ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 11, Number 3 (August, 2014)


Concepts and Catastrophes: Jean Baudrillard’s Paul Virilio

Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada)

I. Introduction
On the whole Baudrillard was quite fond of Virilio’s originality and his conceptual contribution to contemporary theoretical discourse. For example, in Fatal Strategies ([1983] 1990: 41) he speaks positively to Virilio’s notion of “pure war” which Baudrillard understands “to be a kind of ecstasy of unreal war, contingent and present everywhere”. The liquidity of a concept like “pure” war appealed to Baudrillard’s poetic and fluid style of writing and thought. Elsewhere he calls it “the ecstasy of unreal war, potential and omnipresent” (Cool Memories I ([1987] 1990: 30).

Baudrillard’s difficulty with Virilio was with the level abstractness (Baudrillard Live, 1993: 91) but on the whole his take on Virilio was quite positive. We can say that these thinkers possessed a fondness for similar concepts but journeyed to very different destinations using similar conceptual vehicles. So, who is Jean Baudrillard’s Paul Virilio and why the different destinations?

II. Disappearance
Virilio appears twenty-five times in Baudrillard’s oeuvre in fifteen different books from 1979 to 2000 – that is, from Seduction to the Singular Objects of Architecture. The first reference to Virilio (in his book Seduction) sees Baudrillard link his major concept [seduction] to one of Virilio’s. He writes: [early on in a chapter called “The Effigy of the Seductress”]: “Here lies her secret: in the flickering of a presence. She is never where one expects her, and never where one wants her. Seduction supposes, Virilio would say, an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’” (Seduction, 1979: 85). And Baudrillard leaves it at that – the mere mention of Virilio and his concept, and quickly moves on in his discussion of the seductress, never mentioning Virilio again in the book. Whatever discussion we may have over the correctness or meaning of this reference what we do have is Baudrillard’s recognition, fairly early on, that there is a thinker named Virilio who has so impressed him that he not only draws on one of his key early concepts, but is willing to cite him (Baudrillard was by this time becoming sparing in his references), to mention his name, in relation to a concept then at the heart of his own world view [seduction].

Baudrillard enjoyed the game of writing. We do not get a paragraph or more lecture on Virilio, we get only an allusive reference, he leaves whatever “aesthetics of disappearance” might mean to the reader… assuming that we can see the seductress’s “flickering presence” as one of its manifestations – no discussion, no specific reference to a book, no definitions, pure allusion, pure Baudrillard (Indeed – It is an invitation to Baudrillard’s readers to read Virilio if they would like to know more). Crucially, the reference to Virilio is unnecessary, no one would have demanded it, but that he makes it tells us something of his early respect for Virilio. [There is a very good entry in the Virilio Dictionary (by Eric Wilson from Melbourne) of “the aesthetics of disappearance” (see Armitage, 2013: 26-28)].

Two years later in Simulation and Simulacra ([1981] 1984) Virilio’s concept remerges. Here Baudrillard describes advertising as “…an uninterrupted thread of signs, like ticker-tape – each isolated in its inertia. Disaffected but saturated, desensitized but ready to crack. It is in such a universe that what Virilio calls the aesthetic of disappearance gathers strength, that the following begin to appear: fractal objects, fractal forms, fault zones that follow saturation, and thus a process of massive rejection, of the abreaction or stupor of a society purely transparent to itself” (91). And from here he takes us into a discussion of Las Vegas “the absolute advertising city” (Ibid.). Again, Virilio’s concept is brought in but not discussed in Virilio’s own terms but in Baudrillard’s. What Baudrillard is doing is using a concept born out of Virilio to think his own thoughts. As in the earlier reference Baudrillard, knowing full well he isn’t using the term as Virilio would, still references him. Virilio’s writing had affected Baudrillard.

As for “the aesthetics of disappearance” Baudrillard refers to it five years later in America ([1986] 1988: 5). It is when Baudrillard tells his reader that he came “in search of astral America [sidereal America], not social or cultural America. Baudrillard says he is after “the absolute freedom of the freeways… the America of desert speed”. He says he is “seeking the finished form of the future catastrophe” …to understand it he says “you have to take to the road, to that travelling, which achieves what Virilio calls the aesthetics of disappearance”. Baudrillard seeks this in the desert, that “ecstatic critique of culture, an ecstatic form of disappearance”. Again, Virilio’s term is referenced but the content is all Baudrillard. So, even though he does not use the concept as Virilio does, again, a third time, he points to how the very words from the concept have enhanced his own thinking – this time at a crucial (brilliant) moment in his assessment of America.

In Fatal Strategies ([1983] 1990) Baudrillard quotes Rilke: “What happens is so far ahead of our thoughts, our intentions, that we can never catch up to it or ever come to know it” (161). He says that Rilke has here defined fate – “the precession of effects over their very causes”. In this manner all things happen before they happen… reasons come after. This is also, he adds, “what prevents the real from ever occurring, for the real is only the coincidence in time of an event and a causal sequence” (Ibid). This is followed by a discussion of speed “the temptation for things and people to go faster than their cause, to thereby catch up to their beginning and annul it. As such, it is a “vertiginous mode of disappearance” (Paul Virilio)” [now Baudrillard has renamed Virilio’s concept] – but does this only once in his writing]. He adds that writing is another “going faster than the conceptual connections – this is the secret of writing”. This is the true appeal of Virilio – he has supplied a concept that sits well alongside Baudrillard’s own conception of writing. Baudrillard’s writing took place at great speed – where things appear and disappear rapidly – it is the essence of the Baudrillardian poetic (and the annoying [to some] passing over of references). As he put it: “There is nothing worse than this obligation to do research, to seek out references and documentation” (Baudrillard. Cool Memories, 1990:115).Writing for Baudrillard is the very praxis, literaly of an “aesthetics of disappearance” – not necessarily Virilio’s meaning though.

In order to assess what Baudrillard eventually makes of Virilio’s ‘aesthetics of disappearane’ we have a passage from The Singular Objects of Architecture ([2000] 2002a). Baudrillard says to Jean Nouvel [the book is a dialogue between Baudrillard and the Pritzker Prize Laureaute]:

…we need to be clear about what we mean by the aesthetics of disappearance. It is true that there are a thousand of ways to disappear, but we can at least compare the kind of disappearance that results in extermination – which is one of the ideas underlying Paul Virilio’s work – and the ways things disappear in a ‘network’, which affects all of us and could be considered a kind of sublimation. The disappearance I’m talking about, which results in the concept of worthlessness or nothingness… means that one form disappears into another. It’s a kind of metamorphosis: appearance-disappearance (29).

Baudrillard adds that “the mechanism is completely different… It’s not the same as disappearing within a network, where everyone becomes the clone or metastasis of something else; it’s a chain of interlinked forms, into which we disappear, where everything implies its own disappearance” (Ibid.). Here we have, finally, the key distinction between Virilio and Baudrillard on disappearance (from Baudrillard’s point of view – just over two decades after he first entertained the concept with reference to Virilio). Here we see that Baudrillard’s concern is for disappearance and he is, in his own way, repeatedly crediting Virilio for embedding this concept in his mind despite the fact that he takes it somewhere else. From the early 1980s on, from his first encounters with Virilio that we know of, Baudrillard himself sought the horizon of disappearance… which lies just beyond the horizon of appearances [which are what prevents us from ever knowing the real (the real is always hidden just beneath appearances – we always arrive late to the real, after it has been veiled)].

So, for me, it is not unreasonable to say that Virilio stimulated a significant aspect of Baudrillard’s intellectual advanceat this time by providing him with an important concept which he then developed in a unique way as his own world view and understanding of theory and modernity continued to evolve. Indeed, for Baudrillard, the “disappearance” we are discussing may have resulted from modernity overshooting its own goals and “propelling us well beyond our goal… and now the questions are about lost objects” (30). It is in this context that he utters the often quoted line: “…I’m no longer modern” (Ibid.).

For Baudrillard disappearance is something quite different than it is for Virilio. Objects disappear into systems, production disappears into its mirror, the real into the simulacrum; the other disappears into its double, the majorities into their silence; evil disappears into transparency, seduction into the orgy; crime disappears into perfection, memory into communication; illusion disappears into its end, and finally, the disappearance of the illusionist himself (without knowing how) (Cool Memories IV, [2000] 2003: 12).

III. Accident versus Catastrophe
Late in his book length interview with Sylvere Lotringer (Forget Baudrillard, 1987) Baudrillard discusses acceleration and how it permits another kind of disappearance effect [here he refers to the fading of May ‘68]. With acceleration another order is reached – the kind of which that cannot be reached in any other way. “I therefore agree with Paul Virilio” he adds, “on the idea of theory going to extremes” (108). Lotringer then notes how, for Virilio, there are extremes at work in the world today such as the “military class swallowing up civilian society before disappearing itself in a suicidal race” (108-09). Baudrillard replies that “Virilio’s calculation is to push the military to a kind of extreme absolute of power which can only ultimately cause its own downfall, place it before the judgement of God and absorb it into the society it destroys” (109). He adds, approvingly, that Virilio’s calculation is extreme and is carried out like an obsession (109). While he says he himself is not interested in military hardware it is “the form of Virilio’s idea that strikes him. Where Virilio differs from Baudrillard (according to Baudrillard) is in his “interest in strategic vicissitudes” – Baudrillard adds “I don’t have the patience”.

In The Transparency of Evil ([1990]1993) Baudrillard also refers to Virilio’s provocative notion that a computer virus that wrought havoc for five hours in the American “scientific and military computer network may have been just a test (as Paul Virilio has suggested) – an experiment carried out by American military intelligence itself. But Baudrillard quickly adds that even a test can become a killer virus, that “no one can control chain reactions of this kind”… there is no limit to the hyperbole of hypotheses” (40-41). This is an important qualification for Baudrillard who is at all times reluctant to even approach conspiracy theories with quite the fervor of Virilio and some of his followers (see also Niemeyer’s interview with Baudrillard in this issue). Baudrillard thus admires Virilio’s work, his conceptual contributions, and his obsessiveness, yet prefers, in his own writing, to privilege uncertainty in a way that both frightens and motivates Virilio as in his work on “the accident”. Here a key difference between Baudrillard and Virilio becomes evident. In Screened Out ([2000] 2002b), Baudrillard has been discussing the future arguing that it is not assured in real time [the time of the networks]. He says that it is appropriate at this point to discuss “Paul Virilio’s version of the ‘final accident’, the ‘Accident to end all accidents’… to dream of the ‘final accident’ is to succumb to the illusion of the end. It is to forget that virtuality is itself virtual and that, by definition, its definitive advent, its apocalypse, cannot take place on the force of reality”. There will be no apocalypse of the virtual and of real time precisely because real time abolishes linear time and duration, and thereby the dimension in which they might develop to their extreme limits (110). Here we find a key difference between Baudrillard and Virilio – he cannot dream of an apocalypse in the future: “The radical break with the real which the virtual creates, the black-out or collapse of time which real time brings about, happily preserve us from the ultimate extermination. The virtual system [and here Baudrillard returns to some of his own core thought on systems], like any other, is doomed, as it expands, to destroy its own conditions of possibility. There will be no virtual apocalypse for Baudrillard – only “an apocalypse of the virtual” (110). Here Baudrillard is more given to extremes than Virilio in his own extreme manner.

Baudrillard’s theoretical universe expands out past where Virilio’s ends and it is in these interstellar regions where Baudrillard leaves the Left behind (and it rebuffed him for it) – something Virilio’s thought has largely avoided as it has also originated from one who retains, in his own manner, a Christian, a Catholic, and a collectivist. Baudrillard notes, quite rightly, that otherwise Virilio’s “analysis of the cyber-world is remarkable and very fine (Paroxysm [1997] 1998: 22). Where Baudrillard and Virilio differ most is in their response to the threat Virilio sees everywhere in our contemporary and the near future. In an interview with Lotringer (“I Stopped Living” in Baudrillard Live, 1993) Baudrillard says, against Virilio: “Panic doesn’t have to be unhappy, I see it as ecstasy. …This process of effects in the absence of causes is a form of extraordinary expansion. The ‘speed’ that Virilio talks about is an effect of panic with respect to movement – “a giddiness effect” (104).

I think the key difference between Virilio’s world view and Baudrillard’s can be summed up in Baudrillard’s strategy of indifference. Baudrillard’s view of the future of our present systems is one of two possibilities – a complete and total crash, or a frightening version of systemic perfection triumphing over human subjectivity. Virilio maintains a kind of faith in our ability to recapture control of the systems yet is, at the same time, fearful of the integral accident. It is not going too far to say that for Baudrillard the catastrophe has already taken place – the catastrophe is us: ‘network man’ – we are now all already inside the network “you’re simply part of the chain and you move from one terminal to another; you’re ‘transported’, in a way, but you’re not necessarily happy” (The Singular Objects of Architecture ([2000] 2002a: 30). It may well also be the case that both Virilio and Baudrillard see us as consumed by what will become the end game… a catastrophe in slow motion leading to the integral accident in Virilio’s case or a catastrophe in slow motion leading us hopefully, to our last chance in a total systemic crash in Baudrillard’s future. Some scenario approaching the world we see in Mad Max… Road Warrior… this is Baudrillard’s hope for our better future. The other future, the one in which we are dead, is the continuation of the current path to systemic perfection.

It is also worth noting that as we move beyond the middle of the 1990s many  of Baudrillard’s references are to novelists and he did consume many novels in the final two decades of his life. He announces this in a way that distances himself somewhat from theory, and specifically from Virilio, in the final paragraphs of the Illusion of the End ([1992] 1994). Here Baudrillard is discussing his preference for a poetic and ironic analysis of events where a privileged status is accorded to non-linearity, reversibility, all of that which is not part of a modern view of something unfolding or evolving (121). “Perhaps, deep down… everything moves in loops, tropes, inversions of meaning, except in numerical and artificial languages which, for that very reason no longer are languages” (Ibid.). Then he wonders if we could transpose language games onto social and historical phenomena “anagrams, acrostics, spoonerisms, rhyme, strophe, and catastrophe?” He is not only interested in the major forms of metonymy and metaphor, “but the instant, puerile, formalistic games, the heteroclite tropes which are the delight of the vulgar imagination? … the palindrome, that poetic, rigorous form of palinode, could serve as grille de lecture” and he adds: “might it not perhaps be necessary to replace Virilio’s dromology with a palindromology?” Such he argues would be the poetic alternative to the disenchanted confusion, the chaotic profusion of contemporary events (Ibid.). Interestingly, it is with this reference to Virilio, in the context of his preference for poetry and irony (see Coulter, 2012) that Baudrillard sets the course for the remainder of the bulk of his writing and thought – his own facing up to the radical illusion of the world. This is the moment he has been avoiding and now finds enveloping him. It is the moment when Baudrillard was overtaken by fiction and accepts that theory can be, and always is, pure fiction. We have, by this point, travelled some distance from the practicalities and efforts to make sense that is Virilio’s thought and writing. Prior to this, well into the middle of the 1980s, Baudrillard had maintained that “it is impossible to think that theory can be nothing more than fiction” (Forget Baudrillard, 1987: 108).

Baudrillard also understands that writing is something very different for he and Virilio. For Virilio writing is “a resistance, a defence of the old world and slowness” whereas for Baudrillard it is “a form of singularity, a thing which doesn’t conform… the invention of another antagonistic world” (Paroxysm [1997] 1998: 31-32). This difference also accords well with Baudrillard’s turn to theory as fiction.

I’d not want to live in a world without Paul Virilio. I’ve read over 20 of his books and enjoyed the bulk of them very much. He is a conceptual fountain for theory. Yet, at the end of the day, where the paths diverge, I’ll stick with Baudrillard. Virilio is a radical conceptualizer but he falls short of Baudrillard’s constant radical challenge to the real. Virilio’s world view is somewhat constrained in relation to that of Baudrillard because like most social theorists, he was a bit of a sucker for the real. There is no worse mistake than to take the real for the real (Illusion of the End [1992] 1994: 61). Virilio is enchanted by the real, he stretches it, pulls it, makes it perform with strange faces – but ultimately believes we can master it. Any chance we may have had to do this was long past before Baudrillard pointed it out to us.

In the meantime hope prevails – hope that the current globalizing system will destroy itself before attaining perfection and the virtual death of us all in its programs (digital and otherwise).

Gerry Coulter is founding editor of IJBS. He is author of two books on Baudrillard: 1) Jean Baudrillard -- From the Ocean to the Desert: The Poetics of Radicality (2012) and 2) Art After The Avant-Garde: Baudrillard's Challenge (2014) Both with Intertheory Press.



John Armitage (2013, editor). The Virilio Dictionary. Edinburgh University Press.

Jean Baudrillard ([1979] 1990). Seduction, Montreal: New World Perspectives, Translated by Brian Singer.

Jean Baudrillard ([1981] 1994). Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser.

Jean Baudrillard ([1983] 1990). Fatal Strategies: Revenge of the Crystal, New York: Semiotext(e)/ Pluto Press, translator unknown.

Jean Baudrillard ([1986] 1988). America, New York: Verso, translated  by Chris Turner.

Jean Baudrillard ([1987] 1990). Cool Memories I, 1980-1985, New York: Verso, translated by Chris Turner.

Jean Baudrillard (1987). Forget Baudrillard: An Interview With Sylvere Lotringer, (translated by Phil Beitchmann, Lee Hildreth and Mark Polizzotti),  pp. 55-135 of Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard, New York: Semiotexte.

Jean Baudrillard ([1990] 1993). The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, New York: Verso, translated by Chris Turner.

Jean Baudrillard (1993). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (1982-1993), edited by Mike Gane, London: Routledge.

Jean Baudrillard ([1997] 1998). Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit, New York: Verso, translated by Chris Turner.

Jean Baudrillard ([2000] 2002a). The Singular Objects of Architecture (with Jean Nouvel). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Translated by Robert Bononno.

Jean Baudrillard ([2000] 2002b). Screened Out, New York: Verso, translated by Chris Turner.

Gerry Coulter (2012). Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert – The Poetics of Radicality. Skyland, North Carolina: Intertheory Press.

Gerry Coulter (2014). Art After The Avant-Garde: Baudrillard’s Challenge. Skyland, North Carolina: Intertheory Press.