One might suspect there to be some ‘golden meter’ stick housed in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (IBWM) in Sévres, France.  One might further presume that such an exemplar would serve as the ‘measure’ for all meters forever after. There is no such thing in France, or elsewhere.  The ‘true meter’ does not exist in material form at all. Rather, it is defined purely by speed. That is, according to the bureau of weights and measures, 1 meter = the distance traveled by light in an absolute vacuum in 1/2999,792,458 of a second. 


I think Virilio would like this quite a lot.  He more or less says the same thing when he writes, “We live in a world no longer based on geographic expanse but on a temporal distance constantly being decreased by our transportation, transmission and teleaction capacities" (Virilio in Armitage 2001:84).  Virilio has two main points.  One is that speed is everywhere; the other, that war is in the same place as speed, i.e. everywhere.  These two components of his philosophy intersect in communications, where on the one hand, telephones and computers are coming ever closer to shrinking physical distance to zero (that is, you can share a moment with your loved one simply by pressing a few buttons within your grasp), and on the other, war ceases to be waged with sluggish bullets and bombs, but is fought instead with electronic bits of information flying all around the world and piercing directly through the eye into the brains of millions of civil-warriors.


The ‘meter’, understood as speed-distance, must be recognized as fundamentally different than the Newtonian meter of geographic expanse.  How different? Why different? Basically, because the age of thinking proximity in terms of space is, according to Virilio, over and done with.  To think otherwise is atavism, plain and simple.  When I am closer to my host mother in Japan (because I can call her on the cell-phone) than my mother in Iowa, who doesn’t have one, something is screwy.  Or to point to another example, these days, it no longer matters how far, in geographical terms, your home is from work– nobody even knows this kind of geographical information – all that matters is how fast you can get there by subway, bus, or bike.  Virilio wants to take, what he calls ‘speed-distance’ seriously.  He wants to show that it is just as much the case in architecture as in war, that our structures no longer require the movements of people, but rather involve movements of speeds.


The city becomes a good model for both the effects of speed and the effects of war.  John Armitage, in a book of interviews on Virilio, writes that his work begins with a question "why did the fortified city disappear?" Unlike Marx, Virilio postulates that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was not an economic transformation but a military revolution. Broadly, where Marx wrote of the materialist conception of history, Virilio writes of the military conception of history" His answer to our question is that "the fortified city disappeared because of the advent of ever-increasingly transportable and accelerated weapons systems" ((Armitage 2001:2).


Virilio uses the word ‘weapons’ in a very technical manner.  With his optic, we should think silicone and cathode-ray tubes rather than lead and steal.  Mid-range missiles are not replaced by bunker-busters, but by road-side bombs, microscopic germs, terror, television images and computer texts. It’s all the same.  Industrial warfare has given way to the post-industrial, which has in turn given way to the post-material. Military engagements, therefore, no longer take place on the battlefield, but now over the air-waves, in party-halls, and in people’s entertainment and communication.  “Since then, social penetration has been linked to the dizzying evolution of military penetration techniques; each vehicular advance erases a distinction between the army and civilization” (Virilio 2004:34). It’s all about the light-weight, portable mechanisms.


Nor should we be misled into thinking that what needs protecting is still the spatially located city.  In equal measure to the de-spatializing of the walls, ‘the spatiality of the city’ is itself appearing to be a worn-out way to describe the persistence of the state.  "Is urban architecture,” Virilio asks, “becoming an outmoded technology, as happened to extensive agriculture, from which came the debacles: of megalopolis?” (Virilio 2004:96). In the hypermodern city of Tokyo, where talks of immanent earthquakes often give rise to suggestions to support building projects that gradually move the city away from the fault-lines, we may now see that the discussions are perhaps all becoming moot, as 'the city' continues to depopulate, as business districts are replaced by online warehouses located in New Jersey, and as business meetings can be conducted via video-conferencing out from peoples homes. We can move so quickly these days that there is hardly any reason to move ourselves at all – like Howard Hughes, who travels all the way around the world, setting a record, only to guide his plane into the hanger from which he came out of 3.5 days before.


Virilio’s style is eclectic. He is a doodler, doodling with little bits of information, that are suggestive of, rather than illustrative of, his theoretical thrust.  He is sometimes cryptic in his penchant for tangents.  In ‘The End of the Proletariat’ Virilio makes a loose attempt to reposition the image of the proletariat from the Marxian industrial model to a ‘military’ proletariat model. For Virilio, the proletariat is already the soldier, whether he is holding a wrench or a bayonet.  He notes that in China the citizen was called upon to wear a combat uniform at all times (40), but he points equally to the more outward expression of the institutional military in particular instances where, through a civil militarism, achieves a neighborliness, and professes its own accountability to the people it represents (32).   In short, the military attempts to massage out the knots of distinction between itself and civil society. The proletariat soldiers embody a militarized speed, the athletic body, in the Olympic idiom, the body is itself a projectile; it is speed, for no purpose other than to exhibit speed; but none epitomizes this rubric of speed in the individual better than Howard Hughes. This billionaire eccentric tied to both the military industrial complex  and the civil-sphere (he built the world’s fastest planes and fostered the world’s fastest technologies), became a reclusive, shunning his body, the closeness of others, and gave himself over to his speed-obsessed ventures.  As Virilio says, he ‘cared only about what passes in transit’ (35).


In “Pure Power,” Virilio showcases Sun Tsu to construct a foucauldian,  governmentality-type argument in terms of ‘war’ rather than ‘state’. (It should be noted that Virilio wrote this article in 1978, precisely the time when Foucault was writing his lectures on this subject).  For Virilio, Sun Tsu’s notion of Pure Power (‘the military thing”) stands in contrast to what he calls Domination (“the State”).  Pure power comes to be a beast similar to Foucault’s notion of power insofar as it is not something to be possessed, but rather accounts for the, unowned, anonymous totality of operations between forces (48).  Power for Virilio’s Sun Tsu, as for Foucault, is a concern for the state.  It is at this point that everything comes to look a lot like governmentality. The modern State, two and a half millennia after Sun Tsu wrote his tract is finally interested in militarizing, which is to say, in Virillio’s terms, to turn toward a less aggressive domination, and more toward a brand of slight-of-hand which destroys enemies not by murdering them outright, but by artfully transforming them into loyal dependents; “the essential thing is to make the enemy submit without combat, ‘to avoid setting off the mechanism’” (48). What this ominous-sounding mechanism? I think we might be able to say that the mechanism is, is quite simply that which threatens to expose the deception of the military.  When Clausewitz is quoted as saying, “War is nothing but the continuation of State politics by other means” (my emphasis 50), we should read him through the strange Virilian lens that inverts War, making it synonynmous with what we normally call peace, and that renders the State the epitome of dominating aggression.  Thus, ‘the other means’ which Clausewitz founds itself on works, for Virilio, upon an “old illusion,” one that “still persists that a state of peace means the absence of open warfare, or that the military which no longer fights but ‘helps’ society is peaceful, and that the military institution can even be beneficial, once it stops attacking” (55).

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture