Cyberwar, God And Television: Interview with Paul Virilio


Beneath Mirabeau bridge flows the Seine
And our love
Must I remember
Joy followed always after rain

Let night come sound the hour
Time draws in I remain

Extract from Mirabeau Bridge by Guillaume Apollinaire, quoted by Paul Virilio at the beginning of the interview.

Louise Wilson: First of all, I'd like to say that I approach your work as a visual artist.

Paul Virilio: But, 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.

CTHEORY: In the text The Museum of Accidents, you write about the problem of positivism facing a museology of science, and the need for "the science of an anti-science museum".

Virilio: In The Museum of Accidents, I say at the end of the article that television is the actual museum. In the beginning, I say: a museum of accidents is needed, and the reader imagines a building with accidents inside. But at the end, I say: no, this museum already exists, it's television.

This is more than a metaphor: the cinema was certainly an art, but television can't be, because it is the museum of accidents. In other words, its art is to be the site where all accidents happen. But that's its only art.

CTHEORY: So in talking about the simulation industry and its function to "expose the accident in order not to be exposed to it", could you say more about that in its relationship to television?

Virilio: One exposes the accident in order not to be exposed to the accident. It's an inversion. There is a French expression that says: to be exposed to an accident, to cross a street without looking at the cars means exposing oneself to be run over. This is more than a play with words, it's fundamental. For instance, when a painter exhibits his work, one says: he exposes his work. Similarly, when we cross the street, we expose ourselves to a car accident.

And television exposes the world to the accident. The world is exposed to accidents through television. The editor of the New York Times was recently interviewed in Le Nouvel Observateur, and he said something that I really agree with: television is a media of crisis, which means that television is a media of accidents. Television can only destroy. In this respect, and even though he was a friend of mine, I believe that McLuhan was completely wrong (in his idyllic view of television).

CTHEORY: But surely the commodification of the accident happened before television through simulation?

Virilio: To start with, the simulator is an object in itself, which is different from televison and leads to cyberspace. The US Air Force flight simulator - the first sophisticated simulators were created by the US Air Force - has been used in order to save gas on real flights by training pilots on the ground. Thus there is a cyberspace vision: one doesn't fly in real space, one creates a poor cyberspace, with headphones, is a different logic. In a way, the simulator is closer to cyberspace than televison. It creates a different world. So, of course, the simulator quickly became a simulator of accidents, but not only that: it started simulating actual flight hours, and these hours have been counted as real hours to evaluate the experience of pilots. Simulated flight hours and real flight hours became equivalent, and this was cyberspace, not the accident but something else, or rather the accident of reality. What is accidented is 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 glass, and not the glass itself: what is accidented is the reality of the whole world. Cyberspace is an accident of the real. Virtual reality is the accident of reality itself.

CTHEORY: But then simulation doesn't really pretend to be the glass?

Virilio: This is a little hard to explain. We have a sense of reality which is sustained by a physical sensation. Right now, I am holding a bottle: this is reality. With a data glove, I could hold a virtual bottle. Cybersex is similar: it is an accident of sexual reality, perhaps the most extraordinary accident, but still an accident. I would be tempted to say: the accident is shifting. It no longer occurs in matter, but in light or in images. A Cyberspace is a light-show. Thus, the accident is in light, not in matter. The creation of a virtual image is a form of accident. This explains why virtual reality is a cosmic accident. It's the accident of the real.

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 no 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.

CTHEORY: What about early cinema as a primitive form of this, when people left the cinema in fright?

Virilio: Unlike Serge Daney or Deleuze, I think that cinema and television have nothing in common. There is a breaking point between photography and cinema on the one hand and television and virtual reality on the other hand. The simulator is the stage in-between television and virtual reality, a moment, a phase. The simulator is a moment that leads to cyberspace, that is to say, to the process because of which we now have two bottles instead of one. I might not see this virtual bottle, but I can feel it. It is settled within reality. This explains why the word virtual reality is more important than the word cyberspace, which is more poetic. As far as gender is concerned, there are now two men and two women, real and virtual. People make fun of cybersex, but it's really something to take into account: it is a drama, a split of the human being! The human being can now be changed into some kind of spectrum or ghost who has sex at a distance. That is really scary because what used to be the most intimate and the most important relationship to reality is being split. This is no simulation but the coexistence of two separate worlds. 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.

CTHEORY: What is your own feeling about that?

Virilio: I'm not scared, just interested.

This is drama. Art is drama. Any relationship to art is also a relationship to death. Creation exists only in regard to destruction. Creation is against destruction. You cannot dissociate birth from death, creation from destruction, good from evil. Thus any art is a form of drama standing between the two extreme poles of birth and death, just like life is drama. This is not sad, because to be alive means to be mortal, to pass through. And art is alive because it is mortal. Except that now, art has become more than painting, sculpture or music: art is more than Van Gogh painting a landscape or Wagner composing an opera. The whole of reality itself has become the object of art. To someone like Zurbaran, who paints still lifes, lemons and pears are the objects of art. But to the electronics engineer who works on the technologies of virtual reality, the whole reality has become the object of art, with a possibility to substitute the virtual with the real.

CTHEORY: Is there a transcendence of the body?

Virilio: That is difficult to say. First, what is under consideration is not only the body itself, but the environment of the body as well. The notion of transcendence is a complex one, but it is true that there is something divine in this new technology. The research on cyberspace is a quest for God. To be God. To be here and there. For example, when I say: "I'm looking at you, I can see you", that means: "I can see you because I can't see what is behind you: I see you through the frame I am drawing. I can't see inside you". If I could see you from beneath or from behind, I would be God. I can see you because my back and my sides are blind. One can't even imagine what it would be like to see inside people.

The technologies of virtual reality are attempting to make us see from beneath, from inside, from if we were God. I am a Christian, and even though I know we are talking about metaphysics and not about religion, I must say that cyberspace is acting like God and deals with the idea of God who is, sees and hears everything.

CTHEORY: What will happen when virtual reality takes the upper hand?

Virilio: It already has. If you look at the Gulf War or new military technologies, they are moving towards cyberwars. Most video-technologies and technologies of simulation have been used for war. For example, video was created after the Second World War in order to radio-control planes and aircraft carriers. Thus video came with the war. It took twenty years before it became a means of expression for artists. Similarly, television was first conceived to be used as some kind of telescope, not for broadcasting. Originally, Sworkin, the inventor of television, wanted to settle cameras on rockets so that it would be possible to watch the sky.

CTHEORY: So it was only by a matter of degrees that the Gulf War became the 'virtual war', it was live broadcasting that really effected this change?

Virilio: The high level of the technologies used during the Gulf War makes this conflict quite unique, but the very process of de-realization of the war started in 1945. War occured in Kuwait, but it also occured on the screens of the entire world. The site of defeat or victory was not the ground, but the screen. (I wrote a book called Desert Screen on the Gulf War.) Thus it becomes obvious that television is a media of crisis, a museum of accidents.

CTHEORY: This must surely result in some psychic crisis?

Virilio: It is as if I was to take my eye, to throw it away, and still be able to see. Video is originally a de-corporation, a disqualification of the sensorial organs which are replaced by machines...The eye and the hand are replaced by the data glove, the body is replaced by a data suit, sex is replaced by cybersex. All the qualities of the body are transferred to the machine. This is a subject I discuss in my last book, The Art of The Engine.

We haven't adjusted yet, we are forgetting our body, we are losing it. This is an accident of the body, a de-corporation. The body is torn and disintegrated.

CTHEORY: With the Gulf War, there was such incomprehension because it was so removed.

Virilio: The Gulf War was the first 'live' war. World War Two was a world war in space. It spread from Europe to Japan, to the Soviet Union, etc. World War Two was quite different from World War One which was geographically limited to Europe. But in the case of the Gulf War, we are dealing with a war which is extremely local in space, but global in time, since it is the first 'live' war. And to those, like my friend Baudrillard, who say that this war did not actually occur, I reply: this war may not have occurred in the actual global space, but it did occur in global time. And this thanks to CNN and The Pentagon. This is a new form of war, and all future wars, all future accidents will be live wars and live accidents.

CTHEORY: How will this removal affect people?

Virilio: Firstly, a de-realization, the accident of the real. 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.

By the way, this might sound like drama, but 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.

CTHEORY: How can we address this loss?

Virilio: The true problem with virtual reality is that orientation is no longer possible. We have lost our points of reference to orient ourselves. The de-realized man is a disoriented man. In my last book, The Art of The Engine, I conclude by pointing at a recent American discovery, the GPS (Global Positioning System) which is the second watch. The first watch tells you what time it is, the second one tells you where you are. If I had a GPS, I could know where this table stands in relation to the whole world, with an amazing precision, thanks to satellites. This is extraordinary: in the Fifteenth century, we invented the first watch, and now we have invented the GPS to know where we are.

When you find yourself in the middle of virtual reality, you don't know where you are, but with this machine, you can know. This watch has been used for ships and not only can it tell you where you are, but also it can tell others where you are: it works in the two ways. The question you're asking is really interesting. For one can't even know what it means to be lost in reality. For instance, it is easy to know whether you are lost or not in the Sahara desert, but to be lost in reality! This is much more complex! Since there are two realities, how can we say where we are? We are far away from simulation, we have reached substitution! I believe this is, all in the same time, a fantastic, a very scary and an extraordinary world.

CTHEORY: But to return to this question of transcendance...

Virilio: All in all, I believe that this divine dimension raises the question of transcendance, that is to say the question of the Judeo-Christian God for instance. People agree to say that it is rationality and science which have eliminated what is called magic and religion. But ultimately, the ironic outcome of this techno-scientific development is a renewed need for the idea of God. Many people question their religious identity today, not necessarily by thinking of converting to Judaism or to Islam: it's just that technologies seriously challenge the status of the human being. All technologies converge toward the same spot, they all lead to a Deus ex Machina, a machine-God. In a way, technologies have negated the transcendental God in order to invent the machine-God. However, these two gods raise similar questions.

As you can see, we are still within the museum of accidents. That's a huge, cosmic accident, and television, which made reality explode, is part of it. 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. Some experts have found out that in five thousand years from now, the weight of the population will be heavier than the weight of the planet. That means that humanity will constitute a planet of its own!

CTHEORY: Do you always separate the body from technology?

Virilio: No. The body is extremely important to me, because it is a planet. For instance, if you compare Earth and an astronomer, you will see that the man is a planet. There is a very interesting Jewish proverb that says: "If you save one man, you save the world: That's a reverse version of the idea of the Messiah: one man can save the world, but to save a man is to save the world. The world and man are identical. This is why racism is the most stupid thing in the world.

You are a universe, and so am I; we are four universes here. And there are millions of others around us. Thus the body is not simply the combination of dance, muscles, body-building, strength and sex: it is a universe. What brought me to Christianity is Incarnation, not Ressurection. Because Man is God, and God is Man, the world is nothing but the world of Man - or Woman. So, to separate mind from body doesn't make any sense. To a materialist, matter is essential: a stone is a stone, a mountain is a mountain, water is water and earth is earth. As far as I am concerned, I am a materialist of the body, which means that the body is the basis of all my work.

To me, dance is an extraordinary thing, more extraordinary than most people usually think. Dance preceded writing, speaking and music. When mute people speak their body language, it is true speaking rather than handicap, this is the first word and the first writing. Thus to me, the body is fundamental. The body, and the territory of course, for there cannot be an animal body without a territorial body: three bodies are grafted over each other: the territorial body - the planet, the social body - the couple, and the animal body - you and me. And technology splits this unity, leaving us without a sense of where we are. This, too, is de-realization.

There is a buddhist proverb which I like a lot. It says: "Every body deserves mercy". That means that every body is holy. This is to answer the body question.

Technologies first equipped the territorial body with bridges, aqueducts, railways, highways, airports, etc..Now that the most powerful technologies are becoming tiny - microtechnologies, all technologies can invade the body. These micro-machines will feed the body. Research is being conducted in order to create additional memory for instance. For the time being, technologies are colonizing our body through implants. We started with human implants, but research leads us to microtechnological implants.

The territorial body has been polluted by roads, elevators, etc. Similarly, our animal body starts being polluted. Ecology no longer deals with water, flora, wildlife and air only. It deals with the body itself as well. It is comparable with an invasion: technology is invading our body because of miniaturisation. (Referring to the interviewer's microphone: "next time you come you won't even ask - you'll just throw a bit of dust on the table!")

There is a great science-fiction short story, it's too bad I can't remember the name of its author, in which a camera has been invented which can be carried by flakes of snow. Cameras are inseminated into artificial snow which is dropped by planes, and when the snow falls, there are eyes everywhere. There is no blind spot left.

CTHEORY: But what shall we dream of when everything becomes visible?

Virilio: We'll dream of being blind. This is the art of the engine. Art used to be painting, sculpture, music, etc, but now, all technology has become art. Of course, this form of art is still very primitive, but it is slowly replacing reality. This is what I call the art of the engine. For instance, when I take the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) in France, I love watching the landscape: this landscape, as well as works by Picasso or Klee, is art. The engine makes the art of the engine. Wim Wenders made road movies, but what is the engine of a road movie? It's a car, like in Paris Texas. Dromoscopy. Now all we have to do to enter the realm of art is to take a car. Many engines made History.

CTHEORY: Finally to return to the accident! Is it possible to see the body itself as a simulator? (Within medical aerospace research, for example, the body's own accident, that of motion sickness, can be eradicated.)

Virilio: The body has a dimension of simulation. The learning process, for instance: when one learns how to drive a car or a van, once in the van, one feels completely lost. But then, once you have learnt how to drive, the whole van is in your body. It is integrated into your body. Another example: a man who pilots a Jumbo Jet will ultimately feel that the Boeing is entering his body. But what is going on now, or should happen in one or two generations, is the disintegration of the world. Real time 'live' technologies, cyberreality, will permit the incorporation of the world within oneself. One will be able to read the entire world, just like during the Gulf War. And I will have become the world. The body of the world and my body will be one. Once again, this is a divine vision; and this is what the military are looking for. Earth is already being integrated into the Pentagon, and the man in the Pentagon is already piloting the world war - or the Gulf War - as if he were a captain whose huge boat would have become his own body. Thus the body simulates the relationship to the world.

CTHEORY: Are you suggesting the human body will disappear in all senses of the word?

Virilio: We haven't reached that point yet: what I have described is the end, or a vision of the end. What will prevail is this will to reduce the world to the point where one could possess it. All military technologies reduce the world to nothing. And since military technologies are advanced technologies, what they actually sketch today is the future of the civil realm. But this, too, is an accident.

When I was a young soldier, I was asked to drive a huge van while I had never driven a car. Here I am, driving through a German village (this takes place during the occupation) and there was this painter who had settled his ladder on the side of the street. I thought that my big van was going to crash his ladder. That didn't happen. I just passed through.

21 October 1994

We would like to thank Magali Fowler and Rania Stesan for assistance with translation during the interview. A very special thank you to Gildas Illien for the actual translation of the text from French into English.

Paul Virilio is the emblematic French theorist of technology. His major works include: Pure War, Speed and Politics, and War and Cinema: the Logistics of Perception. Two of his most recent books are Desert Screen and The Art of The Engine.

Louise Wilson is a British artist currently living in Montreal. Her art involves site specific installations and perfomance.