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John David Ebert
- Published on Amazon.com
In his Foreword to this book, Virilio draws a blackboard sketch for us of his basic historical metanarrative, namely, that he sees three distinct epochs of warfare: a prehistoric epoch of tactical war in which weapons of obstruction dominated, such as ramparts, bastions, armor and fortresses; a historical - strategic epoch in which weapons of destruction are predominant, such as lances, bows, cannons, machine guns and missiles; and now, finally, a transpolitical - logistical epoch in which weapons of communication dominate, such as radar, satellites and other electronic technologies. Virilio's book is an examination of his thesis that the first Gulf War represents also the first total electronic war and is the archetypal conflict of the age of war by communications technology, which is a type of warfare in which the horizons of the battlefield have shifted to the "orbital space" of the heavens about the earth in which the eyes and reflective mirrors of satellites act as Global Positioning systems which keep track of the enemy's communications infrastructure.
The Gulf War, as Virilio insists, was the first electronic war: with the use of Stealth bombers in which their images are erased from radar screens; to the use of U2 spyplanes, AWACS and Nighthawks; to the fact that the first objectives were not so much to attack the city of Baghdad--for the attack upon the city is a vestigial relic of the earlier historical epoch of destructive warfare--as to take out its communications infrastructure and to jam its electronic frequencies while the Stealth bombers went in and delivered their laser-guided missiles. Indeed, as Virilio says, the war was a kind of World's Fair advertising the state of American electronic technology, and a harbinger and foreshadowing of wars to come, wars in which human beings would slowly become all but irrelevant bystanders to automated weapons like cruise and tomahawk missiles along with such other cybernetic weapons systems.
Virilio's small, but very dense and thoughtful series of essays, is full of insightful and interesting comments: for example, his wonderful image of how the two sides in the conflict inverted night and day, the coalition forces transforming night into day through the use of infrared optical systems and "vision machines," while the Iraqis responded to this inversion with an epic one straight out of a Biblical vision, in which burning oil wells transformed the day into a perpetual, sooty night.
But it is the innovation of "real time" which becomes for Virilio the main problem here, for the war, aided and abetted by Ted Turner's CNN was the first war to take place in the time of instanteity, rather than the deferred time of the Vietnam War, for instance. The images happen and come to us live before we have any time to digest them or think about them, just as the erasure of the Stealth bomber's icon of itself from the radar allows it to appear as an Angel of Death with almost instantaneous destructive power. This is war transformed by electronic technology into the Speed of Light, in which the events happen so fast that they are over before anyone has the time to process what happened. The replacement of deferred time -- the time of history, literary values and reflective analysis -- with "real time" via live broadcasts is for Virilio one of the major problems of the electronic transformation of the globe that is happening all around us. "Real time" is a danger to literary values, for instance (as he says elsewhere) because the written word exists in deferred time. "Real time" is a danger to the printed word as the electronic screen comes to displace it everywhere. History, consequently, disappears from the radar, to be replaced by an ahistorical present in which the horizons of past and future cease to exist.
Virilio's meditations are part of a haunting reflection about the existence of post-historic man, a human being for whom history ceases to exist and in which warfare increasingly takes place without the use of human beings. The pushing out of human beings from warfare is part of a much larger problem which Virilio sees as symptomatic of our society in which automation has more and more come to enslave and tyrannize over the puny and mere human individual. The world, exactly as in a James Cameron film, seems to be becoming more and more capable of attaining a creepy automated sentience in which human beings are becoming superfluous, and Virilio as a traditional Christian humanist, sees this as ominous.
Virilio is the equivalent of a modern Biblical prophet warning the cities of the world -- such as they now exist -- of the dangers of a world without people, in which machines act as cold, impersonal buffers between human encounters and human situations which are becoming ever more and more remote. The machine is effacing the human being, Virilio is saying, and as a result, tensions are begininng to gather and collect to head history for an Original Accident: the global Apocalypse to come, perhaps reread nowadays as a war not between devils and gods, but a final showdown between humans and the machines which they have awoken to life with the powers of their Faustian bargain.
This is an excellent book. Though short, it must be read slowly, for its thematic textures are dense and rich as a cup of Turkish coffee.
--John David Ebert, author "The New Media Invasion."