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Paul Virilio: The effect of speed on communications and the


architectures of control

First of all recognise technology as a form of travel in Virilio's work. Take the interpretation
that communications technologies are synonymous with travel, encompassing both subjects of
distance and time as objects of confrontation. This is seen most conveniently in how vehicles carry
humans, or the occupations of humans, in comparison to the virtual as another carrier, or
communicator, of occupations and human identities. Concluding that the human race appears to be
progressively reforming into digitalisations, materializing as we project our façades across a new
landscape of communications.
The suggested concept of technological progression is a repeated series, first accelerating
then limiting by refining content so one always overrides the other. This sort of progression is very
much a part of Virilio's theories in that he has actively recognised the development of speed as a
tool for communicating expression and the development of architecture as control, of regulating or
censoring what is seen or how it is disseminated. These two contrasting objectives have developed
as a natural part of progression.

“Politics too succumbs to the logic of speed and potential catastrophe... with technology
replacing democratic participation and the complexity and rapidity of historical events rendering
human understanding and control ever more problematical. Ubiquitous and instantaneous media
communication in turn makes spin control and media manipulation difficult, but essential, to
political governance.” (Kellner. D, 1994)1

Kellner's opinion that speed will outpace practicality is thought provoking. He theorises that
any imposition, by human intervention, on such rapidly flowing information will become practically
impossible. Virilio may also be inclined to opine that the “spin” may too be completely digitized
and thus we would find our views dictated, or slanted, not through human discourse with the
material but by the technology its self which selectively prepares and disseminates information.
“With technology replacing democratic participation,” could also apply to a state of sterile
detachment between humans, with technology being the sole interface for interaction and
engagement. Both of which are terms that carry very superficial connotations in the context of
communicating but appear to be inevitable if one follows Virilio's particular frame of thinking.
Douglas Kellner appropriately quotes Virilio to support this idea, “virtuality dominating actuality
and turning the very concept of reality on its head” (Virilio. P, 1994). 2 . A quote wherein Virilio
convicts that where the information of reality is made virtual, edited and disseminated the virtual is
accepted as a veritable depiction of reality.
Kellner continues in his essay to propose “images and representations replace the real, the
object of representation declines in importance, and a domain of images and digital representation
replaces reality.”(1994)3 One has to understand that the purpose of the image is to inform. Though
the nature of the image is currently engaging in an ongoing transformation where reality is losing
prevalence over the virtual and correspondingly information frequents virtual references. However,
regardless of the origin of the reference, visual documentation, in what to document, is indelibly
1
'Virilio, War and Technology, some critical reflections', Douglas Kellner,1994, pg107
2
'Virilio, War and Technology, some critical reflections', Douglas Kellner,1994, pg110
3
'Virilio, War and Technology, some critical reflections', Douglas Kellner,1994, pg110

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contracted to the opinions of the individual. Someone must instigate the active documentation,
decide how to document, how to present the documentation and then how it should be edited. All of
these actions contribute towards the development of personal opinion on the work in question and
also ultimately lead to the selective dictating of information.
What Virilio discusses is the universality of these images and their transcendence into
mainstream forms of communication. The speed of which is accelerating beyond the speed of
human control meaning that we are left with only two options. The first being total integration of
humans with technology in the hope of attaining communicative speeds beyond our natural
capacity. Or, second, technology occupies the media and resultingly assumes the position of
adjudicator over communications. Either way, it is the human who occupies technology and not
technology occupying a human world. Such a situation is described by Virilio as ‘the accident,’ a
word in itself which is compelling. It could be suggested that the accident is consequential of
increasing reliance on the virtual, where the virtual becomes a vehicle and vehicles are inherently
capable of crashing.

“The accident has suddenly become habitable to the detriment of the substance of the shared
world. This is what the 'integral accident' is; this accident that integrates us globally and sometimes
even disintegrates us physically.” (Virilio. P, 2007)4

Virilio appears to suggest the apparent obsession with instantaneous translations between
places and cultures to an amalgamous single will escalate to an extreme where the bodies of
individuals become integrated with the systems of communication. Effectively digitalizing the mind
and logically assuming the reality for consciousness itself. At that point we would be disintegrating
mentally in virtuality as well as physically, which is suggestive of the “integral accident.”
By our involvement we are integral components of this system, seeking to absolve ourselves
narcissistically in our own technology. Influential writer, William Gibson, has created a piece of
work surrounding the concept of integration with his novel 'Neuromancer'. Gibson, conformingly
wrote: “post-industrial creatures of an information economy, we increasingly sense that accessing
media is what we do.” (1998)5 Gibson's sentiments ring true with Virilio's vision and also strengthen
a cultural image of an information hungry world. However this social circumstance leaves the
viewer open to infiltration and prey to the informant.
Critic Douglas Kellner states a belief that Virilio's arguments and theories are in fact
extremely shallow, their basis often being in generalization and taken from face values. For example
“Virilio's recent books seem to blame the woes of the present moment and dangers emerging from
new technologies on technology itself, rather than specific forces like capitalism, the states and
corporations(Kellner. D, 1994)6. Kellner uses this observation to argue that Virilio talks out of
context, and resulting from his ignorance of the rest of the world and society’s alternative deciding
factors, Virilio is discrediting his own theories by causing them to appear to be rants disjointed from
'normal' social criticisms. In Kellner’s opinion, a utopian and ephemeral technological world, the
‘now’, would be completely reactive with everything communicated, known and in flow. The
omittence of Capitalist or political discourse on how this utopia might be manipulated suggests a
neo-communist or socialist global reality is how Virilio visualizes the future of technology.
Nonetheless it is more likely the detachment from socio-political arguments is more accurately part
of a more global emotionally detached future vision, wherein politics are irrelevant whilst

4
'Paul Virilio; The Original Accident' Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2007, pg47
5
'The Virtual Dimension; architecture, representation, and Crash Culture' John Beckman, Princeton Architectural Press,
1998, Pg10
6
'Virilio, War and Technology, some critical reflections' Douglas Kellner, 1994

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technology is a phenomenon crafting the world and its development.


So in consideration of Kellner's criticisms, Virilio appears to be openly and deliberately
speaking in global terms of the omnipresence of technology, to the effect of recognising
technologies supercedence of class and border boundaries. It is through the mass production and
standardization of technology that Virilio is speaking. It is also based within the fact that the virtual
is constantly increasing its patrons and retains the proficiency to rapidly disseminate global
information. It is additionally conjoined to the fact that now over half the population of the world
inhabits cities and that more and more people own cars and cars are increasingly efficient, travelling
at increasingly high velocities. Where Kellner expresses concern of social changes and political
ambitions, Virilio sees the technology which supplements the change, which envelopes, moves and
limits the people. Control or guidance through, or perhaps more accurately as a consequence of,
technology is illustrated in this quote of Sean Cubitt's:

“The famous Kuleshov effect, an experiment in montage in which the audience reinterpret a
single shot of the actor Mosjoukin according to whether the following shot is of a plate of soup, a
coffin or a pretty girl (Kuleshov, 1973)... As Rothman puts it, this view of film can be read as
'intrinsically tyrannical' (Rothman, 1976:453).” (Cubitt. S as quoted by Virilio. P, 2007)7.

Kuleshov intimates that image progressions dictate interpretation, sequences effectively


guiding the observers interpretation. Artist Omer Fast also makes use of this power of sequential
image and sound information to alter or guide the observer’s interpretation of that same
information. Virilio's ideas surrounding communication and systematic control, and also conflict,
are satiated quite appropriately in Fast's work, 'The Casting,' (2007) where a cut-up technique was
utilised to compose an alternative narrative from an interview with a US sergeant. Fast juxtaposes
conflicts between audience and participants by reworking the video documentation to create conflict
between original and reproduction, and also the conflict between what was meant and what is
received by the audience. The restructuring of information is very similar to Sean Cubitt's
observation of Kuleshov's relevance to Virilio's critique of the technology of communication.
This is an important extract which acutely criticises the authority, but recognises the power over
comprehension, of digitalized imagery in communications. The “tyrannical” persona is created by
dictated progressions/repetitions in the imagery, and consequent information, that the audience
receives. This study acknowledges how juxtapositions alter perception, the speed of interpreting
being limited to and by the experience of perceiving and associating mental affiliations with the
symbols, icons or events. Technology here in this study is being constricted by what the individual
has experienced in their lives; the limit is also of the speed of response to the image. Virilio's
prophecy would suggest that this technology seeks to absolve time itself from the process. That the
technology seeks to integrate with the individual so that images and corresponding messages, the
information, is instantly experienced or translatable. The 'now' will be absolute as information is
removed or distant from the limiting concept of distance.

Everything is suggestibly familiar or predefined by familiarisations from sources of


“instantaneous information and communication,” (Virilio. P, 2007) 8 work is assumably comparable
to this idea; Omer Fast's piece worked on preconceived ideas of where the sergeant's story would
go, however in its cut-up and re-visualized form the new information provided via the
communicative medium was assumed to be of some veritable value. Omer's narrative was plausibly
genuine, and in fact the material from which the narrative was formed was genuine.
7
'Paul Virilio; The Original Accident' Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2007
8
'Paul Virilio; The Original Accident' Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2007, pg51

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It has to be recognised that the technique of selective imagery is also Burroughsesque in its
form as the artist William Burroughs published a number of works promoting the subversive nature
of rearranged communications. Like how Kuleshov suggests, Burroughs believed the original
message could be completely rewritten or choreographed to suite a certain perspective or to alter its
intention. Omer fast is particularly perceptive to this technique, having redesigned dialogue to
juxtapose comments, altering intentions within the information, and throwing together the concepts
of Burroughs's controlled restructuring and Virilio's dictated communications.

The fact that technology (the architecture of which Virilio uses as the metaphor for control)
can be fluently manipulated to restructure information that it aims to communicate, returns to the
point of digitized control. The world perceived is the world which is broadcast to us. In Virilio's
words, “the screen becomes the new 'city square' and the crossroads of all mass media,' the
'phantom landscape of all those driven blind by the speed of light.”(Virilio. P, 1991)9 The loaded
terminology of being “driven blind” forms a metaphor for the virtual perspective, wherein
information is selected and edited for consumption. Information received is by nature superficial
and dictated to us via screen yet its artificial nature is dismissed. The screen informs of events from
across the globe, it also acts as the interface for communications transcending the restrictions of
physical architectures and national borders, hence the “new 'city square'.”
Via the “new 'city square'” Virilio argues that physical space has been digitalized sufficiently
enough for the virtual to simply stop representing the physical and to actually be involved in it.
Virtual reality would consequently eliminate the concept of travelling, the speed of transference
from place to place, by discarding concepts of distance and associated preconceptions of time.
This idea appears to refer, or purposefully avoids referencing, the idea that 'knowledge is power'.
Time/place without travel is like solution without process. With instantaneous communications
there are replications of solutions, place after place and end product after end product. There will be
information without reason and facts without basis. Knowledge is arguably less about knowing
facts, statistics and opinions but more of how and why. There is a danger in using technology when
you don't understand it or its consequences. When technology is used for purposes of war, the visual
representation of where a missile will hit, what the image was, the statistics of such an event, and
the effects on a human level, are all abstracted and digitized. The nihilistic nature of this approach
to warfare through the technical medium is one of emotional attachment and morbid defeat, i.e. the
human will be consumed or removed one way or another by technology.

“This hypercentre is at once origin and end of a world now foreclosed... Here we have a
telluric compression of the history of humanity that, despite the ecologists, no seismograph is
registering the magnitude of this cataclysm wherein everything is telescoped, rammed into
everything else at every instant, where all distances are reduced to nothing, obliterated by the
accident of the real time of interactivity.” (Virilio. P, 2007)10

In discussing the impact and effect of digitalizing information and events from all parts of
the world and space, Virilio describes how the focus is conversely broadened and compressed
simultaneously; the scope of vision is further yet the content is invariably less. Content in terms of
relationships and experience are artificial or exempt in artificial reproductions. With digitalization
and the omnipresence of digital sermons the world is pulled together so distance is dissolved in the
instantaneous flicker of light. Everyone can be subject to the same mediums and the same
9

10
'Paul Virilio; The original accident' Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2007, Pg34-35

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information, everything is animated in to existence meaning history and the present are both
experienced within the time sensation recognised as the 'now'. This means digital information or
digital productions are timeless as well as horizon less, there is no distance, so eliminating the time
aspect of the equation. Things are no longer simply stationary in their original context. History is
consumed by the technology which acts to communicate it and is renovated through such
communicative mediums to be experienced as a part of what is known as the 'now', alongside
historically defunct digitalisations.

To consider the world from a Virilian perspective could mean to view in a way
approximating a counter-phenomenological method11. In that to view any image is to enter a
dialogue and exchange in information, fuelled by ones own knowledge or inventory of retained
referential material. In complete contrast to normal methods of phenomenological viewings, a
Virilian perspective would be achieved by submitting to the relevance of all known or conceivable
information in relation to the work, the work being a product of a technological and informed
society, a society where history and distance has been submitted to a “telluric compression.”

“What is looming is therefore not so much the end of history as the end of multiple times.
Suddenly, with the extermination of the distances of the local time of geophysics, faced with light of
a purely astrophysical time, 'man has in a way joined the omega point, which means there is nothing
other than man any more and there is no outside any more outside him.” (Virilio. P, 2007)12

This seems to suggest selfish self-absorbency and self-righteous vanity has become
quintessential to the technically modern individual. Encompassing technology of self-endowment
and hyper-information supplies to the individual, the world is at the fingertips of the individual,
every individual, all over the world. It also contradicts the idea proposed in a previous quote that
history speeds up to become what is relevant now, instead just the distance between locations/events
is lost, everything is happening directly in relation to the individual or the 'you'.

“Professional storytellers intervening in corporate life. Their job is to tell stories to wage-
earners in order to foster certain behaviours and certain emotions in them, within the framework of
job restructuring or relocation, an intervention that clearly flags the new importance of emotion
management in business administration.” (Virilio. P, 2007)13

Again selectivity plays an important role in the development of broadcast or published


information; this is a socio-political criticism. The consumable nature of digital channels tends to
encourage the idealist or fanciful to emerge – these things having noticeable affect on participation
or audience levels.
Perhaps in an Orwellian way this forms censorship of opinions to the extent that
individualism is sacrificed in favour of communist equality. Irreducibly connected here is the
impression of a sterile working class moulded by both media and political information. The
repetitions of selected incidents and the omnipresence of communicative and informal devices very
much influences and impacts and shapes the recipient and his lifestyle. Work itself is indelibly now
correlated with the digitalisation, or integration, of the self with technology and speed to the point

11
“In the late 1950's Virilio studied phenomenology with Merleau-Pont.” (John Armitage; 'Introduction' Essay pg2,
'Paul Virilio, From modernism to hypermodernism and beyond' publication, 2000, SAGE publications Ltd)
12
'Paul Virilio; The Original Accident' Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2007, pg50
13
'Paul Virilio; The Original Accident' Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2007

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of complete obliteration. Obliteration in the sense of loss of body, loss of distance, and loss of
communicative restrictions.

“The society of strict supervision taking over from the society of local seclusion. After the
standardization ushered in by the industrial revolution, synchronisation (of opinions, of decisions)
has come to set up an ultimate model of tyranny.” (Virilio. P, 2007)14

The sanctity of the individual's opinion, its right to exist and its versatility is challenged by
the dictatorships of political correctness and public interest. During a state of complete
synchronisation, dis/misinformation must also synchronise with information, hence the tyranny, the
opinion is already dictated. Robert Capa provides us with a good example, as a journalistic
photographer Capa presented images in a veritable medium believed to be representative of actual
events. However some controversy surrounded a series of photographs which depicted foot soldiers
being wounded within close proximity of the photographer. At the time of release these images
raised concerns that they were in fact staged events. At this early stage of mass produced
communication the potential for disinformation was being demonstrated. Also this illustrates how
contemporary or technological forms of communication are riddled with conflicts, within itself as a
mode of communication, with intended audiences and their susceptibility to the material, and also
with the capture or production of material.
It seems to be difficult to view technology, essentially derived from military progress, in any
other way than negatively or nihilistically. The situation exists so that if you are not with the war
then you are against it, one is always intrinsically involved. Though Virilio doesn’t provide
argument for or against the apparent tyranny of technology, he claims to celebrate the forward
motion of technology. That forward motion propelling the human conscious into a high speed
impact with a concentrated saturated now.

Bibliography

'The Virtual Dimension; architecture, representation, and Crash Culture' John Beckman, Princeton
Architectural Press, 1998
'Paul Virilio; The Original Accident' Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2007
'Paul Virilio; From Modernism to hypermodernism and beyond' John Armitage, SAGE publications
LTD 2000
'Intellectual Impostures' Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Profile Books LTD, 1998
'Virilio, War and Technology, some critical reflections' Douglas Kellner, 1994

14
'Paul Virilio; The Original Accident' Paul Virilio, translated by Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2007, pg52-53