Theory and Media

John Armitage, Virilio and the Media

Paul Taylor, Žižek and the Media

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Kittler and the Media




Copyright © John Armitage 2012

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First published in 2012 by Polity Press

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For Jonnne







The Aesthetics of Disappearance


Cinema, War, and the Logistics of Perception


New Media: Vision, Inertia, and the Mobile Phone


City of Panic: The Instrumental Image Loop of Television and Media Events


The Work of the Critic of the Art of Technology: The Museum of Accidents




Guide to Further Reading








I am grateful to several people for their supportive contributions to Virilio and the Media: Sean Cubitt, who initially suggested the book; Paul Virilio, who will by now be as astonished as I am that this is the fourth volume that I have produced on his work; Andrea Drugan and Lauren Mulholland, who have been consummate editors, tendering assistance, encouragement, and sensitive guidance during my editorship of Virilio Now: Current Perspectives in Virilio Studies and the writing of Virilio and the Media; and, finally, my good friends at Cultural Politics, above all Ryan Bishop and Douglas Kellner, Mark Featherstone, and the artist Joy Garnett, whose bravura painting adorns the cover of this book. Discussing with me almost daily Virilio’s ideas concerning the media and much else besides, such splendid companions not only help one to understand the contradictory nature of the world, but also how to cut loose from long-established responses to it.


Paul Virilio (1932–) is one of the leading media theorists of the twenty-first century. He is well known for his innovative studies of the aesthetics of disappearance, which will establish the chief focal point of Virilio and the Media and will be explained in detail shortly. The aesthetics of disappearance is the core of his 1980 book of the same title (Virilio 2009a), which is increasingly debated by media theorists and is widely regarded as an important text for undergraduate and postgraduate programs in the visual arts, cinema and new media, cultural and political geography, and museum studies. It is the primary text of his aesthetic theory and has become progressively more influential since its first edition. In a virtuoso sequence of four concise parts, he examines perception and speed, politics, society, the convulsive state of human consciousness, subjectivity, and absence.

This book will be the topic of Chapter 1. His numerous further media-related writings, composed throughout an extensive intellectual career, also reveal a widespread concern with war, vision, and urban terrorism and provoke stimulating questions for anyone studying the contemporary arts and humanities, social sciences, and philosophy. The aim of Virilio and the Media is to familiarize readers with a range of Virilio’s decisive critical investigations into today’s media world and to clarify his aesthetics and philosophy of disappearance.

Important questions about art and technology, aesthetics, and disappearance are situated at the heart of Virilio’s work on the media. And, whether he is writing about a masterpiece of cinema, a military text, logistics, or human perception, he constantly focuses upon the significant artistic and technological concerns that his subject calls to mind. Virilio is, first and foremost, a critic of art and a philosopher of technology involved with how our ways of life are arranged and managed by the cultures we live in, and his examination of everything–from new media and vision to inertia, the mobile phone, and accidents–plays a part in this critical appreciation. His persistent contestation of traditional ideas about the city and about panic, violence, territory, and televised media events makes his work frequently worrying and complex, but simultaneously exhilarating and affecting.

While Virilio does not continually employ his own concept, a great deal of his writing on the media concentrates on questions emerging from what he terms “the aesthetics of disappearance.” The idea of an aesthetics of disappearance has attained a somewhat fashionable–if fatalistic–reputation lately. It is regularly associated with the work of the late French media theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007)–for example with a contemporary cultural “world from which human beings have disappeared” and with the dismissal of arguments for their “natural” exhaustion, extinction, or even extermination (2009: 9–10). Commentators on the aesthetics of disappearance who focus on the exhaustion of natural resources or on the extinction of species are often criticized for their conviction that in current media theory the question of the aesthetics of disappearance has to do with physical processes or natural phenomena. Thus the argument that Baudrillard (2009: 10) produces is based on the notion that the human species is “the only one to have invented a specific mode of disappearance that has nothing to do with Nature’s law,” and that the aim of media theory is merely to explore and take pleasure in an emergent “art of disappearance.” Baudrillard’s account of the aesthetics of disappearance is very different from Virilio’s philosophical perspective. Similarly, Baudrillard’s suggestion that, in the era of the aesthetics of disappearance, the human species has been appropriated by the “disappearance of the real” and by “the murder of reality in the age of the media, virtual reality, and networks” is a proposal that Virilio acknowledges but resists throughout his work. For, even if he concedes that the human species has created forms of disappearance beyond the laws of nature, his writings on the media continuously take up the issue of what it might mean to theorize and act ethically without the existence of the human species, its art, or even reality itself. Virilio does not simply recoil in misery at humanity’s decision to transform the real world in the modern age through technoscience; nor does he rejoice at the defeat of pre-technoscientific analysis or knowledge, notwithstanding the relentless implementation of technoscientific inventions. Instead he steadfastly looks for novel ways of examining the aesthetic realms of technoscientific devices and their cultures in order to determine alternative trajectories for media theory and practice, which will transform these and our own worlds into something more human and caring. Hence, for Virilio, the most important work of a philosopher of aesthetics is to challenge, with equal force, both the sliding of human beings into a phase of technologically induced disappearance and the overwhelming strength of those modes of disappearance that lie outside of Nature’s law. These are all difficult conceptions, but each and every one will be presented straightforwardly and in depth in subsequent chapters.

Due to the questions raised in his writings on the media, Virilio has exercised a strong influence all throughout the arts and humanities, social sciences, and philosophy. For the undergraduate reading cinema or new media studies, Virilio’s theory offers a variety of ways in which one could interrogate conventional media processes, businesses, methods, and our opinions about culture. Crucial ideas about cinema, for instance the warfare-derived “logistics of perception” and “the vision machine,” which are described in Chapters 2 and 3 respectively, engender persuasive approaches toward re-imagining the culture and politics of film; and his assertions concerning the damaging results of digital, computerized, or networked information and communication technologies make his media theory of “polar inertia” and of numerous other catastrophes wholly applicable to contemporary global media studies. The postgraduate cultural or political geographer can discover in Virilio’s work on the media stimulating investigations and new understandings of the writings of several leading ancient and modern philosophers concerned with the city: above all, Aristotle (384–322 BC) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), on top of more current thinkers like the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61), the philosopher and film theorist Gilles Deleuze (1925–95), with whom Virilio co-invented numerous concepts, such as “control societies” (Virilio and Armitage 2011: 30), and well-known postmodern media theorists such as Baudrillard. Virilio’s extensive awareness of the modern city and its culture of panic, which is introduced in Chapter 4, over and above his theorization of their philosophical, political, and geographical significance, is of particular importance to those researching in television, media, and the cultural studies of contemporary events. Furthermore, while Virilio does not frequently write about individual artworks, his critical studies of art, technology, and the “Museum of Accidents,” which are discussed in Chapter 5, make him a vital philosopher for anyone with a concern for contemporary aesthetics and media theory and with a critical approach to contemporary art and technology. On every single one of these subjects, Virilio offers a distinctive intellectual perspective, a variety of compelling critical concepts concerning aesthetics, a call for honesty about the nature of technology, and the courage to ignore disciplinary boundaries.


In Pure War (2008) Virilio sketches his position as a media theorist (or, as he describes himself, as a “critic of the art of technology”) in down-to-earth language:

When someone says to me, “I don’t understand your position,” my response is, “I’ll explain it to you: I am a critic of the art of technology.” Fair enough? That’s all. If they still don’t understand, then I say: “Just look at what an art critic is to traditional art, and then substitute technology for traditional art, and you have my position.” It’s that simple. (Virilio and Lotringer 2008: 192)

Elsewhere Virilio has disclosed that, as a “war baby,” he has “been deeply marked by the accident, the catastrophe, and thus by sudden changes, and upheavals” and that he attended the lectures at the Sorbonne of the philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Wahl, and Vladimir Jankelevitch (Virilio and Armitage 2001: 16–18). Virilio was born in Paris in 1932. However, his ultimate vocation as a French media theorist began after his involvement in city planning, in problems regarding the militarization of the cultural, and in the control of terrain after his encounters with Nazi-occupied France during World War II–encounters that also deeply influenced his writings. In 1958 he commenced long-term research into the “Atlantic Wall”–that is, the 15,000 Nazi military bunkers built during World War II, the length of the shoreline of France, to resist any Allied seaborne offensive. To some extent he was trying to understand, transform, and implement the later thought of the famed Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887–1966). To encapsulate Le Corbusier’s arguments succinctly, his architectural viewpoint during the 1940s and 1950s supported the rejection of his previously rational flat glass and metal designs, which up to that point Le Corbusier had been active in promoting, and made for a shift toward a new, anti-rational and aggressively sculptural style, which was eventually to prove equally influential. Hence, according to Le Corbusier, the mission of the modern architect was to construct buildings like his Unité d’Habitation at Marseille (1947–52), with its weighty bare concrete appendages and eccentric roof. Throughout his period as a researcher Virilio wrote many contentious articles concerning the condition of architecture in France and became engaged with the trajectories of urban planning, which slowly developed into a complete media theory, focused on perception and a cultural philosophy of military history.

By 1963, together with the architect Claude Parent, Virilio had established Architecture Principe, which was a post-Le Corbusier architectural grouping with an eponymous journal, Architecture Principe. The two set in motion their own architectural theory of “the function of the oblique,” which gave rise to the building of two important structures: the Church of Saint-Bernadette du Banlay at Nevers (1966) and the Thomson-Houston Center of Aerospace Research in Vélizy-Villacoublay (1969) (see Virilio and Parent 1996a, 1996b). Based in Paris, Virilio embarked on publishing many articles directed at revising and radicalizing Le Corbusier’s ideas for modern architecture. He also participated, enthusiastically, in the general strike and student-led occupation protests of May 1968. In 1969 he was designated professor and workshop director at the école Spéciale d’Architecture in Montparnasse and, partially as a result of the “events” of May 1968, he began to investigate the associations between architecture, space, the city, and the military. This investigation brought about the publication of Bunker Archeology (1994a), possibly even today his most multifaceted and groundbreaking book, which grew out of his 1975 “Bunker Archeology” photography exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. This volume of short essays and photographs is exciting and frequently extremely worrying. Bunker Archeology opens with a thorough account of how military space can be exposed and expanded so as to form an architectural and political cartography or chronology of war landscapes. It continues through an examination of the architecture of the military bunker, and it ends with a Le Corbusier-inflected analysis of the temporal and spatial transformations shaped by conflict and by the advent of the “Atlantic Wall.” I do not discuss Bunker Archeology in this book. But what is important to note here is that, through its probing of military space such as the Le Corbusier-like monolithic fortress of the military bunker, this book prefigures Virilio’s later writings on the aesthetics of disappearance by means of a text-free series of photographs entitled “An Aesthetics of Disappearance” (1994a: 167–80).

Virilio’s later work on the aesthetics of disappearance was preceded by his writings of the 1970s, for example L’Insécurité

du territoire (1976), Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (2006), and Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles (1990), in addition to a succession of significant articles on contemporary geopolitics and the military, transportation, and warfare. These texts are not, however, the keystone of his aesthetics of disappearance or media theory. Consequently, it is Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance that will be the focal point of Virilio and the Media and shape its development. For, with the publication of The Aesthetics of Disappearance and its translation into various languages, Virilio became a leading media theorist, whose writings now influence other media theorists and critics worldwide.

For this reason, all of Virilio’s subsequent media-related works enlarge on The Aesthetics of Disappearance to some degree and advance novel approaches to the consideration of contemporary conflict, film, and the city. One of his most powerful media-inflected texts is War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1989), which contains several of his key and insightful articles composed following The Aesthetics of Disappearance. This and other texts (e.g. Virilio 1991, 1994b, 1995, 1997, 2000a, 2000b, 2000c, 2000d, 2002a, 2002b) will be referred to throughout the present study to clarify the important concepts and methods presented in his work on the aesthetics of disappearance. Such texts frequently develop hypotheses explained in previous writings, while connecting with different or new questions that Virilio ascertains as confronting media cultures.

Virilio’s later media writings are centered on art and accidents, acceleration, the city, ecology, and the university. He habitually revises notions introduced in his previous texts, and he does so in order to produce at times astonishing reinterpretations of major modern and ancient artists and authors, for instance the twentieth-century Italian artist/poet Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti (1876–1944) and the British science fiction novelist H. G. Wells (1866–1946) in Art and Fear (2003a) and Unknown Quantity (2003b), or the ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu (c. sixth century BC) in the 1985 text Negative Horizon, which remained untranslated until 2005 (2005a). These sometimes difficult works, along with City of Panic (2005b), The Original Accident (2007a), Art As Far As the Eye Can See (2007b), Grey Ecology (2009b), and The University of Disaster (2010a) are all instances of his aesthetic thinking in operation. Thus they act as outstanding expressions of what is at issue in Virilio’s wider philosophical conceptualization of critique, art, technology, and the Museum of Accidents in particular (which will be explained in Chapter 5).

Virilio’s most recent writings on the media, for example The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject (2010b) and The Great Accelerator (2012), are formed by an impatient frustration with the conventional understandings of contemporary human dislocation and history and by an awareness of the significance of conflicts and other disasters that bring widespread anxiety. He ceaselessly interrogates established media theory and its futures, and he is always prepared to revise his own previous conjectures on today’s instantaneous media, where privacy is increasingly a thing of the past. For Virilio, both media theory and media practice should frequently be amended by examining, for instance, the future of the human community and its relocation through the development of the city of panic and by contemplating their worth and purpose in the context of present-day cultural acceleration and exodus from the modern city; and, if they are revealed to be deficient, then they have to be changed to embrace, for example, the estimated “645 million people” who “will be displaced from their homes over the next forty years because of large-scale development projects like intensive mining or the building of hydroelectric dams” (Virilio 2010b: 1). “Virilian” media theory, therefore, is not a “grand theory” of the media but a modest collection of tools that can be used to illuminate various and diverse urban and historical events–and much more besides. Thus, for Virilio, his “critique of the art of technology” seeks, among other things, to respond to the distinctiveness of the contemporary exodus, and it repeatedly struggles to re-create itself in view of the latest media events–such as the present formation of a global city of flows or the disturbing prospect of the whole of humanity being on the move. Resembling the “hypermodern” (Armitage 2000, 2011) philosophers, cinéastes, and military, new media, urban, and art theorists with whom he spends his days, Virilio unlocks novel theoretical viewpoints on the media, which have the capability to reconceptualize our increasingly transitory, estranged, and exiled planet Earth and to turn it into something superior to this contemporary world of insanity that is unregulated technoscience. Moreover, it is this receptiveness to “Plan B” that makes Virilio’s writings on the media so interesting, demanding, and encouraging.


Five concepts will be the key factors in the consideration of Virilio’s writings on the media in this book: “aesthetics” and “cinema,” “new media,” “city,” and “museum.” Ever since The Aesthetics of Disappearance, the connections linking these ideas, together with the possibilities they present for philosophy, film, new media, urban, and museum studies, have been very important for Virilio. None of these concepts is simple to explain. What is more, each one of them has been argued over by media and cultural theorists. The objective of the present book is to render Virilio’s examination of these key concepts as transparent and comprehensible as is practicable.

Even so, prior to deliberating in depth on his particular deployment of them, I want to summarize how they are presently used by other media and cultural theorists. Besides offering an approximate definition of the concepts, this will also establish the background to contemporary discussions concerning aesthetics and so on. What, for example, is the relationship between aesthetics and cinema? Does the arrival of cinema entail a revision of traditional aesthetics? Does cinema substitute aesthetics? Or disturb it? As we shall discover in subsequent chapters, these are questions that Virilio addresses. Consequently it is imperative to consider the links between aesthetics and cinema, new media, the city, and the museum–not least because, for many media and cultural theorists, these concepts indicate diverse ideas. What, then, are media and cultural theorists referring to when they use the concept of “aesthetics’?


Aesthetics is not usually associated with the subject matter of works of art but with their arrangement or their organizational features, with a consistent “philosophy of art,” or with the creative aspects of an entire culture. From the eighteenth century onwards, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) involved themselves with the nature of the world, with human perception, and with the appraisal of beauty in order to determine the inspiring and eternal characteristics of these subject matters–their deeper intention being to distinguish between what is and what is not art. More recently, Marxist cultural theorists like Terry Eagleton (1990) have argued that Kant actually sought a definition of art that was rooted in its “essence” or ultimate reality and in its “transcendental” or intuitive and spiritual qualities. For Eagleton, Kant’s work helped to support capitalist conceptions of individuality and liberty, independence, and cosmopolitanism, conceptions that allied Kant’s aesthetics with the leading values and beliefs of modern class-based culture. Aesthetics and art, for Eagleton, are consequently ideologically, culturally, and historically determined and located discourses–a picture that leaves them more undefined in their political nature than that offered by Kant. In the visual arts, a series of diverse movements–from the “modernist” European avant-garde of Dada in the aftermath of World War I to the “postmodernist” American “anti-aesthetics” of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger from the 1980s onwards–disputed recognized ideological and cultural, historical, political, and technological principles concerning what the perceptual realm of aesthetics, or of contemporary artworks, might or must be (Foster 1994). Thus, whereas modernist aesthetics can be described as a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century style or movement in the arts that deviated considerably from traditional forms of realist representation, postmodernist aesthetics can be defined as a late twentieth-century style or conception in the arts, architecture, and cultural criticism (Jameson 1991; Nicholls 1995). Postmodernist aesthetics therefore marks a departure from modernist aesthetics and is typified by the self-assured deployment of previous styles and conventions, a combination of different creative designs and media technologies, and a mistrust of “grand theories” (Lyotard 1984). However, notwithstanding the disparities between particular philosophers, media and cultural theorists, and art movements, the general motivating force of aesthetics has often been related to debates over ideas such as artistic genius, taste, or judgment–although today the very possibility of a postmodernist aesthetics is frequently questioned on the grounds of the seemingly increasing rupture between the arts, morality, and politics.


Cinema is often linked with contemporary media and cultural theorists writing after the postmodernist aesthetics of the 1980s, following the emergence of postmodern texts that have now become archetypal, such as Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) or Ridley Scott’s 1981 science fiction film Blade Runner. Some postmodern media and cultural theorists portray the logic of contemporary cinematic images not in terms of traditional aesthetics or as conventional forms of perception, but as having an “evil” relationship with their “referent” (the object or idea to which the film or image refers), which is normally presumed to be “reality.” They depict cinema as a collection of mediated and technologically transcendent images and invoke the perversity of the correlation between the cinematic image and its referent, “reality.” Yet these theorists do so in a manner that implies the permanent bewilderment of cinema goers within the aesthetic field of cinematic images and within the realm of a “reality” whose character people are increasingly unable to understand. There are countless forms of this cinematic fascination, image confusion, and dreamlike states that, for many people, are extremely seductive. Baudrillard (2000), for instance, argues that it is the referent of the image, the supposed “real world” and its “real” objects, that has to be disbelieved, since in cinema it is simply not true that images refer to, or reproduce, things that either rationally or sequentially occur before they do in the “real world” or in “real time.” As simulated representations, cinematic images come before “reality” and thus overturn its fundamental and rational order through reproduction. Indeed, according to Baudrillard, film-makers such as Woody Allen represent people as identical and contemporary media culture as the culture of endless reproduction, while simultaneously raising new questions. A good example of Baudrillard’s discussion of an Allen film is Zelig, produced in 1983, where Allen represents the character Zelig as attempting to develop his own difference and individuality. But, for Baudrillard, Zelig merely finds himself looking like everybody else. In asking questions about individual uniqueness and the seduction of the Other, Zelig therefore knowingly uses various cinematic styles and complex strategies to shape an image of widespread contemporary psychological conformity.

Accordingly, cinema’s postmodernist aesthetics can be seen as a reaction against the principles and practices of a modernist aesthetics where people start to look like each other and like all that surrounds them. For several feminist media and cultural theorists, such as Grace (2008), Baudrillard’s concentration on sameness and seduction is, however, a major problem–mostly because of feminism’s commitment to distancing itself from the stereotypical figure of the seductive female. Nevertheless, for Baudrillard, seduction disturbs recognized ideas of similarity and the Other, individualism and compliance, and this permits it to maintain a significant critical function.

New media

Generally, to consider media from a theoretical standpoint is to contemplate the communication channels through which news and entertainment, speech, education, information, and the promotional messages of advertising, together with the beliefs that lie beneath them, are distributed. Yet the recent merger of mediated means of communication with digital technologies and computers–or with “new media” such as desktop and online publishing tools, digital television, mobile phones, computer games, the Internet, and graphics editing programs like Adobe Photoshop–is a challenge to the more modern forms of cultural institution, such as cinema or television. In postmodern culture, political and media philosophers and sociologists frequently claim, cinema’s and television’s modern methods of organizing vision, technology, and the realms of human stasis and movement have to be reevaluated, because they are increasingly obsolete. The French political and media philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler, for example, argue that in what Deleuze calls “control societies” the current, ultrarapid introduction of new media into the democratic process obliterates modern “disciplinary” societies and “time-delayed” modes of political and sociocultural organization (Deleuze 1995; Stiegler 2010). Both for Deleuze and for Stiegler, then, these newly developed forms of control and techniques of mediated production entail a shift from 1980s’ media, print, and analog cinematic and broadcast logics and models to previously separate but now convergent new media production systems, which involve video, DVD, and computer-generated imaging as well as the digitally technologized and mediated practices and principles used in their application as representational machines. Such changes clearly indicate that the aesthetic methods of examining the “mechanical reproduction” of “old media”–for instance of newspapers, magazines, books, and cinema–developed by twentieth-century philosophers like Walter Benjamin (1968) have to be reconsidered. Equally, for the Spanish urban sociologist Manuel Castells, these same productive means of convergent new media render most modern forms of media analysis outdated in the era of “the rise of the network society” (2000). The growth of new media indicates therefore that issues concerning the production of images, the distribution of information, and the consumption of mediated communication have to be addressed in new ways as old media is restructured. Indeed, the question is whether such problems can be confronted at all in the face of a new media that not only entails a ground-breaking means of “communication power,” but also new ways of considering and doing things with digitized visual representations and with the technologized sensations that electronic devices such as mobile phones produce (Castells 2009).