. . . Virilio suggests that political economy cannot be subsumed under the political economy of wealth, with a comprehension of the management of the economy of the state being its general aim. Indeed, for him, the histories of socio-political institutions such as the military and artistic movements like Futurism show that war and the need for speed, rather than commerce and the urge for wealth, were the foundations of human society. . . .
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, then, Virilio's cultural theory is concerned with what he calls the third, or, the transplant revolution — the almost total collapse of the distinction between the human body and technology. Intimately linked to the technological enhancement and substitution of body-parts through the miniaturisation of technological objects, the third revolution is a revolution conducted by militarized technoscience against the human body through the promotion of what the Virilio calls 'neo-eugenics'. Such developments range across Virilio's criticisms of the work of Stelarc, the Australian cybernetic performance artist, to his concerns about the eventual fate of the jet-pilots in the Kosovo war. This is because, for Virilio, both Stelarc and the jet-pilot represent much the same thing: "the last man before automation takes command". Nevertheless, it should be stressed that Virilio's criticisms of automation are closely connected to the development of his concept of endo-colonization — what takes place when a political power like the state turns against its own people, or, as in the case of militarized technoscience, the human body.
I've had Paul Virilio's Information Bomb on my shelf for several years and finally got around to reading it. It's not a book you can enter into easily, so I started hunting around for articles to provide some context. The best I found was the one quoted from above by Brit John Armitage.
Virilio is in that world of 'French Theory' with Baudrillard, Lyotard and other French postmodernist cultural theorists, but rejects 'postmondern' as a word that describes his work. He's a Christian, probably with more in common with guys like Jacques Ellul and Rene Girard--or even Marshall McLuhan--than the academic postmodernists. He's all about defending the 'human' against what appears to be an inevitable mechanomorphic transformation. In an interview Virilio says,
People agree to say that it is rationality and science which have eliminated what is called magic and religion. But ultimately, the ironic outcome of this techno-scientific development is a renewed need for the idea of God. Many people question their religious identity today, not necessarily by thinking of converting to Judaism or to Islam: it's just that technologies seriously challenge the status of the human being. All technologies converge toward the same spot, they all lead to a Deus ex Machina, a machine-God. In a way, technologies have negated the transcendental God in order to invent the machine-God. However, these two gods raise similar questions.
The machine God, to use a wobbly Star Wars analogy (since I've been rewatching those films recently), is the dark side of the force, and so it's a question whether there will be any kind of robust opposition from those who have any feel for the light side. In other words, the only stance from which human resistance to the machine God and its project to dominate the human is in some embrace of that which transcends the machine. We will have to chose at some point--if not already--between the seductiveness of the machine God and the freedom offered by the transcendent God.
But that's an issue for another day. I'm more interested today to discuss his idea of 'endo-colonialism', which formulates more precisely what in a more inchoate form I've been groping to articulate here in this blog, particularly when it comes to the disappointments I feel about the Obama administration.
We're seeing in Egypt now what happens when the people revolt against an endo-colonialist regime. But that kind of revolt could never take place in the U.S. because America has already in place the technologies and legal infrastructure that would enable the state to nip any such revolt in the bud. Those kinds of revolts are still only possible where governmental control is still rather primitive. It has become abundantly clear since Obama has taken over that he has no intention of retarding America's long-term trend toward becoming a tightly sealed cage, a surveillance state in which traditional civil liberties will be easily and legally disregarded in the name of national security.
The U.S. does not have currently an intolerably repressive endo-colonialist regime--and so no one except militia types on the far right are thinking about violent resistance. But here's the point: Should such a repressive regime assume power and with it control of these sophisticated technological surveillance and control tools, there's nothing the rest of us could do about it. This is where the anti-statists on the Right have a point. The rest of us are just hoping that the power elites in control are committed to a more enlightened despotic style that won't lead in twenty or thirty years to what we're currently witnessing in Egypt.
Virilio, of course, is not concerned about what happening in America, except insofar as it seems to be the society in which this technologically driven endo-colonialist impulse appears to be most advanced. As such it will be model to be emulated by those who can afford to do so. His concern rather is broader focused more on what is happening to us without our really being aware of it, how we are losing our grip on what the 'real' means, how we are slowly losing our grip on what 'human' means. His diagnosis of the disease is power lust rather than greed. His big picture narrative is that power-and control obsessed militarism is the real evil to be feared, and in its name--national security--the greatest evils ever committed and yet to be committed are justified.
Sorry, Wall Street, you're just the second string. Your greed is prodigious, but cannot come close to the destructive and dehumanizing impacts foisted on us by the paranoid, powermad folks over in the military-technology sector. And remember that those folks are obsessed with command and control, and the logic of their technologies is simply to increase their capacity for command and control. And it can be used--most especially on the nano-technological level--against American citizens who resist them as well as anybody abroad who resists them. Even ways now invade and colonize our bodies.
We all, if we're sane, are repulsed by the brutality and massive destructive power of chemical warfare--wait until they start dispersing nanobots for us all to inhale. It will be so much more humane, it will be argued. People won't even know why they've been turned into docile wetware obedient servants of the machine.
In the same interview quoted from above Virilio says,
Technologies first equipped the territorial body with bridges, aqueducts, railways, highways, airports, etc. Now that the most powerful technologies are becoming tiny--microtechnologies, all technologies can invade the body. These micro-machines will feed the body. Research is being conducted in order to create additional memory for instance. For the time being, technologies are colonizing our body through implants. We started with human implants, but research leads us to microtechnological implants.
The territorial body has been polluted by roads, elevators, etc. Similarly, our animal body starts being polluted. Ecology no longer deals with water, flora, wildlife and air only. It deals with the body itself as well. It is comparable with an invasion: technology is invading our body because of miniaturisation. (Referring to the interviewer's microphone: "next time you come you won't even ask - you'll just throw a bit of dust on the table!")
There is a great science-fiction short story, it's too bad I can't remember the name of its author, in which a camera has been invented which can be carried by flakes of snow. Cameras are inseminated into artificial snow which is dropped by planes, and when the snow falls, there are eyes everywhere. There is no blind spot left.