Paul Virilio, once an architect of the Brutalist school, and phenomenologist in the tradition of Husserl, is best known today for the idea that ‘dromology’—the logic of speed—stands at the centre of the political and techno-cultural transformation of the contemporary world. Born in 1932, the son of a Breton mother and an Italian communist father, Virilio was torn from his family at the onset of the Blitzkrieg and grew up as a highly sensitive evacuee child in Nantes, under Nazi occupation. In his late teens he converted to Christianity under the influence of Abbé Pierre’s worker-priests. Educated at L’École des Métiers d’Art in Paris, he worked with Matisse as a craftsman in stained glass, before becoming an intellectual provocateur as co-editor of the experimental journal Architecture Principe. In the mid-sixties he studied the architecture of war intensively and built the ‘bunker church’ of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay at Nevers. An irrevocable split occurred with his partner in Architecture Principe, the architect Claude Parent, when Virilio became politically active during the May revolt of 1968. A year later he was given a chair at the École Spéciale d’Architecture at the behest of its students, which he occupied until his retirement in 1997. The publication of Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology in 1986 established him as a creative theorist of modern life.
Dromology explores the experience of human subjects caught up in techno-cultural vectors of ever-increasing speed. The background to the idea is deeply personal, rooted in Virilio’s traumatic childhood during the Second World War. But its aim is universal: to understand the historical conditions of individual existence under the tyranny of an unrelenting acceleration of every coordinate—economic, social, political and cultural. La bombe informatique opens with a quotation from Werner Heisenberg: ‘No one can say what will be “real” for people when the wars which are now beginning come to an end.’ In his own field, Heisenberg showed that any simultaneous calculation of the location and speed of a particle, no matter how accurate, was subject to an element of uncertainty from the interference of the calculation itself, throwing the principles of causality at atomic and subatomic levels into disarray. By analogy, Virilio would pursue the uncertain relationships between speed as the ‘reality’ of a universe of war, and our perception of its causalities.
The question that dominates his new book is posed in its first sentence—‘civilianization or militarization of science?’ Since the Second World War, he argues, two kinds of bomb have come to overshadow ordinary life. The first is the atom bomb, ‘capable of using the energy of radioactivity to smash matter’. The second lies in the title of the book, an explosive weapon ‘capable of using the interactivity of information to shatter peace’. Virilio, of course, is referring in the first instance to the emergence of the Internet. But the information bomb is a wider notion, encompassing the transformation of work processes by the spread of mobile phones and ‘zero-hour’ contracts, the saturation of the art world by advertising pressures and motifs, the dissolution of barriers of privacy by data-banks and of morality by industrial pornography, the construction of the universal genome, not to speak of the escalation of the military into stratospheres of celestial surveillance. The fall-out of this bomb is mediated misery around the world, as electronic screens displace linguistic exchanges, and human conflicts shudder into a quickened tempo in the era of ‘chrono-politics’.
The psychic consequences of this turn are not mere concomitants of technological development—problems of adjustment to progress itself. They are ‘communications disturbances’, created by the ‘brutal incursions’ of a violent pattern of advance that ‘acts like a forensic scientist on us’. For Virilio, this is a particular kind of progress which ‘accumulates and condenses in each of us the full range of—visual, social, psycho-motor, affective, sexual—disorders that it leaves as the successive detritus of its innovations, each with its full complement of specific injuries.’ Not least among these is the waning of any critical distance towards technology itself, as ‘we have slid unconsciously from pure technology to techno-culture, and finally to the dogmatism of a totalitarian techno-cult’. In these conditions, distinctions between the world of art, the world of advertising and the world of pornography effectively break down—Virilio takes the Royal Academy show Sensation of 1997 as a case in point. In the ‘terminal arts’ that stage a ‘confrontation between a tortured body and an automatic camera’, can be seen the coming of an ‘endo-colonization’ that could potentially reduce every member of a humanity that has ‘had its day’ to the status of a specimen. We are not there yet. But in a bleak landscape where neo-liberalism squares off against cyber-feminism, and high commands prepare a ‘grey ecology’ of polluted distances, we are not so far away either. As Virilio remarks, in ‘dromocratic’ capitalism, when the biotech corporation calls, ‘you come running’. Today, the information bomb requires a new kind of deterrence, if nations are to avoid the fission of their ‘social cores’ in the shock-zone of the new chrono-politics.
La bombe informatique, like all of Virilio’s work, proceeds by exaggeration, analogy, ellipse. To some extent, it is a victim of the logic of speed itself. Its tone is often manic, and its evidence capricious. Chasing a multitude of discontinuities and shape-shifting ‘lines of flight’ simultaneously, its method could be said to reflect Virilio’s creed of a self-confessed ‘anarcho-Christianity’. This is a religious outlook Virilio shares to some extent with the late Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society (1964). It separates him clearly from ‘transpolitical’ postmodernists such as Baudrillard (with whom he has been mistakenly associated), ‘poststructuralist anarchists’ like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze (to whom he was once close), or the deconstructionist and ‘spectral Marxist’ Jacques Derrida. He has been more practically engaged than these. Far from resting in the academic confines of the École Spéciale d’Architecture, Virilio has always sought to communicate his ideas to as wide an audience as possible—earning, in fact, a ‘National Award for Criticism’ in 1987. His attacks on neo-liberalism, however abstractly or catastrophically formulated, have touched a nerve in France, where periodicals like Le Monde diplomatique regularly seek his—unfailingly forthright —views on everything from Fukuyama to the end of geography and the future of techno-culture. By comparison with a figure like Foucault, Virilio is the personification of a ‘committed intellectual’.
The image of the ‘information bomb’ offers a lurid premonition of the future—the dramatic tenor of Virilio’s work is far removed from the complacent drift of writers like Nicholas Negroponte, contemplating the bliss of Being Digital (1995). But though his description of the world appears deeply pessimistic, Virilio’s politics are not defeatist. He has always argued that resistance is possible, and personally sought to practice it. For all his idiosyncrasies, Virilio’s ideas have exerted an influence well beyond his own philosophical starting-point. For example, The Art of the Motor, a work he published in 1995, is an important reference in the recent writing of imaginative Marxists as different as Slavoj Žižek in The Plague of Fantasies (1997) and André Gorz in Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society (1999). His latest book is no less likely to become a source for other creative radicals, looking for a provisional path out of the quicksands of postmodernism, but also a way to the sympathies of ordinary citizens. Firing off political and techno-cultural neologisms at the speed of light, Virilio’s passionately argued texts do not always hit their intended targets. But for anyone seeking a critique of the cultural logic of late militarism that ranges from the Internet to endo-colonization, Virilio’s ‘hyper-modern’ theory of the information bomb is what they have been waiting for.