Virilio's Apocalypticism

Virilio's Theory of Catastrophe, Apocalypse, Globalisation

In Virilio's view contemporary global society is a catastrophic society. This much is evident from recent texts, such as The Information Bomb [1], Unknown Quantity [2], The Original Accident [3], and The University of Disaster [4]. These texts show how the expansive project of modernity has reached its limit in the light speed colonization of terrestrial time and space by technology and media, and has now started to contract back towards a singularity of infinite density that is uninhabitable for embodied humans and only really liveable as virtual or spectral space. Beyond his consideration of the exorbitant notion of exo-planets advanced by physicists such as Stephen Hawking [5], who suggest that it will soon be time for humanity to vacate the exhausted planet in search of a new home, Virilio illustrates the catastrophic nature of what we might call completed modernity in his view of the recent economic crisis.

In a 2008 Le Monde interview with Gerard Curtois and Michel Guerrin entitled 'The Current Crash Represents the Integral Accident Par Excellence' [6], Virilio suggests that we should understand the economic crisis in terms of a catastrophe of modern or hyper-modern speed and an accident of global proportions waiting to happen. In this way he follows Hannah Arendt's view, which she explains in her The Origins of Totalitarianism [7], that progress and catastrophe are two sides of the same coin. This view also recalls Walter Benjamin's [8] theory of the catastrophic nature of modernity. He recalls these comparisons by showing how the market crash may be evidence that the hyper-modern project of capitalist globalisation that began with Benjamin Franklin's assertion that time is money has reached its conclusion in a catastrophic mode of post-modern or disaster capitalism [9] that takes place at the level of virtuality, but is no less real in its effects.

This tension between processes of virtualisation, which Virilio [10] links to the hyper-modern achievement of mediation, light speed, and instantaneity, and the catastrophe of the life world of embodied humanity, is important for the thesis I want to present in this chapter. This is because it allows me to show how Virilio recasts the secular idea of catastrophe in terms of the virtual, metaphysical, mystical, and ultimately theological idea of the Christian apocalypse. I believe this notion may be seen to link his work to both the messianic political theology of Arendt [11], Benjamin [12], and Heidegger [13] and the contemporary return of religiosity to the centre of the political scene of global society. In other words, my view is that Virilio's theory of the catastrophic nature of processes of virtualisation for embodied humanity - and his subsequent hope that the careful interpretation or illustration of accidental events may reveal or illuminate the catastrophic other side of the modern or hyper-modern progress towards virtualisation thus enabling humanity to find a new way of living with technology - should be understood as a quasi-theological theory of post-modern apocalypticism comparable to those of Arendt, Benjamin, and Heidegger, who hoped that a similar turn may occur in the future. Even reading his short Le Monde interview offers a glimpse into the way in which Virilio understands the recent economic crash.

In my view the catastrophic financial crash is apocalyptic in Virilio's terms not simply because of its effects on large numbers of people who have lost their homes. This is a condition which we must understand first individualistically, in terms of the personal catastrophe for the individuals involved; second socio-politically, through the idea that globalisation has produced the forced liberation of people from their environment and led to the emergence of a world of flows; and third phenomenologically-existentially, insofar as this event realises the theory of humanity torn from its environment, made homeless, and cast out into an alien world. But the crash is apocalyptic not simply for these reasons, or because of the ways that it can be seen to reveal the completion or limit of the light speeds of globalisation and hyper-modern marketisation in the collapse of these forms into chaos. Rather, I would suggest that beyond these markers, which may be seen to locate the event as a secular catastrophe, we should regard Virilio's take on the financial crash as truly apocalyptic in nature because of the ways in which he understands the location of the crash on the virtual, textual, and metaphysical level of signs and information. That is to say that I think we should see Virilio's apocalypticism in the ways in which he imagines the virtuality or textuality of this catastrophe of signs as an esoteric text inviting the revelation of the destructive capacity of hyper-modernity for humanity and suggestive of the idea that we must use this revelation to discover some new form of technological society habitable for embodied human beings who cannot but live in the world.

But what is it that the apocalyptic economic crash reveals in Virilio's view? Reading the Le Monde interview through the lens of his wider thought I would suggest that for Virilio the apocalyptic crash reveals the destructive capacity of progress, and in particular progress towards virtualisation. In his view it is this process of virtualisation that signals the emergence of a quasi-theological spectral body that denatures, dehumanises, and alienates humanity from itself in a state of pure or perma war where everybody is aware of the precariousness of their situation. Here precariousness is understood in both socio-economic terms of a position in the labour market and phenomenological-existential terms of a torn relation to the life support systems of the terrestrial environment itself [14]. It is on the basis of these catastrophic effects that Virilio suggests that the futurism of the hyper-modern utopia of speed needs to be critically re-thought. Unfortunately, we know that this is highly unlikely to happen without severe catastrophic effects because from the point of view of neo-liberal capitalism, the hegemonic socio-economic system of the empire of speed which remains the great blind-spot of Virilio's thought, violent crashes and accidental events are ultimately productive in ways illustrated by Schumpeter's [15] theory of creative destruction and more recently Klein's [16] analysis of disaster capitalism.

Although I would risk the claim that the capitalist view of the productivity of violence, destruction, and catastrophe may be shaken by accidents that threaten the coherence of the socio-economic system or certainly the environmental life support system itself, it is not at all clear that this is the case and that capitalism will reform its practices when it looks like the world is about to end. This is because the high priest of neo-liberal economics, Milton Friedman [17], would regard the total collapse of the socio-economic system in apocalyptic terms, as an opportunity to re-boot the system in a more successful, more efficient form, rather than as a wake up to reform the mode of production in a general sense. In this respect, I think we must remain cautious of Virilio's [18] Augustinian theory of apocalyptic hope, which parallels Girard's [19] view that the contemporary world is balanced somewhere between the mimetic war of all against all and an apocalyptic turn that will usher in a new mode of being together. As }i~ek [20], Badiou [21], and Kroker [22] explain, and Virilio knows all too well, contemporary capitalism is itself an apocalyptic world-less form rooted in metaphysics, science fiction, and the kind of quasi-theological mysticism that Der Derian [23] finds at the heart of the American military-industrial-media-entertainment network and the related project of virtuous war. As such, and because we must understand that post-modern capitalism may well not only survive, but also profit from the end of the world, we should recognise the importance of Virilio's [24] notions of critical space. What this idea captures is the possibility that we are currently balanced on the apocalyptic edge of the socio-economic system, on the line between violent destruction and the extinction of humanity as being-in-the world, and the turn to a new ecological mode of living able to reconcile our identity as natural, social, and technological beings.

Given this concern for the apocalyptic nature of hyper-modernity, and Drew Burk's [25] account of Virilio as the apocalyptic thinker of revelation, critical distance, and the scenic imagination par excellence, I want to claim that we should emphasise the link between Virilio's concept of critical space and his ideas of the museum of accidents [26] and more recently the university of disaster. [27] Through these notions he suggests the need to reveal the catastrophic nature of the empire of speed, to open up a space for critical engagement with our culture of disaster that is otherwise prohibited by the collapse of knowledge and thought into the ecstasy of communication and information [28], and ultimately to enable the turning or transformation of global society to a more humane form.

I want to suggest that we should regard Virilio's ideas of the museum of accidents [29] and the university of disaster [30] as attempts to present a theory of the institutionalisation of the critique of the globalised empire of speed that may tip the apocalyptic balance against the world-less mysticism of neo-liberal post-modern capitalism and towards the humanitarian demand for a more liveable world where technology works for humans, rather than the other way around. Against what he calls the twilight of place [31], which condemns humanity to, at best, a life on the move and, at worst, the living death of a disembodied and spectral existence, Virilio shifts into reverse through the idea of critical space that can institutionalise the Ancient Socratic call to 'Know Thyself'; such a call has been disappeared by the culture of speed that leaves no time for reflection, but remains hidden, a kind of unconscious supplement in our world of light speed trajectories and velocities, awaiting the moment when time seems to stop and critical thought is possible once more. Akin to the Freudian logic of unearthing the hidden unconscious other side of psychic life, Virilio's [32] notions of the critical space of the museum of accidents and the university of disaster seeks to reveal the other side of the modern commitment to progress and development.

Following Aristotle, who suggested that the accident reveals the substance and in doing so inspired western thinkers from Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, Deleuze, and Derrida to think through a theory contrasting the system and its others, Virilio explicitly takes the case of the accident and suggests that it has the potential to reveal the substance or truth of the modern temptation to progress, speed, and totality [33]. Apart from revealing this substance, as the violence and destructiveness of modernity, especially in its hyper-active phase, it may be that what Virilio's [34] apocalypse would also reveal would be the need for humanity to learn a sense of humility. To accept that it is not divine, but rather a limited earthbound species that cannot live without resistance or gravity. The paradox of this situation is, of course, that it is precisely humanity's limited nature, the fact that we are not Gods, that has led us to reach for the skies only to plunge back down to earth like Icarus, the tragic figure par excellence of Greek mythology.

Like Nietzsche [35], who was well aware of humanity's tragic nature, Virilio knows that we will always try to touch the sky. In this respect I do not see him in any way as anti-modern, even though it is possible that his critique of the excessive nature of the empire of speed may express itself in a form of social and cultural conservatism that is not easily reconciled with his radical critique of technology. Instead I believe that his problematic resides in the hubristic forgetting of tragedy that has evolved through hyper-modernity and the need to rehabilitate the Ancient idea of humanity as a tragic creature of the limit that is made necessary and possible by the apocalyptic culture of post-modernism. This culture simultaneously and paradoxically marks the moment when we run into the limit of terrestrial time and space and forget about our earthbound limited nature. In this respect my focus is less on Virilio's conservatism or his desire to restrict humanity; rather I am interested in what I perceive to be his concern to maintain the experience of the limit in a global age where we simultaneously inhabit a state of global fullness and completion and precisely for that reason have no sense of that truth. It is this paradox, this conflation of the destructive potential of completed modernity and the total inability of humanity to understand this condition as a sign of the limitation and potential end of its own existence, primarily because of its location or immersion in a vortex of information that screens out critical thought and knowledge, that forms the basis of Virilio's apocalypse and necessitates the creation of institutions able to think through the end times in order to pull us back from the brink. Herein resides the meaning of Virilio's [36] idea of a politics of the very worst and his notion of the accident as an inverted miracle able to radically re-orient our relation to the world and technology.

Virilio's Notion of Catastrophic Modernity

For Virilio [37] modernity must be understood as a catastrophic epoch which has led to what he calls a 'toposcopical disaster' characterised by humanity's inability to properly perceive the phenomenological reality of the environment that functions as its life support system. Against this catastrophic condition - which he tells us leads to the psychopathological condition of the planet man who falls into megalomania by virtue of his inability to understand his relation to the totally mediated virtual world that has been condensed to the infinite density of a singularity by the light speeds of new media technology - Virilio explains that we need to find a new form of art suitable for illustrating our condition and illuminating our apocalyptic situation. [38] From this insight I think we can make two points. First, it is methodologically significant that Virilio discusses the redemptive quality of art, rather than critical theory, because what this illustrates is his view that complex theoretical constructions are unlikely to impact upon a high speed society where knowledge and thought have been more or less destroyed by an excess of information and communication. The value of art is, therefore, that it makes an emotional, rather than cognitive, impression upon the audience and causes them to feel, rather than necessarily theoretically comprehend their situation in an epoch where theoretical comprehension has been, at best, marginalised, and at worst, foreclosed by the light speeds of new technology. We know that Virilio [39] foregrounds this methodological approach in his work because he has the tendency to explain the ways in which his own work leaps from idea to idea without necessarily working out the connections between theories and concepts. The effect of this procedure is, therefore, to give the reader first, an impression and second, an invitation to work backwards through the theoretical connections present in his work. We can, of course, find a precedent for this approach to critical writing, which is perfectly symmetrical with the trajectivity of the post-modern empire of speed, even if it does run the risk of collapsing into the vortex of information and communication that characterises our mediated world. We can compare Virilio's thought to the German critical theorists' notion of the thought-image, which was similarly meant to oppose the banality of the culture industry from the inside through the construction of media-friendly critical bombs. [40] In the case of both the German critical theorists, such as Adorno and Horkheimer (and to a lesser extent Benjamin), and Virilio, I think we can, therefore, pinpoint a notion of political activism, whereby critical writing is itself an artistic activity meant to oppose the banality of technology that simply works for the sake of working, and somehow to spark critical reflection in the minds of the disorientated and stupefied masses.

As Virilio [41] knows very well, the potential problem of this strategy is that it is not possible to fight speed with speed. From the perspective of the Frankfurters, the threat is that Virilio's user friendly critiques may be transformed into commodities through the process of knowledge exchange on the open market, thus becoming little more than fantastical representations of radical critique in a globalised system that has no other. However, my view is that there is more to Virilio's [42] turn to critical art than the attempt to simply mimic the dynamism of the empire of speed, and that it is possible to understand this strategy in ways that render it perfectly symmetrical with his other major radical theory, grey ecology [43], or the concern with the speed limit. My view is that what Virilio's turn to critical art seeks to achieve is a connection to the masses caught under the sign of light speed that is able to lift them out of the endless passage of events and freeze time, creating a moment of solitude, concentration, contemplation, and reflection, which in other works he calls critical space. [44] My thesis is, therefore, that it is this critical space of reflection that Virilio wants to open up in order to create the possibility of apocalyptic transformation and that understanding this strategy is key to comprehending the meaning of his political activism.

This point about Virilio's activism is important because it shows us that his apocalypse is never immediate, but rather relies on the recognition of the catastrophic nature of modernity that his work may produce in the audience. It is only at this point that Virilio's apocalypse, where apocalypse refers to a process of revelation, would truly appear. Herein resides the second point about the nature of Virilio's theory of the value of art for illuminating the catastrophic nature of contemporary processes of globalisation; although the catastrophe is always already present, and taking place as we speak, the apocalypse is not now, and can never be now, without the revelatory function of representation to tip the balance away from the unthinking catastrophe of modernity that is endlessly taking place and towards the critical ecological-phenomenological demand for a new relationship between humanity, the world, and technology.

The apocalypse resides, therefore, in the moment of unveiling, in the moment or event when the catastrophe becomes so apparent that it is impossible for the audience or tele-viewer not to recognise its representation or presentation in critical art and act upon this recognition. Since this has not happened yet, and we remain caught up in the end times where catastrophe is everywhere and apocalypse nowhere, we might say that we live in the epoch of unrealised catastrophe. This is because the true realisation of catastrophe, not the basic media representation of catastrophic events that is fed to passive tele-viewers, but rather the existential realisation of the catastrophe taking place now, the endless catastrophe pushing humanity and the world to the very edge of existence, is the apocalypse. This is the true moment of revelation, that would change our relationship to both technology and the world forever, and demand us to actively reformulate our way of living in the world on the basis of that revelatory experience.

If this revelatory experience, this apocalyptic moment, is the objective of Virilio's thought, I think that we should read his works as a history of the catastrophic nature of modernity, hyper-modernity, and the emergence of the post-modern moment of globalisation when time and space are exhausted and there is nowhere else to go. As catastrophe piles upon catastrophe in a totally mediated, totally inter-connected world where everything impacts upon everything else, Virilio's [45] wager is that we will wake up to the catastrophe of modernity realised or post-modernity and change our situation. Shifting into reverse, and considering his now classic Speed and Politics [46], Virilio shows how modernity and the obsession with speed and progress began with the French Revolution. In his view the Revolution destroyed the immobility of the feudal universe that had reigned more or less unchanged since Aristotle considered the idea of the great chain of being, and inaugurated a society and social form ordered by the principle of futurity and modernisation. This new society was formed on the basis of science, reason, technology, and democracy and was eventually meant to reach its final destination in a utopia of techno-scientific reasoned virtue. However, as }i~ek [47] has shown in his essay on Robespierre's famous 'Virtue and Terror' speech, the revolutionaries, who Virilio calls dromomaniacs, knew that their new society of speed, movement, and progress could never succeed without overcoming or simply crashing through whatever obstacles lay in its path. In this respect }i~ek highlights Robespierre's insight that virtue was always bound to terror, that virtue was in fact impossible without terror, in much the same way that Virilio foregrounds the terminal relationship between speed and war, to show how the history of modernity, the epoch of speed, has always been about the violent overcoming of obstacles and limits through terrorist ballistic technologies.

This much is evident when we consider what Virilio [48] calls pure war, his term for explaining the thin or even invisible line separating war from peace in modern society. Consider the principal site of modernity, modernisation, and speed, the city, which Virilio [49] regards as a site of 'habitable circulation'. If we think about the city, which Mumford [50] tells us is the originary site of human sociability and civilization, through the works of the Italian Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni and the German sociologist Georg Simmel, we enter a completely different scene to the foundational city painted by Mumford. In Boccioni's The City Rises [51] or Simmel's The Metropolis and Mental Life [52] we are presented with the image of the city as a place of enormous energy and vitality, but also abstraction, alienation, and violence.

In both cases Virilio's [53] view that the modern city is governed by a dictatorship of movement is appropriate. There is no resting place, or hiding place, in either Boccioni or Simmel. Moderns are fatally exposed to speed and must learn to adjust to the new epoch. While Simmel was, of course, critical of the new modern city of speed, because of the ways in which it fostered a culture of distance and estrangement, Boccioni, perhaps the master Futurist artist, thought that humanity had to evolve to live with the new speeds of modernity. Hence his classic sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, can in many ways be seen as a prefiguration of the totalitarian man captured in the writings of Ernst J¸nger [54], and critically discussed by Klaus Theweleit [55] in his two volume psychoanalytic study of the proto-Nazi Freikorps para-military group that terrorised Weimar Germany in the 1920s.

We know that neither Boccioni or Simmel were concerned with war in any conventional sense; yet that they clearly relate to the modern prophets of technological war, Marinetti, J¸nger, and later the totalitarians, Hitler and Stalin, whom Arendt [56] characterised by their obsession with movement, dynamism, and the notion of violent progress towards a pre-defined ideological utopian conclusion, is of central importance. What this link illuminates is what Virilio [57] means by pure war as the collapse of the relationship between peace and war and the endo-colonisation of everyday life by the warrior ethos. Despite the rejection of the violent utopianism of the totalitarians in the wake of the discovery of the horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago, it would be wrong to imagine that pure war or the obsession with speed and movement has in any way left the scene of post-modern liberal society. As Virilio [58] explains, speed remains the hope or key utopian principle of the west. He tells us that movement is the only law of the modern, hyper-modern, or post-modern world and that the failure to move is a sign of decay, decline, and ultimately death.

That the futurism of speed remains central to life in western liberal and neo-liberal society should not surprise us since the founder of the liberal tradition, Thomas Hobbes [59], was himself concerned with the movement and the progress of men through life. In his political science he imagined society as smooth Euclidean space populated by atomised men or precise 'subjectiles' bound by the rules of the road set out by the Leviathan and expected to follow these rules on pain of death. For Hobbes, life was a race, and a struggle for power, where power refers to the difference between the relative speeds of men. In the context of this situation, the rule of the Leviathan was meant to legislate against fatal collisions. These would, in the state of nature, lead to catastrophic accidents between men, resulting in the end of one of their trajectories through life, immobility, and as a consequence, death [60].

Beyond Virilio's [61] location of the emergence of modernity, the epoch of speed, in the event of the French Revolution, it may well be that we should also think about the ways in which Hobbes' theory of the state as traffic cop from the mid-17th century also contributed to the origin of the new society of movement, dynamism, and progress. Here, we may also consider how Hobbes' work built upon the new physics of Galileo and the theory of inertia that posited a universal law of movement and undermined the Aristotelian orthodoxy that imagined a universe of order, stasis, and organisation, and regarded all movement as progress towards this natural end point. Given the radical break between the ancient-medieval physics based upon Aristotle's thought and Galileo's new modern paradigm that Hobbes took as a model of the endless dynamism of early capitalist society, it is possible to see the French Revolutionary break, which ushered in the society of the epoch of totalitarianism, as an attempt to rediscover the ancient notion of a telos that the Spartans and Plato had sought to defend against Herodotus' [62] notion of history, and combat the revolutionary conditions later represented by Boccioni and Simmel.

In this way, it is possible to construct an historical time-line explaining the emergence of the current catastrophic empire of speed that Virilio believes has reached its limit and started to burn out under conditions of globalisation. This time-line would run from the historical destruction of Sparta and Plato's related utopian city outlined in The Republic [63], evolve through Aristotle's theory of movement towards natural ends, take in the destruction of Aristotle's theory by Galileo and the new modern physics and Hobbes' political science of society as a race, before reaching Marx and the anti-capitalist reaction to the new violent society of speed. This anti-capitalist turn may in turn be related to the totalitarian attempts to re-discover a modernist version of the ancient utopia of stasis, leading finally to a consideration of the rise of post-modern neo-liberal capitalism in the wake of the collapse of the totalitarianisms that has liberated speed from all ideas of limitation.

The central point about the end of this time-line is, of course, that the post-modern neo-liberal liberation of speed from all ideas of limitation, where ideas of limitation refer to either utopian ends or social speed limits such as trade regulations meant to govern the movement of capital, is evidence of the hubris and the forgetting of tragedy that Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Virilio all see as the core problematic of the modern society of nihilism, technology, and speed [64]. In each case I think it is possible to argue that Nietzsche and Heidegger, and now Virilio, recognise that the inability of humanity to appreciate the necessary phenomenological resistance of the world upon its movement and speed will produce catastrophic consequences in the form of the emergence of a last man bored by a technological world that he can no longer relate to and that completely prohibits his continued movement through space. This is, of course, the famous theory of inertia that Virilio [65] employs to show how the empire of speed has started to collapse into a society of immobility and stasis characterised by walls, borders, camps, and prisons that he generalises through the ideas of global foreclosure, incarceration, and lock down.

In this new global crash culture, where the ideology of global capitalism talks about freedom of movement and works off the idea that increased proximity in a society where it is impossible to evade the other will lead to more love, sharing, and community, Virilio's [66] point is that reality is defined by surveillance, suspicion, paranoia, security, hatred, petty jealousy, revulsion towards the other, and ultimately pure war. This, then, is the catastrophe of the empire of speed without limits. This is the catastrophe awaiting a revelatory moment to transform it into an apocalyptic event that may enable us to enact radical, revolutionary, change. The challenge remains, of course, to find some way to produce this apocalyptic moment, to produce this moment of revelation, through artistic endeavour and critical thought in a society of speed where everything is reduced to the status of information, communication, and commodity to be exchanged and passed on. In other words, there is no apocalyptic moment in the empire of speed because the empire of speed is defined by what we might variously call following Kroker [67] and Wilson [68] post-modern, virtual, hyper, or supercapitalism.

In the hyper-capitalist world, if we choose to adopt Kroker's name for the new form of high speed, high tech, totally virtual capitalism, there is no telos, there is no apocalyptic end, no fatal moment of collapse, since, as Wilson [69] points out, death is distributed across the system. In this vision of the new capitalist world, mortality invades every aspect of life in the form of a death drive that compares to Virilio's concept of pure war [70] which shows how war is no longer contained in a discrete event, but rather exists everywhere, nowhere, and is at the same time never and always on. For Virilio [71] this death drive is explained by America's attachment to the idea of the frontier, or what he calls, citing Jackson, the frontier effect, which has led the land of the free towards a form of nihilism set on the destruction of the environment for the sake of development, modernisation, progress, and creation of what Deleuze and Guattari [72] call smooth space. That is to say that the American determination to conquer or overcome obstacles, to create smooth space suitable for the speed of movement for capital and human flows, in many respects reproduces Hobbes' capitalist metaphysics of legalised movement in real space. It is this innovation that transforms the phenomenological world of embodied experience into a metaphysical or virtual abstraction that humans, or perhaps we should say those post-humans plugged into the network society, experience through inter-face with technology. Virilio's [73] America, the land of Hobbesian materialist metaphysics realised, is for this reason comparable to Baudrillard's [74] Nietzschean land of fascinated banality. It exists as a land of deserts, a featureless landscape, a smooth Euclidean space, that has come to define post-modern globalisation as a catastrophic space awaiting the arrival of its apocalypse.

What is more is that we know that the apocalypse is on the American mind. Consider the born again Christian fundamentalists. They understand the endless war in the Middle East, the lands of deserts, Iraq, the birth place of human culture and civilization, and Armageddon, the site of the final battle between the forces of good and evil, as the scene of the coming apocalypse where the saved will be separated from the damned and the world will learn what America already knows, that it is the land of God. Again we can discern the strange virtualisation of the world, which Virilio [75] understands as characteristic of the light speeds of globalisation, where metaphysics and theology stand in for politics, define the direction of our world, and set the scene for an apocalyptic moment that will transform the basic co-ordinates of human reality. Unfortunately, the contemporary American apocalypse, which updates Winthrop's theory of the city upon the hill in popular and official culture ranging from Tim LaHaye's Left Behind [76] books to the Bush regime's PNAC, is not the apocalypse imagined by Virilio [77]. Whereas his theory suggests creating speed limits or a 'political economy of speed' in order to enable humans to live together in the world, the American vision of the apocalypse is about destroying what little environmental resistance there is left in the world in order to completely liberate humanity from its reliance on natural life support systems.

In practical terms this is, of course, about spreading the American way, and perhaps military, economic, and cultural imperialism, but what is important about Virilio's vision is that it enables us to understand that behind the commitment to practical principles of freedom, individualism, democracy, capitalism, and technology resides a metaphysical imperative to salvation through virtualisation. Paraphrasing Virilio paraphrasing Heidegger who noted that technology cannot be understood technologically but rather must be thought metaphysically, it may be the case that we cannot understand the American-led process of globalisation politically or economically, but instead must think about it metaphysically in terms of speed and the death drive towards virtuality. This view, which describes the way Virilio [78] understands processes of globalisation and the creation of the dromosphere is certainly supported by Der Derian's [79] theory of virtuous war. Der Derian's theory explains a mode of pure war, slimmed down in terms of its understanding of political complexity in order to meet the needs of speed, so that the world is divided along the lines of Carl Schmitt's [80] violent friend / foe dichotomy where the virtuous chosen people face off against the evil others who are set to burn in Hell in an apocalyptic fight to the death, and transformed into a media abstraction by high technology, which virtualises reality, making the environment subordinate to the smooth spaces of the map. For Der Derian [81], America, the land of apocalyptic virtuous war, the mode of pure war that fuses a theological belief in virtue with a high tech commitment to virtuality, was always fated to take this road. It was, after all, named after Amerigo Vespucci, the great cartographer-explorer, and has always been the land of maps and the refusal of the world.

Virilio's Apocalypticism

In his piece On Exactitude in Science [82] Jorge Luis Borges tells us that:

...In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. [83]

In many ways Borges' fable perfectly captures the meaning of Virilio's thought by illuminating the uselessness of what we might call the worship of maps, cartography, and representation. Related to this view the fable also captures Virilio's utopian belief that, in the future, we may discover this 'uselessness' and turn away from the obsession with metaphysics and virtualisation and come to value the hard core of lived reality in its immediacy. It is, of course, impossible for humanity to ever really obtain direct unmediated access to reality because, as thinkers from Kant through Heidegger to }i~ek have shown, there will always be some minimal distance between our comprehension of the world and our direct being in the world. But what Borges' story illustrates is Virilio's [84] key thesis, which is that this distance between our cognitive apprehension of the world and the world itself has been totalised by modernity, post-modernity, and the globalised empire of speed to the extent that we have caused what he calls the 'desertification of the world'. In his essay on this new desert world, The Twilight of the Grounds [85], Virilio explains how this process of the desertification of the world has led to the destruction of the three bodies that define our embodied reality. The territorial body is destroyed by instantaneous media that collapses distances and transforms the planet into a singularity of infinite density, the social body is torn apart by the fragmentation of the city as high speeds and new forms of communication make deep social discourse more or less impossible, and the animal body collapses before processes of biopolitical endo-colonization that transform corporeality into information or code to be manipulated and worked upon. Under these conditions the new post-modern minimal man, the 21st century brother of Boccioni's running man and J¸nger's super soldier, leaves his body behind to become an avatar, a cyber, metaphysical, or virtual tech no-body that parallels the Pauline theory of the body of Christ in his resentment of gravity and corporeality [86].

Akin to the apocalyptic body of Christ, which Paul described as the metaphysical, communistic, body with whom true believers would find communion in the afterlife, Virilio's [87] theory of the physiological desertification of the post-modern individual captures the idea of the catastrophic liberation of man from the flesh in what Kroker [88] calls the humiliation of the flesh. But in the emergence of this catastrophic condition, Virilio finds a potential apocalyptic turning point, a moment of redemption that could save humanity from the fate of Mengele, the great sadistic artist of corporeal manipulation who refused the reality of the miserable human body. However, Virilio's theory - which suggests that apocalyptic revelation in the desert that is simultaneously the end and the beginning of the world may re-establish our relationship with our own fleshy bodies, our fellow humans, and the environment that surrounds and supports us - seems to run counter to the dominant hegemonic understanding of the logic of Christian apocalypticism, precisely in the way in which it spins the idea of the liberation of the flesh towards notions of humiliation and cruelty [89].

As such, I think we must conclude that contrary to the Christian fundamentalism of the American right, which we might suggest has simply made explicit a theological commitment to virtuality present in modernity from the beginning, Virilio's theory of speed and apocalyptic crashes turns off a materialist version of Christianity that folds the standard Nietzschean [90] interpretation of the religion as a Platonism of the masses committed to the destruction of the body, back into an idea of Christianity as a theory of the revolutionary potential of the poor and the miserable who experience their bodies and live through corporeal embeddedness in the world. In many respects, then, Virilio reads Christianity and the Christian apocalypse against the contemporary fundamentalist grain, and, akin to }i~ek [91], understands the idea of God's sacrificial offering up of Christ as a kind of integral accident, or event, that could allow humanity to pass through the desert of mutilation, cruelty, and virtuality in order to return to their bodies, each other, and the world provided by their maker.

In conclusion, then, I think that Virilio's thought revolves around a critique of the modern, hyper-modern, and post-modern empire of speed that has defined the west perhaps from Herodotus' [92] discovery of history or Hobbes' [93] notion of the state as traffic cop, and certainly since the French revolution and the epoch of the totalitarian 'dromomaniacs' right up to our contemporary globalitarian society characterised by the deserter or planet man who is always on the move without really going anywhere. In Virilio's [94] view, the globalitarian society, which is defined by media light speeds that mean that departure and arrival collapse into one moment of infinite density, is a kind of utopian non-place, a black hole, symbolised by what he calls 'the inertia of the dead centre'. Inside this black singularity, comprised of a vortex of information, communication, and spectral bodies, suicide and pure war are the principal expression of what Virilio [95] calls the logic of disappearance that can explain socio-political catastrophes from the dirty war in Argentina, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the American bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Iraq, and the contemporary Islamic suicide bomber.

In each case, Virilio's work shows that it is possible to discern a rejection, revulsion, and will to overcome the phenomenological constraints of reality, so that in Argentina and Cambodia entire populations were disappeared, in Kosovo and Iraq the wholesale destruction of territory, city, and body was enabled by a myopic focus on the abstract geography of the map, and in the case of the Islamic suicide bomber, the body is exploded in the name of some superior metaphysical version of reality. Similar examples abound throughout the history of modernity, taking in Hobbes' [96] abstract vision of early capitalist space, Boccioni's image of man in motion, and the totalitarians' utopian theory of some pure future defined by either a lack of class or racial diversity, to enable us to understand that the problem of modernity, hyper-modernity, and post-modernity resides in the inability of humanity to recognise the necessity of the resistance of the world and the tragic consequences that follow from this necessary feature of existence.

In Virilio's [97] view, the principal effect of the modern inability to recognise resistance and respect limits has been a crepuscular dawn, a twilight of space and time, where the obsession with speed and movement has led to the collapse into a culture of bunkerisation, suffocation, and incarceration, at the very limits of terrestrial space and time. Reading the signs of the end times, such as media immediacy, everyday war, bunkerisation, information overload, and the transformation of humanity itself into code, Virilio [98] discerns the desertification of the world and the coming of a potentially revolutionary moment that would allow humanity to find its feet and live through territory, community, and its own body once more. But before this can happen, before we can transform the catastrophe that keeps piling rubble upon rubble in front of our fascinated eyes, Virilio [99] understands that we must employ our scenic imagination in order to found a truly apocalyptic mode of representation that can shock us out of our stupor where catastrophes, disasters, and accidents are not only normal, but also an essential part of our obsession with speed and events. This is, then, the essential problem of Virilio's apocalypse. How is it possible to translate catastrophe into apocalypse in a society that is obsessed with catastrophe, where everything is endlessly on the move, and there is no time for thought and reflection? Apart from putting his faith in apocalyptic representation, Virilio also suggests the institutionalisation of the critical imagination in a museum of accidents [100] and a university of disaster [101] in the hope that these negative monuments to the modernist obsession with speed - which would include the great works of Gericault, Goya, and Picasso, as well as representations of and references to the Titanic, Chernobyl, 9 / 11, and Iraq - may come together to reveal the catastrophic substance of modernity in a frozen moment, thus enabling us to re-humanise the world in order to save ourselves as an embodied species. This, then, is Virilio's apocalypticism, the critical imaginary capable of translating the everyday catastrophe of modernity that has led our world to the point of infinite density into an apocalyptic sign that may enable us to overcome our technological thirst for annihilation and re-think our phenomenological being as bodies embedded in society and world.


[1] Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (London: Verso, 2000).

[2] Paul Virilio, Unknown Quantity (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003b).

[3] Paul Virilio, The Original Accident (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).

[4] Paul Virilio, The University of Disaster (Cambridge: Polity, 2009b)

[5] Paul Virilio, 'Stop Eject' in Native Land: Stop Eject eds. Depardon and Virilio (Paris: Fondation Cartier, 2009), 177-237.

[6] Paul Virilio, 'The Current Crash Represents the Integral Accident Par Excellence' Le Monde, 18th October, 2008.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1973).

[8] Walter Benjamin 'On the Concept of History' in his Selected Writings: Volume 4: 1938-1940, Eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003) 389-401.

[9] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[10] Virilio, 'Stop Eject', 177-237.

[11] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

[12] Benjamin, 'On the Concept of History' 389-401.

[13] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (London: Harper Perennial, 1977). And Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche: Volume I & II (London: Harper Collins, 1991).

[14] Paul Virilio, Pure War (New York: Semiotext(e), 1998).

[15] Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy (London: Harper, 1962).

[16] Klein, The Shock Doctrine

[17] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002).

[18] Paul Virilio , The University of Disaster.

[19] Rene Girard, 'The Evangelical Subversion of Myth' in Politics and Apocalypse ed. Hamerton-Kelly (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2008), 29-51.

[20] Slavoj }i~ek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009)

[21] Alain Badiou, The Logic of Worlds: Being and Event II (London: Continuum, 2009).

[22] Arthur Kroker, The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).

[23] James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network (London: Routledge, 2009)

[24] Paul Virilio, 'Critical Space' in The Virilio Reader ed. Der Derian (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 58-73.

[25] Drew Burk, 'Introduction' in Paul Virilio Grey Ecology ed. Hubertus von Amelunxen (New York: Atropos Press, 2009a), Pg 15-25.

[26] Paul Virilio, Landscape of Events (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001).

[27] Paul Virilio, The University of Disaster (Cambridge: Polity, 2009b).

[28] Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication (New York: Semiotext(e), 1988) .

[29] Paul Virilio, Landscape of Events (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001).

[30] Virilio, The University of Disaster.

[31] Paul Virilio, City of Panic (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 113-143.

[32] Paul Virilio, Landscape of Events (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001). And Virilio, The University of Disaster.

[33] Ross Hamilton, Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008).

[34] Virilio, The University of Disaster.

[35] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals (New York: Anchor Books, 1988).

[36] Paul Virilio, Politics of the Very Worst (New York: Semiotext(e), 1999b).

[37] Virilio, The University of Disaster.

[38] Paul Virilio, Art and Fear (London: Athlone, 2003a). And Paul Virilio, Unknown Quantity (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003b).

[39] Paul Virilio, Pure War (New York: Semiotext(e), 1998)

[40] Gerhard Richter, Thought-Images: Frankfurt School Writers Reflections From Damaged Life (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).

[41] Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics. (New York: Semiotext(e),1977) .

[42] Virilio, Unknown Quantity.

[43] Virilio, Grey Ecology.

[44] Virilio, 'Critical Space', 58-73.

[45] Virilio, Landscape of Events. See also Virilio, Art and Fear, Virilio, Unknown Quantity and Virilio, The University of Disaster.

[46] Virilio, Speed and Politics.

[47] Slavoj }i~ek, Robespierre: Virtue and Terror (London: Verso, 2007)

[48] Paul Virilio, Pure War (New York: Semiotext(e), 1998).

[49] Virilio, Speed and Politics.

[50] Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York: Harcourt Press, 1968) .

[51] Christine Poggi, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[52] Georg Simmel, 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' in Simmel on Culture eds. Frisby and Featherstone, (London: Sage, 1997), 174-187.

[53] Virilio, Speed and Politics.

[54] Ernst J¸nger, Storms of Steel (London: Penguin, 2004).

[55] Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies: Volume I: Women, Floods, Bodies. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). Also Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies: Volume II: Psychoanalysing the White Terror (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

[56] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

[57] Virilio, Pure War.

[58] Virilio, Speed and Politics.

[59] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Penguin, 2008).

[60] Thomas Spragens, The Politics of Motion: The World of Thomas Hobbes (London: Routledge, 1973).

[61] Virilio, Speed and Politics.

[62] Herodotus The Histories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[63] Plato, The Republic (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

[64] Kroker, The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism.

[65] Virilio, Pure War. And Paul Virilio, Polar Inertia. (London: Sage,1999a).

[66] Virilio, Pure War.

[67] Kroker, The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism.

[68] Scott Wilson, The Order of Joy: Beyond the Cultural Politics of Enjoyment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008).

[69] Ibid.

[70] Virilio Pure War.

[71] Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (London: Verso, 2000).

[72] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Volume II (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[73] Paul Virilio, 'The Twilight of the Grounds' in The Desert ed. Thesiger, Depardon, Khemir, and Virilio, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 102-119.

[74] Jean Baudrillard, America (London: Verso, 1989).

[75] Paul Virilio, Open Sky (London: Verso, 1997).

[76] Tim LaHaye And Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Books,1998) .

[77] Virilio, The University of Disaster.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Der Derian, Virtuous War.

[80] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007).

[81] Der Derian, Virtuous War.

[82] Jorges Luis Borges, 'On Exactitude in Science' in Collected Fictions (London: Penguin, 1999), 325.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Virilio 'The Twilight of the Grounds', 102-119.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (London: Yale University Press, 1999).

[87] Virilio, 'The Twilight of the Grounds', 102-119.

[88] Kroker, The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism.

[89] Arthur Kroker, Born Again Ideology, (Victoria: Ctheory Books, 2006).

[90] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin, 1990).

[91] Slavoj }i~ek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009).

[92] Herodotus The Histories.

[93] Hobbes, Leviathan.

[94] Virilio, Open Sky.

[95] Virilio, Pure War.

[96] Hobbes, Leviathan.

[97] Paul Virilio, Crepuscular Dawn (New York: Semiotext(e), 2002).

[98] Virilio, 'The Twilight of the Grounds' , 102-119.

[99] Virilio, Landscape of Events. See also Virilio, Art and Fear, Virilio, Unknown Quantity, and Virilio, The University of Disaster.

[100] Virilio, Landscape of Events.

[101] Virilio, The University of Disaster.

Mark Featherstone is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University, UK. His areas of specialism are social and political thought and psychoanalysis. His current research focuses on notions of utopia and dystopia in social and political thought and he recently published a monograph on this topic entitled Tocqueville?s Virus (Routledge). He is currently working on the second volume of this study, entitled Planet Utopia: Utopia, Dystopia, and Globalisation, which will be published by Routledge in 2011. Apart from his focus on utopia in social and political theory, he is also interested in urbanisation, particularly in relation to processes of globalisation.