chapter  31
11 Pages

Paul Virilo

ByJAMES DER DERIAN

Who is Paul Virilio? Born in Paris in 1932: a tall, blue-eyed Italian father; a short mother from the northern coastal region of Brittany, where he grew up. More than once he has remarked on his seaside, ‘littoral’ experience as a child, reflecting a future of feeling most at home on the edge: of his profession in urban architecture, of the intellectual circles of Paris, of Le College International de Philosophie which included along with Virilio well-known figures like Jacques Derrida and François Lyotard. From his first book to his most recent interviews, he has also emphasized that ‘war was his university’. His first encounter with the speed of the war machine came at the outset of the Second World War, listening to the radio in his hometown of Nantes, hearing that the Germans had reached Orléans, and then, almost simultaneously, hearing the sound of tanks outside his window: Blitzkrieg. Aerial bombardments by the British and the Americans (Nantes became a major port for the German navy) also left a deep impression. Not least, he was drafted to fight in France’s war with Algeria. Before taking up a career practicing and teaching urban architecture, he considered one in the art of stained-glass making. But all this rarely shows up in his official bios, which usually begin with his tenure as professor (1969), general director (1975), and president (1990) of the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris; make some mention of his setting up with Claude Parent the Architecture Principie group and journal in 1963; and are likely to list one or more of his multiple identities: philosopher, city planner, military historian, cultural theorist, peace activist, film critic and exhibition curator. From his 1976 exhibition (and subsequent book) on bunker archaeology

to his millennial project on the integral accident, Paul Virilio’s relentless inquiry into the interdependent relationships of speed and politics, technology and ecology, and war and cinema has left many a reader breathless, befuddled, and sometimes in the dust. A single Virilio sentence, full of concatenated clauses and asyndetic phrases, can collapse a century of political thought as well as dismantle a foundation of scientific absolutes. His take on the world – deterritorialized, accelerated, hyper-mediated – redefines outlandish. Nonetheless, when ‘stuff happens’, the unexpected events that defy conventional language, fit no familiar pattern, follow no recognizable

conception of causality, one reaches for Virilio to illuminate the strange twists and turns of late modernity. Virilio’s work obviously resists easy summary. One is hard-pressed to find

an organizing principle or a consistent theme; however, it does not take much digging to uncover an iterated warning against the contingency, vulnerability and danger of a highly technologized and densely networked life, with the attendant rise of a new military-industrial-media complex. Indeed, after 9/11, Iraq redux, and serial headlines of one more military misadventure and cascading global ‘accident’ after another, Virilio’s works have taken on the uneasy quality of prophecy. Moving from Plato to NATO, finding high theory in daily headlines, matching intellectual alacrity with rhetorical superficiality, Virilio’s hyperbolic pronouncements of the twentieth century – ‘movement creates the event’, ‘information explodes like a bomb’, ‘the televised poll is now a mere pale simulation of the ancient rallying of citizens’ – have become practically commonplace wisdom in the twenty-first (Virilio 1995a: 23-34).