Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Trouble with Being Born

I'm sympathetic, in many respects, with Justin's post this week on Virilio. The "plethora of conservatisms" (love that phrase!) that Justin finds disturbing often do make for diffcult reading. But I don't think that one can really dismiss some of (a lot) of Virilio's claims by arguing that his text is not an "affirmative" one or that because it "seems like a romanticized desire for a return to a past auratic state where identity and order could still be discerned" we might not still, usefully, be able to discern and weigh what Virilio is actually trying to say on his own terms. Thus, while I do agree with Justin that it does indeed seem not only like Virilio wants a "return" to a past auratic state and that the "linking of Nietzsche to fascism" may indeed be a "simple and boring theoretical move" I want to try and tease out how and why, as Michael suggests, Virilio's "most central focus for ratio-techno-militarism is Nazi Germany." I'm also sympathetic to Michael's sense of "ambivalence" when it comes to any reading relationship to Virilio's text (and I want to note that Michael so effectively summed up Virilio that writing -- and perhaps reading -- this post feels more like a side-note than anything, but we must "press on"!) . Yet, the question I want to explore here, and that propelled my reading for this week, is not necessarily "what is it that Virilio is trying to "return" to? but, rather, "what is it that Virilio is trying to catch up with?

In the early section of Ground Zero that begins with a a discussion of the "father" of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, and the exclusive relationship ("impingement" as Wiener terms it) of science and religion, Virilio states: "If, as they say, the future torments man, it is from this congenital burden that the ideology of a totalitarian Progress aspired preventively to liberate Humanity, willingly or otherwise" (15). The fact that Virilio relates a long hisotry of scientific progress to a hatred of the human flesh as well as to a terroristic iconoclasm is, I think, crucial to understanding both his relationship to and critique of "ratio-techno-militarism" and to why this very "progress" has immobilized 'real" future progress as it obtains in the imperfect world humanity is "condemned" to. If man is "congenitally burdened" by a future that "torments" him, to what can we ascribe this torment? I think Virilio is suggesting that totalitarian ideology inaugurates death in order to relieve us of our future fears of it. In other words, the Freudian death drive is being actualized by the mechanisms of images and virtual spaces in which we are instantaneously satisfied; thus we are cut off from any future, possibly unfulfilled desires. This virtual fulfillment is a break from what real images provide, which would be an iconophilic relationship to the future in that the images promise us the assurance that they do indeed stand in for something "real." What Virilio importantly valorizes, to my mind then, is the uselessness and imperfection of the flesh, and this is what techno-iconoclasm wants to eliminate. The "utopia" and "uchronia" that Virilio points to is a negative form of liberation, a false form of progress that eliminates the possiblities of and in the imperfections and contingencies of "real" events. And it is a testement, I think, to his critique that we must now place the word real in quotes in order to preserve any vestiges of it.

This notion of "catching up" and the love of images can perhaps be connected to Virilio's term "dromology." First off, it is the facts of warfare that Virilio is hyper aware of and that, in our virtual age, we no longer have the dubious benift of actually seeing (at least in the West, that is). Since we are no longer able to see our future, communicate its potentials or difficulties with each other in actual proximiate times, or think the dimensions of the world we inhabit, dromology might be seen as an attempt at a study of how a politics can be formulated around real-time and real-place demands and possibilities. That said, I do think it might be a controversially mis-approproiated term from mathematics ( I recall Virilio's name being castigated in Alan Sokal's book Fashionable Nonsense, which takes numerous theorists to task for sloppy and unduly obtuse prose, which masks its lack of real scientific knowledge). I guess the "misuse" of a scientific terms either makes Virilio's critique of scientific progress ironic or clever depending on how you look at it. It might also mean that his ostensible rejection of progress and his negative evaluations are not so simply retrograde as one might think. For, Sokal's criticisms aside, the re- or even mis- appropriations of scientific thinking always entails a future projection and thus a future politics. Virilio's dromology then, even as it thinks a future is attempting a critique to a certain extent from within science, while stepping outside the sense of progress provided by a linearized and hyper-rational (at the service of a mythic irrationalism) forward movement that leads inevitably toward the uselessness and therefore meaninglessness of human bodies. I think we need to recall that Virilio studied phenomenology with Merleau-Ponty in order to properly situate his seemingly old-fashioned humanism and Catholic conservatism, since that phenomenology is also a critique of Enlightenment progress and its attendant values . I'd like to further explore how Merleau-Ponty's notions of perception influenced Virilio's iconophilia. It might more fully connect the important relationship between how dromology is an intertwinement of ideas regarding vision and temporality, along with the importance of imperfection as inherent and necessary for any future possibilities, an intertwinement of concerns operating at the heart of Virilio's text. Perhaps another day....

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