Data Coup d'état', traces the history of the military-industrial-media complex. The engin - one of those dual purpose French words Virilio favors to convey both 'machinery' and 'weaponry' - of the complex is laid out in the opening statement of the chapter: 'The communications industry would never have got where it is today had it not started out as an art of the motor capable of orchestrating the perpetual shift of appearances' (p. 23). Catch-phrases proliferate: 'movement creates the event' (p. 23); 'information explodes like a bomb' (p. 24); 'the televised poll is now a mere pale simulation of the ancient rallying of citizens' (p. 33).

Moving rapidly from Plato to Nato, artfully mixing alacrity with superficiality, Virilio illuminates the shift of representation into the 'virtual theatricalization of the real world', from statistical management to electoral polls to video wars, until politics becomes a form of cathodic democracy (pp. 30-4). An obsessive media vigilance of behavior combines with political correctness to transform democracy from an open participatory form of government into a global software program for the edutainment and control of all spectators.

Chapter three, 'The Shrinking Effect', returns to the grand theme of Virilio - the political effects of speed. 'With acceleration there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal - a mix of history, stories, and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies'(p. 35). Again, a brief, impressionistic account of such technologies follows, stretching thinly from the political role of gazettes and pamphlets in the French revolution, to the acceleration of diplomacy by the telegraph before the first world war, to the first use of radio broadcasts in the U.S. presidential elections of 1920. The coeval emergence of a mass media and an industrial army is recounted as the signifying moment of modernity. With the collapse of distance through communication technologies comes a 'a parallel information market' of propaganda, illusion, dissimulation. However, technological accelerants like satellite link-ups, real-time feeds, and high-resolution video threaten the power of television to dissimulate. With the appearance of a global view comes the disappearance of the viewer subject: in the immediacy of perception, our eyes become indistinguishable from the camera's optics, and critical consciousness goes missing. So too will the sovereign subjectivity of the state: 'Territorial distance and media proximity make an explosive cocktail' (p. 57). Virilio considers the end of communism to be merely the first victim of the data coup d'état:

At the end of the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev implemented glasnost, before being eliminated with the help of the media he had freed, or when the same media stage Tiananmen Square or triumphantly orchestrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overturning of the bronze giants of communism's demigods, it was very much the birth pangs of a data coup d'état that we were witnessing, with the revelation of the absolute incompatibility between old national, political and economic territories and the contemporaneity of a universal dromos that has finally been achieved. (p. 57)

In the abstract, attribution of such powers to the media might seem overstated. But in the midst of a media spasm that could well topple a U.S. President, there is a discomforting ring to Virilio's analysis. However, in chapters four and five, Virilio's analysis goes from corrosive and anticipatory to cranky and dated. 'A Terminal Art' (chapter four) singles out television as the most stupefying technology of the industrial age. To be sure, his critique is pre-X-Files, but some of this gets pretty absurd. Virilio parades some vague studies by 'health workers in the United States and Canada' which have identified a 'televisual pathology...producing morbid phenomena such as obesity or anorexia nervosa, poor cerebral performance, language problems, spatial disorientation...' - you get the picture. Moreover, he claims that the research 'dovetails with etiological research' showing increased murder rates in the United States (p. 62-63). If television is so omnipotent, how might these same researchers explain the differences in murder rates between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, both of which enjoy the same television programs? It doesn't get much better in the next chapter, whose title, 'Victims of the Set', just about says it all. The double play on 'set', linking Potemkin's village to the false promise of the global media village, has potential. Yet the historical fragments on speed, motion without progress, the blurring of departure and arrival, yields only a superficial indictment of the pathology of movement. Virilio's use of empirical illustration often works to keep his philosophical arguments and speculations in a closer orbit to earth. But in these chapters, far-fetched claims free-float above a highly selective set of examples.

Virilio's focus sharpens in the final section of the book when he turns to the impact of technology on the body. Chapter five, 'From Superman to Hyperactive Man' makes good on Nietzsche's riff, 'What matters most to modern man is no longer pleasure or displeasure, but excitement' (p. 99). The targets and most powerful effects of technology have shifted, from the collective and territorial, to the individual and biological. Nanotechnology is leading the way from the transport to the 'transplant' revolution. Nutritional and chemical stimulants, mechanical prosthesis, pacemakers, cognitive ergonomics, and all the atopic accoutrements of a wired life - fax, modem, cell phone, voice mail, email - are invading the body, colonizing the organism as humans once colonized the planet. Biotechnologies of the future will contribute to a 'eugenic drift', 'technocults of a perverted science', a new 'technoscientific fundamentalism that will do as much damage as any religious fanaticism' (pp. 118-120). Virilio travels at speed from professional sports to genetic research to health clubs to arrive back at Nietzsche's overman, inversely (and perversely) realized 'by the quasi-messianic coming of wholly hyper-activated man' (p. 120). Nietzsche's cosmic dancers now appear on the screen in the form of a mutated Michael Jackson, surgically transfigured and computer morphed on MTV videos, or a resurrected Fred Astaire, kicking up his heels with a vacuum cleaner with the assistance of Forrest-Gump-graphics in a Dirt Devil advertisement.

As is the case with most of Virilio's books, the final chapter, 'The Art of the Motor', serves as a reprise and a provocation. Virilio tracks our current predicament back to the race for biological and technological superiority that culminated in Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Total mobilization and hyperproductivity eliminates the weaker categories of humanity in favor of the stronger man-machine - although it now comes metaphorically masked as 'structural unemployment' or 'interactive user-friendliness'. Virilio's short genealogy of cybernetics places the blame for this state of affairs on the 'military-communications complex', from the scientific intelligence community at Bletchley Park which broke Hitler's codes during second world war, to the cold war research unit at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory which created for the Air Force the first networked computer system, SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment).

This is Virilio at his best, setting aquiver the technoscientific web of the military, the university, and the burgeoning defense industry, while he traces the coeval invention of the bomb and the computer, the synergistic merging of destructive energy and information fall-out. 'We are entitled to ask ourselves,' says Virilio, 'after the end of the cold war and the decline of nuclear dissuasion, what will be the future damage caused by the onset of the computerized dissuasion of perceptible reality, which is more and more closely tied to a veritable "industrialization of simulation"?' (p. 141). The answer lies in cyberspace, the proliferation of virtual environments, and the substitutions of multiple realities, where telepresences further shrink the world at the speed of information. And, predictably, the answer is not a very optimistic one. Virilio ends by reminding us once again that all new technologies, from the steam engine to the internal combustion engine, from the Titanic to the Challenger, have produced new kinds of accidents. Virtual technologies will be no different, judging from the 'crash' caused by program-trading on Wall Street, and the potential for civilian air accidents should the Pentagon make good on its right during wartime to degrade the accuracy of Global Positioning Systems. Investors, travelers, and web-crawlers beware.



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