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  • Virtually Wagging the Dog
  • James Der Derian (bio)
Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, translated by Julie Rose (Minneapolis, MN: 1995)

Paul Virilio is the kind of writer that gives the likes of Alan Sokal, professor of physics, perpetrator of academic hoaxes, and the keeper of scientific correctness, the heebie-jeebies. Stained-glass maker, museum curator, urban architect, military critic, peace strategist, and author of a dozen books in as many years, Virilio also likes to dabble in the sciences, especially post-Newtonian physics. He comes up with pronouncements that give cause for many scientists to reach for their formulaic responses. Consider a sampling of Virilio-isms. In the past, reality was matter, then it became mass+force, and now, traveling and arriving at warp-speed, it has gone three-dimensional as mass+force+information. Through increasingly ubiquitous technologies of reproduction, the speed of light collapses distance, illuminating, replicating, and finally disappearing the autonomous subject into the infosphere. The cosmos is overtaken by ‘dromos’ (Greek for speed-race), and the relativization of everything results. In a relentless war of images, reality loses out to virtuality.

This is heady stuff, not easily rendered into the causal, hypothesis-testing language of the social, let alone physical sciences. But Virilio has little patience for disciplinary methodologies that always seem to lag behind his curve of events. Like the alchemists, those proto-scientists who tried to ‘educe’ - synonymous at the time with ‘torture’ (and still so in some educational settings) - pure gold from base lead, Virilio is busy laying down the tracks for a critical human science of technology. Like quantum physicists and Agent Mulder from X-Files, Virilio does believes the ‘truth is out there’, but verification has become corrupted by conventional processes of investigation.

Consider then, with Virilio and the banderole of t&e in mind, whether our philosophies have been worthy, as Deleuze and Guattari or Garth and Wayne would put it, of some recent events:

  • ○. A flyer comes in the mail for ISDN service from the newly synergized Telamon/Bell Atlantic/EarthLink Network. It invokes our ‘need for speed’: ‘You feel it every time a big file or complex web page crawls through your modem. Every time you’re sitting and waiting, instead of getting what you want, when you want it.’

  • ○. The Defense Department reveals that it is buying up MIG-29s from Moldava to keep them out of the hands of ‘rogue states’ . ‘We’re going to analyze them,’ says Secretary of Defense Cohen, ‘and I’m sure that the Air Force may come up with some utilitarian use of them.’

  • ○. A bus goes out of control on Fifth Avenue, and a bystander remarks that ‘it was like the movie “Speed”...When I saw the movie, I thought it looked fake, but I guess they did a good job, because it looked like this.’

  • ○. Prompted by Intel’s announcement chip memory will double every nine months rather than the industry standard of 18 months, a commentator in an op-ed piece decries the increased pace of life: ‘So it goes with technology. As we speed it up, we also speed up our expectations...When the pace of change is so blistering, people who stand still feel as if they are falling behind.’

  • ○. Chinese President Jiang Zemin, in between doffing a colonial tricorner hat in Williamsburg and giving a Chinese history lesson at Harvard, informs the American public that just as Einstein posited the relativity of science so too must we recognize the relativism of cultures, and back-off on any righteous claims to a universal human rights.

  • ○. And finally, tragicomically, Monica Lewinsky. As the news breaks, PBS’s Jim Lehrer assembles his experts, and speed becomes the primary discussion point after Doris Kearns Goodwin contrasts the slow deliberative process of Watergate to the accelerated news cycle of today; Haynes Johnson responds that ‘Speed has conditioned us to daily scandal’; and David Gergen evokes a ‘Wag-the-Dog Syndrome’, to state why it is essential for the President to get this behind him as quickly as possible. Albania beware.

Against this backdrop of the everyday bizarre, the apocalyptic hype and rhetorical hyperbole of Virilio plays a purpose. His...