A Man of Infinite Chutzpah, Research Time, 17/12/2013

One reason I think Paul Virilio sounds radical is that he says some very radical things. Under this sarcasm, I’m rather impressed with his gumption. His chutzpah. 

His radicality* lies in a technique that I feel has become standard, but which still feels refreshing. He uses his concept of how increasing speed of movement and communication militarizes society to explain not only explicit militarizations of society like the Nazi blitzkrieg, but innovations in armed conflict going back to the French Revolution at least.

* My word processor tells me ‘radicality’ isn’t actually an English word. This is why I’ve always considered myself cooler than most word processors. 

His examples include Napoleonic troops and the sans-culottes proto-communist radicals of revolutionary France. When you conceive of militarization in terms of a very abstract concept like the increasing speed of movement, you can understand many political developments in terms of their militarization. If you don’t use this kind of abstract thinking, then political developments can shock you. They appear to come from nowhere, and have no identifiable cause. 

Consider how shocked people were by Nazi German blitzkrieg techniques and the constant assaults of the secret police on civilian society. If you understand the militarization of conflict and society by the kinds of technology invented, you won’t see the continuity among many different militarization movements over centuries. With Virilio’s conception of militarizing speed, we can see that continuity, that totalitarian warfare is the culmination, or at least the highest intensity, of a movement that began with outfitting Napoleonic troops in proper shoes so their soldiers weren’t walking barefoot across Europe, or in using rhythmic singing to spur and increase their marching pace.

A historical hero of modern democracy and
a dangerous political radical. These two
don't contradict each other.
Of course, these basic innovations have existed for thousands of years. The Romans and Greeks of the imperial and Periclean periods had some fancy footwear, and they certainly had some catchy marching music. Virilio isn’t only interested in demonstrating this continuity between military marches and tank warfare. It’s an interesting idea to show how militarization consists in speeding up and precisely directing movement. There’s a rhetorical element to his historical interpretation as well.

We think of the totalitarian movements as separate from our own politics, a dangerous aberration of racism, thuggishness, and fanaticism. Virilio helps us see the potential for totalitarian militancy in even the most romanticized heroes of the left, like the sans-culottes radicals of the French Revolution. In this, he’s something of a kindred spirit for the utopias project, a conceptual friend. One important element of the utopias project is finding the common dangers in radically ideological philosophies of left and right. Insofar as Virilio also sees these dangers, we’re colleagues. We may choose a different focus for each of our analyses (Virilio has speed, I have the dream of Earthly paradise). But it’s good to meet a fellow traveller.

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