Pure Fear: A Discussion with Juan Carlos Sanchez Tappan on Paul Virilio and the Future, or, The Ultra City in the era of the Global Pandemic and Information Bombs
"A city is not simply a place where one lives, it's above all a crossroads." Paul Virilio, Pure War
In 1983, 1997, and 2007, Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer held conversations about speed and politics for a book called Pure War. Virlio’s insight into the development of technology and the result in society as the state employs new strategies of control and surveillance on the body were then revelatory, but now are very much descriptive of lived reality. Consider his description of the technology bomb as opposed to the atom bomb:
"I remind you that the atom bomb is about radioactivity, or more precisely, organizing it so that there's an explosion, fusion, fission, or pollution. Now, the technology bomb isn't just used for information technology, it also involves interactivity to a degree one can't even imagine; feedbacks whose consequences one can't even fathom since we've never seen that before. Like the atom bomb, in fact. It is another kind of accident than nuclear accidents such as the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It's an information accident."
The technology bomb is today’s arena of fake news. We have so much information distortion and white noise passed off as news from sanctioned and unsanctioned channels that the accuracy of information is always in flux. It’s difficult to separate news enterprises from click bait producers or hostile foreign powers from centers of radicalization for dangerous ideologies. Though it’s not all that difficult to spot lying presidents promoting bizarre medical treatments and then walking them back as sarcasm, information in the 21st century is always viewed through a kaleidoscope of positions, beliefs, politics, and technologies.
Virilio views such a confusion of information as an original accident, a logical consequence of instantaneous global communication. Just as it’s impossible to have electricity without blackouts, it’s impossible to concentrate distance through the internet and other communications technologies without introducing information bombs. Indeed, we’ve always had information bombs, they just didn’t travel as far or as fast when technology was more basic. And, ever invested in survival, we’ve always done our part to resist harmful information.
New Rural continues in the pattern of Paul Virilio’s discussions in Pure War with Juan Carlos Sanchez Tappan, an architect and urbanist in Barcelona, Spain. We discuss speed and state surveillance; the Ultra City and endo-colonization; and information bombs and genetic bombs.
- Joseph Hurtgen
I want to start by asking how cities will change to facilitate increased surveillance and policies that emphasize endo-colonization over and against extraterritorial defense?
This gets into Virilio’s idea of the Ultra City. But let me first describe what endo-colonization means. It is the attack or the invasion from the state or the enemy or whoever on its own territory or our own body. Endo-colonization is an attack on ourselves, an invasion on ourselves by various means.
Virilio answers this question best in “The Overexposed City,” published in Lost Dimension. He argues that the traditional city has moved, in terms of security, from walls and gates to media protocols that in a way occupy or define what security is all about in the Ultra City. This corresponds with several technological revolutions, the transportation revolution, which involves circulation, the revolution of materials and architecture, and the transparency and exposure and ubiquity of the revolution of the screen. So, with these nodes in mind, it’s not that the city has changed significantly in a physical way. But the Ultra City is changing the condition of the human being—those who are connected—as being at home everywhere, whether working or at home. We are simultaneously facing the condition of being nowhere, whether at home or at the office for those who are not connected. Virilio’s concern about this change of the body within the urban realm is framed in two or three ways. His concern of the vertical urbanization, tall buildings, his preoccupation with the inter- and intra-migration in between cities and also within a major megalopolis. Virilio was heavily influenced by phenomenology, studying under Merleau-Ponty. As such, his work is based on resisting technology. Although he is really fascinated by technology, transportation, communication, and media, the common thread of all his work is this kind of bodily resistance.
He might have been interested about how the masks people are wearing are disrupting surveillance technologies.
Absolutely. He passed away in September 2018, but the coronavirus is allowing for a lot of his topics to be physically borne out. Consider the two-meter security distance between people in relation to the ubiquity of the screen. We’re getting more anxious to touch people, to embrace them. We have this ubiquitous technology that allows us to be everywhere, but we’re not allowed to touch. Also, this idea of the local instead of the global. In Barcelona, in Spain, in Europe the coronavirus has highlighted the importance of having your work not far away from you, so you can maximize productivity. The local idea that was very influential in the ‘90s is now being revised, reviewed with a heavy interest on local issues and going back to another kind of security, going back to the local and going back to the body itself.
Which gets into Foucault and Virilio’s concept of biopower, how the state controls bodies to disastrous ends.
Yes, his common thread is this resistance of technologies in relation to space, in relation to the body itself. This emphasis grew out of his background in phenomenology. The body is the way he understands boundaries, frontiers, resisting and defending these frontiers to break them afterwards. As an example of space and the body, consider augmented reality--the relation between real space and virtual space and the divide between them appears in different ways. The coronavirus accelerates this kind of division.
Which goes into his concept of speed.
Virilio has an image of trees cleared along the roads in response to a mounting death toll as a result of motorists running off the roads into the trees. I witnessed something similar this week. I watched a driver lose control of his car and hit an electric pole on my street. This happened while everyone is afraid of leaving their homes. Everyone’s more nervous when they’re out. They’re driving faster to minimize time out in public. You have this existential crisis and then speed itself becomes an enemy.
Here in Spain, the South of Europe, we are one month ahead of the states, Mexico, and such, in terms of coronavirus. In Barcelona, the urban density is a key factor, it relates to how we socialize, the way we use public space, and the controls behind this. What I’m seeing is a way of returning to, not what I would call fear, it’s an anxiety to go back to the original public space, to hug people, to touch things, to have a beer together, this coming back to the origin, to the body, is quite present. Now we are entering phase one of gradually getting back to normality
You were saying something quite interesting about this power of going into the body. Virilio was critical of the artist, Stark, that planted different chips in the body, again endo-colonization. He was coming back to the body as occupying space, whether through dance or other artistic means. He was preoccupied about information invading the body. Of course, a lot of argument exists about the coronavirus. Has the virus been manipulated, edited? Conspiracy theories color the coronavirus narrative. The information bomb in Virilio is quite relevant to today’s debate. Because he argues that speed brings with itself information. And information is so powerful that in a way it invades the body.
On the subject of the body, let’s talk about medical technology. The future might allow for infinitesimal machines in our bodies, testing us moment by moment for invading viruses or genetic irregularities. As a result of various developments in medical technology, we may see human lifespans lengthen dramatically, perhaps doubling or tripling current lifespans. What would be the political and dromological reality of the medical interventions on the body required to increase the length of human life? life?
There are two points of view here. Virilio was going against all the powers behind the manipulation of the genetic bomb. After the information bomb, the last bomb is the genetic bomb. He mentions the economic power of pharma industries that manipulate the way that the virus or any disease can be treated but also how fear is behind getting the vaccine as soon as possible, for coronavirus, autism, whatever. As a point of departure, Virilio is clear about dromology after the genetic bomb. He’s not that concerned with the longevity of the body. He’s more critical of the power and the speed of eugenics. Lotringer and Armitage would question Virilio about the role of eugenics, the genetic bomb, and dromology. As a catholic, as a believer, as a phenomenologist, he was reluctant and resistant to this idea. It always took him back to the Nazi death camps.
But coronavirus is itself a genetic bomb, right?
Something that the coronavirus has taught all over the world is that it is a very democratic virus. It attacks everyone. There are no limits, no borders, no frontiers at all. That was a main point of Virilio’s Ultra City, you become a global citizen, especially by technology, which makes you a kind of god with the ubiquity of technology. Technology makes you ubiquitous in a way. It makes you synchronized to everyone at the same time. But what is going on with medicine, going beyond eugenics and genetics, is that the role of the public service has been critical about how to manage diseases. The Spanish health service is not the best in Europe, but it is one of the best. Although we were the second to suffer the consequence of coronavirus, we did quite well given the density and number of people in Spain. England is not doing that well even though their national health service is fairly okay. Germany is doing very well. The virus reached Germany quite late and their public health service is quite strong. What we will see is not only a return to the public space, urban space, and a return to contact with the body, but we’ll also say goodbye to neoliberalism and return to the public idea of reinforcing our health systems. That’s one side of the consequence of living through the pandemic. The other extreme is the issue of research, the dromological race of pharmacists to find vaccines and to dismantle these genetic bombs.
So, we’re beyond politics.
We can cite Virilio here. He says the city used to be the place of election. Now the Ultra City is the place of ejection. The democratic idea of the city allows you to elect your candidate. But now the Ultra City ejects you. You don’t have power anymore to elect anyone. You are ejected by dromology, by forces that are beyond politics, economic forces, and mainly by the forces of information.
The Trump Administration has seized on the coronavirus to enact various xenophobic inspired policies, instituting travel bans, deporting minors with no lawful immigration status, and continuing ICE raids. Do xenophobia, discrimination, and racism fit into Virilio's conception of the original accident? And to expand the question, what is the original accident of democracy?
The accident of democracy is fear and speed. Speed and media have manipulated our emotional response to politics. Politics have mutated into a politics of emotion driven by media. And media is driven by speed and information. But one of the best contributions of Virilio was in his famous exhibition EXIT. It took place in France in 2008. The exhibition had very fancy and sexy diagrams mapping migrations, not only migrations within the city, but inter-city migrations. Something that is kind of peculiar is this xenophobia and this banning in terms of frontiers to get to the European Union is something we are going to see even further. The typology of concentration camps has moved to a new typology of migration camps which are cities in themselves. We can see this phenomenon at the border between Mexico and the states and in different parts of the world, but this huge amount of people migrating will become an accident in itself.
Paul Virilio passed in 2018 and Sylvère Lotringer, co-author of Pure War is currently in ill-health. What scholars along with yourself are continuing in the trajectory of their work? And what are your most recent projects?
Though he’s not completely stating Virilio’s influence, Bernard Stiegler, also a French theorist and philosopher, is following up on a lot of Virilio’s ideas. John Armitage in the UK is one of the best Virilio experts. I had the opportunity to interview Virilio years ago. I had the pleasure to meet him. He was a very fascinating character. I’m about to defend my dissertation on Virilio. I focus on four common threads in his work on the resistance of technologies. In Bunker Archaeology, one of his first works, he goes against military technologies and speed. With the oblique he has a typology game regarding slanted surfaces that during the ‘60s were conceived as a vehicle of resisting communication technologies, TV, etc. Dromology also is a central topic in Virilio’s work, speed occupying space and time favored by Virilio over space. And finally, I focus on the Ultra City. I’ve set up an exhibition and also lectured and interviewed on Virilio. For the next several months I’m focused on my PhD dissertation.
And the pandemic didn’t interrupt your studies?
The pandemic interrupted everything.