The Catastrophes Issue
Cultural theorist Paul Virilio has been repeating essentially the same thing over and over for the past 30 years. Maybe it’s time for everybody to start listening to him.
Sep 3 2010, 12:00am
Interview and Photo By Caroline DumoucelTranslated By Pauline Eiferman
Cultural theorist Paul Virilio has been repeating essentially the same thing, packed inside different specifics at different times, over and over for the past 30 years. Maybe it’s time for everybody—not just French people and college students—to start listening to him.
Virilio is into revelations. He’s like some kind of prophet of the apocalypse. There are no moral judgments in his work, even though he is a devout Catholic. He deals more in the observation and analysis of banalities, or “evidences,” as he calls them. His best-known statement is “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.” It’s probably the most concise and eloquent explanation of causality we’ve ever read, and it can be applied to almost anything. Virilio expands this into what might be his main message, which is, to paraphrase, that every technological invention bears its specific defect in its DNA and that the cult of speed and acceleration that technology has engendered will be the death of us all.
Virilio worked, after World War II, as a stained-glass artist along with Matisse and Braque; in the 60s, with partner Claude Parent, his concept of oblique architecture revolutionized the field; and in the 70s, he came to know the then-bosses of French theory: Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Michel Foucault. Virilio’s book Speed and Politics, published in 1977, marked the birth of his concept of dromology, or the logic of speed. He’s been the publisher of Georges Perec and Jean Baudrillard, he’s friends with Chris Marker and Peter Sloterdijk… and now he’s friends with us.
Virilio recently picked us up at the train station in La Rochelle, France, and brought us to the local aquarium, where we talked. Or rather, where he gave us the tools to understand the modern world and explained why, although utter doom is inevitable, he’s still an optimist.
Vice: People know you as the theorist of disaster. Do you think you might be obsessed with it?
Paul Virilio: Not at all. Look at it this way: I used to be friends with Georges Perec, a child of the Holocaust. His parents died in a concentration camp. Once, when I was with him, I told myself: “I’m not a child of the Holocaust. My parents aren’t dead. I’m not Jewish. But I am a child of total war.” It lives in me in the same way that he can’t forget the Holocaust. We are children of the same war. We can’t be racist and say that he’s allowed to be haunted and I’m not.
You witnessed aerial bombings in Nantes…
The bombings were a very complex and perverted phenomenon. You can’t understand the French collaboration and resistance movements if you don’t understand the occupation period. Being occupied is being in a situation of absolute perversity. You live next to your enemy, and your allies kill you. I was ten years old in 1942. I had to understand that the people who lived close by were my enemies, and the ones bombing me were my friends. I was a child of total warfare, of the lightning war, of the quick war: the blitzkrieg.
Did you hide in basements during the bombings?
On the contrary, we used to go to the fields. We were scared of being buried alive in basements. We used to hear people screaming from the cellars, drowning because the water pipes had exploded. So my dad told us that we wouldn’t do that. We went to the fields and lay on the ground.
And yet you suffer from claustrophobia, right?
Oh yes. Maybe it started back then, I don’t know. The bombs would fall close by and cover us in sand and dust, but we’d rather die in the sun than croak in a basement. Bombings are a cosmic phenomenon. You don’t feel like a concrete person is doing this to you, it’s more like the apocalypse or a huge storm or the eruption of Vesuvius. When I was young, I witnessed collective fear. Individual fear is easy to deal with as a young boy. Either you hit back or you run away. It just requires individual courage. But when your parents are terrified and grandmothers are crying and the people around you are screaming then, wow, you can’t be brave.
A lot of people see only the negative side of your theories. But I see much of it as positive, such as the fact that you are interested in accidents because they are the epitome of complete surprise.
Of course. There are happy accidents: love at first sight, winning the lottery… Aristotle said, “Time is the accident of accidents.” Time is what exists, and the accident is what happens. You have a substance that exists, like a mountain. And then you have the event: the earthquake. I didn’t study disasters, but accidents—rupture. Substance is necessary and absolute, accidents are relative and contingent. How could we manage to analyze today’s technical progress if we don’t analyze its accidents?
Do you mean “accident” in the same way that some say “event” in modern-day philosophy?
Yes, except that for me, an accident is the event of speed. Our accidents are linked to the acceleration of history and of reality. The French were occupied by the Nazis by surprise. They didn’t react well because they didn’t understand the speed of it all. They were taken by speed. Today’s events, like the stock-market crash, are speed accidents. I call these “integral accidents” because they trigger other accidents. There is an amplification of pure events in history. Today, history is entirely accidental. Look at 9/11. It’s not an event, it’s an accident. But we consider it to be as important as yesterday’s events. It’s like a declaration of war without a war.
Are you against progress?
No. I’ve never thought we should go back to the past. But why did the positive aspect of progress get replaced by its propaganda? Propaganda was a tool used by Nazis but also by the Futurists. Look at the Italian Futurists. They were allies with the Fascists. Even Marinetti. I fight against the propaganda of progress, and this propaganda bears the name of never-ending acceleration.
I was kind of hoping you’d talk about your metaphor of the shipwreck…
Oh yes, of course. It’s just that I’ve been repeating it forever.
It’s fairly simple, but so universal.
Inventing a plane is not only inventing the crash but also inventing the breakdown. A jet engine is an amazing thing, but it’s also sensitive to birds, to volcanic ash… So you go from the plane that can go really fast to the plane that can’t fly at all. Whether it’s because of terrorism and being scared, or because of the volcano and it being too risky, or something new tomorrow, you can’t innovate without creating some damage. It’s so obvious that being obliged to repeat it shows the extent to which we are alienated by the propaganda of progress.
I’m guessing that you always hear, “Regardless, Mr. Virilio, progress is a good thing.” Does that annoy you?
Yes, it’s very irritating. These people are victims of propaganda. Progress has replaced God. Nietzsche talked about the death of God—I think God was replaced by progress. I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. To love is to choose. And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation. Progress has all the defects of totalitarianism.
Do you own many technological items?
I don’t have a car or a TV anymore. I contributed to launching the internet, back during those heroic times. But today, I don’t have a computer and I don’t have a cell phone. I have a perfectly normal house phone, water, gas, and electricity. Sometimes I listen to the radio.
Let’s talk more about the danger that’s inherent in speed.
“The faster the better” is completely false. The faster you go, the more risks you take. I used to have a Jaguar. I drove it at more than 200 kilometers per hour once with Claude Parent. He owned an E-Type, I had the S-Type. Physical speed freezes you. And the faster you go, the farther you have to look, and you lose lateral vision. You are fascinated.
You just made a gesture as if you were wearing blinders.
Why do animals have eyes on the side? There are very few that have eyes in the front like us. It’s because real danger comes from the side or from behind. Speed flattens the vision, like a screen.
You said once that “choosing resistance is not opposing yourself to new technologies, but refusing to collaborate.”
Yes, that’s obvious.
You also say that human nature is to resist. So what should I do? Throw my MacBook out the window?
This isn’t a question for individuals, but for political, economic, environmental development. Churchill said, “An optimist is a man who sees a chance behind every calamity.”
What do you think of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s comments about 9/11 being “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos”?
Peter Sloterdijk told me that Stockhausen had rejected that comment after he made it. Maybe he was misinterpreted. I don’t know. I don’t consider catastrophes to be art. Technique is art.
Yes, ars in Latin is equivalent to technê in Greek.
So we agree. There are weapons that exist through their destination. For example, if I take this bottle and kill you with it, it’s a weapon by destination. If I have a gun and I kill you, it’s a weapon by function. During 9/11, they hijacked technological progress by using a civilian plane to make a bomb, killing themselves in the process. It’s a weapon by destination. That’s total perversity. If you go back to the bottle, it’s less perverted, but it’s still a crime. The bottle will stay a bottle, even if it’s killed you. And the plane will stay a plane, even if it’s killed more than 3,000 people. So Stockhausen is a great musician, but I just don’t think he’s philosophical enough in his statement, if it’s what he meant.
What could be done to prevent such perversions?
Well, I don’t denounce the fact that technology is used to do evil. I guess maybe we could ban planes, because they can be used as weapons. And bottles, too. And high heels like yours, too.
Today, man is capable of destroying humanity. Hans Jonas, in The Imperative of Responsibility, calls for a radical change in ethics. I suppose you agree with him.
Yes, I do. But I don’t agree with the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is the cache-sexe of the responsibility imperative. It’s a mask that helps the propaganda of progress. “We are going to take extra measures of caution.” This isn’t where the problem lies. It lies in the responsibility, at the highest level. It’s so huge. There are no “measures of caution” to take at that level.
It’s already hard for man to consider his own death. Do you really think he’s capable of considering the death of humanity—outside of Hollywood representations?
Being a Christian, I have to say that I participate in what Saint Paul called “a hope against all hope.” It means that in a way, I see hope behind the threat of the apocalypse. It doesn’t put an end to humanity. It’s possible, but not certain. And at the bottom of the pit, there is only hope. We are approaching the pit of ignorance.
I fear another accident, the accident of knowledge. Number one, of substances, the environment. Number two, of distances, the world is too small. And number three, the huge risk, is the one of nihilism, of losing knowledge, the coma of sciences because we hit the wall of time.
Is that what you mean by the “accident of thought”?
Yes, the ubiquity, the instantaneity. The president of Goldman Sachs said: “I do the work of God.” That’s worse than nihilism.
In American movies of the 70s, there were tons of catastrophes. Today, we’re more into apocalypse movies.
Yes, it’s gothic. It goes back to medieval times, or to the Great Fear at the start of the French Revolution.
In the 70s, people were more into local catastrophes.
The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, even Titanic, I’ve seen them all. They all introduce the anxiety of progress. Titanic has become the perfect example, but The Poseidon Adventure was first. The Poseidon is a huge ship that capsizes. The boat is reversed and becomes a kind of upside-down landscape where the survivors have to find ways to move inside the boat. When they arrive at the top, they hit the “ceiling” and make a hole in the hull to get out. It’s an interesting film because the vehicle is held responsible. There is also Airport. Basically, you have ships, towers, helicopters, planes…
Those objects have long since been surpassed by virtualization. The threat, in these movies of the 70s, comes from old technical objects. But as for virtual space, we don’t fear anything—except maybe becoming addicted.
And what about all these more recent apocalyptic blockbusters, like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012?
America isn’t the New World anymore. With globalization, it will never be the New World again. The world has become a planet that everyone can discover instantly. America is only a part of it, that’s all. Hence Obama’s timidity concerning foreign affairs. American imperialism is changing, even militarily. You can see that through the cutting down of nuclear warheads and the fact that he’s stopping the space race. America has lost the “Go West” mentality of its frontier days. And I think that those films have been announcing that. At least, that’s how I see them.
There’s also an obsession with catastrophe in the news media. We’re always waiting for the next one to arrive.
We are going into another age of great terror. We are afraid of things that we can’t understand, and we can’t be brave in front of collective fear, in front of panic.
What do you think of the media craze about the Large Hadron Collider?
Two charges have been brought against them, by American physicists and by professor Otto Rössler, the theorist of chaos. They asked the people at the Large Hadron Collider: What gives you the right to risk a black hole? And the debate poses an important question. Where are the limits of experimenting? Sciences aren’t magic, they are experimental by nature. Back in the 19th century, if you messed up an experiment, your laboratory would explode and you’d come out of it all black. Your wife would say, “Oh, your experiment didn’t work.” And that was it. When Oppenheimer and the rest of them pressed the On button of Trinity, they didn’t know how far the disintegration would go. They didn’t know whether space itself would disintegrate. Oppenheimer said it himself: Maybe we committed a scientific sin, we took a risk that we couldn’t grasp. Plus, they named the bomb Trinity. You can see the religious connotation. Anyway, in the book that I am now writing about the Large Hadron Collider, I attack them hard.
I guess I should have known your answer, considering it’s a machine that accelerates particles to make them collide. But do you think that the risk really exists?
The Large Hadron Collider poses the question of risk, not only of the hadron. You know, they call it God’s particle. And the accelerator, they call it the cathedral.
Fifteen years ago, you said you wanted to write a book called The Integral Accident. You also said that everyone could write their own 1984. You still haven’t written it, but did you mean that the consequence of this integral accident would be totalitarianism?
Yes, of course. The totalitarianism of totalitarianisms. The loss of liberty. Democracy is threatened everywhere.
As you’ve written, we face “the synchronizing of collective emotions that leads to the administration of fear.”
Exactly. The community of emotions that replaces the community of interests. We would get to a communism of affects. And that’s dreadful. This goes back to the panic phenomenon, in front of which we can’t have individual courage. No one talks about nuclear weapons. We are told about nuclear waste—which, by the way, is a huge problem because some of it can be harmful for 200,000 years. When we dig to bury it, we need to make sure this is remembered. Imagine placing nuclear waste in a hole. How do you tell people in 200,000 years that there are dangerous substances there? It’s not science fiction anymore. How do you communicate with those people? What language will they speak? The length of the threat isn’t considered here. And it’s the same for stocking nuclear weapons. They are everywhere. Anyone can get their hands on them. We don’t talk about this, but it’s so obvious. The propaganda of progress really exists. There is censorship here. Do you see the perversity we live in? It’s not a plot against humanity—it’s more complicated—but the result is the same.
What do you think of Ray Kurzweil’s thesis about the singularity? He says that in 2050, humans will be more technical than organic.
The new age. It raises the question of the third bomb, as formulated by Einstein. He said that there were three bombs. The atomic bomb, the information bomb, and the demographic bomb. But I think that today, the third bomb will be genetic. Soon, the question of human selection will be raised. We risk the birth of real racism. There will be natural men, those born of blood and sperm—disgusting!—and the others, born by genetic engineering.
It sounds like a science-fiction movie. Gattaca, for instance.
Absolutely. The genetic bomb, if it explodes, will divide the human race in two. The natural pre-humans and the artificial but superior post-humans. Remember the replicants in that movie…
Yes. There’s that great scene: Harrison Ford is about to fall from the tower, and the replicant is holding him. Harrison thinks he’s going to let him go. And the replicant, he picks him up and drags him to safety. The dialogue that follows is monstrous, but marvelous at the same time.
Right. Ford’s voiceover says something like, “Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than ever before. Not just his life… anybody’s life… my life.”