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Le Crunch

Paul Virilio, The Futurism of the Instant: Stop–Eject, trans. Julie Rose, Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden MA, 2011. ix + 109 pp., £18.50 pb., 978 0 7546 4863 7.

Against the current of consensus that would identify ours as the ‘century of the city’ with, it has been predicted, around 70 per cent of the global population inhabiting urban areas by 2050, Paul Virilio, in his The Futurism of the Instant, declares that we are at the commencement of a ‘post-urban revolution that will drive the twenty-first century’. This revolution he describes as ‘portable’, a ‘révolution de l’emport’. Rather than directly contesting the evidence for urban growth, his concern, it appears, is to argue that the mass mobilizations of contemporary humanity – the conditions and experiences of migration, exile and displacement – constitute an epochal event ‘unmooring’ us from the experience of the urban as a stable locus of inhabitation.

Citing a report published in 2007 by Christian Aid, in support of this thesis, Virilio opens The Futurism of the Instant with a series of ominous statistics:

the number of future environmental migrants is estimated at close to one billion. This document makes the claim that 645 million people will be displaced from their homes over the next forty years because of large-scale development projects like intensive mining activity or the building of hydroelectric dams. Of these, 250 million will be displaced by phenomena related to climate change, floods and submersion of coastal land and, ultimately, at least 50 million people will be displaced by conflicts produced by such catastrophic upheavals entailing the demographic resettlement of the planet.

As further evidence of this révolution de l’emport, Virilio reports proposals to accommodate an influx of Polish labourers to Western Europe within the harbour containers of Rotterdam, the global rise of capsule hotels for business travellers, and the massive mobilization of China’s once rurally settled population. Tourists, workers, exiles and migrants alike, he argues, ‘have come adrift from their moorings in urbanity, as they did once, not so long ago, from their customary moorings in rurality’.

Whilst he pauses, briefly, to suggest certain causes for this historical turn – ‘just in time’ production methods and corporate ‘outsourcing’, for instance – and to identify some of its consequences – the growing prevalence of the ‘camp’ as a paradigm of precarious accommodation – Virilio’s direct concern is not to analyse such phenomena in depth, but rather to read from them the omens of a truly terrifying future. Extrapolating from these and other ‘signs’ Virilio predicts not the ‘End of History’, but the ‘end of geography and its continuum’. Central to this prediction are his claims that ‘certain astrophysicists’ are engaged ‘in a desperate bid to discover, somewhere in the universe, a Super Earth, capable, in its gigantic dimensions, of providing a positive answer to Mother Earth’s negative ecological footprint due to the damage done by progress, our tiny telluric planet finally proving insalubrious and unfit for life’. It is never made clear how seriously we are to take such proposals, attributed only to unnamed ‘mad scientists’, yet they serve Virilio to mark the end point of an ‘accelerating reality’; a ‘prospective dromosphere that will be able to do away with expanse, tomorrow, in the very latest of historic globalizations’.

Virilio participates here, as throughout so much of his writing, in a long-standing discourse directed against modernity and concerned with the effects of what David Harvey termed a condition of ‘space–time compression’ wrought by advances in transportation and communication technologies. In a much quoted passage on this theme, Heinrich Heine, prompted by the opening of the Paris–Rouen railway line, observed in his ‘Tremendous Foreboding’ of 1854:

What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things. Even the elementary concepts of space and time have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. Now you can travel to Orléans in four and a half hours, and it takes no longer to get to Rouen. Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed! I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my door.

Over a century and half later, Virilio’s own variant of this lament departs little from its standard and well established refrains. Indeed, he is remarkably unabashed about articulating these in their most conservative forms. Macroeconomic systems and ‘interactive globalization’, he writes, are ‘destroying the domiciliary inertia, the “staying put”, that we have known throughout History’. ‘Progress’, he adds, ‘destroys, one by one, the statics of common places, along with the stability of social bonds.’ Further on still he claims ‘the sedentary’ as humanity’s ‘primordial priority’, soon, and regrettably, to be overturned by a generalized nomadism; a statement whose contrived opposition between a humanity constructed as transhistorically sedentary and its uniquely modern condition of mobility remarkably obfuscates the long-term history of patterns of human migration and settlement, particularly over the kind of expansive time-frames that Virilio is engaged with elsewhere in this book.

The phenomena Virilio takes as omens of an impending rupture in human history are themselves, at times, strangely anachronistic. The skyscraper, for example, an established feature of metropolitan life since the early years of the twentieth century, appears to register with the author as a ‘shock of the new’ whose vertical axis, in which ‘the high dominates the low’, suggests a further displacement, an ‘ungrounding’, from what are supposed to be our essential conditions of habitation. Other phenomena, such as the capacity technology affords to certain powers to track and record our every movement through an interactive and networked space, are more contemporary, yet the point, to anyone familiar with Deleuze’s notion of a ‘society of control’, is hardly new and the analysis, compared to that of, say, the Italian post-autonomists, superficial.

Though Lev Manovich, in the book’s back cover blurb, refers to Virilio as the ‘one true intellectual descendant’ of Walter Benjamin, and Virilio himself approvingly quotes Adorno, twice, on the evils of the automobile, his mode of analysis has, in fact, little in common with the dialectical and critical methods developed by such figures in their own engagement with late capitalist modernity, or indeed with what these drew from Marx, and others, in order to do so. Where Benjamin could identify, within the new photo graphic and cinematographic conditions of image reproduction of the twentieth century, the possibility of new modes of perception through which the subject might master the shock conditions of metropolitan life, Virilio sees in twenty-first century interactive media only an irretrievable loss of ‘natural’ perception:
With habituation to multiple screens, the focus of the visual field diverts us from peripheral vision, from the open field that gave its everyday fullness to the real space of the verges of our activities and, as a result, causes disorientation in being-there.

Similarly, Marx sought to understand dialectically the longer-term revolutionary potentials of the urban proletariat that capital had produced, and mobilized, in its own immediate interests, whilst acknowledging, at length, the brutal fashion in which this had been accomplished. Where Virilio addresses the mobilization of the rural peasantry in contemporary post-reform China, by contrast, he can only offer a lament for the ‘massive flows of people who will soon be set adrift from their social moorings as well as their specifically territorial ties’. Yet, however traumatic these mobilizations may be, they have surely to be understood in relation to the conditions they overturn in a clear and unromanticized fashion. As urban historian David Graham Shane has recently argued in this context, for example, ‘Beijing, with a population of two million, was the largest city in the world for many centuries. The result was that by 1953 it ruled a population of 580 million people, with 480 million agricultural serfs, many living in abject poverty cultivating the river valleys.’ Such migrant populations, in other words, might equally well be described as ‘released from’, rather than ‘set adrift from’, such ‘social moorings’. The conditions of mass mobility, exile and displacement with which Virilio engages, together with their environmental, social and political implications, are surely urgent concerns. Yet the lens through which such concerns are addressed in The Futurism of the Instant are encapsulated in such extraordinarily dispiriting passages as this from the closing sections of the book:

We note, then, one more time: since planet Earth has, it would seem, become too small for Progress, and, in a word, insalubrious, we are so pressed on all sides that we not only no longer have time to feel fear, we don’t even have a future for our plans. … All that then remains is space, all the tragic-comic space of an expanding universe accelerating towards the Big Crunch, the end of time as well as of cosmological history!

Such an apocalyptic tone tends only to reinforce a politics of despair where our role is reduced, in Virilio’s own words, to ‘looking on, powerless’.
Originally published in Radical Philosophy 169 (September/October 2011), pp. 58-60

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