Paul Virilio: The Clairvoyant in the Age of Total Transparency
1. Introduction or the Try of a Beginning
"Virilio has the talent of a clairvoyant in the age of total
This essay can on the one can be understood as an introduction into
some ideas of Paul Virilio's theories. By outlining these ideas I try on
the other hand to show how Agentur Bilwet can come to a statement like the
one above. For this I refer quite a lot on very new publications, which
are not as well known as most of his books. I also rely upon publications
which are not available in English language. Therefore some longer
quotations were unavoidable.
First of all I want to describe very roughly my starting point. To make
Virilio's theory: Dromology more understandable I tried during the reading
to find a mental picture for the subject producing this theory. By this I
try more or less to adept a method of Virilio himself. He said in an
"I always write with images. I cannot write a book if I don't have
images. I believe that philosophy is part of literature, and not the
reverse. Writing is not possible without images. Yet, images don't have to
be descriptive; they can be concepts, and Deleuze and I often discuss this
point. Concepts are mental images."
So to have a mental image of Paul Virilio I am not using a real photo, but
the picture of a Cyborg (picture 2). In some sort of way I declare, just
like Roland Barth 'the death of the author'. Roland Barth meant that
readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author's intentions:
the texts they use to do so are thus ever shifting, unstable and open to
question. In this context I want the death of the author understand in the
way that I am not using the real Virilio as the author of his texts, but I
try to understand his writing 'as if' a Cyborg has written it.
This additional freedom in thinking to be able to think 'as if' I see as
my personal concept of postmodernity. So rather than reflecting on the
complex and widely spread term of Postmodernity (This essay is actually
written for the course module Modernity and Postmodernity) I try not to
understand Postmodernity as an age or by its attributes, but more or less
as an additional freedom in thinking where 'anything goes' and that allows
me to write this essay.
2. On the Search of Paul Virilio
First of all here is a photography of the real (?) Virilio
What kind of profession Paul Virilio pursues or who and what he is, is not
so easy to answer. In different articles he is introduced quite
a) "Born in 1932, Paul Virilio was trained as a city planner. He
directed the Ecole spèciale d'architecture where he still teaches. For
more than twenty years he has pursued research on the phenomenon of speed."
b) "Paul Virilio, born 1932 in Paris. One of his
university-teachers was Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Virilio became well known
with a study about the German bunkers along the Atlantique-Rampart and
with studies about the phenomenon of acceleration in modern time. He is
teaching at the Academy of Architecture in Paris."
c) "Virilio is at once an urbanist, a historian of war and of
cinema, a philosopher of speed, a theorist of human subjectivity, a
postmodernist - sharing a great deal of terminology with Baudrillard -
and, as he frewuwntly [sic] point out in interviews, a Christian. The
potential difficulties, even contradictions, should be obvious."
d) "Virilio is one of the leading French theorists addressing late
twentieth-century media culture. He is General Director, ESA (Ecole
Spéciale d'Architecture), Paris."
Agentur Bilwet, a writing media collective from Holland just end up
introducing him in the article 'Virilio calling' with a quotation from
"Time is a resource and we're running out of time. It is necessary to
travel, it is not necessary and becoming increasingly difficult to live.
W. Burroughs" Later on they compare him with hackers: "Like
computerhacker Virilio's method combines the resistance against technical
strategies of domination with an enormous knowledge about and fascination
So Virilio is basically seen as someone in between architecture,
history, philosophy, mediatheory, cyberpunk and prophecy. Most commonly he
is seen as a theorist of speed or dromologist. What is meant by Dromology
I try to describe in the following.
3. Introduction into Dromology
Every theorist has some certain methodology some certain tools how he
analyses his object. I am sure if one had the chance to take a look of
Paul Virilio's toolbox one could find a speedmeter and a meter that
measures acceleration. Asked the question: "Is there something more
important than speed to analyse our society?[ Virilio just answers] No.
For me speed is the factor number one for analysing. [..] I would not have
called the discipline Dromology, if I would not have been convinced that
speed is an indispensable moment in the analysis of the world's history."
In this history of speed he divides between three steps or revolutions of
speed: transport, transmission and transplantation:
"The revolution of means of transport in the XIX. Century; the
revolution of transmission-media in the XX. Century and the future's
revolution of transplantation."
So just like biology is the science of life, geology is the science of the
earth, psychology is the science of Psychos and Sociology is the science
of society he is creating the new science 'Dromology' as the science of
"Speed! We wallow in speed. I've developed this theme in my last book
based on a theory that I baptized 'dromology' from the Greek 'dromos'
which means course or track. Throughout time, man has tried to increase
speed. With the horse, the sailboat, the train, the plane... But all of
these speeds remained relative in the sense that they didn't dominate
space. Today we've reached a limit that can't be exceed -- that of the
speed of light."
What he concludes out of reaching this limit is not "the end of
history in the way Francis Fukuyama has postulated [ but for Virilio]
History is simply smashing into the wall of time."
This science of speed can basically seen as an unilinear theory of history
where the driving force underlying history is the augmentation of speed, a
neverending acceleration. Dromology so far is a science which is strongly
connected with the person Paul Virilio, neither calls somebody else
himself dromologist nor is it an academic discipline so far. Nevertheless
it represents some sort of a sociology of technology, which is quite
influenced by terms of physics.
To understand his method better and maybe even to sharpen the tools of
analysis of Dromology a short excursion into Physics to define the terms
he uses exactly is quite helpful:
Therefore: v (velocity, speed) = x (way) / t (time) in: meter/second
a (acceleration) = ?v (speed-difference)/t in: meter /second2
Lightspeed = 299792,458 km/s (natural constant)
According to Einstein's special theory of relativity speed is something
relative, so the speed of an object can only be measured in relation to
another object. Acceleration however is something absolute and therefore
can be measured independent of another object. I just want to state here
that speed and acceleration is something quite different and normally easy
to divide. Virilio never uses his terms in such an exact way as Physics
describes them. He more or less even mixes them up quite often. On the
other hand he divides speed and velocity. "It is more about
Schnelligkeit than Geschwindigkeit." Nevertheless it makes sense to
define them here exactly.
But let's go on with Virilio: He describes three natural limitaions of
speed which he calls 'physical barriers':
"Three physical barriers are given: sound, heat and light. The first
two have already been felled. The sound barrier has been cut across by the
super- and hypersonic aircraft, while the heat barrier is penetrated by
the rocket taking human beings outside the earth's orbit in order to land
them on the moon. But the third barrier, that of light, is not something
one can cross: you crash into it. It is precisely this barrier of time
which confronts history in the present day."
Pointing out the speed of light as the 'final barrier', Virilio refers to
Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, which was completed in
1916. According to it nothing can be faster than light, and therefore
light can be seen as an invincible boundary for mankind. Virilio anyway
seems to be fascinated by and therefore refers quite a lot on Einstein.
"I agree with what Einstein used to say about the three bombs: there
are three bombs. The first one is the atomic bomb, which disintegrates
reality, the second one is the digital or computer bomb, which destroys
the principle of reality itself - not the actual object - and rebuilds it,
and finally the third bomb is the demographic one."
Einstein was a very religious man and ended up to defend his theory of
relativity against the threat of quantamechanics with the words: 'God do
not throw the dices.' Just like Einstein also Virilio is a very religious
man. As Virilio states in "Cyberwar, God and Television" he is
Christian and believes in God.
Nevertheless it must be said that just a couple of years ago physicists
proved that there is a speed beyond lightspeed. By using the tunneleffect
of quantamechanics even the former absolute quantity of lightspeed is
subject to statistics. So it is very improbable, but nevertheless not
impossible to transmit data with more than lightspeed. In an experiment it
was possible to transmit a whole symphony with more than six times
lightspeed. There are no reasonable applications for this effect so far in
our everyday's world, but it is definitely interesting how this new
discovery will affect Virilio's theory. I am sure Virilio who always try
to be up to date with his theory will implement this scientific discovery
pretty soon and maybe this will force the Live-theory of Dromology once
again to a moment of reflection like in 1989 where his theory was
overtaken by the actual events.
So far I end up on my way for a picture of Virilio as a Christian
physicist analysing history with the tool of a speedmeter. According to
Virilio "the former line of horizon draws back to the frame of the
screen and the electro-optics drives out the optics of our glasses."
To imagine him I therefore suggest an untitled picture drawn by Stephan
Lamperts in 1994. A Cyborg which faces reality with two eyes, the one eye
is for the perception of reality, the other eye is covered by an implant
of a technical instrument which for the following shall be a speedmeter
which enables our Cyborg to measure the speed of what he sees. This
picture is further on used as a mental picture for Virilio, as the mental
concept which stands behind the further writing.
The next question is, what kind of effects has this point of view on one's
concept of reality.
4. Virilio's Concept of Reality as a Concept of Virtual Reality
Virilio as this Cyborg we are already at the state of his third revolution
of speeds. The revolution of transplantation. "90% of the
microelectronic research is occupied with probes, sensors and
teledetectors. We are creating 'machines for incorporation', so called
nano-machines which the body can absorb. The walkman of the future will be
an implant . We will get implanted sensors which are more powerful than
our organs, just like for example the camera implanted into the eye in
Bertrand Tavernier's the Bought Death .The whole research nowadays in the
field of (optical) simulators endeavors to replace the natural retina by
an artificial." By looking through these electronic glasses you can
reality. There is a lot of confusion about the term 'virtual'. I want to
use it here according to its encyclopedic definition:"Virtual [lat.],
apparent, existing by the possibility" So virtual, existing by the
possibility means that a virtual picture is possible to produce and
influence. A virtual picture in this sense means that this electroglass of
the Cyborg can influence reality by filtereffects, e.g. infraredfilter for
measuring temperature, devices for measuring radioactivity or like in the
example above devices for measuring speed.
If we would turn around the mask of our Cyborg we could see two different
pictures, one that shows the actual reality, another one that shows
virtual reality, a reality that is loaded with additional information.
"Reality is becoming a stereo-reality. Just as with sounds you can
make a difference between somber tones and clear tones, so there will be a
concrete, actual reality and a virtual reality. From now on, humankind
will have to act in two worlds at once. This opens up extraordinary
possibilities, but at the same time we face the test of a tearing-up of
the being, with awkward consequences."
According to Virilio this virtual reality is substituting the actual
reality, just like our Cyborg can see with his electro-eye only virtual
reality, but not actual reality anymore. This concept of substitution is
much more radical than another postmodern concept of virtual reality, the
one of simulation by Jean Baudrillard. As Virilio says:
"I disagree with my friend Baudrillard on the subject of simulation.
To the word simulation, I prefer the one substitution. This is a real
glass, this is not simulation. When I hold a virtual glass with a data
glove, this is no simulation, but substitution. Here lies the big
difference between Baudrillard and myself: I don't believe in
simulationism, I believe that the word is already old-fashioned. As I see
it, new technologies are substituting a virtual reality for an actual
reality. And this is more than a phase: it's a definite change. We are
entering a world where there won't be one but two realities, just like we
have two eyes or hear bass and treble tones, just like we now have
stereoscopy and stereophony: there will be two realities: the actual and
the virtual. Thus there is no simulation, but substitution. Reality has
become symmetrical. The splitting of reality in two parts is a
considerable event which goes far beyond simulation."
5. The Effects of Stereo-Reality
As an effect of this stereo-reality there is a 'fundamental loss of
orientation'. Our Cyborg do not know anymore where he lives, or what the
actual reality is, because the virtual reality has become as real as the
actual. With the rapid development of Virtual Reality equipment this
effect becomes even more radicalized. The user, especially children
playing computergames for hours or even days come to a certain point, some
sort of Canetti-point , where they cannot distinguish between the two
realities anymore. The virtual reality where you are a hero fighting bad
monsters has become as real as the actual surrounding. "What lies
ahead is a disturbance in the perception of what reality is; it is a shock,
a mental concussion." This 'de-realization' Virilio compares often
with the psychiatric term of schizophrenia:
"It's not one, two, hundreds or thousands of people who are being
killed, but the whole reality itself. In a way, everybody is wounded from
the wound of the real. This phenomenon is similar to madness. The mad
person is wounded by his or her distorted relationship to the real.
Imagine that all of a sudden I am convinced that I am Napoleon: I am no
longer Virilio, but Napoleon. My reality is wounded. Virtual reality leads
to a similar de-realization. However, it no longer works only at the scale
of individuals, as in madness, but at the scale of the world."
This sounds very dramatic but as he also states "it is not the end of
the world: it is both sad and happy, nasty and kind. It is a lot of
contradictory things at the same time. And it is complex." With his
analysis of a schizophrenia of the whole world he is not alone in the
academic world. You just have to think of Gilles Deleuze and Felix
Guattari and their two volumed work: 'Capitalism and Schizophrenia' or the
Ethnopsychiatrist Georges Devereux, who states in his book "Normal
und Anormal" that schizophrenia is invented by modern societies and
becomes the cultural prescribed way of mental deviation in these societies.
Because of the virtualization of our world it seems to become even
necessary to behave like an schizophrenic. So in a world of 'de-realization'
schizophrenia becomes more and more a possible survival-strategy than a
disease. At this point must be said that this accident of the real
involves a lot of risk for the whole world.
6. The Accident of Reality
Every accident is something which is invented by human beings, just
like car accidents have not been on earth before the invention of cars,
just like the derailment of trains is invented together with the
railwaysystem and a nuclear melt-down like Chernobyl is invented together
with the discovery of nuclear fission. With the invention of virtual
reality however goes along a new type of accidents concerning reality. So
what Virilio is trying to show is that virtualization is the same than
Einsteins second bomb, the information bomb, which disintegrates the
concept of reality.
"Virtuality will destroy reality. So, it's some kind of accident, but
an accident of a very different nature. The accident is not the accident.
For instance, if I let this glass fall, is it an accident? No
it's the reality of the glass that is accidented, not the glass itself.
The glass is certainly broken and no longer exists, but with a flight
simulator, what is accidented is the reality of the whole world.
Cyberspace is an accident of the real. Virtual reality is the accident of
So far we are living according to Virilio in a stereoreality of actual and
virtual reality, just like our Cyborg sees with two different eyes, but
"one day the virtual world might win over the real world. These new
technologies try to make virtual reality more powerful than actual reality,
which is the true accident. The day when virtual reality becomes more
powerful than reality will be the day of the big accident. Mankind never
experienced such an extraordinary accident."
So the one aspect of this new kind of accident is that the concept of
reality is hurt, but with the invention of information technologies and
the networking of computers there is also another effect which has to be
taken intoaccount: the globalization. Whereas a former accident like a car
accident had a fixed setting in space, an accident of information
technologies is globalized and can therefore happen to the whole world at
the same time.
"After globalization of telecommunications, one should expect a
generalized kind of accident, a never-seen-before accident. It would be
just as astonishing as global time is, this never-seen-before kind of
time. A generalized accident would be something like what Epicurus called
'the accident of accidents' (and Saddam Hussein surely would call the 'mother
of all accidents'-trans.). The stock-market collapse is merely a slight
prefiguration of it. Nobody has seen this generalized accident yet. But
then watch out as you hear talk about the 'financial bubble' in the
economy: a very significant metaphor is used here, and it conjures up
visions of some kind of cloud, reminding us of other clouds just as
frightening as those of Chernobyl..."
I do not want to be here to apocalyptic but nevertheless I want to make a
suggestion when and what this accident could be. There is a general bug in
computer-software called the Millennium bug or Double-zero-bug, which
basically means that a lot of computersoftware nowadays in use can not
handle the data-shift from 31.12.1999 to 01.01.2000. The problem is that
most computer-software only deals with two numbers of the year, so a
computer just simply do not know whether the year 00 is year 2000 or 1900
or whatever. This may not sound very dramatic in the beginning, but this
little bug can have disastrous effects. "New borns which are supposed
by offices to be already pensioners; interests which you have to pay for
credits of a hundred years; bursted forward transactions which foul up the
stock exchange. Especially for credit and insurance institutes, where most
of the calculation is made by the date, it is very important to deal with
the problem." You can think of endless lots of other problems which
are caused by this bug. A small forecast can already be made by a
different case in the past. In 1995 German Telecom installed new
calculation software on their computers which could not handle 01.01.96 as
a national celebration day and therefore calculated the prices of
phonecalls wrong. This little bug on just one day of the year in one
software of one company in one country caused an incredible lot of
confusion and 01.01.96 was supposed to be the most expensive day in the
history of German telecommunication. At 01.01.2000 there will be hundreds
and thousands of problems like this worldwide. The problem is that all
sourcecodes of programs containing dates have to be changed by hand from
two to four figures and a lot of companies and offices are not aware of
the problem so far. Costs for this change are hard to give, but experts
say it will cost around one trillion German Marks worldwide, if the change
of the software can be done until the definite deadline at all. The risks
and expenses of not changing the software just cannot be calculated.
Nevertheless one thing is sure, a lot of people have a sentence of Jean
Baudrillard 'The year 2000 will never arrive' as a hope in their lives,
afraid of the chaos and confusion the shift of millennia will provoke.
7. Paul Virilio as Prophet of the Apocalypse
I have collected some attributes of Paul Virilio in this essay. So I
look at him as French, Academic, Prof. of Architecture, historian of war
and cinema, urbanist and city planner, author of many books, philosopher
of perception, as originer of Dromology, as Christian who believes in God,
as a media-theorist and criticist of technology, as interested in arts,
postmodernist and friend of many other postmodernists like Baudrillard and
Deleuze and as someone who has a formal scientific education. He also
claims: "I remain a realist."
Nevertheless he is often seen as pessimistic thinker of the apocalypse.
Carlos Oliviera asking him: "I do get the impression that you have
moved from a description of the consequences of acceleration in the 70s
and 80s into a for more radical and morally loaded critique of those same
phenomena in the 90s." He just answers: "This is because we are
witnessing a radical break; it is not my thinking that has become radical,
the situation itself has radicalized beyond measure. [..] I am not at all
of an apocalyptic mind, I merely perform a critique of the technique."
Instead of emotionalizing he is performing his critique with an 'enormous
curiosity'. So one can find in interviews quite often statements like:
"I am not scared, just interested." "I realize that many
people claim that I am apocalyptic, negative, pessimistic. But all of that
is out of date - it doesn't rise to the heights of the situation!" So
he just feels "'An enormous curiosity.' I feel the same way with
regard to technology, which I consider in some respects to be comparable
to death. 'An enormous curiosity' - something far from negative." So
maybe Agentur Bilwet are not too wrong with their description of Virilio
as a prophet or futurologist:
"Everything he warns of, he at the same time claims as indispensable.
The 'on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-thinking bursts the frontiers in
both directions and opens therefore a field of unexpected possibilities of
thinking. While Virilio laments the disappearing as a catastrophy for
politics and society, he praises it at the same time as a principle of
cognition and aesthetic method.[..] To read Virilio means to see what is
invisible, to interpretate, what has never been written: the emptiness,
the spaces in between, the black between the pictures. Virilio is the
thinker of absence, of disappearing, of negativity and of the future. Only
if you rediscover the invisible which is covered by the visible you can
see the world. Virilio has the talent of a clairvoyant in the age of
And that he is not a bad clairvoyant one can see while looking at his
"With operation desert storm came the big turn for Paul Virilio.
Already earlier small prophecies of him became true. His conclusion, that
every state which give way the inherent urge of total control, ends up to
eradicate its own population, he saw to become true in Pol Pot's Cambodia.
But only in the beginning of the nineties he had to state that his
military-technological analysis become true globally. A couple of years
before he had recognized because of the French intervention in Chad, that
the future's world war can only happen in the desert. When the
spy-satellites started to manoeuvre over the Iraq and the weapons were
feed with the new coordinates, he knew that it will start again."
So Paul Virilio can also be seen as a futurologist or as so far successful
prophet and maybe this makes his apocalyptic analysis even more
frightening. I do not want to leave here the field of science, I just want
to note that in the metier of prophets he is not the only one who believes
in a big catastrophy in the next couple of years. Nostradamus a
clairvoyant of the 16.th Century for example claims a major change in the
world, which he describes up to something like the tilt of the axle of the
earth for the time around 1998 or 1999.
Looking at prophets as futurologists or some sort of scientists, one can
analyze their methodology.
Nostradamus was supposed to use three sources where he got his knowledge
from: "natural talent, occult knowledge and astrology."
"I sit at nocturnal secret studies
I am alone, took place on the iron tripod.
The tiny flame rises out of the loneliness.
It let spring up what you should not believe in vain.
Nostradamus used the old technology of clairvoyance of the oracle of
Delphi. "Nostradamus sat with his iron tripod in a big pot of water.
He sprinkled chemical substances into the water and inhaled the rising
Of course none of these technologies would be accepted as scientific
nowadays, even though Paul Feyerabend claimed: 'Against method' and 'Anything
But what enables Paul Virilio to make his predictions in postmodernity?
As we have seen his methodology is Dromology, the science of speed.
Dromology can be seen as an unilinear theory of the evolution of speed.
That means according to Virilio basically everything is getting faster,
everything is accelerating. This acceleration means to him that also
accidents are getting worse. He projects this acceleration into the future
in claiming for example that we will come to another step of
speedrevolution. So what he does is looking through his electroglasses and
watching the world by the help of a speedmeter. Maybe this is the
postmodern or Cyborg equivalent of starring into water or in a glassy
ball. In the field he is doing his research and predictions he is quite
successful. I would describe this field mainly as sociology of technology.
Whether other predictions he made about sex and Cybersex for example will
become true is mainly a question of how strong society is connected to the
evolution of technology. Another questions unanswered are whether this
unilinear concept of history is true or whether there are not also moments
of negative acceleration, which means that society is getting slower again?
8. Rather 'The End' than 'A Conclusion'
I do not want to discredit Virilio's scientific method by comparing him
with prophets. In contrary I must admit that Paul Virilio analysis and
predictions have a strong fascination on me. Maybe just because he is one
of the few writers who dare to make predictions, but my impression is that
they are getting more. Just think of Science Fiction writers,
futurologists like Alvin Toffler or the Feminist Donna Harraway noting in
her famous 'A Cyborg Manifesto', that "the boundary between science
fiction and social reality is an optical illusion." Nevertheless one
question for me is unanswered and is probably worth another essay. What
makes these predictions become true: Is it the fact that somebody thought
it before and wrote it down (some sort of selffulfilling prophecies) or
would they also happen if nobody would take care of them in presence? So
how strong is the influence of Science Fiction on our contemporary world?
Or what is the role of Science Fiction: a pool of thoughts?
Nevertheless there must be some critique of Paul Virilio. On the one hand
I already mentioned in chapter 3 that his physical basis of methodology (mostly
Einstein) is on the one hand not unquestionable and eroding on the other
hand not adepted and used very exactly by him. But these problems can
probably be abolished within his own theory.
The strongest critique or doubts I can probably perform is the one of
subjectivity and religious belief in his writing. Being Christian and
believing in an absolute God as he often states, it will be definitely
interesting to make some sort of a psychoanalytic analysis of his writing.
Does he use the number three in his theory so often because of Christian
trinity? Does he believe in the absoluteness of lightspeed because he also
believes in the unity of a Christian God? Also his inclination to write
like a prophet often reminds of the grand Christian prophets like Isaiah
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pagenumbering by itself so the pagenumbers given in the text can only be
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Die Motorisierung der Kunst: Interview, 1994. WWW: http://www.ctheory.com/a30-cyberspace_alarm.html
Dromologies: Paul Virilio:Speed, Cinema, and the End of The Political
State, by Shawn Wilbur 1994. WWW: http:
Hysterizing the Millenium: Jean Baudrillard. WWW: http://www.ctheory.com/a-hysterizing_the.html
Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!: Paul Virilio, 11.08.95. WWW: http://www.ctheory.com/a30-cyberspace_alarm.html
The Silence of the Lambs: Paul Virilio in Conversation, by Carlos Oliviera.