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Paul Virilio - Biography

Paul Virilio (b. 1932 in Paris) is a world-renowned philosopher, urbanist, and cultural theorist. His work focuses on urban spaces and the development of technology in relation to power and speed. He is known for his coining of the term 'dromology' to explain his theory of speed and technology. Paul Virilio is of mixed ancestry, being the son of an Italian father (who identified as a Communist) and a Breton mother. As a small child in France during the Second World War, Paul Virilio was profoundly impacted by the blitzkrieg and total war; however, these early experiences shaped his understanding of the movement and speed which structures modern society. In order to escape the heavy fighting in the city, he fled with his family to the port of Nantes in 1939.

He was trained as an artist at the Ecole des Metiers d'Art, which led him to an early career working with Henri-Emile-Benoît Matisse on stained glass windows in several Paris churches. He later attended lectures in phenomenology by Maurice Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne and studied architecture. He converted to Christianity in 1950 and fought in the Algerian War. Though he was not formally trained as one, Paul Virilio became an architect, and much of his work revolves around questions of architecture and urban spaces. His work is influenced by phenomenology, in particular the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and Edmund Husserl. Two other evident influences on his work are the Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Albert Einstein.

In 1963 Paul Virilio became the president and editor of the Architecture Principe group's magazine. He was teacher at the École Speciale de Architecture until 1968, becoming Director of Studies in 1973. That same year, he became the director of the magazine L'Espace Critique, published by Galilee, from Paris. In 1975 he co-organised the Bunker Archeologie exhibition at the Decorative Arts Museum of Paris. In 1975 he was the General Director of the ÉSA and in 1989 Chairman of the Board. In 1987 he won the Grand National Prize for Architecture Critique. In 1989 he became the director of the program of studies at the College International de Philosophie de Paris, under the direction of Jacques Derrida Then in 1992, he became a member of the High Committee for the Housing of the Disadvantaged. Among other projects, he is presently working on metropolitan techniques of time organization and the building of the first Museum of the Accident. Since 1998, Paul Virilio has been retired from teaching, and he currently devotes much of his time to writing projects and to an effort underway in Paris which provides housing for homeless people through private organizations.

'Velocity' is the key word of Paul Virilio's thinking, the post-modern treasure, and the modern society capital. Reality is no longer defined by time and space, but in a virtual world, in which technology allows the existence of the paradox of being everywhere at the same time while being nowhere at all. The loss of the site, city, and nation in favor of globalization implies also the loss of rights and of democracy, as these are contrary to the immediate and instantaneous nature of information. In Paul Virilio's view, Marshall McLuhan's global village is nothing but a 'World Ghetto'.

The Strategy of Deception (1999) is a collection of essays which discuss the various technological innovations on display during the war in Kosovo, as well as the shift in sensibilities that both flows from and brings about such innovations. By examining the role of information technologies and the goal of 'global information dominance', Paul Virilio asks the reader to consider the qualities of what was billed as a 'humanitarian war'. Rather than looking at the media's image of the war as an heroic and tidy event, with few Allied casualties, Paul Virilio digs into the ethical issues surrounding what he calls a 'secular holy war':

'For want of being able to abolish the bomb, we have decided, then, to abolish the state, a nation state which is now charged with "sovereignist" vices and "nationalist" crimes, thereby exonerating a military-industrial and scientific complex which has spent a whole century innovating in horror and accumulating the most terrifying weapons, not to mention the future ravages of the information bomb or of a genetic bomb that will be capable not merely of abolishing the nation state, but the people, the population, by the "genomic" modification of the human race' (Strategy of Deception, 57).

Paul Virilio's critique looks beyond traditional weapons of war to interrogate the way that new technologies are being implemented to the same effect. He moves from missile to satellite, charting the effects of the assault rather than the appearance: 'In both cases, what one is seeking to eliminate is only life, the opponents energetic vitality' (Strategy of Deception, 52). He thus moves from nuclear war to information war. Paul Virilio recontextualizes globalized warfare, which is now fought at the speed of light, through telecommunications, propaganda, and social controls, and perhaps, supplemented by traditional means. The ultimate triumph of such a war (of any war, really) is an immobilization of the populace and/or an annihilation of the government, with or without bombs.

The interrelations in Paul Virilio's work between theory and practice extend in multiple directions, crossing the nexus of the postmodern metropolis. A central component of his work is Gestalt psychology, which influenced several of his architectural projects, such as the Thompson-Houston Aerospace Research Center (Villacoubly, 1969), as well as his concept of 'oblique function'. In pushing beyond the early foundation for his work – Gestalt psychology and phenomenology – Paul Virilio came in his later works to develop his concept of 'chronopolitics', in part via the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on the 'deterritorialization' of the late-capitalist metropolis.

The latest works by Paul Virilio focus on technoscientific questions regarding the relation between humans and technology, which he has elaborated into concepts such as 'transplant revolution', 'the third', and 'polar inertia'. The influence of the technoscientific writings of physicist Albert Einstein can be seen in the concept 'polar inertia'. His book Polar Inertia (1999) explores the ways in which real space has been supplanted by real time due to the advances of electro-optical transmission technology. The speed of light has been realized as a technological reality in the post-industrial age, thereby obliterating spatial distances and reducing human perception to a kind of 'polar inertia'. According to Paul Virilio, Howard Hughes in his state of isolation is the archetype of polar inertia.

Although guided by the work of poststructuralist thinkers, such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, Paul Virilio is a practicing Christian and therefore does not share the anti-humanist positions of these thinkers. In spite of this, Paul Virilio has thought in some depth about questions of the post-human, in particular his concept of 'the third' or 'the transplant revolution', in which the human body under the gaze of technoscience is becoming endo-colonized.

Paul Virilio is the author of many books: Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (1977), War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1989), Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles (1990), Lost Dimension (1991), The Aesthetics of Disappearance (1991), Bunker Archaeology (1994), The Vision Machine (1994), The Art of the Motor (1995), Pure War (1997), Open Sky (1997), Polar Inertia (1999), Politics of the Very Worst (1999), Strategy of Deception (2000), The Information Bomb (2000), A Landscape of Events (2000), Virilio Live: Selected Interviews (2001), Crepuscular Dawn (2002), Desert Screen: War at the Speed of Light (2002), Ground Zero (2002), Unknown Quantity (2003), Art and Fear (2003), Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy (2005), The Accident of Art (2005), City of Panic (2005), The Original Accident (2007), and Art as Far as the Eye Can See (2007).

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio is a Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he conducts an Intensive Summer Workshop.