Pure War

Virilio: the man, the myth, etc

Lotringer’s interviews with Virilio develop a number of compelling ideas significant to literary-cultural studies of postmodern warfare. We might rank the thesis of Pure War itself alongside Virilio’s arguments about the nature of an emerging nuclear faith as the most significant. And these arguments can, of course be linked back to Virilio’s more familiar claims about acceleration and speed, logistical “dromocracy” and, after Baudrillard, simulation and deterrence.

If war is the source of the city, then, being an urban planner, I’m for war. If I say that war is the source of technology, I reinforce what I said for the city, I reinforce the idea that I’m a strategist, a man of the war-machine, and thus someone who shouldn’t be trusted.

Virilio develops a line of historical interpretation that clarifies salient features of military-economic development and their spatialization into the logistical architecture undergirding global urban life in times of war as in peace (a distinction which, for Virilio, is abolished by the logic of deterrence). Eschewing sociological analysis in favour of an analysis of mythic figurations of enmity, defense, security, etc (e.g. “us” vs “them”) that evade purely sociological registers, Virilio argues for an analysis of the strategic and logistical contouring of militarized societies that unearths elements of sense and cognition that aren’t conventionally recognized as part of the military-industrial infrastructure of modern life. Rather than developing an exacting analysis of historical datum, Virilio’s is an analysis geared towards drawing out tendencies rather than producing an exact picture or diagram of global and local strategic situations. This kind of analysis is not anti-military, per se (in Virilio’s own language, what he proposes is “worse”). Rather, this kind of analysis seeks to elucidate problems of contemporary war that exceed not only the prescriptions of conventional anti-war discourses, but also those of the techno-scientific class that refuses to recognize the interdependence and mutual-constitution of overlapping fields of science, war and technology. In this sense, Virilio is not against war (in fact he claims he is “for it”) but “against the intelligence of war that eludes politics”.

Virilio: The Total Peace of deterrence is Total War pursued by other means […] Deterrence is the development of an arms capacity that assures total peace. The fact of having increasingly sophisticated weaponry deters the enemy more and more. At that point, war is no longer in its execution, but in its preparation. The perpetuation of war is what I call Pure War, war which isn’t acted out in preparation, but in infinite preparation. Only this infinite preparation, the advent of logistics, also entails the nondevelopment of society in the sense of civilian consumption.

Lotringer: The age of deterrence completely transforms the nature of war: direct confrontation becomes scarce, but civilian society pays the price of its infinite postponement.

Virilio’s claims about the reconstitution of sovereignty in the wake of the bomb are exemplary of this kind of mythic analysis, which can be extrapolated as emblematic of the state or condition of Pure War. Virilio argues that the consolidation of nuclear strategy through a dual implementation of weapons systems, strategic doctrines and formal treaties governing their development and use has produced a situation in which the political “center” that endured the era of absolute monarchy through the Jus Publicum is displaced by an absolute weapon, anticipating absolute destruction. As the speed of electronic threat detection and countermeasure deployment intensifies and the time available for mounting a response shortens, the nature of the political decision to undertake war (that which is properly the object of classical sovereignty) is fundamentally changed. Instead, the decision is electrified by a technocratic objectivity operating at the speed of light, yielding to a kind of transpolitics, after Baudrillard, one characterized by the collapse of geographical time and distance in which “acts of war without war” deter and distill the potency of geopolitical eruptions and upheavals, neutralizing them into a kind of equilibrium or meta-stability of competing and coordinated strategic interests. This yields to an untenable irony in which it is the ultimate weapon that ensures the survival of the species.

Clausewitz says something fundamental: “Politics prevents complete release”. It’s because war is political that there is not complete release. If war weren’t political, this release would reach total destruction.

Although the fundaments of the emerging divine right of transpolitics is the deliberated technological mediation of the “right” to absolute destruction, which is confirmed in the “success” of its deterrence, the consolidation of power according to the technicity of cold warfare is itself oblivious to the consequences of the decision (the destruction of nuclear war). In this sense, even as techno-military apparatuses assume priority in the vertical hierarchies of military, state and economic administration, their claims to divine right are emptied of the significance of sacrificial logic, succumbing to a kind of general economy of war without sacrifice. Lotringer prompts Virilio like so:

We have defined a positive aspect of death: death reunifies, nuclear death gives us back a mythology on the universal level, it promotes a new humanism founded on destruction. There is a second aspect, entirely negative this time, which has to do with this mythology holding an insurmountable threat over our civilization, giving rise to a reign of terror in the name of death which is at hand, but perhaps will never arrive.

In his response, Virilio reflects on the religious aspect of this emerging nuclear faith:

That might come from the fact that there are no priests of nuclear death other than military men. Death only exists as a foundation of religion because there are intercessors…mediators of the death question on the individual level: those who come to hold your hand as you die, those who make a sign of the cross over the condemned man, those who give absolution, etc. Now, for the death of the species, there are no priests. The only mediation is by the military, and it’s obvious that the military man is a false priest because the question of death doesn’t interest him. He’s an executioner, not a priest. A new inquisitor. And he is the inquisitor of all thought – not only within civilian society, but within science itself – war is no infiltrating the social sciences.

For Virilio, these tendencies require novel methods of interpretation that attend both the riddles of technology and the problem of the “meaning” of death.

Knowing how to do it doesn’t mean we know what we are doing. Let’s try to be a little more modest, and let’s try to understand the riddle of what we produce. Inventions, the creations of scientists are riddles which expand the field of the unknown, which widen the unknown, so to speak. And there we have an inversion. The inversion is not pessimistic, per se, it’s an inversion of principle. We no longer start from a positivistic or negativistic idea, we start from a relativistic idea…I believe that within this perversion of human knowledge by the war-machine, hides its opposite. Thus there is work to be done within the machine itself, and in my view politics has never done anything other than this. Politics, in the ancient sense of the invention of the political has never done anything other than this. Politics, in the ancient sense of the invention of the political, has never done anything other than put its hands in the bloody guts of the cadaver of war, and pull out something that could be used – something that wasn’t war. Today the military knows all about civilians, but civilians know nothing about the military. For me, that’s the worst possible situation. That’s the Apolitics of the Worst. Politics, on the contrary, means facing this tendency towards extremes, this enemy, this false priest, in order to question it – as in a struggle with the angels, or with the devil. It’s the question of death: we can’t face it, we must face it intellectually and physically, as doctors and artists have.