In 1982, smack in the middle of cold-war angst, Semiotext(e) founder Sylvère Lotringer interviewed architect and philosopher Paul Virilio about nuclear war and technology. Their densely layered dialogue was published the following year as Pure War, which introduced Virilio’s thinking to the United States. Last year, the pair met to reevaluate their earlier arguments, and the reissue of Pure War includes this new conversation and a fresh introduction.
At present, its almost impossible to deny Lotringer and Virilio’s twenty-five-year-old observation: that war’s survival is dependent on its perpetuation during peacetime. War’s existence is no longer defined by battles but by its role as a deterrent, wherein the threat of conflict is constant. Eisenhower defined logistics as the transfer of “a nation’s potential . . . to its armed forces, in times of peace as in times of war.” Churchill similarly reflected that tendencies of war had become more important than actual episodes of fighting. Virilio expands this notion: “Possession of territory is not primarily about laws and contracts, but first and foremost a matter of movement and circulation.” He also posits a larger view, that the race for technological superiority has produced a new type of accident, one that destroys notions of time and space.
In developing new technologies and putting them to immediate use, we blind ourselves to the potentially damaging effects of these inventions. In order to mitigate this negative potential, speed must be politicized: “When you say that time is money, what it means is that speed in time is power.” With globalization, pure—or nuclear—war has devolved into another monster, impure war, which fuses “hyper-terrorist civil war and international war.” Wars are no longer won or lost, Virilio claims; they can only be “successful” or “failed.”
Virilio is an advocate of the meditative power of death, which represents a full stop that forces us to consider mortality. His conviction is born partly out of his belief in Henri Bergson’s statement that “death is the accident par excellence.” But technology distorts the concept of death as a means for structuring communities, because the interruptions it produces are shifts in speed that fragment, rather than order, thought. In one of the original interviews, Virilio mentions that the fifteen thousand annual deaths on French highways go largely unnoticed, thus demonstrating the decline of the politician’s role in using death rites to organize “social temporality.” In the context of war, the “delocalization of space and disappearance of time” have the potential to debilitate civilians, as seen in the gulag, an “anti-city which exists in an invisible territory.” Though total war, which blurred the line between civilian and military populations (as in the American Civil War), once offered historical continuity, later conflicts between nations have fractured that narrative.
In the book’s new interview, Virilio determines that globalization is the ultimate accident, an idea he hit on in 1982: “The tendency is for each place to become rigorously equivalent,” which in turn leads to a convergence of cities, a global village. If time no longer defines territory, movement ceases to be necessary. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the stagnant destitution pervading the shantytowns surrounding airports in such cities as Mumbai and Cape Town, showing “our inability to set up a true vectorial politics—something like a democratic speed.”
Virilio’s theories about speed are also informed by architectural comparisons, which surface in his critique of society’s dismissal of proportion, as exemplified by American obesity, which he terms “the globalization of the body proper.” This distancing from nature’s balance has opened the door to the disequilibrium of terrorism. Lotringer observes that terrorists are “merely speeding up a mutation that is already underway” and that “attacking one [city] automatically threatens them all.” This shift in scale has made the city the battlefield and in turn causes “states [to] act like individual terrorists.” Israel’s bombing of the Beirut airport in 1968 and the lack of a declaration of war in the Falklands conflict are striking illustrations.
These real-life applications for his theories gave Virilio a following among French military generals, but his indistinct politics and lack of traditional ideologies have sowed confusion. His observation that war is responsible for technological development have led some—including the Red Brigades, who purportedly used his philosophy as a basis for their terrorist movement in 1970s Italy—to think him pro-war. To skeptics who question his expertise, Virilio says his youth in war-torn Nantes offered rigorous training. Lotringer agrees, adding that the “bombardment of information in real time has replaced the waves of planes that hit Nantes.” He also terms the philosopher’s approach “not an organized discourse on war” but “a discourse at war.” Virilio is not against soldiers, but rather a military intelligence that “eludes politics.” Regardless of the devastation caused by all types of war, he clings to hope: “I believe that within this perversion of human knowledge by the war machine, hides its opposite.”
In one of the book’s many anecdotes, Virilio notes that, on seeing is there life before death? scrawled on a Belfast wall, he decided that deterrence, which leaves societies perpetually preparing for war, denies life. Enacting a politics that interrogates the very real nature of technological progress could help ensure that the answer to that question is yes.
Janine Armin is coeditor of Toronto Noir, which was published in May by Akashic Books.