At heart, Speed and Politics strikes me as a philosophical analysis of modern warfare and its place in contemporary society. Another thing that strikes me about Speed and Politics is how much of its analysis has become largely obvious. For example, he discusses how war is the driver of technological progress, particularly in terms of how it encourages faster physical and communicative connections.
|Are you Gellin? Or are you invading Saxony?|
Virilio’s examples are novel, at least to me. He discusses how this trend of using technology to increase the possible speed of movement has roots going back centuries. He leaves the most well-known examples behind to focus on orthopedics. The science of good shoes and foot health was developed during the Napoleonic period to keep soldiers from developing foot injuries on rapid marches to invade German duchies. Only then does he draw the continuity from the ancestors of Dr. Scholl’s to modern telephone and cable communications.*
* No, he doesn’t talk about the internet, but this book was written in 1977. I’m reading it for the theory, in case you hadn’t noticed.
What was novel for a philosophical writer in the 1970s — that technological progress is driven by warfare — is common knowledge today. What still matters in the book is the philosophical analysis, which has quite a few interesting elements. Another part of his analysis of warfare that took my fancy is his account of economic warfare: the blockade and the trade sanction. Economic warfare is actually more destructive than straight invasion or military assault because it cuts off the logistical lifeblood of a territory. Economic warfare literally prevents people from eating, prevents the country itself from eating. This type of warfare is enforced by naval fleets, at least in the paradigm he discusses.
What’s remarkable about fleets as compared to more traditional warring bodies is their deterritorialized nature. It’s a better illustration of what it means to be deterritorialized than a lot of how Deleuze and Guattari described the term. The fleet has no specific home when it is in action; it doesn’t even have a location. When a naval fleet is after you, you don’t fear its actual presence. You fear its possible presence, that a hostile vessel could appear from anywhere at any time. It isn’t that you’re constantly under siege, but that you could be besieged from one moment to the next. A force without a territory inspires a constant sense of paranoia and fear.
Yet there must be more to the articulation of these developments in everyday society than their use in warfare. Much of the talk I had heard about Virilio was how Speed and Politics diagnoses problems in society as a whole. Apart from the inextricable involvement of our supposedly peaceful society in brutal warfare, where the goal of technological progress is to increase the efficiency of invasion and destruction, there doesn’t seem to be much critique.
I mean, we knew that already, didn’t we?