Paul Virilio (b. 1932) is a singular figure in the annals of postwar French critical theory. Generally speaking, he rejects the term “philosopher,” thereby inviting an array of alternate terms, including “urbanist,” “cultural theorist,” “strategist,” “political theorist,” “architect,” or “critic of the art of technology.” Beyond this, though, Virilio also rejects short-lived, supposedly post-phenomenological categories such as postmodernism and post-structuralism, insisting that the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger has never really been overcome. It is for this reason that he claims to remain within the tradition of which his own former professor Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a leading exemplar. Finally, while Virilio draws upon Marx and Freud, like others of his generation, he does so in a more idiosyncratic manner, rejecting both Marxism and psychoanalysis as legacies of intellectual conformity that refuse the full potentiality of the imagination. All of this is to be expected, perhaps, for one who has lived the life that he has lived. The rejection of philosophy as the supreme domain of thought, for instance, fits with Virilio’s own history not only as a theorist, but also as an architect who worked with Claude Parent and Architecture Principe in the 1960s, and as a master glassmaker who labored alongside Henri Matisse in years prior. Similarly, the steadfastness of his phenomenological attachments can be traced not only to his formal studies, but also to Virilio’s childhood experience of the horrors of World War II. Often referring to the German, British, and American occupations, and especially the aerial bombing of Nanterre in his childhood as a reference point, Virilio raises the question of how perception has been reframed in a period of ever-increasing speed and acceleration, particularly at the intersection of militarism, technology, and power. Virilio’s written corpus spans some forty years, beginning in 1975 and continuing through the present—although the pace of publication has slowed somewhat, in the wake of a flurry of publications between 2009 and 2012. While his work is often grouped according to his own conceptual formulations, it can also be made more immediately understandable via the interdisciplinary categories of Aesthetics, Art, and Architecture; Environment, Ecology, and Psychology; Science, Technology, and Media; and Politics, Economics, and Urbanism—as I’ve done here. Each of these groupings implies the method of a thinker who engages any topic he addresses on multiple fronts simultaneously, and not only in the manner implied by these categories, but also at the intersection of all of them. While his writing style is reminiscent of the aphoristic, fragmented repertoire of the critical essayist, Virilio insists that, in the end, all of his works form a system and demand to be read as a whole.
Overviews of Virilio’s works have been written in English since as far back as 1996, beginning with Patrick Crogan’s PhD dissertation at the University of Sydney, which was never published as an entire book, but instead as a series of essays in academic journals. In most written overviews, Virilio’s critical concept of “speed” is identified as the main concern, with the exception of Jason Adams, who (in Adams 2003) emphasizes the alternatives implied by Virilio’s work, as opposed to his negative critique of acceleration, and the later documentary by Stéphane Paoli (Paoli 2009), which also does so. Most of these overviews were written prior to what would become an especially productive period of output for Virilio, between 2005 and 2012, and thus they generally miss several essential aspects he emphasized in that period, in particular with respect to art, ecology, and psychology. As a result, John Armitage’s Virilio Now (Armitage 2011) is the only recent work that brings the reader seeking secondary overviews up to date on the largest portion of his entire output, while emphasizing the more recent periods. It considers Virilio’s recent emphasis on the concept of the city of panic in significant detail, along with his attention to the 2007–2008 financial crisis, the “Flash Crash” of 2010, and the decline of material and visual arts such as painting in a period in which time has increasingly prevailed over space. Yet, as an edited collection rather than a sole-authored book, it does not maintain a single, generalized voice throughout, acting instead as a series of historically informed updates on various aspects of Virilio’s work in the present.
Adams, Jason. “Popular Defense in the Empire of Speed: Paul Virilio and the Phenomenology of the Political Body.” PhD diss., Simon Fraser University, 2003.
General introduction to Virilio’s work, with particular emphasis upon alternatives that, while mentioned infrequently in his writings, retain great importance to any attempt at understanding the general thrust of his writings as a whole. Organized around Virilio’s early concept of popular defense, the thesis asserts that Virilio is widely misunderstood as a pessimist and an opponent of technology, and that he instead calls for its reinvention and democratization.
Armitage, John, ed. Paul Virilio: From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond. London: SAGE, 2000.
Edited collection by one of the world’s leading interpreters of Virilio’s thought, including contributions from leading scholars in multiple related fields, covering subjects such as Virilio’s engagement with architecture and the bunker; war and technology; new media; the past, present, and future; Stelarc; and feminism. Includes an interview, an extract from Polar Inertia (Virilio 1999, cited under Science, Technology, and Media), and a bibliography of his works up until that point.
Armitage, John, ed. Virilio Now: Current Perspectives in Virilio Studies. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011.
Edited collection that considers Virilio’s entire published output from 1975 to 2011, almost the entirety of his active publishing career (which has slowed since 2012). Engages Virilio’s more recent writings on global political economy, technocultural acceleration, and the arts, including The Original Accident (Virilio 2007, cited under Science, Technology, and Media) and The University of Disaster (Virilio 2009, cited under Environment, Ecology, and Psychology), while providing an accessible introduction for scholars interested in the more interdisciplinary elements of his work.
Crogan, Patrick. “The Tendency, the Accident, and the Untimely: Paul Virilio’s Engagement with the Future.” Theory, Culture, & Society 16 (1999a): 5–6.
The second of Crogan’s post-dissertation essays on Virilio (see also Crogan 1999b), in which he argues that Virilio’s concept of speed can only be understood in dialogue with other thinkers who have addressed what Derrida called the “aporia of speed,” including Derrida himself, Gilbert Hottois, Nietzsche, and McKenzie Wark. Rather than understanding the phenomenon of speed as implying an obvious answer, Crogan directs the reader toward questioning itself.
Crogan, Patrick. “Theory of State: Deleuze, Guattari, and Virilio on the State, Technology and Speed.” Angelaki 4 (1999b): 137–148.
The author has stated that this essay and Crogan 1999a together constitute the most thorough approximation of his University of Sydney dissertation, which was revised, shortened, and developed in a more focused manner in the two articles. This one juxtaposes Virilio with Deleuze and Guattari on the question of speed and power, arguing that “nomadic” speed is a means through which “Deleuze and Guattari assert a position of theoretical superiority over Virilio” (p. 142).
James, Ian. Paul Virilio. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.
Slim, small-format volume focused upon Virilio’s relationship to phenomenology and how this lens affords new engagements with the thematics of perception, speed, virtualization, war, politics, and art. Asserts that Virilio should be understood as centrally concerned with technology, not in contradistinction to fellow thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida, but rather as another among the ranks of those who do. James engages both what Virilio writes and how Virilio writes—via the rhetoric of speed, surprise, and fragmentation.
Paoli, Stéphane. Paul Virilio: Penser la Vitesse. DVD. Issy-les-Moulineaux, France: ARTE Éditions, 2009.
This 90-minute documentary film engages Virilio’s thought in relation to activists, actors, journalists, and philosophers, including Jacques Attali, Walter Bender, Enki Bilal, François Jost, Étienne Klein, Jean Nouvel, Jeremy Rifkin, Hubert Védrine, Dominique Wolton, and Muhammad Yunus. The film provides an exposition of his thinking in relation to examples such as Chernobyl, Y2K, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Madrid train bombings. Similarly to Jason Adams’s work, director Stéphane Paoli’s effort also emphasizes the alternatives made possible even in the face of disaster.
Redhead, Steve. Paul Virilio: Theorist for an Accelerated Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
Biographically oriented overview that reads Virilio’s works largely via the details of his life, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Redhead asserts that other overall assessments of Virilio have largely ignored this period, and he uses it as the basis for interpreting the following three decades of output. Engages the concept of speed and Virilio’s attentiveness to media events, explains why he should be read as a modernist, and argues that Virilio’s work is most interestingly read in light of more recent theorists.
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