An Ideal of Totalitarianism, Research Time, 16/12/2013

While I can understand the basis of his excellent reputation, I don’t actually find Paul Virilio all that original. He was writing in the 1970s about the nature of technology, how its power transforms society by increasing speed of communication, production, and movement. Speed and Politics traces the qualitative transformations, the complete changes in human lifestyle, that increasing speed allows and forces. 

My only real problem, although I haven’t yet finished the book, is that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work was more successful in explaining the details of the actual forces involved. Virilio’s work, in contrast, looks for illustrations and metaphors of the transformations themselves, examining historical and social phenomena to show how speed has changed us. 

Virilio is one more voice of the 20th
century's central idea that technology is
inherently totalitarian.
The technique itself can be very insightful, especially in making explicit the political tendencies of an increasingly technological society. In his political openness, he is very useful for analyzing the connections between totalitarianism and technological progress. He discusses the essence of the police as being the control of traffic: being able to dictate where one can move, and what people can move where. 

One controls human material and communicative traffic through the administration of violence, or rather, making the use of violence itself administrative. The bureaucratic institution is such an administration, dictating who can move where and enforcing those decisions through direct acts of violence. It’s very useful to see how totalitarianism (particularly how Arendt analyzed it) is the purest articulation of the bureaucratic process: a bureaucracy that has authority to control every movement.

Yet we never quite got one of those historically. That was simply the general philosophical aim of totalizing society into a single mass movement. The actual totalitarian regimes we got (or that I’ve yet read any particular historical research on, to start), Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR, built their totalizing bureaucracy out of a swirl of contrary government agencies all constantly breathing down each other’s necks (Germany) and a single overarching institution whose members were periodically randomly purged (USSR). 

Virilio describes totalitarian institutions as the logical outcome of the technological drive toward speed. As the speed of communication and production increases, more control of that drive is required, so a unified bureaucracy takes control of the energy and channels it into a single popular movement. Through bureaucracy, the nation moves as one. 

But this is only the ideal. Actually building one of these bureaucracies requires a mechanism of generating fear to keep a unified movement from fragmenting. Generating fear and terror requires compromising the unity of the bureaucracy itself (either through overstuffing the bureaucracy with competing agencies or randomly purging, as per our examples so far). Virilio’s analyses come from the material world, but don’t seem to describe it.

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