“Paul Virilio: For the Love of Speed (Part One)” by James L. Kelley

A window into Paul Virilio’s thought is gained if we consider the French theorist’s fable of the origin of speed. Virilio imagines ancient man’s inner and outer life as set in motion and ever-after conditioned by his ambiguous orientation toward human, animal, and luminous bodies. The human-animal face off will serve as our springboard.

In the primordial forest, man encounters the beast of prey, whose placidity metamorphoses into aggression on a dime. Should it choose to flee instead of attack, the super-human motility of the statuesque creature reveals an obscure truth: speed is a continuation of fear by other means [1]. In these paradigmatic encounters, man as pre(y)dator learns that a veritable change in mode of being is achieved through an “inopportune” burst of somatic penetration that flirts with instantaneity [1a]. As Lascaux’s and Altamira’s phosphorescent images of the hunt suggest, the same inner faculty that prompts man’s first forays into art leads him to envision the prosthesis as a technical extension of his psychosomatic reach. Fascination with the acceleration of the beast—erotic because inseparable from his desire for power over other bodies—is man’s zoophilia; the titillated reason constructs extensions such as the spear and the bow-and-arrow to match the celerity of both fleeing prey and attacking predator.

Next, the animal body is captured and domesticated. The rider achieves a melding of his body with the foreign body of the beast—the latter being subjugated as man’s mount. Now the “motor in [the beast’s] limbs” is appropriated [2]; the human hunter uses the animal’s speed in his hunt for more prey. This guiding of the movement of the foreign body by the equestrian warlord is the origin of war as a mass phenomenon. This technology of metabolic speed can be used to capture other men, and ultimately, other women; as will be clear from our discussion below, speed is a seduction as much as a penetration. First tribesmen, then peasants, finally the lower and middle classes—each group finds itself captured by a different historical permutation of the same mercurial motif, and each group looks to its particular chevalier-oppressor. While Marx spoke of class consciousness, a more inclusive and continuous phenomenon that has bound together (and divided) groups of men might be said to be speed consciousness.

In Virilio’s thought the issue of man’s relation to woman is analogous to his relation to the wild beast. The woman relates to man in a series of bodily blendings: Man begins as a passenger inside the woman’s womb. Next, man is an adult who makes woman his passenger in the coital act. Finally, the man-woman interaction must be considered as a principle of ethnic or tribal organization: all women enter the tribe through a matrimonial hunt, the “nuptial abduction” [3].

However, at this point we have to understand that man’s “mounting” of the woman is conditioned by both his previous embryonic life and his life as a hunter. The embryo is completely isolated from the extra-somatic environment; the unborn child is already born as a body enclosed in a protective matricosm, a shield against any “outside.” However, man is now a part of a tribe or band that uses war against other men and beasts as a strategy for self-preservation. From this standpoint, exogamous marriage develops as a form of war: wives must be found outside the tribe, and so marriage, kidnap, and even rape of the foreign woman becomes inextricably linked to man’s use of technical means toward appropriating the metabolic power of the beast, primarily the horse. In Virilio’s words, “woman comes from elsewhere, she is carried off and the animal vector is in certain cases the means of this transfer. In ancient China, for example, the transport of the betrothed in the ritual cart constituted, from the legal point of view, the essential act of marriage as if to signify the degree to which the passage and the wedding are associated, as if the exogamous marriage was merely the symbol of the shared passage from one group to the other” [4].

We arrive at an understanding of Virilio’s use of the term “passage” or “passenger” (Fr. passager) as a double entendre—passager meaning both “one who rides” and “that which is fleeting”—once we consider the French theorist‘s triple hierarchy of human “couplings” [5]. First there is the duel, wherein men hunt other men according to the revelation of superhuman speed in the subhuman beast. Our second coupling (perhaps a Hegelian antithesis to the “manhunt”) is the “heterosexual couple of the marriage”—here man transfers his love of metabolic speed into the creation of a domestic sphere. The captured woman (whose womb has been re-entered by the violent action of the once-embryonic warrior) becomes the possibility for the creation of a home where the woman as serf-subordinate cultivates her garden (in more than one sense!), but in the service of the warrior and of the social pattern of amour vitesse that rules him. Culture is born as an elevation or enlèvement of the love of speed to the level of immutable or revealed “Truth”; the patterns of social organization that flow from it develop within the walls of the newly-created womb of the home, the latter’s walls enclosing the sacred family hearth [6].

However, this association of the womb with “home, sweet home” and the linking of the pale light of the hearth-fire with the flowing of the glistening amniotic fluid of cosmic origins (after all, philosophy’s first teaching was “all things originate from fluid”) branches in two unforeseen directions. The warrior becomes an equestrian “noble,” a “Frank” or “man of virtù as opposed to the “villeins” or “villissimos ribaldos” who labor in the fields around the domicile [7]. The home has morphed into the castle, history’s first “gated community”; the hearth has now been replaced with the donjon, the phallic stone tower that houses all the movable wealth produced by the manor, often doubling as a prison for the lord’s child-bride. With the rise of the merchant class—overlapping with a new upper-middle class that has appropriated the periwig and waistcoat of the European “noble”—and advent of the joint-stock company—with its shifting of initiative from king to corporation—new opportunities for technological advance presented themselves. Though we will save the details for a later chapter, suffice to say that the macadam road and the automobile, the railroad and the train, the airplane and the guided missile—these “advances” appeared according to a civilizational charter which might have been signed “To Speed with Love.”

The outward-facing, socio-political trajectory of dromology (Virilio’s term for the study of the dromos, the historical course upon which speed unfolds) must be paired with its inward, headspace aspect. Here, in the psychic terrain of the passenger of speed, we encounter Virilio’s third type of coupling, the one that he claims is both obvious and hidden: “the transsexual couple of the passage” [8]. The knight of speed’s goal (though it trembles on the feather-edge between the conscious and what lies below) is not unlike that of his latter-day counterpart, the film director, whose screen-projections disguise a desire to “pierce through [the forms on the screen] to the light beyond” [9]. The logic of speed as the possibility of a luxury voyage promises that the voyeur can be “projected into the image” on the screen [10]. To what purpose? To undergo the ultimate metempsychosis whereby all bodies are corroded by an amnio-cinematic light that has no beginning or end, and thus no “things in the middle (Gr. mesotes),”  as in Plotinus’ imaginary sphere in which the golden eye of the sun shows its superiority to human sight by never cooling into the blue of “distance fog” [10a]. Thus the “transexuality”: the male who once attempted to “reproduce himselfby merging with the earth mother in two guises—Gaia as the kidnapped spouse and Gaia as the blood-mingled soil of hearth and home [11]now does not stop at cashing out the body by playing the prosthetist, but goes on to commit the abomination of desolation by bartering away phenomenological relativity itself, embracing “an intantaneous, interactive ‘space-time’ that has nothing in common with the topographical space of geographical or even simply geometrical distance” [12].

The warrior internalizes dromo-culture by taking as his Creed the agon—the notion that the common grave of all combatants, regardless of which side they are on and regardless of when, where and who is involved, is to be unconditionally accepted and even embraced as the most glorious fate. Amor fati. Virilio sees in the agon the desire (becoming more salient with the rise of the citizen-soldier of the polis) to reduce all psycho-social conflict to a symmetrical nullity of opposed bodies. The upshot is that both the subject’s body and the object’s body, both friend and foe, are reduced to a unified, transpersonal vector [13]. The male warrior is seduced into accepting a telos beyond all incremental societal improvements. The complexity of a society composed of aristocrats, metics, slaves, women, children, and foreigners is reduced to the warrior as cogito who is also a voyeur who duels mirror images of himself and who accepts a common grave with them. Virilio comments that the agon

is less a matter of dying for what one loves than of giving one’s life for what one hates. This is the fascination of the duel, in which the protagonists are transformed into a single hybrid being: first, because of the discipline that unites the allied individuals, and second, because of the ‘courage in sacrifice’ that equates ally and enemy in this bodily confrontationnot the physical contact of homosexual desire, but the antagonistic homogeneity of the death-wish [14].

Nicholai Stavrogin said of his demons, “they are all versions of myself, nothing more,” and yet this same man, described by the narrator of Dostoevsky’s novel as a shameless dueler, found the highest exhilaration in his “consciousness of [his own] baseness” while he “waited for [his] opponent to fire” [15]. However, Virilio’s agonistic transsexual has achieved the lukewarmness that even Stavrogin stands above. The mercurial coupling abolishes not only the “vague forms” of bodily struggle with and for other bodies [16]; in the Beyond of the transsexual passenger, even the primitive hunt’s vestige of struggle against the subordinate body fades away. All that remains is overexposure: the rapid flutter of luminescent signs that amounts to a liquidation of corporeality, a spectralization of the Incarnate. If light can appear both as a particle and as a wave, then are we not merging with Mother Earth in forsaking the fractal locality of the shoreline for the globality of an amniotic light that reduces both earth and water to the penetrating force of fiery air on the optic nerve?

We began this discussion with man’s internalizing of the fleeing prey’s speed and his subsequent use of both woman and beast as bio-motors. But Virilio’s couplings of man-versus-man, man-versus-woman, and man-into-woman pertain not merely to isolated encounters; they reverberate both socially and ideologically, and thus are mass phenomena. Man’s dark insight was that carnal subordination yields not only privileged access to a hidden surplus of power but also bequeaths to the masses a shared vector that turns out to be the ersatz democracy of the agon. In the horseman’s rush into battle and later in the CEO’s transcontinental daily commutes, we witness the replacement of the somatic give-and-take of perception by a non-relational procession of “screenshots” that denies the reality of both subject and object, affirming only trajet [journey]. To stand in an ascetic (because uncertain and existential) relation to a world of variegated others on a non-Euclidean, oblique ground—such a life set to the psychosomatic heartbeat can only appear as folly to the modern tele-slacker, who worships “what he knows not,” but what he nonetheless sees [17]. In our present “culture of paradox, in which everything arrives without there being any need either to travel or to leave in the slightest physical sense” [18], the “real time” experienced while zipped into the VR suit insulates us from the realm of space, of topos, of the body’s slow and painstaking pilgrimage through real life.

A hint at this development of an idiosyncratically European form of asomatic eudaemonia is revealed in the Victorian era’s upper-middle class ideal of “comfort in traveling,” which relied upon plush armchairs and reclining couches in the area of home furnishing to mimic the hypnotic back-and-forth sway and general weightlessness experienced in the womb-like, cushioned cabin of the merchant ship [19]. Virilio’s analysis of cinema shows how this theme of happiness as release from bodily effort carries over from the Victorian emphasis on liquid movement to the movie era’s use of tracking-shots and film-treatment techniques to foist on the unsuspecting viewer a stereopsis that dovetails the “flat” realm of the senses with the “chaos of a non-sensory order” that is nonetheless visible, even touching the viewer with each luminescent pulse [20]. Indeed, according to Virilio, the invention of the moving picture took place long before the modern era: the original centaurism of the hunt-and-hearth was the proto-cinephilic wish for techno-social prostheses that empower, in the words of Antoine Duhamel, “Moving images [to] substitute themselves for my own thoughts” [21]. The ancient Egyptian sun cult—which for Virilio is revived with the birth of cinema—could afford to ignore the dusty immobility of the Pharoah’s mummy in his tomb filled with speed gadgets such as chariots and vessels, since the Egyptians structured their lives “as if they were to die tomorrow yet built as if they were to live eternally” [22]. In the Egyptian solar religion, the Pharoah was an appearance of Ra, the God of the Sun whose eye was sent to deliver both light and death to mankind. Ra’s detachable eye, called Sekhmet, was a lioness who revealed that the unique omnipresence and omniscience of sunlight, which “sees all,” is the revelation of an immutable pattern of life toward which the shadowy weight of the flesh can only nod its assent. Death has no effect on the Pharoah’s control of speed; the drama consists not in a martyrdom, but rather in a role-play in which the grave is neither a curse nor a tragedy, but rather an image—indeed, a consummation. Rank-and-file Egyptians, like habitual cinemagoers, believe that only light has the power to move all levels of being; this sun cult they would never dream of questioning because they believe their own hieroglyphically-attuned eyes, which see “no symmetry but only equivalences” [23].

Today, the internet and telepresence—as much crypto-Egyptian as crypto-feudal—have carried light-pollution to its limit: when distance is reduced through an unrelenting interface with the screen image, then “absolute speed” becomes the dread destiny hidden behind the miracle of “real time” [24]. The hermit who through blood, sweat and tears struggles face-to-face with other imperfect yet perfective bodies has been supplanted by the postmodern everyman—the computer geek—a poster boy for Computer Vision Syndrome whose perceptual reality has “collapsed onto a single surface, the interface of the monitor or the visiohelmet” [25].



[1] Here we are playing on Carl Von Causewitz’s famous “War is the continuation of politics by other means” (On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989], 87). 

[1a] Paul Virilio, Unknown Quantity (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 5. Here Virilio, addressing his concept of the “accident,” mentions “those events coming upon as inopportunely, if not indeed simultaneously.”

[2] Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, translated by Michael Degener (London and New York: Continuum, 2005), 45.

[3] Ibid., 52.

[4] Ibid., 52.

[5] On Virilio’s “three obvious couplings, of which the last is rarely mentioned,” see Negative Horizon, 52.

[6] On the prehistoric connection between womb, hearth, and escapism, see Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, Volume One: Bubbles. Microspherology, translated by Wieland Hoban (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2011), 269-289. See esp. the following, at p. 270: “…[I]t was only after the notorious Neolithic revolution that the fascination with the womb could develop into a world power. Only then…did those circumstances emerge that brought territorialism upon humanity; only then did the earthbound identities begin to blossom; only then were humans compelled to identify themselves by their place, their adhesion to territory, and finally their property. [It] lured the previously nomadic human groups into the trap of sedentarism, in which they attempted to prove themselves by simultaneously experimenting with rootedness and escape; thus begins the agro-metaphysical conversation with useful plants, pets, household spirits and the gods of the fields and meadows. It was only the early agricultural fixation on the soil that forced the epochal equation of the mother world and cultivated, fertile space. The age of work as mother-management begins with the settling of the earth, …which from now on must chronically bring forth additional produce, additional births, and a surplus of power. …[T]wo things [appear]: a new spatial type, home, and a new thought type, land law—nomos.”

[7] For the term “vilissimos ribaldos,” or “vile low-lifes” used by a French noble of the peasantry, see Antione Thomas, Fransesco da Barberino et la literature provençale en France au moyen âge (Paris, 1883), 117: “Vidi regem Francorum salutantem in Piccardia tres vilissimos ribaldos qui inclinabent se illi, et volentes illi loqui equitare ad latus ejus et ipsum singulos patienter audite.” Cited in Elizabeth A.R. Brown, “Persona et Gesta: The Image and Deeds of the Thirteenth-Century Capetians,” Viator 19 (1988): 219-246, at 229.

[8] Virilio, Negative Horizon, 52.

[9] Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, translated by Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), 58.

[10] Ibid.

[10a] “Evil…is neither the beginning (arche), nor the middle (mesotes), nor the end (telos)….Evil is the absence of the energy inherent in all natural power toward the end and nothing else. In other words, evil is the irrational movement of natural powers based on a fallacious judgement, toward other things than the end” (St. Maximos the Confessor, Migne, Vol. 90, Col. 253B; cited in Marina Luptakova, “The Nature and Origin of Evil According to the Eastern Christian Church,” 218-223 in The Ethics of Terrorism: Innovative Approaches from an International Perspective, 17 Lectures, edited by Thomas Albert Gilly, Yakov Gilinskiy, Vladimir A. Sergevnin [Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2009], 220).

[11] Virilio, Negative Horizon, 39: “Paraphrasing Samuel Butler, we could say that the female is the means that the male found to reproduce himself, that is to say, to come to the world. In this sense, woman is the first means of transportation for the species, its very first vehicle, the second would be the horse [monture] with the enigma of the coupling of dissimilar bodies fitted out for the migration, the common voyage.”

[12] Paul Virilio, Polar Inertia, translated by Patrick Camiller (London: Sage, 1999), 2.

[13] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, translated by Patrick Camiller (London and New York: Verso, 1989), 43: “As General MacArthur said: ‘Great soldiers don’t die, they fade away.’ It is an ancient belief, for Sparta, the first military democracy, was already based upon what have been called ‘inorganic individualities’, upon a subtle shift in meaning between birth and reproduction such that the relationship among Spartans has been seen as one not so much of equality as of fellowship. (-) In Athens, every warrior who was killed had a reborn double: to die in war was art for art’s sake, and invocations in the agony of death were sufficient unto themselves. Happy to be born of mother earth, happy to return. (-) As if grew more arduous to arrange a meeting with the departed heroes, Hermes the Psychic Undertaker took charge of establishing contacts, restoring to the state its natural protectors. Hermes: the god of berme, of the big stone and particularly the stone enclosing the camera obscura of the tomb, the ‘Attic stele which brings death itself before us in a living picture.’”

[14] Paul Virilio, Popular Defense and Ecological Stuggles, translated by Mark Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990), 78.

[15] F.M. Dostoevsky, Stavrogin’s Confession and the Plan of The Life of a Great Sinner, translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf (Richmond: Hogarth Press, 1922), 43-44.

[16] Paul Virilio, Crepuscular Dawn, translated by Mike Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2002), 29.

[17] On Virilio’s notion of the “oblique,” see Paul Virilio, “Architecture Principe,” 11-13 in Paul Virilio and Claude Parent, The Function of the Oblique: The Architecture of Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, 1963-1969 (London: AA Publications, 2004). “After the HORIZONTAL order of the rural habitat in the agricultural era, and the VERTICAL order of the urban habitat in the industrial era, the next logical (or, rather, topological) step was for the OBLIQUE order of the post-industrial era.” “In contrast to partitions or vertical walls, which provoke an opposition between in front and behind, a combination of oblique and horizontal planes would result only in above and below; surface and soffit. Thus the artificial ground of the dwelling would become a LIVING GROUND enclosing all the various articles that are required for domestic life” (12). The same short piece includes the following, which is apropos of our proposed opposition of an asceticism of the heart against an idolatry of the eye: “Oblique architecture thus became a generator of activity which used physiological principles to make buildings more habitable. ‘It is not the eye which sees’, according to…Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but ‘the body as a receptive totality‘” (ibid.).

[18] Paul Virilio, “The Third Interval: A Critical Transition,” 3-12 in Rethinking Technologies, edited by Verena Andermatt Conley (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 10.

[19] Virilio, Negative Horizon, 54-55.

[20] Virilio, War and Cinema, 39.

[21] Cited in Virilio, War and Cinema, 39.

[22] Virilio, War and Cinema, 45.

[23] Ibid., 46.

[24] Paul Virilio, Politics of the Very Worst, translated by Michael Cavaliere (New York: Semiotext(e), 1999), 16-17.

[25] Ibid., 85.

This entry was posted in Antiquity, Centaurism, Cinema, Critical Theory, Deviant Sexuality, Dromology, Egyptian religion, Feudalism, Greco-Roman History, History of Marriage, History of Sexuality, Mass Culture, Middle Ages, modern philosophy, Mysticism of Light, Paul Virilio, philosophy, postmodernism, Speed, Virilio and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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