Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Pure War

We are at war. Well technically it’s actually true; we are at war right now. It’s a phrase that’s heard again and again to the point of insignificance. According to Paul Virilio, a man who knows more about the military apparatus than most men and women who are actually a part of it, we are at war, even when we’re not (when is that exactly?). We’re in a state of Pure War more specifically. Virilio points out that the foundations of the world around us are entwined in the fabric of war, or that is to say, they are the fabric of the war we exist in. He speaks about the cities we live in, the economy we participate in, the technology we use and love and the speed at which this is all happening.

It is Virilio’s obsession with speed with which I wish to start. He makes the case for the fear of the instantaneous, and that we will all be moving, passengers in transit, no longer citizens. His fear is that we are heading for a place where, well, all places will be in the same space as distance will be eroded by speed and time and as such the “city” is being dissolved. In all of this there is the need for a new “politics of speed”. I think that we have a “politics of speed” or at the very worst we have a “speedier politic”.

Virilio argues that democracy takes time and with the ever shrinking world this time has been erased. This is crucial to him because it is the time of democracy that will save us in the event of catastrophe. I think that with the contraction of “democratic time” or let’s say response time, we also have a quicker prevention time. Case in point: things happen quicker but we are also aware of things quicker and not only that, we’re aware of more things quicker. Now I think as an end game one will come out on the negative side of things as one is playing with the odds against them if they think they can see and therefore prevent everything, but I don’t think it’s as black and white as Virilio would lead us to believe.

These quicker reflexes we have are also an indication of what Laugerre would call the “informal” side of politics, that is the true decision making mechanism. On the front we see the “formal” face of government, which obeys its own set of public conventions, but behind the scenes there isn’t much that is democratic about it at all. This I think can also be tied back to speed. With respect to war, decisions are ultimately made by one person, our democracy of speed.

The government’s role is also linked to Virilio’s “War Economy”, in which, you and I and everyone else is a willing or unwilling part of. The logistics of a war economy got me thinking about the scale at which we fight out wars. Virilio connects the scale at which we fight to our ability of deterrence. He claims that the new era of deterrence favours a smaller scale war, “war without the actual declaration of war” (or as some would call it, terrorism). This I think is where we are having trouble protecting ourselves. I think that sometimes the protracted nature of the wars we now fight (multiple battles that drag on for years and don’t really have a definite beginning or end, sound familiar?) hides the smaller scale of these conflicts. The difficulty I will humbly propose is that we have as of yet adapted to the smaller scale that according to Virilio we actually prefer (I say we, I mean the military).

The small scale catastrophe happens on two levels. First, it is smaller in physical size (damage, casualties, etc...) although cumulatively that might not be so and secondly, it occurs in a smaller scale of time. While as mentioned above, we have reacted to the increase in speed of the oldschool “war” but not the new methodology of conflict, this new methodology of conflict also just so happens to fit nicely within the scale of our cities.

I wonder also what happens if say, we continue to adopt a reactionary stance to the problem and come up with a solution to the scale of the “new war” (which is remember, a war without war). My concern is that it’s a problem of spiralling diminution. War was once waged on the scale of entire cities, then it was city blocks, and then individual buildings. What’s the next scale? Are we prepared to be engaged on the scale of the individual?


Jeannie said...

I think the point that you end with about the diminution of the scale of war and the individual as the last territory of battle is exactly where Virilio gets a bit unraveled. If and when he engages the individual, it tends to be almost at the level of metaphor, i.e., when he discusses astronauts and their ability to exist (albeit only in a technologically-mediated way) outside of the bounds of earthly notions of space and time. At the level of politics, or even “democracy”, there is little or no agency and, as you note, with politics occurring through media and technology, the time of deliberation (or consensus) is negated. Although the negative aspects of the military capitalism that Virilio describes cannot be denied, capitalism (as Douglas Kellner and others have noted) has also emerged in less lethal and more decentralized forms, with both positive and negative potential. For Kellner, this leads a bit easily into a discussion of Microsoft capitalism and the potential for political intervention by previously disenfranchised groups, but you get the picture. Virilio does present a necessary counterpoint to the equally deterministic writings of the ‘technophilic digerati’, but it remains true that he seems to ignore some of the ambiguities of the acceleration of technology and the potentially positive effects of its proliferation in the social and cultural sphere (which is, I think, what you mean to include when you state that “Things happen quicker but we are also aware of things quicker and not only that, we’re aware of more things quicker”). But this gets a bit away from the project at hand. What is the next scale? What is the project? Where does design fit into this formulation? At the level of legislation? Definition? Signage? Infrastructure? Architecture?

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