Book Review: Pure War
Pure War is a book-length interview -- arbitrarily broken into chapters -- of Paul Virilio by Sylvère Lotringer. Urbanist intellectual Virilio is a theorist of the mechanisms by which war drives technology (and vice versa), and the inventor of dromology as the study of how "speed" transforms social relations. His authorities on military theory include J.F.C. Fuller (57, 69). Virilio posits an essential conflict between military and civil society, or more hypostatically, between war and politics. Although the Pure War interview took place in 1983, during what the participants did not know was the twilight of the Cold War, the trends which Virilio describes have only intensified in the following decades. He sees war with the upper hand, and politics teetering on the edge of an exterminating abyss.
As I reflect on the relevant changes since the publication of Pure War, I observe that the ongoing militarization of society has meant that some technologies of speed (e.g. SST) have been withdrawn from the civil sphere while being advanced in the military one. Virilio contemplated the dromological potential of the orbital laser, but the Internet and the predator drone both suit his model without being instanced by it. Also, the advancing commercialization of the US military (Halliburton food service, Blackwater/XE mercenaries, etc.) vindicates Virilio's observations, as war further frees itself from politics. The spasm of US militarism during which the President was almost universally referenced as the "Commander in Chief" has subsided somewhat, but not due to any reduction in the dedication of US resources to the military. Virilio's notions about endocolonization could hardly be more apt to the current American scene, in which the massive military expenditures of the first decade of the century are being exacted from the civil society of the second.
As an interviewer, Lotringer asks few actual questions. His contributions often seem to be attempts to condense Virilio's theses more pithily, for instance: "The peak of speed is the extermination of space. The end of time is absolute deterritorialization." (74) These remarks then goad Virilio into clarifications and enlargements.
Virilio offers a genealogy in which civil society (originally the city) was actually twin-born with military society from pre-civilized "tumults" of all-against-all violence. He posits this in contradistinction to the model of trade as the basis for civilization. According to him, war has evolved from tactics (pre-martial violence), through strategy (control of space), to logistics (control of time). The global fruition of logistics is the "pure war" in which humanity is increasingly subject to an inhuman technological agenda predicated on abstract, hyperreal conflict.
The fascination with and prioritization of war does not mean that Virilio sides with it against politics -- quite the reverse. Virilio himself is a Christian who opposes theocracy in favor of civil liberty, and in fact he declares, "Pure War is the absolute idol." (171) All of his prescience is somewhat gloomy in that respect, even if I don't share his values. He does credit the regime of nuclear deterrence positively with reawakening a religious sense in the secular world; he even calls Nietzschean atheism "the abomination of desolation." For someone who doesn't worship the Crowned and Conquering Child, he seems nevertheless to have the number of the Lord of the Aeon.