Digital Delirium

Hacking the Future

Data Trash


The Possessed Individual

The Last Sex

Body Invaders

The Hysterical Male

Ideology and Power

Panic Encyclopedia


The Postmodern Scene

Life After Postmodernism

Technology and the Canadian Mind

C.B. Macpherson

Culture Critique

Northrop Frye

LEFT BEHIND:Flight from the Flesh

BORN AGAIN IDEOLOGY: Religion, Technology and Terrorism

Code Drift: Essays in Critical Digital Studies


Chapter 2 (Part 1)

Paul Virilio: The Postmodern Body as a War Machine
We are passengers of the empty circle who only wish to arrive before they leave. Speed is a perfect will to impotence.
     -Virilio, Speed and Politics
Virtual Technology

Someday it might well be said that the political history of the late twentieth century, the fateful time of the fin de millennium, was written under the sign of Paul Virilio. For in his theoretical imagination all of the key tendencies of the historical epoch are rehearsed the creation of the postmodern body as a war machine; the fantastic acceleration of culture to its imminent moment of collapse in a nowhere zone between speed and inertia; the mutation of subjectivity into "dromocratic consciousness"; [1] the irradiation of the mediascape by a "logistics of perception" [2] that work according to the rules of the virtual world. Virilio is, in fact, the emblematic theorist of the end of the modernist phase of technology, that historically specifiable period when it was still possible to speak of a division between technique extrinsic to human subjectivity and the interior world of imagination and sensibility, and the appearance of virtual technology. Technology, that is, which boards the body as a "metabolic vehicle", [3] exteriorizes its capacities from speech and memory to eyesight, and then replicates the human sensorium in a mediascape that actually comes alive as a virtual being with its own intelligence (dromocratic intelligence), power (the speed of movement), logic of perspective (the dromoscope of the media), and biological rhythm (the war machine which functions according to the threefold logic of tactics, strategy, and an endless preparation for war). To read Virilio is to know technology as a dark vampiric logic which, much like the schizoid figure of Leland/Bob in David Lynch's Twin Peaks, takes possession of the human body as its inhabiting spirit. He is, perhaps, the world's first virtual theorist, the writer who seeks to understand the universe of technology and politics, not by standing outside of its violent logic, but by travelling inside its deepest interstices with such speed, such "apparent" theoretical force, and such insistent moral concerns that the virtual world of technology is finally compelled to disclose its secret, to finally say that "real power is not knowledge power or the accumulation of wealth, but 'moving power' ...speed is the hope of the west." [4] In Virilio's theorization, we leave behind the old universe of competing ideologies, entering into the 'new world order' of dromology. Dromology? That's the empire of immediacy, speed and communication where the self mutates into a classless cyborg, half-flesh, half-metal, where living means quick circulation through the technical capillaries of the mediascape, where culture is reduced to the society of the spectacle, and where power is generalized in the form of the predatory logic of the war machine.

But then, Virilio is a myth-maker of the world of virtual technology. In his work, we see them all: a more fundamental moral struggle between subjugated human knowledge and a menacing dromocratic intelligence flashing across all of the screens and networks (The Aesthetics of Disappearance); the "jet subjectivity" of the vacant bodies drifting across the airport terminals of the world (Speed and Politics); the "exhausted offense" of the dictatorship of movement (Pure War); the disappearance of politics into the terminal phase of the "logistics of perception" (Cinema and War); and the transformation of cityscapes into an architecture of war, complete with mutant bodies caught up in an endless drift through all the circulatory capillaries of the transportation network. This is one theorist of technology who reaches back to a more classical understanding of the intimations of deprival released by technology as degeneration in order to recuperate, in the imagination if not in practice, an epochal tension between the labyrinth of domination of everyday technological life and the subjugated knowledge of a "possible" human experience outside the technical maelstrom. Acting under a more ancient philosophical impulse, Virilio actually writes an epic of technological experience, with lament as his chosen form of meditation.

The Postmodern Body as a War Machine

There is a robotic performance installation by the artist Tony Brown, which describes perfectly the cold cybernetic universe of Paul Virilio.

Entitled simply Two Machines for Feeling[5], the installation consists of two robotic figures, one a Metropolis-like cyborg whose chromium arms move through a repetitive sequence of motions, and the other a small porcelain ballerina whose magnified pixel-image is projected onto a white screen enclosed in a protective Plexiglas box. While the cyborg is programmed by an invisible computer secreted in the corner of the installation, the ballerina image is attached to a cyclotron which whirls the screen with violent intensity. When the power is turned on, the cyborg robot begins to move in gestures of a purely mechanical signature, while the ballerina moves with such acceleration that the pixie image begins to mutate a degendered ballerina and an ironic cyborg trapped as the brilliant stars of a performance without performers.

This sculptural installation shows us on the outside what we have become in the inside in the era of virtual technology. It is a 1990s version of the almost surrealistic mirror reversals, time warps, and space shifts of Alice in Wonderland, except this time, rather than slip from the Real into the fantasy world of a deck of cards come alive, in Two Machines for Feeling we actually enter into the dark semiological interior of information society. In a culture that is pulverized by the mediascape to the extent that we can now speak of neon brains, electric egos, and data skin as the bigger circuitry of a society held together by the sleek sheen of surface and network, entering into the simulacra of Two Machines for Feeling is something akin to being positioned in the hallucinogenic world of postmodern technology. It is like space travel in the society of the super chip, where, however, we become passive observers of what is happening to us in the complex sign-system of information society. Two Machines for Feeling is, in fact, a perfect simulacra of a culture modeled on pure speed; one which is driven from within by the reduction of experience to dromocratic consciousness - with us, this time, as dangling schizoids in the postmodern body as a war machine.

Two Machines for Feeling is insightful as a Virilio-like analysis of the complex inner discourse of postmodern technology. This artistic production is, to begin with, about the "virtual body," which does not exist except as an empty site for the convergence of the great axes traced by three discourses: the digital coding of a technical culture which is programmed by computer-generated logic (the micro computer in Two Machines for Feeling controls the mechanical actions of the cyborg and the sequencing of the ballerina's image-system); the implosive logic of the image reservoir (this is a perfect image of television with the pixel image as the Real and we as the missing matter of the production); and the imminent violence of the cyclotronic ballerina (Brown says that "narrative continuity in information society can only be assured by a violent speeding up of the dynamo"). As a semiology of the postmodern body as a war machine, Two Machines for Feeling is perfect: it is all gender slippage (the cyborg has no sex; and the ballerina has no objective existence except as a tiny porcelain doll - the production is about degendered, virtual sex). It is all technologically dependent (as in performance art when you turn off the energy supply and the technical apparatus dissolves into instant ruins). Everything here plays at the edge of the ecstasy of speed and the detritus of inertia; a psychoanalysis of war machines where "fascination turns into psychosis." And this architectural installation forces to the surface the ideological inscriptions hidden in the formal structure of technology (the visual continuity of the dancing ballerina can only be maintained by the flattening of the image, and us with it, at warp speeds); and we are ideologically positioned as inert observers of the spectacle of velocity in ruins.

Indeed, Two Machines for Feeling is the world's first culture smasher, as violent as the centrifugal motion of the cyclotron in the atom smashing of particle physics as it whips around elementary particles until they achieve escape velocity. It combines optics, cybernetics, robotics, and industrial centrifuging into an exact simulacrum of how power as speed functions today. And what are the elementary social particles that are whipped into an endless free fall from this violent and hallucinogenic act of culture smashing? They comprise the social itself as the dark missing matter of the new universe of communication technologies. In the end, Two Machines for Feeling is about the death of the social and the triumph of the postmodern technology of pure speed as a war machine, one in which we are all processed as its mute encryptions. A violent world of what the military like to call N(uclear), B(iological) C(ontaminants) - machine talk in which we are all captured.