- The Ecstasy of Speed
Those who are familiar with Paul Virilio’s work on dromology, or the logic and effects of speed, may have noticed by now a paradox in the manner in which he addresses this subject. While he maintains that speed is the essential modus vivendi of the latest devices of destruction, deterrence, and misinformation, Virilio himself writes and publishes at an impressive pace. The reviewer, who has just gotten his hands on A Landscape of Events (2000 ), has not yet seen The Information Bomb (2000 ), and probably will not get to it before the translation of Stratégie de la déception (1999) comes out to announce that, yet again, the technologies and texts of yesterday are already outdated.
On the one hand, this arrangement is perfectly logical, and the rationale behind it is self-explanatory: one cannot take forever to comment on events that are occurring at the speed of light—and only for the duration of their televised presentation. The Persian Gulf War, which according to Virilio was in 1992 already “receding into the vacuum of consciousness” at meteorite-speed, demonstrates how televised events operate (“now you see it, now you don’t”), and perfectly, if tragically, illustrates “the compression of history and finally the disappearance of the event!” (24).1 If human memory has by now so thoroughly adapted itself to televisual programming that objects, events, and even persons can be said to exist only insofar as they are being televised in “real time,” then the speed at which Virilio makes his observations public appears to be not so much a matter of choice but of sheer necessity. Who wants to read about last year’s war when terrorist attacks are being televised by CNN as we speak or write?
In fact, it is no longer the Gulf War but the Kosovo War that provides the best example of what Virilio is talking about. “The automation of warfare,” he says in a recent conversation with John Armitage, “has... come a long way since the Persian Gulf War of 1991.” Speaking in technological, military, and strategic terms, the Kosovo War is so far ahead of the Gulf War that the latter may just as well have happened thirty or forty years ago. Some may already have forgotten the name Norman Schwarzkopf. History, Virilio states in the same text, “is now rushing headlong into the wall of time,” by which he means that we are in fact witnessing its end, the final and apocalyptic realization of the Hegelian prophecy. Under such extreme conditions one cannot afford to lose sight of speed, its doings and undoings, and to fall behind on what is latest, hippest, hottest, and most up-to-date. Virilio cautions us to keep in mind that “the speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalisation is the speed of light. And it is nothing else!” (“Kosovo War”). Timing is indeed everything.
On the other hand, such a perfectly logical strategy (speed vs. speed, a speedy response to light-speed events) makes itself vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. Is Virilio not riding on the crest of the technological wave and enjoying the benefits? Do not his texts and interviews frequently appear on internet sites where, instantly accessible from any terminal on the globe and only a click away from your own homepage, the words and sentences faintly flicker in some ontologically ambiguous cyberspace that is the exact opposite of the geographic space and historical time in which Virilio would advise us to live? Are not the words I have just quoted—these very words I am writing now—already part of the landscape of events in which everything exists in the eternal, real-time now, and therefore never really and actually? Cyberspace and information superhighways, Virilio remarks in another cyberspace text, bring about a “fundamental loss of orientation.” If to exist, really and fully, “is to exist in situ, here and now, hic et nunc,” then this sort of existence and reality “is precisely what is being threatened by cyberspace and...