Key Theories of Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio (b.1932) is the theorist of the effects of increasing speed in post or late-modernity. Of particular importance for him, in this regard, are information technology and technologies of vision, such as cinema and photography, especially in time of war. And, queries Virilio, is not this all the time? – peace being war by other means. The net result of the emergence of these prosthetic forces is the dominance of virtual reality and the disappearance of materiality (cf. Virilio 1991), of identities, of space as a definite place to be, of perception as contact with material reality, including the body. So, unlike some posthumanists, who see biology and technology (especially its cybernetic aspect) as being inextricably linked to positive outcomes, Virilio is a most trenchant critic of this. It remains to examine these aspects in more detail. But first, we turn to the Virilio biography.


Life and Intellectual Trajectory

Born in 1932 in Paris to an Italian communist father and French mother, Paul Virilio was evacuated at the beginning of World War II to Nantes, where he experienced at first hand the trauma of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. Trained at the E´ cole des me´tiers d’art in Paris, the future architect became an artist in stained glass who trained with Braque at Vargenville and with Matisse at Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

Also during the 1950s, after converting to Christianity through contact with ‘worker priests’, Virilio took up photography and photographed 15,000 German bunkers, stretching along the West European coast up to Denmark. Later, in 1975, he curated an exhibition called ‘Bunker Arche´ologie’, based on the images collected, and held at the Decorative Arts Museum of Paris (see Virilio 1994). The architecture of war, Virilio argues, makes palpable the power of technology. The study of bunker architecture is thus only the beginning. Later, in the 1960s, Virilio engaged in developing ‘oblique architecture’, which used physiological principles to develop more habitable buildings.

Briefly, Virilio’s formal career includes the following appointments, showing that, despite his anarchist disposition, he did not reject access to power and influence. Thus in 1963 Virilio became the president and the editor of the Architecture Principe group’s magazine. This group explored the idea of ‘oblique’ architecture, Virilio having noticed that people inhabit places with inclined, not horizontal, planes. He was also a teacher at the E´ cole Spe´ciale d’Architecture (ESA) until 1968, becoming its Director of Studies in 1973. That same year, he became the editor of the magazine, L’Espace Critique, published in Paris by Galile´e. In 1975 he was appointed General Director of the ESA, and in 1989 became Chairman of the Board. In 1987, Virilio won the Grand National Prize for Architecture, and in 1989, he became the director of the programme of studies at the Colle`ge International de Philosophie in Paris, under the direction of Jacques Derrida. He became a member, in 1992, of the High Committee for the Housing of the Disadvantaged and worked with the famous priest, Abbe´ Pierre. Among other projects, he is working on metropolitan techniques of time organization and the building of the first Museum of the Accident. Virilio, who retired from teaching in 1998, currently devotes himself to writing and working with private organisations concerned with housing the homeless in Paris.

The Thesis of War and Speed

To the extent that a general and distinct line of argument, or that a general theory of politics and society can be discerned in the wide dissemination of Virilio’s thoughts, war, military organisation and power constitute the central and over-arching infrastructure of his thinking. Human life in the West has been dominated, since the nineteenth century, by speed, with the consequence that time and light (the ultimate speed) become the key ideas of the epoch. Although we are to understand that this kind of activity and organisation has been present in the life of humanity since time immemorial, it is the modern and post-modern periods – that is, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century and beyond – that become the particular focus of Virilio’s theorising. In this epoch, there is a fundamental change from warfare based on the principle of space and position to one based on movement and time. The latest developments in information technology simply reinforce the dominance of the latter principle, even if its most recent incarnations result in war being based on mechanisms that are secretive, virtual and invisible. Because new technologies make possible secretive, virtual and invisible forms of warfare, war can quite easily be continued in periods of so-called peace.

Perception and Cinema

Particularly influential for Virilio have been Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological studies of perception, Virilio having been a student of the philosopher at the Sorbonne in the 1950s. New information technologies intervene first of all at the level of perception. These new forces in fact become a substitute for perception, especially in the context of war, where the supply of images becomes ammunition. This is starkly illustrated even by the time of the Great War of 1914–18. Thus, in one of his most telling books, Virilio shows how technology transforms perception, how weapons become tools of perception and how the battle becomes the ‘rapidly changing fields of perception’ (Virilio 1989: 6). Forces of productive power become the model of destructive power.

War, it transpires, is about captivating the enemy (Virilio 1989: 5), or of producing a magical spectacle, of instilling fear of death before death arrives. Weapons go hand in hand with psychological mystification. Representation is crucial.

At the same time as cinematic acceleration is applied to the real world, cinema becomes a training ground (like military training grounds). Ronald Reagan, for example, used cinema technology to further his political agenda. Indeed, no activity during or after the First World War escapes ‘cinematisation’. War, battlefields, weaponry and technology are constant points of reference for Virilio, the aim being to show that cinema and war are now inextricably linked. Such a view is dependent on the shrinking of space and the emergence of time as the crucial element in all activity. Time goes with the emergence of the acceleration of all aspects of social life.

Warfare, with its use of information technologies, makes time fundamental. War is always connected to technologies, particularly to technologies of perception, which were used with such dedication and effect by Hitler and the Nazis. And yet, the Allied victory, it could be said, was due to undermining Hitler’s charisma through film technology (Virilio 1989: 59).

In his later work, Virilio subscribes to the notion that war is going on in the time of peace: pure war is neither peace nor war. War is no longer identifiable with declared conflict. Peace is war by other means.

The issue is to understand the relationship between industrialised warfare and cinema.

Cinema technology, in a word, becomes the eyes and ears of armies. Face to face combat as the leading edge of warfare in a given territory becomes a thing of the past. The visible gives way to the invisible and secrecy. Neither side signals its intentions as, in order to instil fear in the enemy, it once might have. Deception at all levels becomes the name of the game.

During the Second World War, East Anglia in England was turned into a film set in order to deceive the enemy Luftwaffe bombers. ‘At other key moments, look-alikes of Churchill and other military leaders embarked on aeroplanes to undertake bogus trips’ (Virilio 1989: 64).

Optics of Speed

In war, ‘eyesight and direct vision have gradually given way to optoelectrical processes, to the most sophisticated forms of ‘‘telescopic sight’’’ (Virilio 1989: 69). The camera’s flow of images (which take the place of direct perception) ends the war of position, based on space, and inaugurates the war of movement based on time. Increasing speed – acceleration – transforms the nature of conflict. Tendencies take precedence over events in the Second World War, but can only be detected by computers and other technologies. Information technology itself is the incarnation of speed, as it is able to approximate the speed of light in its articulation. After the Second World War, survival depends on measures introduced during the War. Information technology and research in artificial intelligence – the backbone of cybernetics – began in the midst of the War. With the greater hold of information technology on society comes the greater dominance of speed, its inseparable accompaniment. As Virilio puts it in The Information Bomb (2000), the speed of information technology gives rise to chronopolitics (a politics of time), which is taking the place of a politics based on a territory. The computer screen enables the user not only ‘to receive data’ but ‘to view the horizon of globalization, the space of its accelerated virtualization’ (Virilio 2000: 16). As virtual reality takes over from material reality following the information technology revolution, the information bomb succeeds the nuclear bomb: space disappears along with bodies and every genre of object.

Disappearance and the Virtual and the Dark Side of the Enlightenment

Because technology today is increasingly becoming a force in its own right, the world of appearances gives way to the world of disappearances. Identity becomes virtual and multiple, implying movement between infinite substitutions. The result, if we are to believe passages from Open Sky (1997), is ‘unprecedented temporal breakdown’ that intimates a ‘social crash’ the preliminary signs of which are structural unemployment and family breakdown (Virilio 1997: 71). This is the woe of the total immateriality of the city emblematised by American cinema, with Hollywood as its model.

People now engage in virtual interactions and perception changes, the body disappears (is not perceived as such) as does physical location. A landscape comes to be seen, if at all, only while travelling: through the car windscreen or window of a fast train. Soon, this vestige of appearance and materiality will also disappear to b replaced by virtual images on the internet.

Virilio, like Baudrillard, seems to focus on the dark side of the Enlightenment to the extent that light – the speed of light – the significance of which was starting to be seen at the start of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, is the element giving rise to the dominance of time over space, of virtuality over materiality. Yet Virilio is at pains to say that he is a realist, not a pessimist. It is just that there are so many believers in the whole of technology, and so few critics since the death of Virilio’s mentor in 1994, the philosopher and theologian, Jacques Ellul. It is not that technology itself is evil; rather, taking a fundamentalist attitude towards it is. The latter consists in thinking that whatever technology prescribes must be followed to the letter.

Those who believe in Virilio see him as the prophet of the technospeed- based millennium. Loss of time means greater acceleration: more speed. The nature and impact of this is the subject of ‘dromology’ – Virilio’s invention – meaning: the study of speed. Relative speed is taken over by absolute speed, the speed of light. Einstein thus becomes so prescient.

Time, for Virilio, is the instant as much as duration. Cinema is a point in the development of electro-magnetic speed: cinema time is about putting movement into images. Everything accelerates.


Power, for its part, becomes secret and invisible (exemplified by the lives of Howard Hughes and William Randolph Hearst, by the activities of the CIA, and by criminal activity). In the wake of an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’, the tangible version of power – power as the conscious and explicit implementation of the ruler’s will – gives way to power as invisible and intangible. Foucault’s ideas have been influential here. For Foucault as well, there is an historical change from visible forms of power, as exemplified by absolute monarchy, and power as it is articulated in modern democracies, where, following the panopticon model, power becomes invisible and integrated into a multitude of disciplinary practices. In a sense, the growing invisibility of power is also equivalent to its virtualisation, or, as Virilio would say, to its dematerialisation. And of course, Foucault also spoke in the same context about new technologies of power. Thus, for Virilio, the form of power changes and becomes invisible in light of the growing dominance of new technologies.

Virilio’s theorising and descriptions are often of the moment. He is never short of examples to press home his point here, even if these often seem selective. Surveillance at airports and toll booths at all points of entry, change the city. Architecture gives way to functional, surveillance concerns.

Negative Aspects of Information Technology

A new technological space–time emerges in the era of hypo-modernity, which stretches into the beginning of the twenty-first century. Cities are becoming de-populated as post-industrialism takes hold. Speed dominates everything through new telecommunications.

The city no longer has gates; the ‘face-to-face’ disappears with the rise of the virtual. Substantial, homogeneous space in the Greek sense gives way to an accidental, heterogeneous space. The tyranny of distance gives way to the tyranny of real time. Space (e.g. office space) gives way to time. People live/work as disabled people do, using prosthetic gadgetry of all kinds. They become increasingly sedentary (see Virilio 1997).

In sum, the geographical environment is disappearing (space is disappearing). People no longer identify with a particular place, whether this be village, town or country. The result is often an indifference to neighbours while people profess a love for the other at a distance.

Time and space are always relative to human time and space, so it matters a great deal if these coordinates change. Virtual interaction at a distance, whether in the context of sexuality, politics or urban life, has a cybernetic dimension that, for Virilio, deprives people of free will in the sense that they become elements in a feed back and control system, the very opposite of freedom and democracy.

With regard to sexuality in particular, the risk for our theorist is that the contact at a distance of cybersex may lead to a preference for this kind of activity rather than activity in proximity with a partner. The very existence of the human race – or at least the most highly developed parts of it in the West – is then brought into question because it will no longer be able to reproduce itself. For reproduction is the result of proximity, not distance (Virilio 1997: 106–7).

Regarding the dominance of real time (over space and materiality), Virilio refers to Rodin’s statement that the camera lies because time does not stand still. In response Virilio claims that photography (an older medium), while not being the same as time passing, is equivalent to the exposure of time, of time ‘breaking the surface’, and that when multiple images are shown in sequence, time does not stand still (Virilio 1997: 27–28). Not photographic time, but the time of media and television, the time of the live coverage, of what is happening ‘now’. The real ‘now’ time, therefore, is not the time of photography, as Bergson once thought, but the time of the media revolution based on satellite and digital technology. ‘Now’ dominates over ‘Here’.

The more technologies of seeing beyond the horizon become perfected the less we see of the world around us: ‘tangible experience will diminish and be reduced to nothing, to less than nothing’ (Virilio 1997: 42).

Economically, the collapse of the small firm shows the current irrelevance of a particular space; the workforce becomes mobile, decentralised, no longer located in cities or on urban outskirts (Virilio 1997: 75). The internet begins to take the place of shopping in the neighbourhood. However, buying on the internet is likely to result in mass unemployment. We are confronting ‘information shock’, which can bring a state to its knees with the collapse of the computer system. To believe totally in this technological revolution is equivalent to a technological fundamentalism, the result being that particular cultures come under threat with the emphasis on real time instead of space and community. What we have is industrialism (communications, transport) taken to the extreme. The virtualisation of politics leads to a loss of geographical sovereignty.

Cybersex entails the loss of the (use of) the body. It is a sexual diversion, where an erotics of distance and repulsion takes the place of intimacy and attraction.

In short, there a total disappearance of materiality due to digitalisation and the hegemony of the present moment (the now) over history and the time of community: the time of a past, present and future. Information technology signals, in Virilio’s doomsday view, the loss of the past and the future.

In addition, in keeping with a growing immateriality, even units of measure have dematerialised. Objects are replaced by trajectories and this is a confirmation of the aesthetics of disappearance (Virilio 2005: 58–59). This leads to a post-objective perception: a ‘trajective’ perception (Virilio 2005: 59). Dromology takes over. Art becomes virtual. But this is a loss of art. For there is no art without analogy (against digitalisation) (cf. Virilio and Baj 2003: 51).

But is it All True . . . ?

There is no doubt that Virilio succeeds in mounting a trenchant critique of technology. He is also astute in pointing out, against those who advocate a positive body–technology symbiosis (cyborg), that there are in fact negative consequences that, if ignored, may place the future existence of humanity at risk.

Although Virilio is often an astute observer of social and political life and has a plethora of examples to call upon to support the claims he makes regarding the negative effects of technology, his work is susceptible to the following criticisms.

1. As has been point out by Scott McQuire (1999), Virilio still works with an image and reality dichotomy, where the image is not real, and with a naı¨ve notion of a natural human identity as being present to itself, thus by-passing the post-structuralist critique of the metaphysics of presence and the de-centring of the subject. Technology, in effect, brings a kind of fall from grace of the original, unified subject as part of a community and in touch with true materiality, including the body. However, it is also true that post-structuralism inhibits a critique of technology.

2. As technology, for Virilio, is essentially prosthetic, it cannot be an essential part of human identity. Indeed, it should always be the servant of humanity, never its master, which it is becoming in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century society. This is also the lesson of earlier critiques of technology such as those of Mary Shelley in her book, Frankenstein’s Monster and Fritz Lang’s in his film, Metropolis. So the question arises as to how new Virilio’s ideas really are.

3. Even though technology is not an essential part of what it is to be human, the human can be changed by technology. The risk is that technological determinism can creep in if technology alone, and by its very nature, is claimed to have deleterious effects on humanity. This becomes even more critical once war is seen as an essential aspect of the current social arrangements in the West, and technology – especially, information technology – is seen to be an inevitable component of war.

4. Because Virilio eschews a systematic approach to the history and theory of technology, relying instead on his own intuitive insights that often seem to be skewed by his Catholicism (cf. Virilio’s promotion of the value of the traditional family), his claims about the negative impact of technology lack a certain credibility. In particular, he ignores the possibility that if technology inaugurates the loss of a certain sort of materiality, it also inaugurates gains in communication. In other words, like capitalism, technology is a two-edged sword.

5. Finally, Virilio steers clear of a detailed assessment of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Artificial Life (AL), and about carbon and silicon life in biology (see N. Katherine Hayles 1999: 235–39), preferring instead to speak broadly about the negative effects of cyborg culture. This limits the plausibility of his critique. Despite all this, Virilio, it has to be acknowledged, reminds us – often forcefully – that it is important not to become complacent with regard to the development and effects of new technologies, and that resistance and critique are key elements in any democratic politics worthy of the name.

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Hayles, N. Katherine (1999), How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
McQuire, Scott (1999), ‘Blinded by the (Speed of) Light’, Theory, Culture and Society, 16, 5–6, 143–59.
Virilio, Paul (1989 [1984]), War and Cinema. The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller, London and New York: Verso.
—— (1991), The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchman. New
York: Semiotext(e).
—— (1994), Bunker Archeology, trans. George Collins, Princeton, NJ: Princeton
Architectural Press.
—— (1997),Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose, London and New York: Verso.
—— (2000), The Information Bomb, trans. Chris Turner, London: Verso.
—— (2005), L’Art a` perte de vue, Paris: Galile´e.
Virilio, Paul and Baj, Enrico (2003), Discours sur l’horreur de l’art, Lyon, France: Atelier de creation libe´rtaire.

Virilio’s Major Writings
(2005) L’Art a` perte de vue, Paris: Galile´e.
(2003) with Enrico Baj Discours sur l’horreur de l’art, Lyon, France: Atelier de cre´ation libe´rtaire.
(2002 [1991]) Desert Screen, trans. Michael Degener, London and New York: Continuum.
(2000 [1998]) The Information Bomb, trans. Chris Turner, London: Verso.
(1997 [1995]) Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose, London and New York: Verso.
(1994a [1988]) The Vision Machine, trans. Julie Rose, Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press and British Film Institute.
(1994b [1975]) Bunker Archaeology, trans. George Collins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.
(1991a [1984]) The Lost Dimension, trans. Daniel Moshenberg, New York: Semiotext(e).
(1991b [1988]) The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchman, New York: Semiotext(e).
(1990 [1978]) Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles, trans. Mark Polizzotti, New York: Semiotext(e).

(1989 [1984]) War and Cinema. The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick
Camiller, London and New York: Verso.
(1986 [1977]) Speed & Politics: An Essay on Dromology, trans. Mark Polizzotti,
New York: Semiotext(e).
(1985) L’Horizon ne´gatif, Paris: Galile´e.
(1978) La Dromoscopies ou la lumie`re de la vitesse, Paris: Minuit.
(1976) L’Inse´curite´ du territoire, Paris: Stock.

Further reading
Armitage, John (1999a), ‘Paul Virilio: An Introduction’, Theory, Culture and Society, 16, 5–6, 1–23.
Armitage, John (1999b), ‘From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond: An Interview with Paul Virilio’, Theory, Culture and Society, 16, 5–6, 25–55.
McQuire, Scott (1999), ‘Blinded by the (Speed of) Light’, Theory, Culture and Society, 16, 5–6, 143–59.



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  1. bibliography – elaine crowe
  2. bibliogaphy – elaine crowe

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