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  • Terror Cuts to the Quick: Virilio's The Administration of Fear
  • Thomas Jellis (bio)
Paul Virilio, The Administration of Fear, semiotext(e), 2012. 96 pp. $12. 95, £ 9. 95, (paper), ISBN: 978-1584351054

An excellent addition to semiotext(e)’s exciting intervention series, this slim book offers a fascinating insight into Paul Virilio’s thoughts on what he understands to be a time of fear. In conversation with Bertrand Richard, Virilio is eloquent and not a little explosive. Part biography, part exposition of previous work, this interview develops a novel analysis of the current juncture. Virilio is quick to explain that the title, The Administration of Fear, came to him very early on, as an echo of Graham Greene’s (1943) The Ministry of Fear. The interview is in three parts which could be read separately, although there are references to previous points, and is prefaced by a short summary of the book by the interviewer. Richard tries to keep Virilio in check and at one point accuses him of being overly dramatic. The back and forth between the two is very effective, and Virilio is forced to pause and re-explain.

The question of fear, as Virilio notes, is polysemic. However, his task exceeds outlining the notion itself, focusing also on how it operates. Virilio asks the reader: “How can we not see that fear has been administered, in the strict meaning of the term, by instant interactivity, in particular in the functions that relate to real-time communications?” (44). Virilio deploys the expression ‘the administration of fear,’ in two specific ways. The first deals with the location of fear. He tells us that “fear is now an environment, a surrounding, a world. Fear both occupies and preoccupies us” (14). While fear was once, according to Virilio, a set of locatable and identifiable events, limited to a certain timeframe (wars, famines, epidemics), fear has become an environment which envelops us. We are restricted to a ‘stressful claustrophobia’, complete with contagious stock crises, faceless terrorism and lightening pandemics. Given this, and secondly, the administration of fear also refers to States being ‘tempted to create policies for the orchestration and management of fear’ (15). It is for this reason that Virilio is drawn to Greene’s book, as the ministry of fear depicted there carries with it the administrative aspect of fear.

But why and how has fear become a ‘constitutive element of life’? Virilio is rather explicit about this: “there is no relationship to terror without a relationship to life and speed. Terror cuts to the quick: it is connected to life and quickness through technology” (21). For those familiar with Virilio, his fascination with speed will not come as a surprise. Arguing that he is not a conspiracy theorist, but simply describing the logics of fear, Virilio contends that “we have reached the limits of instantaneity, the limits of human thought and time” (33). Accordingly, Virilio does not think that ancient philosophers provide much help in diagnosing the present condition. He attempts, instead, to present his own terms to provide analytical purchase.

The acceleration of reality can be detected, he argues, in the shift in emphasis “on real time, on the live feed, instead of real space” (31). Virilio contends that we have been unable to conceive of space in terms of space-time. This seems to miss a good swathe of theorisation in Geography on Virilio’s part but at its heart, Virilio’s claim is bemoaning the failed dialogue between Bergson and Einstein on relativity. This encounter in 1922 resulted in an awkward rendezvous of ideas from philosophy and science, with both intellectuals interpreting relativity in different ways. Bergson carefully engaged with the emerging theory of relativity, as he understood it to have important implications not just for physics but for philosophy. Einstein, unable to understand Bergson, rejected the idea of a philosopher’s time and was widely reported to have emerged from the debate victorious. As such, Bergson’s hoped-for philosophical revolution of relativity suffered a serious setback. Virilio argues that we now have a chance to rethink this, as the recent shift to the live feed, to instantaneous update and interaction, has destabilized the...

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