City of Transformation

Paul Virilio in Obama's America

It is surely the fate of every engaged political theory to be overcome by the history that it thought it was only describing. So too, Paul Virilio. His writings have captured brilliantly these twilight times in which we live: The Aesthetics of Disappearance, The Information Bomb, War and Cinema, Speed and Politics -- less writing in the traditional sense than an uncanny shamanistic summoning forth of the demonology of speed which inscribes society. A prophet of the wired future, Paul Virilio's thought always invokes the doubled meaning of apocalypse -- cataclysm and remembrance.

Cataclysm because all his writings trace the history of the technological death- instinct moving at the speed of light. And remembrance because Virilio is that rarity in contemporary culture, a thinker whose ethical dissent marks the first glimmerings of a fateful implosion of that festival of seduction, facination,terror, and boredom we have come to know as digital culture. A self-described "atheist of technology," his motto is "obey and resist."

But for all that there is a raw materialism in Virilio's reflection, nowhere better expressed than in his grisly vision of information as suffocation. In his theatre of thought data banks have migrated inside human flesh, bodies are reduced to granulated flows of dead information, tattooed by data, embedded by codes, with complex histories of electronic transactions as our most private autobiographies. Information mapping our lives -- process, principles, concept, fact -- we have all become measurable. In Virilio's writing what Hannah Arendt once described as "modern world alienation" rides the whirling tip of history as the spirit of pure negation that is everywhere today. Negative politics, negative subjectivity, negative culture. It is impossible to escape the technological accident that has become us.

But for all that history will not long be denied. Just as Nietzsche once prophesied in The Gay Science that with the birth of human subjectivity, twisted and scarred and deliriously unpredictable, the gods actually stopped their game of wagers and took notice because something new was moving on the earth -- a going across, a tremulous wakening, a pathway over the abyss -- so too with Virilio, the gods of history take notice once again. And not just take notice, but actively respond to the fatal challenge that is the thought of Paul Virilio.

Are we beyond Speed and Politics? What characterizes contemporary politics is the unstable mixture of speed information and slow movements. Like the slow implosion of the manufacturing economy, the slow rise of evangelical visions of catastrophe, the slow ascent -- the slow ubiquity -- of the speed of technology, the slow descent of culture into the cold state of surveillance under the sign of bio-governance. You can see it everywhere. In the world economy, the speed of mortgage backed securities, credit swap debt offerings, and complex derivatives always seeks to move at the speed of light. Iceland is the world's first country actually liquidated by hyperreality with debts amassed at light-speeds now constituting 10 times its national wealth. Like Michel Serres' the perfect parasite, the Wall Street financial elite has worked a perfect number on the host of the world economies -- implanting unknown levels of toxic debt everywhere in the circulatory system of finance capital, from China and Japan to the European community. Waking up to the danger of hot debt moving at light-speed when it is definitely too late, Japanese bankers suddenly declaim that "It is beyond panic." Wall Street types say it is "panic with a capital P." Harvard economists, standing on the sidelines like a chorus of lament, wisely add that we are now between "capitulation and panic" and "debt is good." That in a world of over-extended economies, sudden loss of financial credibility, and a seizing up of credit mechanisms everywhere, the only thing to do, financially speaking, is wait for the capitulation point -- that fatal moment when despair is so deep, pessimism so locked down tight in the investor's heart, that everything just stops for an instant. No investments, no hope, no circulation. And for the always hopeful financial analysts, this is precisely the point to begin anew, to reinvest, to seize financial redemption from despair. Definitely then, not a speed economy, but a politics and economy of complex recursive loops, trapped in cycles of feedback which no one seems to understand, but with very real, very slow consequences: like vanishing jobs, abandoned health care and trashed communities. In The City of Panic, Virilio writes about the "tyranny of real time," "this accident in time belonging to an event that is the fruit of a technological progress out of political control." For Virilio, we're now interpellated by a complex, three dimensional space-time involved in the acceleration of technological progress "that reduces the extent, the fullness of the world to nothing."

Or something else? Not really a fatal oscillation between fast technology and slow society, but hyper-technologies of global financial manipulation that can move so quickly because, just as Jean Baudrillard long ago warned, the hyperreal, simulational world of derivatives, credit swaps, and mortgage backed securities long ago blasted off from material reality, reaching escape velocity, and then orbiting the world as star-like high finance satellites -- purely virtual satellites which have no real meaning for the rest of us as long as they stay in space as part of the alienated, recursive loops of advanced capitalism. But when the meltdown suddenly happens, when that immense weight of over-indebtedness and toxic mortgages and credit derivates plunge back into the gravitational weight of real politics and real economy, we finally know what it is to live within trajectories of the catastrophic. Economists are quoted as saying the financial crisis effects "everyone on earth." Is this Virilio's "global accident?" Quite certainly it is panic finance: that moment when the credit mechanisms necessary for capitalist liquidity slam shut, a time made to measure for Virilio's brilliant theory of bunker archeology, with each bank its own toxic bunker of junk assets, each banker a born again socialist. For example, always vigilant automatic circuit breakers working in the darkness of night recently prevented a global plunge of the futures market. Allan Greenspan throws up his hands, exclaiming "I'm in shocked disbelief."

By one measure, the global economic meltdown is Virilio's accident, a searing demonstration of the truth of Virilio's proposition that every technology is born with a necessary accident in mind. This time it is not a trainwreck, a robotrader or even 9/11, but a massive financial accident. Here, the brilliant software innovations and computerized trading programs that run so much of the world's economy move so quickly but respond so slowly to the complex information feedbacks of recursive loops of bank failures and toxic debt and storms of warring political opinions that they do the only logical thing possible. They quickly, globally, and simultaneously abandon their own hyperreal world of virtuality, and go to ground in a panic search for authentic value. The machine to machine communication that makes the posthuman economy possible wants, in effect, the gold standard of real, measurable value. It demands the bottom line, the unleveraged mortgage, the real asset that its digital operations have worked so zealously to accident. And just when you think you have finally got the financial capitalists -- those unfettered deregulators -- they instantly reverse course saying "Now that the capital is gone 'something different' is needed -- an emergency provider of equity." That emergency provider, of course, is us.

But maybe it's not an accident at all. Perhaps Naomi Klein's theory of always predatory capitalism as a "shock doctrine" is correct. Or perhaps Robert Reich's statement that, "It's socialism for Wall Street and capitalism for the rest of us." Perhaps we're experiencing a carefully planned accident, a trajectory of the catastrophic, that was allowed to run freely to its fatal destiny. A culture under the sign of the "tyranny of the code, where we find ourselves biologically driven to unlock a code, where computer code literally reinscribes our genetic code and reconfigures our brains. Virilio suspects this. He most of all is an artist of the art of war, a theorist who understands that dromology has no real meaning outside of logics of capture and endocolonization and predation. When modern world alienation, Hannah Arendt's "negative spirit," found its quintessential historical expression in the past eight dark years of Republicanism, it not only set out to accident the world, but it has succeeded, probably beyond its dreams, in doing so. Thinking the Middle East in terms of the Book of Revelation literally required world catastrophe for Armageddon, for a fatal clash of civilizations and ancient religions, which would usher in the seven years of the Anti-Christ, and thereupon the Revelation. Thinking American political economy first, and then world economy, in terms of a permanent paralysis of the progressive movement has meant just what Thomas Frank's recent book described as the "wrecking crew." The party is finally over, the hosts are packing up to flee the premises, and everything is wreckage. Out of the coming crisis of massive state over-indebtedness and hyper-inflation can come only Democrats as night watchman of the Tower: the imposition of a new austerity state for non-fungible labor -- blue-collar workers, the weak and the dispossessed; the intensification of the disciplinary state to control the inevitable social unrest; and for the always unrepentant capitalist class, a massive reliquidifying of all the capitalist marketplaces of the world, with the state willingly held hostage, just as Virilio predicted, by demonologists wrapped in the masquerade of bankers and financiers and investment dealers. At this time, at this place, at this trajectory of the catastrophic, Kevin Phillips' admonition "bad money always follows bad money," gets it just about right.

Or is it the reverse? In 1996 Virilio may have originally predicted a "global accident" that would occur simultaneously to the world as a whole. Only twelve years later in the last autumn days of 2008 -- exactly 40 years after the tumultuous political events of 1968 -- is it possible that Virilio's "global accident" has itself been accidented? Slowly, inexorably, one resistor at a time, one mobilization, one march, one individual dissent, one collective "no" at a time, with what Antonio Gramsci called the dynamism of the popular will, the global accident flips into a global political transformation. Signs of this at first political, and then technological, recircuiting of the popular will are everywhere. Entire empires have suddenly vanished, global social movements are everywhere on the rise, imperialisms have been checkmated, and the first tangible hints of a truly transformational politics is in the air. It's the electricity of the technological noosphere. It's the primal impulse, the desperate hope, of many progressive human hearts. It's why beyond all the rules of normal politics that the popular American Will -- the world Will-- now unifies into a common current of information flows, of house-to-house organization, of state to state campaigning, of immense financial support by a microphysics of small donations -- over 3 million at last count--, without illusions, without false hopes, that is on the verge of creating in American politics a truly transformational movement.

Marshall McLuhan once noted correctly that the United States is the world environment. Ironically then, just as the United States triggered Virilio's global accident, it just might be on the verge of accidenting the accident, revealing that the City of Panic can also be an American City of Transformation.

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are the editors of CTheory. An earlier version of this work was presented at Trajectories of the Catastrophic, a symposum exploring the ideas of Paul Virilio. The event was organized by Peter Maravelis at City Lights Booksellers and Publishers and the San Francisco Art Institute in conjunction with the Consulate General of France in San Francisco.

In early 2009 we will edit with Peter Maravelis, a special issue of CTheory on the work of Paul Virilio. The issue will include, among others, essays based on the work presented at the symposium.