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Conversation with Paul Virilio

Urbanist & Philosopher

by Caroline Gaudriault

“Inventing the plane is inventing the crash …”

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Metamorphose IX, Naitre et Mourir, Triptyque, panneau central

Caroline Gaudriault – You’re not what one might call a “catastrophist”, but you do warn us about the dark side of progress, what you call “the intelligence of ignorance”. What are your views on Man and his perpetual quest for innovation?

Paul Virilio – There can be no science without humility. This means that there can be no development of knowledge without an absence of knowledge or imperfect knowledge. A person who is aware of their imperfect knowledge can achieve real knowledge. A person who believes they already possess knowledge, will never attain genuine knowledge. If they do “know”, it will be in a magical rather than in a rational way. There are positives to an absence of knowledge. As Saint Theresa of Avila said, “humility is truth”. Humility isn’t modesty. You need emptiness before you can have fullness; there needs to be an absence of something before you can have an appetite for it. Absence and emptiness are the origin of the world.
We are approaching the limits of what can be achieved in terms of the acquisition of knowledge by means of experimentation. If there are exact sciences, it’s because there are experiments to verify the theorems and concepts produced by scientists. But with Hiroshima and the Trinity site (the first nuclear test site), we reached those limits. Whence dissuasion. Whence the fact that we now use computer simulations so we don’t have to detonate real bombs. And it’s clear that the notion that experimentation has its limits implies that the exact sciences also have theirs. The Earth is too small to contain all the progress humanity has made. According to the ecologists, we would need several Earths to be able to go on living the way we’re living now. The world is too small to support a system based on short-term profit. We are living in the era of the consequences of progress.
The economic crash provides an interesting example. Today, the accident is no longer local; it’s integral. It’s not a question of having a tragic view of the world’s evolution; it’s a question of taking it seriously. It’s time we started asking questions about cutting edge experiments like the ones carried out with high powered lasers, particle accelerators, and colliders (experiments which are completed in a space of time so short that it is beyond human understanding). Recognising these limits doesn’t mean that we’re being obscurantist. On the contrary, in so doing, we’re posing a concrete problem. Does experimentation have limits? Everyone would say yes. For everything without limits belongs to the order of the divine and not to human science.
We can’t make technological progress without taking into account the concept of intelligence in ignorance, the accidental component of science. I like to quote Winston Churchill’s perceptive comment, “An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity”. We shouldn’t forget that inventing the ship implies shipwreck, inventing the locomotive entails derailment, inventing the plane means inventing the plane crash …

C.G. - Our relationship with time has changed. Time is no longer local and historical but instantaneous and global. This transition has obviously changed the relationship between time and the world.

Paul Virilio - It’s reduced the world to nothing. With the contraction of time, the world has become smaller. Along with ecological and substance-based pollution, we are facing a new kind of pollution linked to distance (understood in the sense of our relationship with things). Distances become shorter as phenomena get faster and this inevitably leads to a point of saturation.
In the past, wealth was based on a process of accrual, whether of capital or gold, as in Fort Knox, or in the sense of urban expansion and the development of cities. But the phenomenon of acceleration has magnified everything. These days, we want it all and we want it now. This kind of desire belongs to the divine order.
We’ve razed Wall Street to the ground; traders are a thing of the past. Finance is no longer a human activity. In the financial world, time has become automatic, instantaneous and global, a quantity that only computers, not even mathematicians, can now measure. We’re confronted by an acceleration of reality. We’re living in the era of nanotechnologies, nanoseconds, picoseconds … A type of time which we are losing control of entirely. But people don’t live in the kind of continuum that can be divided into billionths of a second. We are overwhelmed by instantaneity, we need time to understand, reflect, plan …

C.G. - It seems that Man is reinventing the milieu in which he lives …

Paul Virilio - He won’t need an origin or a country of birth. He’ll become a journey. At the beginning of the 20th century, due to the radio and the landline telephone, his home was in the city. Today, thanks to a whole range of portable technologies, he has fused with the urban landscape. With portable computers and mobile phones, we carry the city around with us.
Soon, thanks to implants capable of picking up radio waves, we will carry the city around with us in our own bodies. We will have a code given to us at birth and we will be decoded when we die.
The sedentary are now everywhere when they’re at home and nomads, those who are everywhere, are now nowhere. Sedentariness will be replaced by traceability. “Tell me where you are and I will tell you who you are”. Ubiquity and immediacy will replace stability. We are facing a fully blown crisis of place. The “non-place” is becoming the habitat of a population in transit.

C.G. - Inventing technological tools is tantamount to inventing Man’s obsolescence.

Paul Virilio - A priori, yes. Ubiquity, instantaneousness, immediacy are the preserve of the divine. Human beings don’t have the capacity to be ubiquitous, even if they think they do. To be alive is to be mobile. But our mobility is defined by human limitations. And our technology is outrunning our consciousness, even though we are doing our best, using software and mathematical systems, to keep up. But we’re fighting a losing battle. This is clearly exemplified by the economic crash. Behind the economic crisis, there is a crisis of technology, of software. If time is money, speed is power. This power is entrusted to mathematical models. So it’s hardly surprising that it’s escaping our grasp. Whence the current political crisis.
It can’t be denied that technology and automatisation are causing unemployment. Technology has rendered people extraneous to requirements. We live in a society which refuses the living. Living beings are being replaced by automata. If we leave machines to do all our calculations for us, then there will be no one left to teach maths to future generations. Computers have drastically reduced the importance of the word. The IT revolution has modified our relationship with knowledge. We’re living in the age of “cut-and-paste.” Does anyone remember that to read Baudelaire is to hear a kind of musicality? Does anyone remember that life has a rhythm, a musicology? Life is comparable to an art form like choreography or music. Speed is not inevitable. And to come back to your question, we shouldn’t forget that speed is the old age of the world.

C.G. - The situation is a paradoxical one: the act of opening oneself to the world is equivalent to closing oneself off from it even more, to gradually asphyxiating oneself.

Paul Virilio - Instantaneousness is replacing actuality. In ancient societies, there were two kinds of history: general history – the grand narrative - and the history of events which changed the world. Today, we are living in a period of accidental history, of instantaneousness, and, therefore, of emotion. Opinion no longer exists in real time; there is only emotion. The TV images of the collapse of the Twin Towers and of the tsunami invoke emotion, not opinion. Our lives are conditioned by the shock produced by speed. We are confronted by the dictatorship of emotion, of the synchronisation of affects at the global level. The fact that billions of people can feel the same emotion at the same moment is tantamount to a communism of affect far more powerful than the totalitarian regimes of Mao and others. Emotions are synchronised in real time. The first emotional shock came when a man first set foot on the surface of the Moon.
What will be remembered of our history? The content of memory is a function of the speed of forgetting. The further we advance, the more we forget. The question of memory is linked to the question of acceleration, which dissolves memory. This is especially pertinent in that current memory-supporting media are not durable, unlike granite, marble, paper or papyrus which still speak to us of ancient eras. We are dissolving our heritage.

C.G - To assuage our desire for information, we have introduced a multitude of screens – on our computers and TVs, and, more recently, on our telephones. One might have thought that this increase in the number of sources of information would have led to an improvement in the quality of information itself, but, in reality, it has only led to confusion.

Paul Virilio -
The real time perspective has encouraged a televisual perspective. Ancient societies had a view linked to imagination and knowledge. Ours is of a world whose end we see optically. We see walls and rotundity; we have access to a single vantage point. Megalomania has become megaloscopy. The Renaissance represented the first turning point in the history of our perception of the world. It introduced us to the idea of perspective in painting. Later, the invention of photography made it possible for nature to record itself. Today, with Google Earth, we are developing an instantaneous vision of the world superior to any kind of remote monitoring device yet invented. It’s a new kind of planetary optical system. We can see everyone, but, at the same time, everyone can see us. It’s an incomparable closure, the birth of a new kind of claustrophobia. We are witnessing the emergence of the optically correct. While political correctness was associated with the written word, optical correctness is linked to the screen. Societies are optically corrected by means of images. I wear glasses, which optically correct my vision; the optically correct corrects our view of society. The world is corrected in the act of looking at itself. It’s done by montage, depth of field, zoom shots, stills … It makes you want to shout, “LOOK, THERE’S NOTHING TO SEE!”
Neither should we forget the sense of the word “mediate”, which used to mean “subject” as in the feudal lord subjecting his vassal. To mediate is to control. And the notion of “mass media” doesn’t imply a relationship with another person, or with several other people, but with a mass. It’s a degree of control that only exists in tyrannies.

C.G. - Reality has gradually been replaced by the virtual.

Paul Virilio -Virtual space has created an artificial world, a substitute cyber-colony. While nations once conquered and colonised each other, we now create colonies which exist virtually and which colonise our attention and interests. The colonial spirit is not dead. It has migrated from the real world of geographical conquest to the conquest of populations subject to the attraction exerted by means of optical illusions. Claustrophobia will become a mass phenomenon. People used to talk of “obsidian fever”, the nervous hysteria resulting from a long and exhausting siege. It’s worth recalling that in the Warsaw ghetto people used to keep their windows open in the depths of winter even when some unfortunates were actually freezing to death. The besieged had no choice; they couldn’t breathe anymore. That’s what obsidian fever is. I’ve never forgotten it … I’m claustrophobic. I think the fact that I experienced these physical phenomena, that feeling of asphyxia, is an important factor in my work.

C.G. - Perhaps the reason we blindly and unthinkingly pursue the goal of technological progress is that it offers a way out of having to confront ourselves.

Paul Virilio - There’s a book by Graham Greene that I like very much called The Ministry of Fear. It’s a magnificent title because it means that we are administered by fear. It refers to the Nazi intelligence department that, using its secret services and its propaganda machine, conquered France without a single shot being fired. Fear is administered first; only then are we offered reassurance and security.
Since Hiroshima, fear has become a science. Oppenheimer suggested that we may have committed a sin. Science has acquired negative connotations. Once upon a time, it was guaranteed to deliver happiness, but suddenly it was delivering misery. First we saw the dead, those directly affected, then we thought of the mushroom cloud that was slowly moving across the globe and which was bound to affect the entire planet … The administration of fear and propaganda in favour of progress is a way of masking the risk inherent in progress. Progress represents a major risk, a cosmological fear.

C.G. - What kind of upheavals will humanity be faced with in the future?

Paul Virilio - We have to try to understand what it is to be occupied by progress. Progress occupies and preoccupies us. We have to analyse the underlying reasons for all these materials we wear, all this technology we deck ourselves out in. We have to understand what occupation is before we can say whether we’re resistance fighters or collaborators. After the Second World War, a great deal was written about the idea of good and bad Frenchmen, but the notion of occupation wasn’t analysed. I was a war child and I was both occupied and preoccupied. It was a profound question. A complex one. Because the occupier is not necessarily the barbarian, and progress, like the occupier, is not barbarity. In France, there was a state of complicity, because we lived together in the same way that we live with progress. That’s the perverse thing about it, in spite of all the arrests and shootings I witnessed. Obviously, propaganda on behalf of progress is not the same as war propaganda. The promotion of progress involves masking its reality. As Hannah Arendt said, progress and catastrophe are two sides of the same coin. We need to be serious in our approach to this question. We need to reflect, to retain a critical attitude. That’s what freedom is. That’s what optimism is.

La Rochelle, France.