The following is the text for a presentation that I gave recently in Jason Adam’s class Virtual Virilio which is taking place through The New Centre For Research and Practice (which is a fantastic institution that you should definitely check out!). It is a review or presentation of Virilio’s interview with Lotringer entitled Crepuscular Dawn. Because this is a presentation for a class, it might not be as clear as a well formulated essay, and does pre-suppose some knowledge or awareness of Virilio and other texts that have been covered in the class. I hope to eventually distill the themes that I bring to light here (specifically that of the oblique function) into a more thorough essay.
This text contains a number of interviews between Sylvère Lotringer and Paul Virilio relating to Virilio’s oeuvre. In the introduction to the text, Lotringer suggests that the “oxymoron of the title” indicates “something deeply ambivalent about Virilio’s work” (8). The Crepuscular, signifying an animal relating to twilight, meets with the Dawn, relating the introduction of the sun. Together, the Crepuscular Dawn signifies the coming or introduction of the night—a night that is no longer distinct from day; an end of human light; a “black hole”.
The text is composed of four major sections which relate to four area’s of Virilio’s thought—architecture (archeology), speed (dromology), eugenics, and the accident (of science)—to more general themes of escape velocity and grey ecology. Rumbling beneath the surface of the text is an encounter with the positive negation of the death of God, the striation of the tower, and the death of this world—the end of humankind. These themes, I argue, underlie Virilio’s thought more generally. Furthermore, I believe that Crepuscular Dawn provides a key to understanding Virilio’s work as a whole—through the oblique function. By examining the oblique function in relation to the tower of 90 degree angle, we can interpret how Virilio responds to other striating technologies and designs—not through a Luddie-esque Stoppage, but rather as a call for struggle (or a brake) rather than a full forward acceleration by stomping down on the pedal (as is common in scholarly engagement with technology).
The Oblique Function and the Bunker Church
The book’s first section explores a discussion between Virilio an Lotringer on architecture. There are two major concepts or themes which are explored: the oblique function and the bunker. Even though it comes second in the conversation, I believe it is important to deal with the oblique function first–as it informs the design of Virilio and Parent’s Church Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers.
Virilio describes the architecture of the oblique function, which he devised with Claude Parent. The Oblique function is an architecture of the slanted form. It follows nature—there are no 90 degree angles or flat spaces in nature. In this way, the inclined plane is ergonomic—it is built for humans, not for machines or gods. The oblique function attempts to think architecture through the ground rather than the wall. It does this by working on an incline. Two biblical events shape the coming of the oblique function—the flood and the tower of Babel. In both of these events, the tower—in one case a literal tower, in the other the tower of human achievement more generally—is deterritorialized by the power of God, leading back to the ergonomic reality of inclined planes. The tower and the city are not built to ergonomic, human proportions. The tower attempts to build up to the level of gods. The idea of overcoming humanity and becoming gods, is central to Virilio’s critique of technology, speed and eugenics. I tend to read this through the earlier texts by Deleuze and Guattari (Nietzsche and Philosophy, A Thousand Plateaus), which focus on a control of speeds by starting in the middle. Virilio’s work isn’t interested in the perpetuation of the tower—absolute speed—but he isn’t vying for a flat space—or absolute stoppage—either. He’s interested in a struggle with speed in order to come up with something different, perhaps in the middle. Something on an incline which remains ergonomic and livable for humans.
Continuing with architecture, we can take a look at the bunker church, which in some ways engages with the oblique function. If we look specifically at a cross section of the church, (see above) we can see that the church is never flat, but always on an incline. As a result, the church appears to be collapsing in on itself. This is not the inversion of the way that things are, but a struggle. This idea of struggle is also biblical. Near the end of the text, Virilio discusses the character of Jacob wrestling with an angel. Virilio suggests that “I am simply saying that we have to fight like Jacob. Each person must wrestle with the angel. It is an awesome fight” (170). In a sense, the bunker church could be read as a struggle with angles, rather than angels.
This is interesting in light of the relationship that the church has with Brutalism. Both the bunker and brutalist architecture use concrete and simplicity to their end, but Virilio suggests that where brutalism is all about progress, the bunker has no progress. Instead, it is a “kind of symbol of this century of concentration and elimination” (24). Where brualism is an acceleration of progress, the bunker is the production that struggles against progress. The bunker is the result of bombs—it was designed without straight edges, so bombs would not detonate. It doesn’t exist as progress, but the realization of destruction, of war. It is a place of horrors—and this is why Virlio considers it the perfect place for a church: He suggests: “I decided that the grotto at Lourdes was today’s bomb shelter. It is the place of horrors, the place of great fear, the end of the world.” He suggests that this makes it a perfect place for a church, relating it to the question of Judeo-Christianity:
‘I admit that I am a total bastard, mea culpa.’ What I admit, what you admit. You don’t say: ‘I’m wonderful, I’m pure.’ Then, on the other hand, as soon as you realize that you’re a bastard, at that moment, we can love one another. This is the whole question of Judeo-Christianity. Anyway, this was my interpretation. And, of course, the chapel is an absolute monstrosity. It scares everyone. (28).
For Virilio, while progress attempts to overcome God, the bunker understands the need to struggle with God, and the importance of God as a brake on progress.
Virilio begins to talk about speed by looking at May 1968. This quickly moves into a conversation about Lefebvre and the rhythms of society. This eventually leads us towards an understanding of grey ecology and the contraction of distances. I’ll begin the discussion on speed with a longer excerpt from the text that deals with contemporary vs. Ancient speed. Virilio discusses a piece of art that he put at the start of an exhibit on speed:
The Pharaoh. Why? Deleuze and I discussed it quite a bit. What is the Pharaoh? The two hands crossed on his chest are holding, on the one side, a hook, and, on the other, a whip. According to Egyptologists, the whip is a fly-chaser. I said: You’ve got to be joking. Think of a chariot: there is a hook to pull the reins, and a whip to accelerate. What the Pharaoh possesses is the power of the Pontif, the one who directs energies. The hook is wisdom, it’s the brake. It is also the Pope’s hook or the Bishop’s cross. Then, on the other side, you have the fly-chaser? I’m sorry, things like that drive me crazy. The whip no one discusses anymore is Ceausescu, the conductor. Except today we don’t have a whip anymore, we have a pedal. (65)
The Pharaoh controls speeds with the ability to accelerate or put on the brake. There are interesting resonances with the religious aspect of this, as in Egypt the Pharaoh served the dual role of being both man and God (an interesting parallel to Christianity). Additionally, the image of the Pharaoh portrays the struggle between the different powers—the military power and religious power—that are key to understanding the role of the struggle in this text.
The contemporary world has not just a green ecology, but also a grey one. The grey ecology is the pollution of distances. In Egypt the Pharaoh had the power of the brake, in the medieval period the church had this same power, in other periods this power was held by the philosopher. But today (as Virilio explains in depth in the section on the accident) there is nothing to hold back the speed. Thus, we are continuously contracting distances; distance is being polluted; and we are producing a grey ecology. If we think, again, about the idea of ergonomics—of spaces created for human survival—we can think about the problem of the grey ecology in relation to the green ecology. The pollution of the green ecology produces a world that is unlivable for humans. Virilio suggests that the pollution of distance does the same thing. The world becomes small and contracted: through tele-politics, tele-war, and tele-sexuality, the computer allows for teleportation. We have come to a point where we can go everywhere without leaving the couch (through these tele-technologies), or remain at home, despite traveling anywhere (through the use of cell-phone and mobile technologies, as well as Standardization and synchronization—i.e. I can eat at a McDonald’s everywhere).
The grey ecology produces a world that is unlivable for humans. It closes in the world through surveillance. It produces a claustrophobia, an inability to breathe. This leads to something that is not quite human, since the human can no longer live, ergonomically, within the world. These speeds produce an omni-presence. Like the tower of Babel, this omni-presence is an escape from the human and the becoming of a god—and this occurs without a struggle. But this ‘god’ doesn’t understand the accidents that are created through the creation of this omni-presence—problems that are explored more thoroughly under the two sections on “The Genetic Bomb”– Eugenics and the Accident of Science.
Virilio begins the section on Eugenics by outlining two ways that the body is being attacked: 1. Through bionics/prosthetics/cyborg technologies; 2. Through information technology—the mapping of the human genome. Together, these produce an endo-colonization of the body. They body itself becomes the sphere for study and experiment. Virilio suggests that in order to struggle with these aspects we must see them as they are—Eugenics. These practices lead to an artificial selection, and, ultimately, to a new form of racism between the cyborg super-humans and the sub-human (who exist in this way due to their relation with the super-human). Virilio that “Racism posits that there are ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races within the singleness of the human species. The biggest racist in the world recognizes that.” (107) The production of the super human creates the same sort of distinction—just a different kind of racism than we typically think about (a Super Racism).
So how do we reach this point of racism? We know that both the Nazi’s and American’s experimented on people before and during WWII. Virilio suggests that the bifurcation of the production of bionics and the mapping of the human genome, creates an art or creation of bodies. Science has become an act of creation. Here, again, we see a relation to the tower of Babel. In the tower of Babel the people wanted to become God; in Eugenics, we seek a similar end. It is a war on humanity, much like speed and science, which attempts to wipe out the human in favour of God. The death of God allows for this ascension. Through these eugenic movements, Virilio argues that “Science has become art. There is an art of science which is the end of science, and maybe the end of art” (117), and in this art, science creates monsters.
Virilio turns to art to examine this as well. He discusses a number of artistic projects in which the body becomes a canvas for new technologies. This leads to art polluting itself. As genetics and cloning are adopted as techniques for artists, Virilio sees the potential for accidents and problems, and ultimately, again, the death of the human. Science has taken art to the extreme, and in some ways has itself become a myth. With the death of God the religious myths were absconded, but today “Science is becoming myth again. Instead of enhancing reason, it is welcoming unreason, and magic, a factory for anything at all” (126). Science, then exists without limits. In the Nazi camps, the scientists lost their ability to see the affect in their victims; they became apathetic to human suffering, and this allowed them to be cruel. The Nazi’s erased the victimhood of their victims—they were no longer humans, but simply flesh to be experimented on. Virilio suggests that the same thing is occurring in the development of the superhuman. We begin to think of ourselves as Gods, as creators, and there is nothing to hold back. There is simply a pure affirmation of this speed without hope of struggle. God is dead, so humans do whatever they want, not thinking about the accidents of science.
The Accident of Science
Throughout this text and presentation, we can begin to see that Science has run amok. Virilio suggests that there is no brake or limit on science. The Pharaoh no longer has a hook, but again, only a pedal. Virilio suggests that historically, religion and philosophy have acted as brakes on scientific acceleration. He says that following of Galileo’s trail: “What is so bad in Galileo’s trial is condemning Galileo. Having brought him to trial is not” (143). For Virilio, then, the act of religion keeping science in track is not a negative thing, but something that is of utmost importance to stop science from accelerating out of control. Today, Virilio suggests, science has no limit. To some degree it even wants to be automated. This is the end of science, insofar as humanity is speeding towards an escape or exit velocity—towards a black hole—where the human is ended. There is no longer a religion or philosophy that is up to stopping this acceleration, as science itself has become the guiding myth. God no longer exists to stop the tower of Babel from hitting the sun.
This black hole, or escape velocity, is tied to the Total Accident. War is an accident, the atomic bomb was an accident that started the death of humanity, and the information and genetic bomb will finish the job. In the conclusion, Virilio suggests that the great accident is on its way, a total accident that will profoundly lead to the death of this world. In the conclusion, he looks specifically at the nuclear accident in Chernobyl and the Terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In each of these cases, many people died, but many more could have died. Virilio estimates that if the towers had fallen at an expected 15 minutes—rather than the hour it took—an estimated 30,000 more people would have died. In Chernobyl, had the nuclear reactor not been covered by cement in time, Virilio estimates that half of Europe would have been wiped out. These accidents could have been so much worse than they were, and Virilio suggests that such an absolute accident is coming—an accident that will lead to the end of humanity, the end of a world. We are, then, on a runaway train, there is no struggle against this train because philosophy and religion no longer have the power to stop science.
Furthermore, Virilio explores the nature of the double-bind. This concept is important for understanding the accident. It is to suggest that the best things are simultaneously the worst things. Progress is simultaneously catastrophe. So, a technology like planes—which allow us to travel around the world at unprecedented speeds—also produce the ability to kill thousands. Nuclear energy plants—which provide cheap energy, which (I believe) is cleaner than many alternatives—provide the accident of wiping out half the people on a continent. Any progress is a double-bind, a double edged sword. Technology is not good or bad. Technology is both good and bad. The problem is that there is no struggle, no longer a brake. Simply an affirmation. A Yes, Yes, Yes, to everything.
Returning to the Oblique Function
Virilio is not a Luddite. Despite his critique and negative understanding of technology, he does not want to start over. The goal for Virilio is a brake, not a stoppage. Like, Deleuze and Guattari, he doesn’t want to start over—his text is not a call for anarcho-primitivism or anti-civilization. Instead, he desires a struggle; he wants us to be like Jacob, and wrestle with an angle. This is what his texts appear to do—they wrestle with technology. They look at the negative aspects of technology, not in an attempt to create a flat surface, but an inclined one—one that starts from the middle.
Throughout this text, we see how humans are constantly returning to the tower—humans want to overcome humanity and become a god. In doing so, they produce an exit or escape velocity which propels them towards a black hole—a darkness where humanity is ended; a crepuscular dawn. Yet, Virilio adamantly suggests that nothing is per-ordained. His work is a struggle, an attempt to produce an oblique function against the 90 degree angle of science. It isn’t clear that he wants a return of a dominant religion, but he merely wants the creation of a brake. The pedal leads towards a suicidal State, towards a black hole, towards the end of humanity. Contemporary thought that deals with technology tends to simply affirm that speed. Virilio doesn’t want to blindly affirm, but he doesn’t want to get rid of the pedal either. He wants both the pedal and the brake, struggling against one another, controlling the speeds along the inclined plane.