- Crepuscular Dawn
Paul Virilio has long been admired and cited by the theoretically inclined techno-savvy of <nettime>. Nowadays, thanks largely to the efforts of John Armitage , he is becoming an obligatory citation for many social and media theorists of more traditional kinds. This book forms an excellent career overview and contains plenty of surprises and new material for readers who already know of his earlier work. Crepuscular Dawn is a book-length interview with Sylvère Lotringer, himself a [End Page 256] doughty figure in anarcho-artistic New York as the eminence grise of Semio-text(e), the notorious journal and publishing house. The title loses something in translation—in French it probably has the paradoxical music of Eliot's "midwinter spring"—and the translating is at times a tad slapdash (for example, when an English film title is translated back from the French), but these are niggling criticisms of a fluent, likeable and invigorating portrait of an exceptional, even visionary, mind at the top of his bent, relaxing with an old friend in cafés around Paris, sparking ideas, thinking aloud and on his feet. Dialogue is more often praised than practiced in contemporary theory: this is less an interview than a conversation, and a particularly eloquent and enjoyable one to eavesdrop on.
Lotringer provides a handy introduction, then leaps straight into the dialogue. Virilio recounts his early days as a radical architect in some detail, culminating in the Oblique Function (you will have to read the book to figure this one out). Then on to Nanterre, epicenter of May '68. Every French intellectual alive at the time, and many active since, have placed themselves on the map of ideas in relation to Le joli Mai. Already "anarchist Christian," Virilio marched with the black flags of the anarchists until he had the idea of making himself a transparent one out of clear plastic. With Julian Beck of the Living Theatre, who had been invited to play there but sided with the students, Virilio and his colleagues took over the Odéon Theatre, a major center of the May events. Students who heard him speak there invited him to teach at the Ecole Supérieure d'Architecture, where he has remained, more a thinker—and activist—than a builder of buildings.
The events of that May also transformed Virilio's thinking. Initially inspired by the architecture of the bunkers left by the German army along the Normandy coast, subject of a remarkable early book, Virilio increasingly turned his attention towards time, and specifically towards speed. Of the major figures of the day, Virilio cites Henri Lefebvre and Gilles Deleuze as colleagues with whom he had political disputes, but who also took up, in their own ways and in their own good time, the temporal problematic. Lefebvre is especially important, given his active part in May '68 and his association with the Situationists, especially Guy Debord. While Lefebvre's Production of Space  is a landmark in the (post) modernization of geography, he failed, in Virilio's view, to understand the vector of time as it accelerates in the post-war period. Virilio's basic discipline remains urbanism and town planning, a field where transportation is a central concern. His uniqueness comes from his understanding that media are also means of transport (he has an eloquent description of the windscreen of the car being a kind of TV screen), an aperçu that has become more complex and richer as networks speed up, become more ubiquitous, and lose their architectural anchorage to become portable and wearable.
Virilio, as is well known, shares with Friedrich Kittler a belief traceable back to Nietzsche that war is the typical state of human societies. Here that idea is extended towards genetic engineering, whose roots Virilio traces back to eugenics and, most of all, to Mengele's notorious experiments on the inmates of the death camps. This issue is, to add a geo-politically particular note, extremely illuminating for New Zealand, where this review is being typed. The last...