ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)

Book Review: To Exclude Ourselves From The World.

Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn.  Translated by Mike Taormina. New York: Semiotext(e), 2002.

Reviewed by Dr. Pramod K. Nayar
(Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India).
 

            Paul Virilio, in conversation with Sylvere Lotringer, extends his thinking on speed, war, the city and apocalypse in this slim volume. While there are sections here on Virilio’s “other” work, in architecture – specifically the one on “oblique function” – these are not the most fascinating sections of Crepuscular Dawn. Yet there is an architecture of war that captivates Virilio, and the readers of his work. Virilio begins by talking about war bunkers. The bunker is, for Virilio, the symbol of modern times (what he calls “the architectural figures for the twentieth century",1 at once the space of concentration and elimination. Here people could be put to death or “allowed” to starve to death. Virilio’s point is deceptively simple: the thickness of the bunker’s concrete wall – five feet thick, at its thinnest! – “translates” the frightening power of modern weaponry. Thus, the bunker does not represent safety – it represents suffocation, asphyxiation, and the enormity of total destruction.

            For Virilio, “urban revolutions” such as city riots in Europe and the USA suggest the increasing unlivability of cities. It marks the desocialization of the city. The evacuation of cities is an extraordinary example of how urban revolutions are basically reorganizations – through claims and counter-claims – of space. The city must be studied, as Virilio had pointed out earlier in his work on dromology, as embodying the political economy of speed and not just the political economy of capital. This is also about military decisions – the time needed to launch missile strikes, deterrence, evacuation and such. Virilio argues that deterrence is now everywhere. With the globalization of liberalism we have the deterrence of politics itself.

            Another effect of the globalization of the world is the “implosion” of humanity. With telecommunications and supersonic transportation, people will be “trapped”, asphyxiated by the “smallness” of the world. There are now two spaces: the actual space of the city and the virtual space of tele-action, tele-sexuality, tele-surgery and tele-senses. This is what Virilio describes as “cloning”: tele-portation across distances, tele-action at a distance, reproduced. The architecture of globalization is about such a “temporal compression” – the instantaneity of time, and time’s synchronization. Virilio, ever alert to the unevenness of political economy, of the unjust “evenness” (“free trade”) of a so-called global economy, writes: “you can’t understand anything about the WTO … the frantic will to free up trade, without understanding the will – after the standardization of the industrial period – to enter the reign of synchronization in the post-industrial period”.2 Standardization and synchronization become the twin sides of modern architecture’s space-time. Virilio argues that these two modes operate on two fronts: foreclosure and exclusion, what he calls “the syndrome of confinement”.3 Escape velocity which enables us to escape gravity is, in Virilio’s reading, symptomatic of the irony of contemporary life itself. We are building cities and speeds with the idea of leaving the planet behind. As the planet become uninhabitable, we need more powerful technologies and speeds that will enable us to leave – and fast. Interactivity at high-speeds – the dream that drives the telecommunications revolution – is actually the evidence of foreclosure. We have foreclosed the world, rendered it too small, as escape velocities facilitate escape from our habitats, to exclude ourselves from the world. This opens up, as Virilio suggests later in the work, a whole new prospect for ecology: “the conquest of space is the decorporealization of the body, the earth’s body and the human body, the world proper and the body proper”.4    

            Virilio sees genetic engineering as an extension of the information revolution. Bodies, behaviour, the mind are all reduced to code, information codes that can be fed into computers and retrieved at will. Virilio suggest that this means, in effect, an “industrializing [of] the living organism itself”.5 In (the) future evolution will be about information selection from the database that constitutes the human. The augmentation of humanity – selecting the best form of humanity – is about identifying the program that makes the (post)human.6 Virilio argues that genetic engineering has made biology a teratology: the science of monsters, where experimentation on humans become projects – the mutation of human kind – that were once Nazi projects, but have been appropriated by the American and European scientists. Virilio suggests that such a teratology is not about experiments on humans, but human-experiments: “the freedom of expression to produce human beings, to create them, no longer to procreate them”.7

            The information and communications revolution has produced its own cybernetic bomb (witness the Melissa virus, the “I Love You” virus and numerous others), the cybernetic accident. Electronic jamming and instant communication – not to mention live coverage of events from “embedded” journalists – is central to contemporary war. Virilio argues that war today has nothing to do with weaponry, in fact the Gulf War marks the “disqualification of military movement”.8 Virilio’s warning is salutary: “the war of knowledge – the fact of transforming knowledge into a war-machine by virtue of the speed of estimation, reaction and calculation, is a phenomenon that destroys science”.9 The genetic bomb, the cyberbomb and the atom bomb are preparing the world for a massive accident, what Virilio calls a “universal” or “total” accident.10 The accident itself is a new form of warfare.11 And the accident has to be a mass accident – like Chernobyl, like 9/11 – with the mass media watching it, recording it…     

            Virilio’s work in Crepuscular Dawn is about the twilight of Western modernity, of Western science (are the two distinct?), and the dawn of a terrifying future of accidents and monsters. Combining insights from philosophy, political theory, media theory and the philosophy of science, Virilio makes a strong case for the imminent end of humanity (rather than a post-humanity). War – always his central concern – has become a war without a place. It is everywhere, it is instant, and it will get you. Virilio emphasizes the fact that everything in contemporary science and technology is about preparing for war. 

            As an astute reader of politics, Virilio notes how terrorism and suicide attacks have been transformed, mutated, by Western media into Islamic terrorists. He notes a historical fact: the person who influenced Palestinian terrorists and suicide bombers was Fusako Shigenobu, a Japanese  woman who went to the Middle East in 1969. Virilio writes: the suicidal terrorist attack has nothing to do with Islam or Christianity. When people speak of the ‘martyrs’, it is their way of Islamicizing the Japanese suicide attack”.12 It is this media war, the war of technology itself that triggers “accidents” such as the Unabomber or 9/11, and which are then forced into binaries of heroes/villains, victims/perpetrators, innocent/evil.

            Virilio’s comments about WTO, globalization and free trade proceed from an astute analysis of political economy, but an analysis informed by the fear of foreclosure. It is the necessary fear of media-driven unreality the various forms of tele-culture the manipulation of opinion and the very real terror of arrests, suspicions, deportation-transportation and death. Here Virilio echoes what Jean Baudrillard said in his 2002 Der Speigel interview:

Is it not a paradox that the West uses as a weapon against dissenters the following motto: Either you share our values or…? A democracy asserted with threats and blackmail only sabotages itself. It no longer represents the autonomous decision for freedom, but rather becomes a global imperative.13

 

It precisely the drive for escape, for freedom that has foreclosed the world, as Virilio suggests throughout his work.

            Speaking of urban revolutions and cityscapes, Virilio’s comments of the “space of war” are fascinating. However, he has nothing to say about one of the most important transformations in the urban space of Western cities. This is the re-creation of the contemporary European city as the “city of refuge” – the space of refuge for the world’s oppressed and the poor. The city of refuge is the space for asylum for the deported, the displaced  and the stateless. What of such cities? Jacques Derrida in his short essay on such cities argues for a new cosmo-politics, with an unconditional Law of hospitality, “offered a priori to every other, to all newcomers, whoever they may be”.14 And in an earlier work he argues for the absolute sovereignty over a space for one to offer such a hospitality.15 In such a case of the deliberate, conscious creation of a city of refuge, what of the cityspace? Are these cities foreclosed to certain kinds of “others”? Is there an escape velocity for refugees? And what is the condition of absolute sovereignty that Derrida talks about? Virilio’s (and Baudrillard’s) warnings about absolutism and totalitarianism have, at best, an uncomfortable relationship with sovereignty.

            For a city to be a city of refuge, to offer hospitality, it is required that the host be sovereign. And yet, sovereignty implies absolute control and total power – a power that is driven by political economy which is one-sided, uneven and unjust. What is the possibility of a new cosmo-politics in such conditions? It would be fascinating to locate Virilio’s reading of the city alongside Derrida (himself reading such cities of refuge via Arendt and Kant) on hospitality and sovereignty. Does the whole thing embody a “politics of the very worst”, as Virilio once put it? Where does absolutism become benign and hospitable? It is, I think, a question worth exploring in times of terror and anxiety. The politics of escape velocity that Virilio is concerned with here must stay away from the “millennial mysticism” that Mark Dery once detected in techno-transcendentalist fantasies of cyberpunk and techno-driven subcultures (and what he aptly termed a “theology of the ejector seat”.16 Virilio’s work warns us against this mysticism that elides and occludes very real suffering and danger, the impossibility of an ethics of the interpersonal, face-to-face encounter in the world of “tele-culture”. It is indeed an important work, despite, as I pointed out earlier, the rather inexplicable omission of one of the most significant transformations of the urban landscape in Western cities. 
 


Endnotes

1 Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn.  Translated by Mike Taormina. New York: Semiotext(e), 2002:24.

2 Ibid.:74.

3 Ibid.:75.

4 Ibid.:119.

5 Ibid.:103.

6 Ibid.:105.

7 Ibid.:117.

8 Ibid.:138.

9 Ibid.:142.

10 Ibid.:146.

11 Ibid.:154.

12 Ibid.:178.

13 Jean Baudrillard. “This is the Fourth World War”. The Der Spiegel Interview With Jean Baudrillard. Interview Translated by Dr. Samir Gandesha with an introduction by Gary Genosko. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 1, Number 1 (January 2004). http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/spiegel.htm

14 Jacques Derrida. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Translated by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. London and New York: Routledge, 2001:22 (emphasis in original).

15 Jacques Derrida. Of Hospitality. Translated by Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

 

16 Mark Dery. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996:9.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

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