Thinking about an accelerating world with Paul Virilio
interview – A former student of Paul Virilio and editor of the critical apparatus of the collection The Apocalypse is a Concept Without a Future (Sewell), Jan Richer brings to mind the ideas of an architect and philosopher who has explored our relationship to time and space in our hyperconnected societies.
Jean Richer is an architect, geographer and architect at the Bâtiments de France. PhD student in the ACS Laboratory of the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture in Paris-Malaché for a thesis on the architect and philosopher Paul Virilio, participated in the critical edition of Paul Virilio’s collection of essays The end of the world is a concept without a future (Ataba, 2023).
Le Figaro. – Paul Virilio’s collection of 22 essays is titled “The Apocalypse is a Concept Without a Future.” However, he was not a particularly optimistic thinker about developments in society. How would you describe their relationship in the future?
Jean Richer. – He was saying “You have to know how to look a jellyfish in the face“I don’t think he was a pessimistic thinker. Rather, he gave us a lesson in objectivity and limitedness, considering that looking at the end of things – not necessarily the end of the world – is a way to live happily in the present. But he was actually dealing with serious matters, and he was looking at what only people dare Little has been noticed. This is explained by the fact that Paul Virilio saw in the accident or in the catastrophic event that occurs the possibility of revealing something about the matter of which the world is made. In these moments we can discover something important, ontologically, about the world. If the catastrophe appears in some respects As if it were a moment of clarity, it does not specifically mean giving in. It pushes us to be vigilant observers of what is happening in order to make the right decisions.
One of the main criticisms he makes of modernity is acceleration. What is his vision of speed? What are the dangers of acceleration in his opinion?
He is often compared to the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, who wrote extensively about acceleration, but I’m not sure they are talking about the same thing. Paul Virilio starts from the opening experience of World War II and the bombings he witnessed in Nantes in 1943. He sees the phenomena of speed as the prerogative of the military and notes a form of global dominance in the art of war, going so far as to say that in times of peace, we continue to mobilize To use the same strategies, and the same tools, as in times of war. Hence, he analyzes the technological elements of progress as vehicles of speed that make us go faster and faster, as if we were waging a war against time.
Moreover, in addition to his Christian faith, he was very committed to the homeless and developed a whole thinking about those who were cast out of this world of instant communication, of this world of speed. For him, the control of speed creates a dichotomy between the included and the excluded. This is his famous new term in drumology (the study of the role that speed plays in modern societies, Editor’s note): Those who continue to participate in the race pass, but we wonder what happens to those who are kicked out.
Since the dawn of time, man has had a relationship with the world determined by these relations of proportion, but speed, crushing distances, makes space disappear. Let’s return to the car metaphor: the faster it goes, the less aware we are of the distance traveled, and the greater danger it poses to us is no longer a car accident but the loss of bearings.
Speed, for Paul Virilio, is a phenomenon that emerged from the Industrial Revolution. In his first books he even goes back to prehistoric times, but above all, it is speed machines – railways and cameras – that make it possible to speed things up. The speed machine par excellence is the camera, more than the train or the car, because by producing images it allows you to move faster, and to have faster communications.
In this process, he sees mainly mental damage. He wonders how long the human mind can withstand such extreme speeds. Can our psychological lives continue at such high speeds before we go crazy? We must remember that this acceleration is so dazzling that events only pass before our eyes. He explained in one article that the car was a good metaphor: behind our windshield we find ourselves seeing the landscape passing by at very high speed without understanding it. The bottom line is that we get into a fast car, we see the events passing in front of us, we take cover behind our windshield, and we feel completely at ease, whereas if we stopped to look at the side of the road, we would understand how dramatic it is. The crises that are currently unfolding are. Acceleration, ultimately, is convenience.
He also develops a way of thinking about space, which, in his opinion, tends to disappear… and he criticizes the dominant environment for not thinking about space and speed. Why ?
Paul Virilio starts from the principle that our psychological life depends on our experience of the world, which involves relationships of proportion, size, and dimension. Since the dawn of time, man has had a relationship with the world determined by these relations of proportion, but speed, crushing distances, makes space disappear. Let’s return to the car metaphor: the faster it goes, the less aware we are of the distance traveled, and the greater danger it poses to us is no longer a car accident but the loss of bearings. From the moment we no longer have reference points, all accidents become possible.
This is what he calls the gray environment: In addition to the pollution of water, air and land, we must be concerned with the pollution of time and distance. The two space-time pairs are perfectly connected: as velocities increase, time expands and space contracts. This results in mental damage that creates blindness, forming a veil before our eyes that prevents us from seeing danger. Maybe we don’t want to see the danger either, so we indulge in this speed gladly, almost addictively, because it allows us to avoid interacting with complex things.
With distances shrinking to nothing with telecommunications, Paul Virilio believes there is only one city left, which he calls City “Descriptive city”. However, there is only one city for callers; No to the excluded.
In terms of speed, there is also the issue of entrapment: the faster the car goes, the more entrapment you have in your car. If your speed exceeds 150 km/h, you won’t even imagine jumping out of the car. Paul Virilio believes that the faster things go, the more human beings will be imprisoned, the more they will need prosthetics, and the less independent they will become. Finally, this imprisonment isolates each individual and leaves no room for the political environment. We can find fairly concrete examples in everyday life: we are made to feel guilty because we have to sort the garbage well or turn off the lights. It is usually an individual confinement through which the individual is presented with social questions that must be addressed on the scale of the life of the city, regions or nation.
As early as 1995, he was talking about the emergence of remote work, remote consulting… What is his view on the emergence of digital civilization?
With distances shrinking to nothing with telecommunications, Paul Virilio believes there is only one city left, which he calls City “Descriptive city”. However, there is only one city for callers; No to the excluded. Virilio returns several times to urban riots, where he was very sensitive to the plight of those who were not included in this superconnection.
But with the advent of digital civilization, he is particularly concerned about the disappearance of imagination. The torrent of bad images, and this constant confusion on communication networks, raises the question of whether we still have the ability to create images, and thus the ability to imagine. Current discussions of generative AI, which Paul Virilio didn’t know about, ask the same question: our ability to imagine and create. If we delegate this to a machine, we can ask whether we are not harming our ability to create. And the instantaneous communications we immerse ourselves in through social networks are so rapid that they can also prevent us from thinking.
His technocratic writings indicate that he is a conservative thinker. However, it is part of the leftist political tradition. How does this work for him?
Paul Virilio is very conservative in some ways. He cites sulfur authors such as Maurice Blanchot. But he is also left-wing and Catholic at the same time. These two things bother him. He participated in the events of May 1968 of his own free will, which caused a split in his professional and intellectual life.
Next, are we necessarily conservative when we criticize progress? A recent statement about artificial intelligence has received a lot of attention. We notice something a bit strange about technology: the slightest criticism is perceived as a conservative counterattack. It’s still absolutely amazing! We can be technology lovers and critics, precisely to orient technology differently.
Looking at every invention in terms of chance or eventuality is ultimately a very good solution to live in the present and avoid accidents.
Regarding Paul Virilio, one of his often quoted quotes sums up his vision of technical progress well:When we invent the boat, we invent the shipwreck; When you invent the plane, you invent the collisionEvery technology contains within itself its own accident. Since he believes that the origin of technological progress is military, it necessarily bears in his view a harmful character.
He converted to Christianity at the age of 18. What place does religion occupy in his thinking?
In one of his essays, Paul Virilio talks about Bernadette Soubirous, having a slightly messianic moment, which ends quite early, as if he does not wish to share his religious commitment. But his private notebooks are full of quotations and apostolic reflections on his faith. It was a faith he lived every day. We can relate this to what happened inside the magazine spirit : Catholic intellectuals who wrote as Catholics but never said so. There is something a little Jansenist in this approach.
But it is true that he wrote a work full of hope. He says : “I’m not a revolutionary, I’m a revelationWe find the idea of the end of the world: the end of the world should not be read as the end the The world, but like the end from U.S The world and the announcement of the coming Jerusalem. For the urban planner, it’s great, we have an image of a Miyazaki-style flying city landing on Earth. It is the revelation of another world. At Virilio, there is hope to find something for the better, and move toward a better society.
Returning to the title, Virilio does not predict the end of the world, but the end of the world?
Exactly, and this quote, taken from one of Paul’s notebooks, is also disdainful of avalanche science. It’s not at all about being a harbinger of bad news. Looking at every invention in terms of chance or eventuality is ultimately a very good solution to live in the present and avoid accidents.
(Tags for translation)Urban Planning