Pitying Paul Virilio

It isn't particularly easy to read Paul Virilio's books. He writes in French, and it is difficult to translate his idiosyncratic puns, metaphors and neologisms into English. He doesn't really write books, though he has certainly published a great many texts. Virilio mainly writes articles and essays; he reads aloud papers he's written at conferences; and he gives in-depth interviews. Various collections of these furtive texts have been assembled and published as "books" that are often very short and, in the English translations, not illustrated. Finally, Virilio tends to develop his themes slowly, across the span of several "books," which makes it especially difficult for the newcomer to enter into his discourse, which dates back to the late 1970s (he was born in 1932). But Virilio needs to be read. He is the only post-World War II radical French theorist to write extensively on the inter-related subjects of war, the military, speed, and the acceleration of time, and his writings are uniquely useful in describing and theorizing "terrorism," militarism, and September 11th.

Most recently, there's this weird "book" called Art and Fear (Continuum, London/New York, 2003). Composed of two short texts, "A Pitiless Art" and "Silence on Trial," and only 61 pages long, it was originally published in 2000 by Editions Galilee under the title La Procedure Silence ("The Silence Trial"). In 2002, the book was translated into English by Julie Rose, who had previously translated Virilio's The Art of the Motor (University of Minnesota Press, 1995). Slender as it is -- no price listed, but my copy cost an unmerciful $15 -- this volume is also absurdly padded out. Not only does it contain a two-page-long translator's preface, a bibliography of works cited and an index, but also a completely unnecessary thirteen-page-long "introduction" by John Armitage, who is clearly uncomfortable with the book itself or this particular line of thought in Virilio's books. And so Armitage feels compelled to offer various defensive responses to what "commentators" on the book "might claim" about it. When all is said and done, Art and Fear contains a mere 35 pages of worthwhile material. But this material is so strong and provocative that it is more than worth the difficulty of obtaining it.

In "A Pitiless Art," Virilio reports that, "as [the] sole explanation" for staging The World of Bodies exhibition at the Mannheim Museum of Technology and Work in 1998 -- it is in fact on display here in New York City as I write these very words -- the German anatomist-turned-contemporary-artist Gunther von Hagens "resorted to the modern buzzword: 'It's about breaking the last remaining taboos,' he says." It is precisely the overlap of modern science (in this case, necrology) and modern art that Virilio finds so distressing. Modern art is no longer the only field in which the deliberate breaking of taboos is the central motivation. It now appears in fields as disparate (and socially important) as commercial advertising; sports, pornography, music and other activities that privilege "performance" and increasingly rely upon specialized pharmaceuticals (Viagra, Human Growth Hormones, steroids, amphetamines and so forth); scientific research, but especially in the fields of "bio-technology," genetic modifications, mutations, and cloning; and the strategic planning and execution of military campaigns. Each one of these fields is, in its way, an "extreme" art that seeks to "shock and awe." Taken together, these various fields constitute a kind of official art, indeed, the official, State-sponsored art of the twenty-first century.

Precisely because modern art has been so successful in convincing (nearly) everyone that there should be no limits to freedom of expression -- up to and including the call to murder and torture -- this official art is terroristic, lethal and inhuman. It is best likened to the experiments performed by the Nazis' artist/doctors at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Over the course of a few dense pages, Virilio writes:

Having broken the taboos of suffocating bourgeois culture, we are now supposed to break the being, the unicity of mankind, through the impending explosion of a genetic bomb that will be to biology what the atomic bomb was to physics [...] Ethics or aesthetics? That is indeed the question at the dawn of the millennium. If freedom of SCIENTIFIC expression now actually has no more limits than freedom of ARTISTIC expression, where will inhumanity end in [the] future? [...] Ethical boundary, aesthetic boundary of sport as of art. Without limits, there is no value; without value, there is no esteem, no respect and especially no pity: death to the referee! You know how it goes . . .

Citing Charles Baudelaire -- whose poem "The Man Who Tortures Himself" (Les Fleurs du Mal, as translated by William Aggeler) proclaims "I am the wound and the dagger! / I am the blow and the cheek! / I am the members and the wheel, Victim and executioner!" -- Virilio asks, "How can we fail to see that, in the wake of the hecatomb of the Great War [...] modern art for its part forgot about the wound and concentrated on the knife -- the bayonet." That is to say, after WWI, modern art become absolutely pitiless: it inflicted suffering, and had no empathy for its victims. Punning -- perhaps somewhat clumsily or in a way that can't easily be translated into English -- Virilio claims that one of modern art's pieties is to be without pity. As a result, modern art -- especially that which calls itself "contemporary art" -- is complicit in the "terrorism" of everyday life and should be denounced. Either it "indirectly promot[ed] the rise of TOTALITARIANISM" or, after the rise and apparent defeat of totalitarianism, it started openly mimicking and adopting its aesthetics, especially the aesthetics of the concentration camp. For Virilio, it hardly matters which, either way, "contemporary art" is only contemporary with the multi-media arts experimented with at the concentration camps: "Whether Adorno likes it or not," -- Virilio says, in response to Theodor Adorno's famous insistence that writing poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric -- "the spectacle of abjection remains the same, after as before Auschwitz. But it has become politically incorrect to say so."

This is as much a moral judgment as it is an intellectual analysis. Its politics? They would seem, at first glance, to be right-wing. Virilio marshals a great many allusions and examples, most of which are well-chosen and end up confirming his point, a few of which are badly chosen and end up contradicting him or even making him seem like a bit of a crackpot. He is right on target when he attacks body-oriented "performance artists" and the videos that document their self-imposed tortures; multi-media presentations or "installations" of live TV images of calamities and terrible suffering; and the "sonorization" of perception (see below). But his remarks about Guy Debord are ludicrous.

Avant-garde artists, like so many political agitators, propagandists and demagogues, have long understood what TERRORISM would soon popularize: if you want a place in 'revolutionary history' there is nothing easier than provoking a riot, an assault on propriety, in the guise of art.

Short of committing a real crime by killing innocent passers-by with a bomb, the pitiless contemporary author of the twentieth century attacks symbols, the very meaning of a 'pitiful' art he assimilates to 'academicism.' Take Guy Debord, the French Situationist, as an example. In 1952, speaking about his Film Without Images, which a defense of the Marquis de Sade, Debord claimed he wanted to kill the cinema 'because it was easier than killing a passer-by.'

A year later, in 1953, the SITUATIONISTS would not hesitate to extend this attack by trashing Charlie Chaplin, pitiful actor par excellence, vilifying him as a sentimental fraud, a mastermind of misery, even a proto-fascist!

All this verbal delirium seems so oblivious of its own century and yet condescends to preach to the rest of the world in the name of freedom of artistic expression, even during a historical period that oversaw the setting up of the balance of terror along with the opening of the laboratories of a science that was gearing up to programme the end of the world -- notably with the invention, in 1951, of thermonuclear weapons. It corresponds equally to the auto-dissolution of the avant-gardes, the end of the grand illusion of a modernite savante.

Obviously Virilio doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about. Debord's film without images was in fact entitled Hurlements en Faveur de Sade and was hardly a "defense" of the Marquis; in 1953, the Situationist International had not yet been founded, and Debord was in fact a "left-wing" lettrist, that is, a member of the Lettrist International; Debord was in fact hyper-aware of his century, detested "artistic expression," etc etc. It would obviously be easy to be pitiless in one's (counter) attack on Virilio: Debord himself certainly would have been.[1] But, no, Virilio has convinced us of this much -- to quote George Bernanos, writing in 1939:

The world is sick, a lot sicker than people realize. That's what we must first acknowledge so that we can take pity on it. We shouldn't condemn this world so much as feel sorry for it. The world needs pity. Only pity has a chance of cobbling its pride.

"Sixty years on," Virilio says, "the world is sicker still," and "pride has gotten completely out of hand, thanks to globalization." To which we can only say, Amen, Brother.

In the second text, "Silence on Trial," Virilio examines the extent to which sound, music and noise are involved in or implicated by the emergence of the "official art" of the Twenty-First century. He reminds us that the photograph was always silent; that the cinematograph was, at first, silent, and then started "sounding" (the birth of the "talkies"); and that the videograph (the "televised" image) was, from the start, a live synchronization of image-track and sound-track. What's been ignored in these well-known developments, Virilio notes, is the fact that silence has disappeared and can't readily be found in "contemporary" society. "From the end of the 1920s onwards," he asserts, "the idea of accepting the absence of words or phrases, of some kind of dialogue, became unthinkable." Today, Virilio contends, "silence no longer has a voice [...] The voices of silence have been silenced; what is now regarded as obscene is not so much the image as the sound -- or, rather, the lack of sound [...] Warhol does not so much document the end of art as the end of the man of art: he who speaks even as he remains silent."

In this hundred-year-long procedure, which seems to have culminated in the condemnation of silence, Edvard Munch's painting, The Scream (1883) stands out. In this famous canvas, Virilio says, "Munch tried to puff up the [silent] painted image with a sort of SOUND RELIEF, which was until that moment the sole province of music and its attendant notations." In other words, influenced by the power of then-contemporary music, Munch tried to make the viewer want to hear the scream and not just "see" it, or see it represented. (Virilio also cites Kandinsky's interest in Wagner's music and Kandinsky's statement that "the clearer the abstract element of form, the purer, the more elementary, the sound.") But in neither example did the viewer of the painting ever feel him- or herself deficient in some way, deaf, as if he or she couldn't hear the "actual," the "real" scream. Things changed with the advent of the talkies in 1927. Virilio asserts that "When Al Jolson [...] launched his celebrated 'Hello mammy' in the first talking film, he was answering the unarticulated scream of Edvard Munch." Yes, he was metaphorically answering The Scream (giving voice to it and answering it back), but he was also putting on trial all those who had not been able to hear that scream, who must have been deaf not to have heard it.

As if to shame or punish those who were or still are "deaf," or to reassure one and all that at least it can hear perfectly well, "contemporary art" makes as much noise as it possibly can. Today, everything is either accompanied by soundscapes/music (art exhibitions and "installations" of all kinds, Muzak-polluted elevator rides, even screenings of "silent" films) or expressed as sound/music (a voice that announces, "You've got mail"). Everyone -- or at least every "contemporary artist" since Andy Warhol collaborated with the Velvet Underground -- wants to be rock star, a singer, especially. Virilio or, rather, his translator, refers to this incredibly widespread phenomenon -- it's more than mere noise pollution, and appears to be a kind of socio-technological obsession -- as "sonorization." As one knows, this word doesn't really exist in English; the words that are close to it (such as "sonorous") suggest sounds that are harmonious, but this works against Virilio's point, which is not only how much "sound" there is these days, but how noisy it is, too. In French, sonorisation denotes either a public-address system or a movie sound-track, both of which are relevant here: everything has a sound-track, and it is always played loud, so as to drown out everything else.

Today, silence -- if or when it exists -- signifies nothing, nothing, that is, but consent. "No silence can express disapproval or resistance, only consent," Virilio notes; "whoever says nothing is deemed to consent." The significance of this turn will not be lost on readers of Virilio's Speed and Politics, The Strategy of Deception[2] or any of his other texts that focus on the political repercussions of (near) instantaneous military response-times, which amount to this: there isn't enough time to ask every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or every member-state of NATO, if they each approve of a particular rapid-strike (based, as always, upon "timely" intelligence); there's only enough time for them to disapprove. He who speaks up says "No," and everyone else is assumed to say "Yes." But neither Virilio, his translator, nor John Armitage make this connection, and so it will likely escape most readers of Art and Fear: militarist and artistic sonorization go hand-in-hand.[3]

It is interesting that Virilio mentions music ("you can bet that soon, thanks to digital technology, electro-acoustic music will generate new forms of visual art") but he doesn't seem to realize that music is important enough to discuss at some length. If the presentation of "reality" is indeed being sonorized, then the role of music "properly speaking" would appear to be central. The music of composers who have tried to create or at least appreciate the "musical" qualities of silence (chiefly John Cage, but also Erik Satie),[4] or composers who tried to make "music" that was so deliberately noisy or anarchic that it was practically or actually unlistenable (John Cage's "Variations II" or Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music), would appear to be of particular interest. But Virilio lets it all go.

In a circumstance that might be familiar to readers of Virilio's other books, it is "A Pitiless Art" -- and not "Silence on Trial" -- that contains a really stunning (but brief, too brief!) discussion of music. In the context of a discussion of the disappearance of ephemerality due to the 20th century's socio-technological mania to record, digitize and make everything permanent, Virilio brings on a well-known musician to discuss the related disappearance of analog recordings.

All the music you hear these days is just electricity! [this musician says, emphasis in original]. You can't hear the singer breathing anymore behind this electronic wall. You can't hear a heart beating anymore. Go to any bar and listen to a blues group and you'll be touched, moved. Then listen to the same group on a CD and you'll wonder where the sound you heard in the bar disappeared to [emphasis added].

It's a very good point, one worthy of extended discussion, perhaps in a piece devoted to "contemporary" music. But Virilio misplays it when he introduces it with, "Things have reached such a pitch that a pitiful musician par excellence like Bob Dylan can bemoan the fact that [...]" Yes, Bob Dylan had pity on a great many down-trodden peoples (which makes him a rare exception to the pitiless "official art" of today, does it not?), which means he was full of pity ("pitiful") and thus open to the complaint or brush-off that he personally is pitiful -- but is this really the time to bring all this up? No, it is not, and so some confusion is caused and a few interesting questions get ignored: Are pitiful musicians the only ones upset about the disappearance of the analog? What has Dylan, a practicing musician, done to combat the digitalization or, if you will, 'sonorization' of his own music? etc.

There is, of course, a single and fairly thick thread that not only connects "A Pitiless Art" with "Silence on Trial," but also connects these essays with those Virilio has been writing since the early 1990s: the theme of the disappearance of representation (cf. The Aesthetics of Disappearance, published in French in 1991). Both pitiless, taboo-breaking art and silence-killing sonorization seek to present reality, unmediated, not to re-present it or mediate its appearance; both seek to negate deferrals and delays, and to be instantaneously, perpetually present. In "A Pitiless Art," Virilio warns that this is "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." And, in "Silence on Trial," he fears that "the way that pressure from the media audience ensures that crime and pornography never cease dominating AUDIO-VISUAL programmes [...] the bleak dawn of the twentieth century was not only to inaugurate the crisis in figurative representation, but along with it, the crisis in social stability without which representative democracy in turn disappears."

Now, while we might agree that the disappearance of (figurative) representation implicates or threatens all representation, all political representation, including representative democracy -- which supposedly governs the hyper-industrialized capitalist nations in North America, Europe, Australia, Japan, Israel, et al. -- we might not agree that this is a bad drift of events. Same thing with "social instability." If we are anarchists, council communists or even situationists, we might find this drift quite encouraging![5] And that would be because we do not associate or confuse direct democracy with a slide into "virtual democracy" or "multi-media democracy based on automatic polling." For us, direct democracy is something practiced in-person, in large, on-going public assemblies, at which everyone gets to speak as well as to listen, and everyone gets to vote and decide. Democracy can exist and function perfectly well without representation! But it would take a revolution and that's the rub: Virilio doesn't believe in revolution: "Those days are long gone," he says. "No one is waiting any more for the REVOLUTION, only for the ACCIDENT, the breakdown, that will reduce this unbearable chatter to silence." But does Virilio know of any contemporary revolutionaries? Forget Guy Debord, obviously. Virilio -- who only gives himself one crack at it -- goes with a "former revolutionary," someone named Ieng-Sary, "who today declares, apparently by way of excuse, 'The world has changed. I no longer believe in the class struggle. The period from 1975 to 1979 was a failure. We went from utopia to barbarity.' " And who is this person? Someone in some way relevant to representative democracies, one presumes. Virilio doesn't tell us, but Ieng-Sary was the infamous head of the Khmer Rouge's "Foreign Ministry," that is, a murderer and torturer, and so not a fair choice, by any stretch. So, let's begin again. . . .

Bill Not Bored, 18 July 2006

[1] Note well that Vincent Kaufmann's recent biography -- Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry, translated from the French by Robert Bononno, University of Minnesota Press, 2006 -- praises Debord for precisely the thing that Virilio would condemn, namely, his aesthetics of disappearance.

[2] See my review of The Strategy of Deception, dated 25-26 June 2004.

[3] Recent installations by the contemporary arts group SimpArch incorporate recordings of sonic 'booms' made by high-speed military aircraft as a kind of accompaniment, background music or soundscape.

[4] William S. Burroughs strove to de-sonorize the spoken word and thereby produce (more) silence. See, especially, The Ticket That Exploded (Grove, NY: 1967).

[5] For example: I personally do not equate noise with the end of civilization. See Unanswered questions about 'rough music'.

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