Cyberwar, God And Television: Interview with Paul Virilio
Wilson for CTHEORY
Beneath Mirabeau bridge flows the SeineLouise Wilson: First of all, I'd like to say that I
approach your work as a visual artist.
And our love
Joy followed always after rain
Let night come sound the hour
Time draws in I remain
Extract from Mirabeau Bridge by Guillaume Apollinaire, quoted
by Paul Virilio at the beginning of the interview.
Paul Virilio: But, I always write with images. I cannot write a book
if I don't have images.
I believe that philosophy is part of literature, and not the reverse. Writing
is not possible without images. Yet, images don't have to be descriptive; they
can be concepts, and Deleuze and I often discuss this point. Concepts are mental
CTHEORY: In the text The Museum of Accidents, you write
about the problem of positivism facing a museology of science, and the need for
"the science of an anti-science museum".
Virilio: In The Museum of Accidents, I say at the end of
the article that television is the actual museum. In the beginning, I say: a
museum of accidents is needed, and the reader imagines a building with accidents
inside. But at the end, I say: no, this museum already exists, it's television.
This is more than a metaphor: the cinema was certainly an art, but television
can't be, because it is the museum of accidents. In other words, its art is to
be the site where all accidents happen. But that's its only art.
CTHEORY: So in talking about the simulation industry and its function
to "expose the accident in order not to be exposed to it", could you say more
about that in its relationship to television?
Virilio: One exposes the accident in order not to be exposed to the
accident. It's an inversion. There is a French expression that says: to be
exposed to an accident, to cross a street without looking at the cars means
exposing oneself to be run over. This is more than a play with words, it's
fundamental. For instance, when a painter exhibits his work, one says: he
exposes his work. Similarly, when we cross the street, we expose ourselves to a
And television exposes the world to the accident. The world is exposed to
accidents through television. The editor of the New York Times was
recently interviewed in Le Nouvel Observateur, and he said
something that I really agree with: television is a media of crisis, which means
that television is a media of accidents. Television can only destroy. In this
respect, and even though he was a friend of mine, I believe that McLuhan was
completely wrong (in his idyllic view of television).
CTHEORY: But surely the commodification of the accident happened
before television through simulation?
Virilio: To start with, the simulator is an object in itself, which is
different from televison and leads to cyberspace. The US Air Force flight
simulator - the first sophisticated simulators were created by the US Air Force
- has been used in order to save gas on real flights by training pilots on the
ground. Thus there is a cyberspace vision: one doesn't fly in real space, one
creates a poor cyberspace, with headphones, etc...it is a different logic. In a
way, the simulator is closer to cyberspace than televison. It creates a
different world. So, of course, the simulator quickly became a simulator of
accidents, but not only that: it started simulating actual flight hours, and
these hours have been counted as real hours to evaluate the experience of
pilots. Simulated flight hours and real flight hours became equivalent, and this
was cyberspace, not the accident but something else, or rather the accident of
reality. What is accidented is reality. Virtuality will destroy reality. So,
it's some kind of accident, but an accident of a very different nature.
The accident is not the accident. For instance, if I let this glass fall, is
it an accident? No, it's the reality of the glass that is accidented, not the
glass itself. The glass is certainly broken and no longer exists, but with a
flight simulator, what is accidented is the reality of the glass, and not the
glass itself: what is accidented is the reality of the whole world. Cyberspace
is an accident of the real. Virtual reality is the accident of reality itself.
CTHEORY: But then simulation doesn't really pretend to be the glass?
Virilio: This is a little hard to explain. We have a sense of reality
which is sustained by a physical sensation. Right now, I am holding a bottle:
this is reality. With a data glove, I could hold a virtual bottle. Cybersex is
similar: it is an accident of sexual reality, perhaps the most extraordinary
accident, but still an accident. I would be tempted to say: the accident is
shifting. It no longer occurs in matter, but in light or in images. A Cyberspace
is a light-show. Thus, the accident is in light, not in matter. The creation of
a virtual image is a form of accident. This explains why virtual reality is a
cosmic accident. It's the accident of the real.
I disagree with my friend Baudrillard on the subject of simulation. To the
word simulation, I prefer the one substitution. This is a real glass, this is no
simulation. When I hold a virtual glass with a data glove, this is no
simulation, but substitution. Here lies the big difference between Baudrillard
and myself: I don't believe in simulationism, I believe that the word is already
old-fashioned. As I see it, new technologies are substituting a virtual reality
for an actual reality. And this is more than a phase: it's a definite change. We
are entering a world where there won't be one but two realities, just like we
have two eyes or hear bass and treble tones, just like we now have stereoscopy
and stereophony: there will be two realities: the actual, and the virtual. Thus
there is no simulation, but substitution. Reality has become symmetrical. The
splitting of reality in two parts is a considerable event which goes far beyond
CTHEORY: What about early cinema as a primitive form of this, when
people left the cinema in fright?
Virilio: Unlike Serge Daney or Deleuze, I think that cinema and
television have nothing in common. There is a breaking point between photography
and cinema on the one hand and television and virtual reality on the other hand.
The simulator is the stage in-between television and virtual reality, a moment,
a phase. The simulator is a moment that leads to cyberspace, that is to say, to
the process because of which we now have two bottles instead of one. I might not
see this virtual bottle, but I can feel it. It is settled within reality. This
explains why the word virtual reality is more important than the word
cyberspace, which is more poetic. As far as gender is concerned, there are now
two men and two women, real and virtual. People make fun of cybersex, but it's
really something to take into account: it is a drama, a split of the human
being! The human being can now be changed into some kind of spectrum or ghost
who has sex at a distance. That is really scary because what used to be the most
intimate and the most important relationship to reality is being split. This is
no simulation but the coexistence of two separate worlds. One day the virtual
world might win over the real world.
These new technologies try to make virtual reality more powerful than actual
reality, which is the true accident. The day when virtual reality becomes more
powerful than reality will be the day of the big accident. Mankind never
experienced such an extraordinary accident.
CTHEORY: What is your own feeling about that?
Virilio: I'm not scared, just interested.
This is drama. Art is drama. Any relationship to art is also a relationship
to death. Creation exists only in regard to destruction. Creation is against
destruction. You cannot dissociate birth from death, creation from destruction,
good from evil. Thus any art is a form of drama standing between the two extreme
poles of birth and death, just like life is drama. This is not sad, because to
be alive means to be mortal, to pass through. And art is alive because it is
mortal. Except that now, art has become more than painting, sculpture or music:
art is more than Van Gogh painting a landscape or Wagner composing an opera. The
whole of reality itself has become the object of art. To someone like Zurbaran,
who paints still lifes, lemons and pears are the objects of art. But to the
electronics engineer who works on the technologies of virtual reality, the whole
reality has become the object of art, with a possibility to substitute the
virtual with the real.
CTHEORY: Is there a transcendence of the body?
Virilio: That is difficult to say. First, what is under consideration
is not only the body itself, but the environment of the body as well. The notion
of transcendence is a complex one, but it is true that there is something divine
in this new technology. The research on cyberspace is a quest for God. To be
God. To be here and there. For example, when I say: "I'm looking at you, I can
see you", that means: "I can see you because I can't see what is behind you: I
see you through the frame I am drawing. I can't see inside you". If I could see
you from beneath or from behind, I would be God. I can see you because my back
and my sides are blind. One can't even imagine what it would be like to see
The technologies of virtual reality are attempting to make us see from
beneath, from inside, from behind...as if we were God. I am a Christian, and
even though I know we are talking about metaphysics and not about religion, I
must say that cyberspace is acting like God and deals with the idea of God who
is, sees and hears everything.
CTHEORY: What will happen when virtual reality takes the upper hand?
Virilio: It already has. If you look at the Gulf War or new military
technologies, they are moving towards cyberwars. Most video-technologies and
technologies of simulation have been used for war. For example, video was
created after the Second World War in order to radio-control planes and aircraft
carriers. Thus video came with the war. It took twenty years before it became a
means of expression for artists. Similarly, television was first conceived to be
used as some kind of telescope, not for broadcasting. Originally, Sworkin, the
inventor of television, wanted to settle cameras on rockets so that it would be
possible to watch the sky.
CTHEORY: So it was only by a matter of degrees that the Gulf War
became the 'virtual war', it was live broadcasting that really effected this
Virilio: The high level of the technologies used during the Gulf War
makes this conflict quite unique, but the very process of de-realization of the
war started in 1945. War occured in Kuwait, but it also occured on the screens
of the entire world. The site of defeat or victory was not the ground, but the
screen. (I wrote a book called Desert Screen on the Gulf War.) Thus
it becomes obvious that television is a media of crisis, a museum of accidents.
CTHEORY: This must surely result in some psychic crisis?
Virilio: It is as if I was to take my eye, to throw it away, and still
be able to see. Video is originally a de-corporation, a disqualification of the
sensorial organs which are replaced by machines...The eye and the hand are
replaced by the data glove, the body is replaced by a data suit, sex is replaced
by cybersex. All the qualities of the body are transferred to the machine. This
is a subject I discuss in my last book, The Art of The Engine.
We haven't adjusted yet, we are forgetting our body, we are losing it. This
is an accident of the body, a de-corporation. The body is torn and
CTHEORY: With the Gulf War, there was such incomprehension because it
was so removed.
Virilio: The Gulf War was the first 'live' war. World War Two was a
world war in space. It spread from Europe to Japan, to the Soviet Union, etc.
World War Two was quite different from World War One which was geographically
limited to Europe. But in the case of the Gulf War, we are dealing with a war
which is extremely local in space, but global in time, since it is the first
'live' war. And to those, like my friend Baudrillard, who say that this war did
not actually occur, I reply: this war may not have occurred in the actual global
space, but it did occur in global time. And this thanks to CNN and The Pentagon.
This is a new form of war, and all future wars, all future accidents will be
live wars and live accidents.
CTHEORY: How will this removal affect people?
Virilio: Firstly, a de-realization, the accident of the real. It's not
one, two, hundreds or thousands of people who are being killed, but the whole
reality itself. In a way, everybody is wounded from the wound of the real. This
phenomenon is similar to madness. The mad person is wounded by his or her
distorted relationship to the real. Imagine that all of a sudden I am convinced
that I am Napoleon: I am no longer Virilio, but Napoleon. My reality is wounded.
Virtual reality leads to a similar de-realization. However, it no longer works
only at the scale of individuals, as in madness, but at the scale of the world.
By the way, this might sound like drama, but it is not the end of the world:
it is both sad and happy, nasty and kind. It is a lot of contradictory things at
the same time. And it is complex.
CTHEORY: How can we address this loss?
Virilio: The true problem with virtual reality is that orientation is
no longer possible. We have lost our points of reference to orient ourselves.
The de-realized man is a disoriented man. In my last book, The Art of The
Engine, I conclude by pointing at a recent American discovery, the GPS
(Global Positioning System) which is the second watch. The first watch tells you
what time it is, the second one tells you where you are. If I had a GPS, I could
know where this table stands in relation to the whole world, with an amazing
precision, thanks to satellites. This is extraordinary: in the Fifteenth
century, we invented the first watch, and now we have invented the GPS to know
where we are.
When you find yourself in the middle of virtual reality, you don't know where
you are, but with this machine, you can know. This watch has been used for ships
and not only can it tell you where you are, but also it can tell others where
you are: it works in the two ways. The question you're asking is really
interesting. For one can't even know what it means to be lost in reality. For
instance, it is easy to know whether you are lost or not in the Sahara desert,
but to be lost in reality! This is much more complex! Since there are two
realities, how can we say where we are? We are far away from simulation, we have
reached substitution! I believe this is, all in the same time, a fantastic, a
very scary and an extraordinary world.
CTHEORY: But to return to this question of transcendance...
Virilio: All in all, I believe that this divine dimension raises the
question of transcendance, that is to say the question of the Judeo-Christian
God for instance. People agree to say that it is rationality and science which
have eliminated what is called magic and religion. But ultimately, the ironic
outcome of this techno-scientific development is a renewed need for the idea of
God. Many people question their religious identity today, not necessarily by
thinking of converting to Judaism or to Islam: it's just that technologies
seriously challenge the status of the human being. All technologies converge
toward the same spot, they all lead to a Deus ex Machina, a machine-God. In a
way, technologies have negated the transcendental God in order to invent the
machine-God. However, these two gods raise similar questions.
As you can see, we are still within the museum of accidents. That's a huge,
cosmic accident, and television, which made reality explode, is part of it. I
agree with what Einstein used to say about the three bombs: there are three
bombs. The first one is the atomic bomb, which disintegrates reality, the second
one is the digital or computer bomb, which destroys the principle of reality
itself - not the actual object - and rebuilds it, and finally the third bomb is
the demographic one. Some experts have found out that in five thousand years
from now, the weight of the population will be heavier than the weight of the
planet. That means that humanity will constitute a planet of its own!
CTHEORY: Do you always separate the body from technology?
Virilio: No. The body is extremely important to me, because it is a
planet. For instance, if you compare Earth and an astronomer, you will see that
the man is a planet. There is a very interesting Jewish proverb that says: "If
you save one man, you save the world: That's a reverse version of the idea of
the Messiah: one man can save the world, but to save a man is to save the world.
The world and man are identical. This is why racism is the most stupid thing in
You are a universe, and so am I; we are four universes here. And there are
millions of others around us. Thus the body is not simply the combination of
dance, muscles, body-building, strength and sex: it is a universe. What brought
me to Christianity is Incarnation, not Ressurection. Because Man is God, and God
is Man, the world is nothing but the world of Man - or Woman. So, to separate
mind from body doesn't make any sense. To a materialist, matter is essential: a
stone is a stone, a mountain is a mountain, water is water and earth is earth.
As far as I am concerned, I am a materialist of the body, which means that the
body is the basis of all my work.
To me, dance is an extraordinary thing, more extraordinary than most people
usually think. Dance preceded writing, speaking and music. When mute people
speak their body language, it is true speaking rather than handicap, this is the
first word and the first writing. Thus to me, the body is fundamental. The body,
and the territory of course, for there cannot be an animal body without a
territorial body: three bodies are grafted over each other: the territorial body
- the planet, the social body - the couple, and the animal body - you and me.
And technology splits this unity, leaving us without a sense of where we are.
This, too, is de-realization.
There is a buddhist proverb which I like a lot. It says: "Every body deserves
mercy". That means that every body is holy. This is to answer the body question.
Technologies first equipped the territorial body with bridges, aqueducts,
railways, highways, airports, etc..Now that the most powerful technologies are
becoming tiny - microtechnologies, all technologies can invade the body. These
micro-machines will feed the body. Research is being conducted in order to
create additional memory for instance. For the time being, technologies are
colonizing our body through implants. We started with human implants, but
research leads us to microtechnological implants.
The territorial body has been polluted by roads, elevators, etc. Similarly,
our animal body starts being polluted. Ecology no longer deals with water,
flora, wildlife and air only. It deals with the body itself as well. It is
comparable with an invasion: technology is invading our body because of
miniaturisation. (Referring to the interviewer's microphone: "next time you come
you won't even ask - you'll just throw a bit of dust on the table!")
There is a great science-fiction short story, it's too bad I can't remember
the name of its author, in which a camera has been invented which can be carried
by flakes of snow. Cameras are inseminated into artificial snow which is dropped
by planes, and when the snow falls, there are eyes everywhere. There is no blind
CTHEORY: But what shall we dream of when everything becomes visible?
Virilio: We'll dream of being blind. This is the art of the engine.
Art used to be painting, sculpture, music, etc, but now, all technology has
become art. Of course, this form of art is still very primitive, but it is
slowly replacing reality. This is what I call the art of the engine. For
instance, when I take the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) in France, I love
watching the landscape: this landscape, as well as works by Picasso or Klee, is
art. The engine makes the art of the engine. Wim Wenders made road movies, but
what is the engine of a road movie? It's a car, like in Paris
Texas. Dromoscopy. Now all we have to do to enter the realm of art is to
take a car. Many engines made History.
CTHEORY: Finally to return to the accident! Is it possible to see the
body itself as a simulator? (Within medical aerospace research, for example, the
body's own accident, that of motion sickness, can be eradicated.)
Virilio: The body has a dimension of simulation. The learning process,
for instance: when one learns how to drive a car or a van, once in the van, one
feels completely lost. But then, once you have learnt how to drive, the whole
van is in your body. It is integrated into your body. Another example: a man who
pilots a Jumbo Jet will ultimately feel that the Boeing is entering his body.
But what is going on now, or should happen in one or two generations, is the
disintegration of the world. Real time 'live' technologies, cyberreality, will
permit the incorporation of the world within oneself. One will be able to read
the entire world, just like during the Gulf War. And I will have become the
world. The body of the world and my body will be one. Once again, this is a
divine vision; and this is what the military are looking for. Earth is already
being integrated into the Pentagon, and the man in the Pentagon is already
piloting the world war - or the Gulf War - as if he were a captain whose huge
boat would have become his own body. Thus the body simulates the relationship to
CTHEORY: Are you suggesting the human body will disappear in all
senses of the word?
Virilio: We haven't reached that point yet: what I have described is
the end, or a vision of the end. What will prevail is this will to reduce the
world to the point where one could possess it. All military technologies reduce
the world to nothing. And since military technologies are advanced technologies,
what they actually sketch today is the future of the civil realm. But this, too,
is an accident.
When I was a young soldier, I was asked to drive a huge van while I had never
driven a car. Here I am, driving through a German village (this takes place
during the occupation) and there was this painter who had settled his ladder on
the side of the street. I thought that my big van was going to crash his ladder.
That didn't happen. I just passed through.
21 October 1994
We would like to thank Magali Fowler and Rania Stesan for assistance
with translation during the interview. A very special thank you to Gildas Illien
for the actual translation of the text from French into English.
Paul Virilio is the emblematic French theorist of technology. His
major works include: Pure War, Speed and Politics, and
War and Cinema: the Logistics of Perception. Two of his most recent
books are Desert Screen and The Art of The Engine.
Louise Wilson is a British artist currently living in Montreal.
Her art involves site specific installations and perfomance.
© CTheory. All Rights Reserved