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The BIGGER the Letters, the Smaller the Thought

Hyperventilating with Paul Virilio

by JUSTIN TAYLOR

Art and Fear
By Paul Virilio
Trans. Julie Rose, Intro by John Armitage
Continuum (2004)
$19.95, 115 pp.

For the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, Verso simultaneously published three on-topic titles by three apex theorists. Those books were Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism, Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real, and Virilio’s Ground Zero. Thing was, Virilio’s Ground Zero wasn’t really much about 9/11 at all. It was mostly about art and technophobia.

Steve Redhead, editor of The Paul Virilio Reader, chalks this up to Verso. He claims editors there changed the title of the book, picked the torrid cover art, and promoted the book to English-language buyers as a 9/11 offering when it was never intended as such. Indeed, Redhead explains, introducing an excerpt from Ground Zero in the Reader, "only the short section extracted here actually does that". The excerpt included is mostly about art as well. Ground Zero (Ce Qui Arrive in the French), Redhead writes, "as a whole, found Virilio revisiting some of the territory of Art and Fear, and at times it reads like a collection of out-takes from the 2000 French edition of what John Armitage has called the ‘aesthetics of Auschwitz’; here an aside on body art, there a warning about scientific totalitarianism in the ‘post-human’ future of biological engineering".

I was excited when I saw an English edition of Art and Fear featured on bookstore shelves because it seemed like a chance for Virilio to clarify his position ­ to be able to articulate a theory of art without the burden of publisher-induced expectation (always, of course, assuming that Redhead’s version of events is actually what happened and that he isn’t merely running damage control for Virilio). I was less excited to see that they were asking $19.95 for the slim volume, first published in France in 2000 as La Procedure Silence, then in London in 2003, and finally in the United States in August of last year.

Art and Fear does indeed delve deeper into the issues Virilio first presented to American readers in Ground Zero, though perhaps "deeper" isn’t quite the right term. I want something that suggests extended debate, sans depth, though I suppose at well under 200 pp. between the two texts (and a combined cost in the neighborhood of $40) "extended" may be the wrong word as well. Virilio’s arguments in Art and Fear are everything that Steve Redhead felt Ground Zero had been accused of being, and then some. Virilio, once a wildly original and daringly iconoclastic thinker, seems to have become something as embarrassing as it is irrelevant: the old man in the corner who can’t stop cursing about the damn kids and their rock music

"At the end of the millennium", he writes in Art and Fear’s main essay, "A Pitiless Art" , "what abstraction once tried to pull off is in fact being accomplished before our very eyes: the end of REPRESENTATIVE art and the substitution of a counter-culture, of a PRESENTATIVE art. A situation that reinforces the dreadful decline of representative democracy in favour of a democracy based on the rule of opinion, in anticipation of the imminent arrival of virtual democracy, some kind of ‘direct democracy’ or, more precisely, a presentative multimedia democracy based on automatic polling". It is never made clear precisely how or why contemporary culture ­ which tends to wholly disregard not only contemporary art and art history, but pretty much all history, along with logic and democratic process ­ is necessarily the conjoined twin of the art world, a world itself tending toward insularity and self-reference to such degree that one is often given to wonder if contemporary artists have taken a look at the really-existing state of things anytime in recent memory. Furthermore, why the equivocation of ‘direct democracy’ with ‘automatic polling?’ And just what is a ‘multimedia democracy based on automatic polling’ anyway? Polling of whom? By what means? On what topic? In which country? Moreover, why is a man who once described his politics as "Christian anarchist" interested in the preservation of any political system described above, even some idealized and functional ‘representative democracy’? None of these questions gets answered.

Readers will likely make a game of the reading, perhaps guessing at what Virilio will choose to take on, or at least name-check, next. "[H]ow can we fail to feel the concentration of accumulated hate in every square metre of the ‘uncivil cities’ of this fin de siecle?" Virilio asks us, presuming, I suppose, both that it is there and that we haven’t been paying attention. Or maybe this whole passage made more sense in 1998. Since the text was first published in 2000 it seems fair to assume the man behind the theory of the "information bomb" was probably in full throttle Chicken Little-mode when this text was penned. Anyway, he continues with a challenge to "[g]o one night and check out the basements or underground parking lots of suburban council estates, all that the clandestine RAVE PARTIES and BACKROOM brothels are only ever the tourist trappings of, so to speak!"

If all of this revolves around anything, it is indeed what John Armitage called the "aesthetics of Auschwitz". When Virilio slows down, it is to remind us that all roads lead there. Modern medicine is an offshoot of Auschwitz, he says, and even though there is a historical sense in which he’s correct, the context of his argument pretty much squanders whatever he would have gained by being on the right side of the facts. He explains how the development of "talkie" motion pictures "forced" an audio track to be synched with a visual track, and that this syncopation is actually a form of totalitarianism. And we all know where totalitarianism leads. Genetic manipulation ­ i.e. the future of modern medicine ­ is also definitely Auschwitz. One wonders if he even knows that his rhetoric matches that of anti-choice anti-stem cell fanatics almost to the word. Every time I see those people on FOX News they are equating Alzheimer cures with Nazi eugenics, or giving children stickers to wear that read "former embryo".

As Virilio should well know, the easiest way to void something of meaning is overexposure. Virilio’s over-deployment of Auschwitz diminishes the very great and terrible aura that is the reason he invokes it so often. It turns in his hands from an iron mace to a Nerf-bat. He excoriates Adorno for having dared once to say that poetry after Auschwitz was barbarism, yet Virilio has made Auschwitz into the fetish object of his own poetics, more or less perpetrating the very barbarism preemptively chastised by Adorno. In a text which exists largely to accuse 20th century art of inhumanity and a lack of pity, one wonders why Virilio sees in Adorno an adversary; given the rickety construction of his argument, he should be glad for a helping hand.

"After the like, the ANALOGOUS, the age of the ‘likely’ ­ CLONE or AVATAR ­ has arrived", Virilio crows in the closing paragraphs of his Jeremiad. He’s as intractable and smug as a street-preaching Baptist. "The industrial standardization of products manufactured in series combining with the standardization of sensations and emotions as a prelude to the development of cybernetics, with its attendant computer synchronization, the end product of which will be the virtual CYBERWORLD".

Okay grandpa, whatever you say.

And why Virilio’s rampant, and practically random, captialization of words? Presumably this was intended to amplify their impact, but for me the tic just underscores the histrionic, immature tone of the text. If you do read this book, perhaps you will make a list of your favorite scarily capitalized terms. Mine include: AUSCHWITZ, TITANIC, CHERNOBYL, HIROSHIMA, NAGASAKI, TERRORISM, SCIENTIFIC, ARTISTIC, NUREMBERG CODE, NIGHT OF THE MILLENIUM, SMOG, ZERO TIME, and LIFE.

Even John Armitage, whose introduction takes up a third of Art and Fear’s total page count and who Steve Redhead credits with having done "much to amplify Paul Virilio’s international profile since the late 1990s", makes sure to distance himself from some of the book’s wilder and more irrational sallies:

"[I]t does appear in ‘A Pitiless Art’ and ‘Silence on Trial’ as if [Virilio] is at times perhaps excessively disparaging of the trends and theories associated with contemporary art and film, politics and the acceleration of the mass media. In condemning pitiless art and the recent ordeal experienced by those seeking a right to silence without implied assent, he is possibly rather too cautious with regard to the practices of contemporary art. As in the case of the body artist, Stelarc, Virilio’s criticism of his work tends to overlook the remarkable and revolutionary questioning of the conventional principles of the functioning of the human body that Stelarc’s medical operations and technological performances signify. For Virilio, however, the humiliation of the art lover through the imposition of pitiless images and ear-splitting sound systems in the art gallery and elsewhere is not so much the beginning of an aesthetic debate as the beginning of the end of humanity.

Put another way, Virilio may just be out of the loop and more than a little bit frightened at what he sees, or thinks he sees. RAVE PARTIES, read as nihilistic attempts to overcome the body with techno-saturated music, imagery, and drugs, can also be read as delirious immersions into human existence and interactivity. A room full of young people all on the same strain of ecstasy and writhing in a sweaty rhizomatic mass may not be Virilio’s idea of a good time, but that doesn’t necessarily make it an anti-human or pitiless act. Perhaps it is the revenge of the human in the face of all that technology, the appropriation of metal and wires in the name of dance and bodily fluid. He’d have done better to go after, say, participants in massive multiplayer online role-playing games, though even those people have their version of a world.

"Viriliolaments the eradication of the modern ‘man of art,’" Armitage writes, and this is the truth. In fact, it’s a decent summary of the book as a whole.

For another, better look at most of these same topics and some others, I recommend Arthur C. Danto’s The Philosophical Disenfrachisement of Art, which I have been working my way through for some time. Danto’s book is longer, and the text itself poses more of a reading challenge; it is also older. First published in 1986, it was re-released this year by Columbia University Press. Because Danto isn’t crying Apocalypse, or bent on riding the cutting edge of anything, or delving much into politics at all, he is free to fully embrace and explore the historical and philosophical development of art; the blur between art in theory and art in practice; the allure of and logic behind outré developments like performative, dangerous, and/or mixed-media art; the movement of art toward an insularity which facilitates it’s "philosophical disenfranchisement", and so on. I won’t say much more about Danto’s book, because this is not a review of Danto. I bring him up merely for the sake of the interested reader of art theory, as well for the disappointed reader of Virilio. I felt like I learned, and am still learning, a lot from Danto.

For the thrifty reader, who like me prefers to read as much as possible at the bookstore café and thereby glean the knowledge for the price of a cup of coffee, I recommend the essays toward the middle of the book. In particular, "The End of Art" and "Art and Disturbation" flesh out much of what Virilio glosses, with both a clearer head and a steadier hand than that of the Frenchman. Danto subjects the reader to some philosophical minutiae and plenty of Hegelian historicism, but, thankfully, little fear-mongering and no fully capitalized common nouns.

JUSTIN TAYLOR is a freelance writer, lately of Portland, OR and currently of Franklin, TN. Keep up with his writing and whereabous at http://www.justindtaylor.net/