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Traditions

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, one of France’s foremost theorists of speed and technology, is a deep well for doing political theology in an apocalyptic time.

Paul Virilio (1932-2018) was only eight years old in 1940, the year Nazis began to occupy Nantes, the French city along the Atlantic ocean where his family had been evacuated from Paris during the Second World War. For the next four years, bombs filled the air and fascists filled the streets. Virilio, who spent his adolescence sheltering in bunkers from Allied planes as Jews and Communists were executed by Nazis, describes himself as a child of the Blitzkrieg. He would spend the rest of his life exploring the thorough militarization of global society, creating a vast lexicon of concepts to interrogate architecture, war, politics, religion, technology, and more. 

Virilio’s father was a Communist and his mother was a Catholic. Converting to Catholicism at the age of 18, owing to his encounter with worker-priests, Virilio chose the faith of one parent over the other. He nevertheless remained something of a leftist, sometimes referring to himself as an anarchist. Throughout his life, Virilio cited his Catholic faith as the reason he remained hopeful in a world that his analysis described as utterly permeated by war. But Virilio’s Catholicism is highly particular, and he occupies a curious place in the universe of radical French theory.

Like many of his contemporaries, Virilio was caught up in the political eruption of 1968 in Paris. Joining students squatting in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, he delivered impromptu lectures on space and politics. The young radicals were so impressed that they nominated Virilio to a professorial post at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture, where he enjoyed a relationship of mutual influence with other ’68ers like Guy Debord, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Michel Foucault. 

These biographical details are essential to understanding Virilio’s theoretical work, which is responsive, intuitive, and creative, rather than systematic. Although Virilio’s reception in English has been primarily in media studies and the arts, he provides a deep and largely untapped well for those exploring political theology, especially if we take political theology to mean a genealogical approach to the intersections of sovereignty, legitimacy, and theology. Three interrelated concepts from Virilio’s unique lexicon stand out as uniquely relevant for political theology: dromology, accidentology, and revelation.

Dromology

Dromology, the study of speed (dromos is Greek for “race track”), is one of Virilio’s earliest and most influential concepts, and one that is foundational for the bulk of his work. In his 1977 book Speed and Politics, Virilio argues that politics is primarily a matter of movement—who gets to move and who does not, what regulates the circulation of bodies, information, and capital, etc. Calling for a “political economy of speed,” in addition to the political economy of wealth, Virilio reroutes questions of sovereignty and resistance through the logistics of motion.

The practical utility of dromology as a tool of analysis is clear when thinking about movements like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, and immigration activism, movements that shut down highways, railways, and airports, and revolve around the unequal distribution of the freedom to move. Virilio is also interested in cities, spaces in which people negotiate speeds, where one’s commute to work might be paused by the clot of a demonstration. This utility is unsurprising, given Virilio’s involvement in 1968, a moment when the streets of Paris were up for grabs. But it also allows for an analysis of globalization’s addiction to speed, as distances are collapsed through telecommunications and transportation technologies, coalescing under a grim canopy of surveillance and alienation. 

Writing in the late 70s on trends that have proliferated, Virilio declares that “there is no democracy, only dromocracy,” the rule of speed (Speed and Politics, 69). For Virilio, speed itself is neither good nor bad, and there can be a non-oppressive, voluntary multiplicity of cohabitating speeds. But today we are all drawn into a dangerous acceleration, filtered through and motivated by the logic of militarization, a dialectic of attack and defense. “In fact, history progresses at the speed of its weapons systems,” says Virilio (Speed and Politics, 90). 

In Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles, Virilio further argues that the military class and its particular way of seeing the world has become the dominant director of speed. As a student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Virilio’s analysis of military logistics is rooted in his phenomenological interest in perceptual worlds. Since perception is tied to how we move bodily in space and time, Virilio is concerned both about how military logic shapes that perception, and how acceleration via transportation and communication technologies blurs our vision, eliminating distances and time alike. For instance, to remain sovereign, the state must constantly see and move more quickly than its opponents—be they other states, internal or imagined foes, or its own citizens—provoking the rapid advancement of military technologies that creep into and transform everyday life (the internet being one among many examples). 

The competition among capitalists, too, relies on acceleration, to the point that high frequency stock trades are measured in microseconds, that is, millionths of seconds. The rise of neoliberalism is often described as the growing influence of a capitalist logic of accumulation that subordinates the state to its purposes. Virilio agrees, but adds that capital accumulation is itself a matter of dromocracy, a regime of speed that is also tied to militarist logic, a means by which the dialectic of violence has outpaced even the state form.

Downstream from drones and dollars, we routinely adopt technologies that integrate us into totalizing dromocratic habits, increasing our own speed, collapsing space and time through smart phones, air travel, and so on. Dromocracy, in other words, is not “out there,” imposed from the top down, but a process in which we participate. Hence Virilio, in his own subtle form of political theology, suggests that our technical devices have allowed us to take for ourselves the classical “omni” attributes of divinity: omniscience (information is no longer scarce), omnipresence (one can livestream the Louvre from an apartment), and omnipotence (weapons technologies can destroy the planet several times over).

Hurried along by attack and defense, Virilio argues we are living with the military class’s victory over the deliberative public sphere, now managed by a minimal state that is always subordinate to the logic of speed supremacy. Whereas Carl Schmitt’s famous axiom in Political Theology says that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” for Virilio we might say that all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state (and market) are civilianized military concepts. Or better, the drive to total acceleration is itself a militarizing agent, conscripting civilians by a myriad of methods.

For Virilio, then, the primary driver of modern politics is not the secularization of theology into law, nor even the dialectic between the bourgeoisie and proletariat; the key to social domination is speed and the battle over movement, the militarized governance of mobility, which immobilizes populations not only with tear gas and batons, but by making them sedentary, passive, and aloof through fast travel and the captivation of screens. 

Accidentology

Accidentology springs from Virilio’s engagement with speed as a critical investigation of technology. “According to Aristotle, ‘the accident reveals the substance,’” observes Virilio in his book The Original Accident. “If so, then the invention of the ‘substance’ is equally the invention of the ‘accident.’ The shipwreck is consequently the ‘futurist’ invention of the ship, and the air crash the invention of the supersonic airliner, just as the Chernobyl meltdown is the invention of the nuclear power station” (5). While the metaphysics may frustrate Aristotelians, Virilio invents a methodology for thinking through technology that begins not from the promise of invention, but the premise of disaster.

A main tenet of media theory is the assumption that we do not enjoy a direct relation of intentionality with technology, but are unpredictably affected and changed through our use of it. Ordinarily, Western culture presents technology as, basically, tools for use, and its development is synonymous with progress. For Virilio, by contrast, we are also tools for the use of technology; and Virilio, observing our technological transformations, influenced by the apprehensions of Martin Heidegger and the catastrophic theory of Walter Benjamin, is profoundly suspicious of “Progress.”

Though the substance of a technology is revealed by its accidents, the myth of progress hides the latent disasters in all technical media, disasters that are more prevalent and pervasive as the rule of dromocracy keeps speeding up. With the planet enveloped in communication cables, flight paths, satellite feeds, and more, the possibility of disaster grows. And as these channels of people and information are connected more and more through the fragile network of the internet, Virilio suggests there might yet be what he calls an “integral accident,” one that would occur faster than humans could stop or mitigate, simultaneously and ubiquitously.

Virilio further alerts us to the possibility of an “information bomb,” the violent product of the communicative sciences mirroring the nuclear bomb, the violent product of the physical sciences, drawing us full circle into the thorough militarization of everyday life. Most unnervingly, such a bomb need not be dropped by a state government or terrorist cell, but might simply happen in light of the speed of algorithms. The 2008 financial crisis, Virilio thought, triggered by accelerations of profit and algorithmic stock trading, was a portent of such a disaster.

Though he is understandably construed as a pessimist, Virilio clarifies in a variety of interviews that this is not the case. He is no Luddite, but rather wants to sound the alarm that technologies harbor dangerous potentialities that we ignore to our peril. Because of the accidents built into technology, the question for Virilio is not if technologies will fail, but when and how. Such a question, he hopes, might prompt intentional reflection, which is itself a resistance to the motion blur of algorithmic life.

Revelation

Revelation helps to situate Virilio’s work as a whole, especially for political theology, in two ways. First, methodologically. Dromology and accidentology are ways of attending to what is hidden, whether speed or the accident, and many of Virilio’s other concepts and investigations function similarly. Accidents, which can happen more frequently and dramatically as our dromocracy accelerates, are also revelations in themselves to which Virilio wants to bear witness. In his later work, like the interview recorded in The Administration of Fear, Virilio accordingly describes himself as a “revelationary,” drawing from the Christian tradition of apocalypse, both in the sense of revealing what is hidden and providing a new beginning. 

Second, Virilio’s response to troubling revelations is rooted in a radical but idiosyncratic Christian posture. Theological language and themes appear obliquely but frequently in Virilio’s analysis, and directly in interviews. Reading the dialectic of war onto history, one that supplants and corrals speeds, Virilio sees Christ as one who transgresses the military logic of the state and affirms the lowest members of society, the poor, and their sociality, as an alternative space. Virilio also often says that he is primarily a Christian because of the doctrine of the Incarnation, a valorization of embodied life.

Both senses of revelation are summarized in the Eglise Sainte Bernadette du Banlay, or the “bunker church,” in Nevers, France, designed by Virilio with his one-time colleague Claude Parent, constructed in 1966. Inspired by Virilio’s studies of wartime bunkers dotting the coast of France, the church appears as a mammoth mass of gray cement, externally foreboding. Internally, two floor planes slope to meet in the middle, with the priest and congregation falling toward one another, expressing the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Mass in the bunker church thereby orients those inside in a new spatial relationship, as well as a new rhythm of time, performing the liturgy as a deliberate alternative speed. The church is the material expression of Virilio’s theory, and a remarkable demonstration of the political theology that underlies his analytic work.

Virilio, then, is long overdue as an interlocutor in the discourse of political theology. He offers an alternative genealogy of sovereignty, and theological engagement with it, to the usual touchstone theorists, and the pastiche of theological terms and characters spliced into his work invites closer examination. Political theology would also help illuminate aspects of Virilio, theological and otherwise, that are overlooked by other readers, and Virilio’s interventions should be examined critically and carefully, uncovering where his own Christian tradition might reproduce or miss forms of domination that have been fruitfully identified by political theology’s revelatory work. 


Annotated Bibliographies 

Because Virilio’s writing style is performatively disorienting, he is best approached initially through interviews, many of which have been collected into journals and books. I have tried with these five titles to represent a range within Virilio’s work, but among the many texts unfortunately left out are those dealing primarily with art, architecture, urbanism, perception, surveillance, and 9/11. The learning curve of Virilio’s style is a significant challenge and the subject of a good deal of secondary literature in itself, but the disjointed, even accelerated feeling one has reading his texts is intentional, an exercise that leads to the reader’s own revelations over time.

Armitage, John. Virilio Live: Selected Interviews. London: SAGE Publications, 2001.

An anthology of interviews with different interviewers, this is the best starting place for getting a sense of Virilio’s thought. In particular, he discusses his relationship to Christianity and the bunker church.

Virilio, Paul. Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006 [1977].

One of Virilio’s most-cited books, and a text that had significant influence on his contemporaries, this book presents Virilio’s early forays into the concept of dromology, the politics of movement, and militarization. There is also some material of particular relevance to political theology concerning the relationship between soldiers and monks, along with Virilio’s conception of state sovereignty.

Virilio, Paul. Popular Defense and Ecological Struggle. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1990 [1978].

This essay digests the themes of Speed and Politics in much shorter fashion, contextualizing them further in Virilio’s dialogue with philosophies of history, transformations in the state form from modernity to neoliberalism, and the question of revolutionary violence. Virilio also deploys his phenomenological training, exploring the perceptual ecologies of military thinking and acceleration.

Virilio, Paul. The Original Accident. Trans. Julie Rose. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007 [2005].

Though the accident develops and features in a number of Virilio’s books, this is the most sustained presentation of his idea of accidentology, and contains the seeds of many other books. It provides a look at Virilio’s theory of technology, his analysis of globalization, and puts forward the notion that we need public means of recalling accidents, including a novel idea for a museum of accidents.

Virilio, Paul and Bertrand Richard. The Administration of Fear. Trans. Ames Hodges. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012.

In this long interview, published in 2012, Virilio discusses his phenomenological analysis in light of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, social media, and the governmentality of fear as an affect and a political force, extending his earlier work on the ecology produced by militarization.

Kojin Karatani

A short overview of Kojin Karatani’s Marxist influenced focus on modes of exchange as revealing the Borromean ring of Capital-Nation-State, and the import of this ring for religion.

Silvia Federici

Federici provides a model for political theologians engaging with race, gender, and sexuality through the lens of capitalist oppression

Luce Irigaray

“Perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air (and Irigaray) reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath. We might forget air, we might forget that we breathe, or how to breathe. But air does not forget us. And air will never cease to carry us, to lift us up, to set us into flight, even when we no longer live in a body that tried (if unsuccessfully) to fly.”

Niklas Luhmann

David Kline introduces the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann for political theology and reflects on how it might think about its own limits of observation.

N. Katherine Hayles

A reflection on the political implications of N. Katherine Hayles’ critical aesthetic inquiry into the ecological relationships between the human and the technological, thought and cognition, and information and materiality.

Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers, continental philosopher of science, offers pragmatic resources for animating thinking with interest and passion, affirming heresy over conformity and undercutting the all-too-common binaries of religion/science and science/fiction.

François Laruelle

“[For] quantum gnostics, there has never been a creation of the world or in the world—it is the world that is ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’, and consequently also the God who claimed to have created it and yet hesitates to assume it.”

Enrique Dussel

Rafael Vizcaíno offers a biographical introduction to the philosophical work of Enrique Dussel, a major figure of the decolonial turn. Separate from his theology, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation offers crucial reflections for contemporary political theology.

Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood (1962-2018) was a pioneering anthropologist of Islam and secularism, a feminist theorist of gender and religion, and a critic of liberal certainties.

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, one of France’s foremost theorists of speed and technology, is a deep well for doing political theology in an apocalyptic time.

Stuart Hall

The late public intellectual Stuart Hall, with his concept of the conjuncture, assists political theology in analyzing our current moment and potential interventions.

Talal Asad

Rather than establishing structural analogies or historical filiations between “religion” and “politics” (terms he opens to question), Talal Asad urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts across different situations.

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