Paul Virilio

(b. 1932)

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Frencharchitectural theorist. Best known for his essays on speed and war Virilio ranks alongside Jean Baudrillard as one of the most provocative and counter-intuitive essayists on the impact of technology in the postmodern era.

Virilio was born in Paris in 1932. He grew up in the northern coastal region of Brittany. When the Germans invaded, his hometown was subjected to heavy attack and then prolonged military occupation. It was also bombed by the Allies because it was used as a military port by the Germans. In later life, Virilio would often say that the war was his university. His choice of subject matter for his research certainly bears this out.

Virilio's path into academia was circuitous. Initially he studied at the École des Métiers d' Art, specializing in working with stained glass. He then worked alongside the great French artist Henri Matisse helping to restore churches. In 1950 he converted to Catholicism. His compulsory military service came at a time when France was fighting against Algeria in its War of Independence, so Virilio was sent there for his tour of duty. After completing military service Virilio went to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. His teachers there included Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who sparked his interest in phenomenology.

In 1958 Virilio conducted a phenomenological analysis of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, the fortifications network the Germans constructed on the French coastline (near where Virilio grew up) with a view to repelling the Allied invasion. Consisting of over 15,000 concrete bunkers, these defences nevertheless failed because the Allies were able to use their superior weaponry, principally the Air Force, to neutralise it. To Virilio, who published his study under the title Bunker archéologie (1975) translated as Bunker Archaeology (1994), this demonstrates not only the importance of speed in modern warfare, but the multiple ways in which the landscape of the battlefield must be viewed. As Virilio theorises with his concept of the ‘fleet in being’ (which Deleuze and Guattari adopt in their account of the war machine), controlling a space no longer requires its constant occupation—now it is enough to be able to move rapidly to interdict a possible attack.

The subject of several of his books, speed is a key interest for Virilio. In 1977 he published Vitesse et Politique, which was translated into English in 1986 as Speed and Politics. The first of his works to be translated into English, this was the entry point for Anglophone readers and though Virilio has written on a great many topics besides speed, he is generally thought of as a theorist of speed or as he himself terms it ‘dromology’. Virilio is ambivalent about speed. In contrast to the Futurists, he does not regard it as intrinsically liberating; indeed, many of his works show that speed can be an utterly repressive force. In later work, Virilio connects speed to the development of digital technology, particularly surveillance technology, and argues that cinema itself is a kind of weapon. His most provocative thesis in this respect is undoubtedly his claim in Guerre et cinéma (1984), translated as War and Cinema (1989) that Adolf Hitler conceived of World War Two as a kind of movie.


Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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