Archive for September 2012

Do “Digital” and “Humanities” Go Well Together?: A Virilian Reflection.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero (



It is often forgotten that intelligence, however vigorous, cannot by itself get its own sense of direction. It cannot therefore by itself arrive at true technical discoveries. By itself, it does not know how to select which ones among infinite things of invention, and therefore gets lost among infinite possibilities. It is only inside an entity where intelligence, serving an imagination that is not technical, but engaged in the creation of vital projects, that the technical capacity may come into being (Ortega y Gasset)[1].


Introduction: About the Not Knowing of the Doing of the Humanities.

London is as good a place as any to come out and say it: I do not know what it means to do the humanities anymore. I do not know what I am doing here, or there, or what that “humanities thing” does, what good comes out of it, for others and myself. I am not been deliberately paradoxical or humorously facetious. I mean it, this not-knowing, that will not go away in the course of this writing or find a good clearing and shining light in the pedagogic situation increasingly privatized and cut-off, commodified and virtualized. What is it that “we” (those in the liberal-arts institutional locations, the label of the  “humanities” is not typically used in the US) do, exactly? Are we willing to don this funny old hat in public in some official ceremony? Is it a matter of providing basic literacy in relation to textual layering? Contextual sociology of comparative textualisms? Is the humanities the “content,” or perhaps a certain disposition, but of what kind?, that travels through a variety of formats, typically in textual and book form, increasingly less so and increasingly visual, that get to be instrumentalized, recontextualized and resocialized inevitably also in a variety of ways? Yet, how exactly is this handling happening in the exceedingly shifty and mutable context of American institutions within “market democracies” or “liberal democracies,” as the official rubrics have it (the name “capitalism” sounds mostly accusatory to American native ears and it is accordingly avoided, publicly)? What attenuated role do the humanities play inside and outside educational setting now in ways that are inspirational and distinctive against more assertive formulations in the past (in the American setting, think of Charles Beard, James H. Breasted, the president-scholar Woodrow Wilson undergoing a revival of sorts)? How do we know what we (claim to) know in relation to cultural artefacts of all kinds in our times of evaporations of canons and traditions? So, this uncertainty must linger in “us” at least in the US (the plural form, the “we,” always the salutary, desiderative excess of any one individual predicament, to be sure), and perhaps others will be less uncertain in other places, with or without computing tools. And the mounting suspicion is that a tool is never just a tool that necessarily strenghtens our knowledge of the world, past and present, but something potentially substantive and mutational of social relations and the very understanding of knowledge production as well, and that we should accordingly pay some care and attention to it. Hence, the initial provocation is that of the irrelevance of the humanities, with or without institutionalities built in their defense, but how honestly? There will be no comfortable answers here, also in relation to the initial question included  in the title of this piece. If the label of the humanities –soft, weak, minor– is anything sustainable or meaningful at all anymore, and this is a big “if,” in a global society under naturalized capitalism, particularly with the concern on the immediate circumstance of a convulsive US society in the early decades of the 21st century, it is surely a (happy) thing for the (happy) few, a minority endeavor, a limited engagement, typified as a “minor” or a “major” in a double major side by side a non-humanities discipline of stronger social recognition, and I am thinking of the major in “Spanish” in particular. Hence, the thesis is that the humanities function as ornamentalism within the culural good of “education,” as it is pursued by consumers and customers “shopping around,” as the term has come to be used naturally. The customer is always right, right?, at least in a consumer society and at least on this side of the Atlantic “education” institutions are typically labeled “not for profit,” in a society in which structurally everything is for profit. So, some critical inquisition into this exceptional, and indeed false, insularity would be appropriate. One may put forth the hypothesis of sociability as the main social function of education sectors allowing and preventing access and recognition and the sociability of their own specific social strata inside an increasingly stratified (American) society. A bachelor’s degree is a basic identification card in a country with no official identification cards, another name for the supposed ideal of literacy, or decoding of cultural products increasingly in accelerated engagements. Is “foreignness” then the outsourcing assignation mechanisms of institutional duties currently under increasing privatization of social relations theoretically dedicated to “not-for-profit knowledge” endeavors? Yet, what do these exceptional enclaves with special taxation status mean in relation to society at large? Clearly a rethinking of the terminology is needed, particularly when the figure of the national university does not exist any more and the privates dominate the education market share (state intervention of course takes place in handfuls of these private universities, typically the Ivy League institutions, but not exclusively). The wish in these pages is to generate some alertness, if not critical intelligence, about these terms in quotation marks that are not obvious, easy and necessarily benign items to carry always in your back pockets. Will digital modalities help finessse, buttress, take further away, or instead make obsolete and dismantle “textuality,” for example, which is the suspicion that gets aroused daily inside the classroom practice, but also outside? The interrogation of these uncertainties wants to signal above all that something is happening to the network of sociosymbolic relations:  “we” in the “minor” disciplines in the (foreign) humanities will not lose what has not already been lost and the writing tries to emphasize a certain bell-tolling with no nostalgias of a better time and place, if only to focus more sharply on our global dire straits that can perhaps synthesize as “illiberal inhumanities.” What if the vital core of the humanities is empty?, an unnerving question certainly, and these are unnerving times of belligerence that transcend the fate of a disciplinary knowledge that may be two centuries old. So, a reformulation to the initial hypothesis could go like this: a certain nihilism of subject matter, or content, always already inhabits the humanities, hence the perpetual self-questioning, and the certainty that this “emptiness” does not go against mainstream liberal ideology of content-free exchanges among theoretically equal parties sharing the same space for a fixed and short timeframe (Virilio will dramatize the disastrous nihilism of scientific materialism, the desertification taking place in the natural sciences without a conscience as quintessential knowledge of digital empire, as we will soon see). The humanities are tolerated by universities currently in dire straits and this is an ominous  sign of the times at least since the 1960s (I have Marcuse’s critique of pure tolerance in mind). So, if the second term in the initial question is disappearing, the first term, the “digital” modality, will be approached from a Virilian standpoint. The idea is to maintain the interrogation via key elements embedded in the arresting exploration provided by the French intellectual. I do not know if Virilio has anything inspirational to say about the survival of the humanities in the digital format (his vision of aesthetics is rather bleak). Yet, the digital challenge is ever present and its impact touches on all kinds of disciplinary knowledge practices undergoing a fundamental mutation. The recent  University of Disaster (2010, originally published in French in 2007) will be the platform of observation that will not afford us a comfortable utopia. One brusque synthesis: the apparently unstoppable acceleration of timespaces of social relations embedded in a certain mindlessness of “technicity,” to use Heidggerian language, is part and parcel of such mutation of content and form, if not function, of institutional life devoted to knowledge production. I know I will not doing justice to the Virilian intelligence that I still find intensely, seductively unsettling in the end (in the concluding pages, I will try to provide some limits to these seductions). It is not an easy endeavor to come to terms with Virilio’s prose –non-narrative, non-sociological, non-ethnographic, epigrammatic, parable-like at times, aphoristic, lyrical and prophetic other times–  in ways that your best efforts make it into a totalizing narrative to be delivered in some mood-neutral manner as though the apocalypse had others in other planet in mind, and not us (Virilio’s semantic field is that of loss, disappearance, irruption, decay). The thetic quality of this writing points in the direction of a non-thetic plus-ultra liquidation of meaning, and the issue of axiology, or evaluation, looms large accordingly (more about this later). I would like not to let go of the also old-fashioned term of “philosophical,” a label of precious little circulation in the US, if only in the sense of coming to terms, ever so slightly, with Virilian ways of going about knowing the world in its process of mutation, and approaching the grounds of the merely historiographical establishing of facts, again in Heideggerian language, but never staying only there. I announce four main themes: technological determinism, the crisis of the natural sciences and a phenomenological return, the occasional adoption of an Old Testament prophetic voice, and the possibly frutiful juxtaposition between our main author and Jean Baudrillard, another foreign name to add to these explorations.


Two deviations before getting there. One is to notice in passing the brutal inequality of the English / Spanish relations, particularly in the context of this conference titled “Exploring the Archive in the Digital Age” taking place in London (6-8 May 2010), mostly put together by Spanish and Spanish American Studies representatives at King’s College (are other environments so open to return the favor to Spanish and Spanish American Studies interventions?). Irrespective of the European or American conditioning of both signs, “English and Spanish,” the Calibanesque configuration of the latter term, “Spanish,” is not to be doubted. And I am still willing to mark such relationship against those who are happy to take it for granted. Humanities-type “Spanish” is a bit like doing paperwork at the Foreign Office, and one can only speculate what good the non-foreign dimension of the whole nationalistic endeavor will entail[2]. Are we going to stay put in this assigned box of the “foreign humanities” (read: language, literature and culture) and the area-studies format of relative (un-)importance and ornamental escort service to meaningfulness and importance happening elsewhere? No. And this rebelliouness is easier said than done satisfactorily. The second deviation has to do with philosophical lucidity. Two items: one by José Ortega y Gasset and the other one by Martin Heidegger, two more foreign names in relation to the technical matter that cannot be ever more pressing: “Meditación de la Ténica” of the Madrid philosopher delivered in 1933 in Santander, and later printed in the newspaper La Nación in Buenos Aires in 1939. What a prodigious decade that was for the Madrid philosopher in the ominous 1930s! And the lecture series “Question Concerning Technology” of the German philosopher delivered in the post-WWII, occupied Germany in 1950 and 1955 and printed in 1954 (my English edition is of 1977). This is not the typical apparatus that one finds in technical (computer, digital) environments, ever so reluctant, if not mindless of their relationship to the essence of modern (digitatl) technology (I am not aware of Virilio directly incorporating either thinker in his writings)[3]. But perhaps there is an increasing social awareness around the so-called “free-access” movement  in information circles, and also around the figure of the hacker. This second deviation wants to highlight uncommon reflexivity about technicity that is still ahead of us. I will include some of these philosophical insights in the course of this Virilian meditation. There is also the final unsettling interview of Heidegger (The Spiegel, 1966, “Only a God Can Save Us,” published in 1976 after Heidegger’s death), in which “technicity” is the most profound characterization, the core,  of contemporary culture. Heidegger explains the moment of the second half of the 20th century as the one in which the essential ground of the disciplines has become dead, and its consequence is a disintegrated multiplicity only held together through institutionality. Technicity dislodges and uprootes man from earth (home, tradition or collectivity), and cybernetics now takes the place of philosophy. Historically for Heidegger, National Socialism signified the “achievement of a satisfactory relationship to the essence of technicity. [Although] those people [the National Socialists] were too pooly equipped for thought to arrive at a really explicit relationship to what is happening today [Sept. 23, 1966] and has been underway for the past 300 years.” Technicity represents the extreme logic of modernization and the opaque Heideggerian vocabulary of enframing, destining and danger can be used politically in a variety of ways: the “inner truth and greatness of this movement [early Nazism],” lies in the perfect synthesis between technological modernization and the notions of “home” and “tradition,” from where everything essential and of great magnitude has [ever] arisen” (Richardson’s translation, 45, 57, 61). One must pause at this point in relation to this great thinker against such momentous devastation in the last century, and mark the precious little reflexivity that typically accompanies the modernization-theory paradigm, perhaps the strongest frame of intelligibility that we have inherited consciously or not, and this is a fenomenally complex theme for another time and place. I still feel, without yet being able to go any further in the feeling, that the cybernetic world exacerbates this dominant frame of universal/izing intelligibility, mutating the form, the content and perhaps even the social function of previous historical models, such as ethnic fidelity, national imaginary, religion, class affiliations, “culture,” political ideals (there is a capitalistic mesmerization that will be addressed in concluding pages, also detectable in Virilio’s technocentrism). “Community” (historically the words socialism, communism, impossibly to articulate publicly in the US in the new century) always already become problematic in digital  / virtual domains: “whatever that is,” as someone said in public some time ago, and the abstraction of it is terribly truthful of the tearing apart of inherited social ligaments:



The Third major theme running through Hobsbawm’s account of the last half of the half century is the ‘disintegration of the old patterns of human social relationships, and with it, incidentally, the snapping of links between the generations, that is to say, between past and present’[Age of Extremes, p. 15]. The socio-cultural comparator is not so clear-cut sa the material or lethal, but the emphasis of the narrative falls on the “crisis decades” of the seventies and eighties, as the time when mortal ties that had given immemorial cohesion to human life –of family, birthplace, work, religion, class: solidarities of our ethical substance –crumbled most decisively. The result has been the spread of “an absolute a-social individualism” whose psychological costs have increasingly found compensation in the twisted collective fixations of identity politics. Here, certainly, it is more plausible to assume an overall uni-directional development than in the case of economic growth or violent death. Since, resonably enough, Hobsbawn dates the inception in the West of a cultural revolution against every known form of tradition to the sixties, it follows that the wider impact of this transformation must fall in the subsequent decades[4].



I want to emphasize the virtual exacerbation of the past-and-present intergenerational fracture. Could it possibly be that these historical frames of intelligibility are on their way to becoming obsolete when the installation of digitality / virtuality gets consolidated? One can see moments of exhilaration in the relativization of all old past forms, kept at some playful distance and away from any telluric overdetermination, and yet sustainable are these new forms? Or is this mutation away from all predictabilities something that we are not yet ready to address intellectually, emotionally?:



[The] revolution in the relativist point of view, and with it, or view of the world, far from meaning progress in discrimination, has totally disqualified the primary importance of the fixed point, in favour of a vanishing ahead of all points (pixels). It thereby brings on a gigantic optical allusion that will soon affect the geopolitics of nations, inducing the five continents to give up their geophysical reality to the advantage of a Sixth Continent, this one virtual…



With all the confusion in feelings of belonging and with the drift of the five continents that make up geographical space towards the sixth continent of cyberspace suddenly the morphological stability of reality is threatened with collapse. If it goes down, it will not only drag culture down with it, but also  –equally—the most durable reality there is: the reality of the orientation, not of some “hypnotic” vision now as in the past, but of the very fact of being-in-the-world and the rationality that goes with it… [w]e can only too easily divine the traumatism that awaits us when we are faced with this TERRA INCOGNITA thrown up by a spatiotemporal exile, which the loss of art of seeing and of knowing belonging to phenomenology, will be doubled by the loss of the art of conceiving essential to our being there [italics and capital letters in the original] (University of Disaster, 63, 86).



Digital modulations do not tolerate, durabilities, fixities or resistant identities of any kind, also in relation to long-term frames of sustainable referentiality of any kind. Disconnectivity is found unacceptable and “terroristic” modality of being, for example in the strategic thinking of contemporary military strategists such as Thomas P.M. Barnett. Systemic digitality thus appears to be in the antipodes of the metaphysical essential, the “enacious persistance throughout of all that happens, in Heideggeresque. Technicity in its dominant, everyday, normal functioning is not only anti-ontological, but more radically de-ontological, the de facto if not de iure liquidation of ontological thinking, about the type of questioning of the essences of modern technology exemplified by the German thinker in the uncomfortable political position previously made explicit. Metaphysics is thus put in the closet of history in the belligerent imminence of a totalitarian here-and-now of the digital / virtual that does not subject itself to plebiscites. Technicity makes of “history” the previous format of obsolescence,  the previous versionto  the current model, the “classic” precedent or platform, the “old form” of what is active, current and the “off,” the non-digital to the “on.” The new digital continent –or planet?– of digitality supplants all five others (America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania, with the negligible forgetfulness of Antartica)[5]. Virilio uses the language of loss or lack. Are we willing to endorse it? Will the new generations use it too in relation to the genuinely mutational happening to “our” being-in-the-world, imploding in a spatiotemporal “exile?.” It is as though we were irremediably losing all our possible “grounds of being” amid shorter and faster exchanges among increasingly “anti-philosophical” practitioners unwilling to consider thoughtful alternatives (more about Virilio’s historiographic modality soon).



Virilio underlines big-mass drifting, estrangement of the very feeling of belonging, the widening incomprehension of an excessive series of events that cannot be processed intellectually or emotionally (i.e. trauma), the apparent framelessness of epistemic endeavors, the paradoxical loss of seeing in an age of saturated visibility, of “dragging (durable) culture down…” Yet, there is an emotion-neutral (d)enunciation in Virilio’s unrelenting prose: no despair, no panic, no conservative retreat into the forms already known, although there is a “return” in relation to phenomenology as told soon. There is a serene sense of alarm in the coming to terms with what he would call the “morphological irruption” of new timespace forms hitting citiscapes and our inherited conventionalities of them (Lost Dimension, pp. 9-68). There is a fast-forward science-fiction quality to the reality-effect of Virilio’s writing that appears to want to be a kind of “dirty realism,” as soon as the faithful reader slows down the reading and is willing to parse the eminently paratactic simple sentences (the characters most quoted are typically state officials caught in flagrante delito professing some kind of phantasmatic Orwellian world of total control against the void left behind by martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoffer or mythical figures coming out of biblical sources). It is not difficult to have the illusion of bird-eye’s view of city-landscapes populated by blind masses manipulated a totalitarian officialdom that games the system time and again to its advantage (as in Batman series, there is a thin line between officialdom and paramilitary corruption). Isn’t this intense, fast-paced, eminently ephemeral and strictly mobile conditioning of Being exceptionally American? How do we feel about emphasizing the previous adverb? Exceptionalism or ordinariness?  Is this ordinariness to be deplored or celebrated, or neither depending on the immediate circumstances? Perhaps Americanness is the quintessence of “technicity” as previously rendered, with or without the relatively short history of immigration and the dumping of all other world cultures into the mix, and their thinning out and streamlining of lighter forms to make them fit  as effortlessly as possible into popular consumer culture[6]. Is this “American Dream” what awaits us? Baudrillard has spoken of the individual conquest of an unimodal, passionless irony with everything that has taken place before his American travels (Forget Foucault, p. 82). Any there any alternatives? Virilio does not offer any and we will see his “way out” soon. With or without “disaster,” and we will soon see what the term means in the Virilian universe, there is still reluctance to let go of reflexivity, also when the university setting is not left intact. Are the humanities still the conditional timespaces of social interaction where and when reflexivity happens against the despicable practice of pure toleration to be understood in Marcusean terms? The initial question included two uneven portions –the thinning element of the “humanities,” and the increasingly totalitarian formatting of virtuality / digitality. It is already impossible to think about the possibility of the humanities without the intersection of computing tools, the impact of which the two great philosophers aforementioned, could perhaps only imagine. Such togetherness (digital humanities) is up for grabs, how could it not be?, still in the disastrous occurrence of the majoritarian inhumanities, at least according to the Virilian vision.



University of Disaster.

The invitation is accordingly to consider “disaster” inside the official houses of knowledge production (would our micro-knowledge practices still be willingly wish to cling to the old name of university, in the etymological vicinity of universality or totality or medieval disposition towards a Summa Theologica?, the earliest OED reference is 1300). I hasten to recommend to the inquisitive, unconventional minds out there the French intellectual of Italian origin, Paul Virilio (born in Paris in 1932), a truly demanding “anthropologist” of communication technologies, and all predictable labels die the good death with him[7]. There is an instability of disciplinary knowledge that is not necessarily a bad thing to fix, not even for the minor disciplines such as “Spanish.” Let us keep the literalism or positivity of meaning, typically attached to the bienpensante or the “politically correct” institutional disposition, at some distance (think of language use in branding, “philosophy” and “banana republic” for cloths, the calculated informality of “google,” “yahoo,” “twitter” for digital / virtual modalities etc.). Some of this destabilizing operation is at work here engaging Virilio in the vicinity of the generic theme of the “digital humanities” seemingly betraying assigned boundaries (within Lacanism, Zizek speaks of traversing “fantasies” as playful treatment as a way of gaining a modicum of distance, besides having “fun,” 510)[8]. There is something worthwhile about the denaturalization of language production, and the expansion of strangement say, that at least will ideally keep most if not all nativist dispositions at bay, if only in relation to clear-cut demarcations of “foreignness,” typically situated –and subordinated—in area-studies precincts[9]. Virilio –someone who does not do assigned area studies– will also help us violate some of this bigotry of low expectations. I wish to focus on Virilio’s text The University of Disaster (Polity, 2010, original French publication in 2007), inside five sections (Intuition, The Waiting Room, Photosensitive Inertia, The University of Disaster, and Revelation). All sections have two chapters except the last one. The focus is on the conditioning of knowledge production and university life in the Virilian universe, and one has to learn to welcome a modicum of healthy discomfort that will not go away.



The apparently unstoppable acceleration of time and the violent compression of geographies implode the notion of reality. Reality becomes virtual, digital reality, becoming increasingly intolerant of other and older modalities of being non-virtual and non-digital. Think of a Hollywood action movie increasingly moving at a faster pace among increasing number of explosions in detriment of quality of acting, plot, language and texture against old, foreign, non-Hollywood production: this trajectory is Virilio’s natural habitat and most likely ours as well, increasingly so (think about the more static sense of British usage of “film” as opposed to the standard American usage of “movie,” how “photography” is increasingly adding the redundance of “still photography” losing ground to video motion, think of the progressive retreat of “painting” in relation to more “dynamic” or “performative” (art) spaces, the proliferation or fragmentation of audiovisual channels, the personalized interactivity with the technology, the cornering of textuality by film and “culture,” the debunking of the traditional format of the “book,” etc.). These are not simply change of format. Something mutational is taking place and perhaps one safe thing to say is that the impulse to acquire a sustainable narrativity that may help us put these phenomena together (world, cosmos as such) has thinned out, if not disappeared altogether (Lyotard is the name associated with this epistemic demise of colossal narratives almost in the manner of whales found dead by the beachline for no apparent reason). Perhaps cybernetics is one of the names of the diversion that does without the need for big coherent narrations that previous generations appeared to have and we don’t. Or do we? We inhabit a culture of speed, and speed is one of Virilio’s abstract core concepts to bear in mind constantly. In Heideggerian terms, our  “culture,” or modality of being, is (American) technicity, “our” institutional “house of being,” the corporate world, with no (philosophical) ground: business culture for which there is never enough time and in which “time is money.” Put it in other terms: our (permanent, static) being has dramatically become, at least since WWII, one of (impermanent, dynamic) becoming with debilitated attempts to capture a definite origin, cause or result. No causality and no teleology: immanence with no apparent desire for a(ny) transcendental or other frame of foreign intelligibility. We do not know where we come from or where we are going, and we must be going somewhere since we cannot apparently stop, much less stop to think about where we are going. One may ask: who keeps the institutional memory in increasingly trasient timespaces? Ortega y Gasset and Heidegger’s questions have disappeared from everyday practice of technology also from your everyday liberal-arts classroom setting, as though these old hats were an embarrassment of intellectual riches that we cannot afford anymore. Is Virilian presence any stronger?



Time and spatial categories must be thought indelibly together: timespaces[10]. In the Virilian vision, timespaces are undergoing accelerations and compressions. It is from the standpoing of this (post-)modernity of proud imperial nation (around the 1950s, the post-WWII Cold War moment of superpower visibility) that all other timespaces get re-arranged with or without counter-accounts saying otherwise. This phenomenology hits hard, think American-football hard, the very notion of “history,” as sustainability, or duration, any sense of tradition, let alone piety or veneration as Américo Castro was fond of saying. It used to be that one wished to acquire knowledge, or a tradition, as the collection of meaningful points of certainty, or at least the ramshackle structure, the upholstery of a belief system, or the accummulation of cultural goods acquired with cultivation, or enough time, predictability or tested habit, a (wo-)man of “culture” as old meanings in historical dictionaries still deliver for us. But perhaps this rendering is guilty of an intellectualist, discursive, “conservative,” prejudice towards “high culture” that fails to contemplate the force of unconscious not-knowing lacking a proper narrative, and more dynamic modalities (precisely, the unpretentitious meaning of “culture” is that of modalities of ways of doing things, institutional and informal, even life styles). The current state of uncertainty is perhaps what digitality is reinforcing and isn’t it clear that this is pushing away the traditional humanistic knowledge –not only philologically inspired– bound up with laborious textualism, the older, the better? Is it possible not to have a feeling of turmoil of things in stores with “liquidation” signs on them, of cultural goods on the sliding-scale, also in educational sectors? How could the “absolute a-social individualism” aforementioned find its intelligent ways embedded in the immediate timespace, increasingly the virtual circumstance, as the dear noun of Ortega y Gasset has it, among the smithereens –of family, birthplace, work, religion, class solidarities? Where are the maps, the sign posts, the collective projects? Once upon a historical time, there was the feeling of a sustainable meaningfulness that was put together by this slow-motion gradual acquisition of tested certainties or at least predictable social parameters or more or less stable frames of referentiality that are now less certain. Technology is the (post) modernity, or the “end of history” against which preceding totalizing “medievalisms” or “early modernities” are measured (neo-hegelians are among the ones wanting to rescue something of this totalizing medievalisms, also some postcolonialists firm at provincilizing Europe). Could it be that digitality / virtuality massively upsets these philosophical questions? How to begin to set up boundaries or limits in times of the world wide web? Isn’t the very idea of “boundary” unthinkable in such virtuality? How to begin to address the loosening of social ties, and the absolute a-social individualism, aforementioned? Narrativity qua modality of togetherness, whether in relation to big things or small things, increasingly appears obsolete armature, particularly with the irruption of audiovisuality, and the sudden arrival of digitization and virtualization formatting timespaces in imminent, pan-relational and groundless manner. Here we all do the best we can to keep our bearings. And how good is this best?



Our “anthropologist” focuses on technology in the quintessential theater of war. His discourse highlights mechanical, technological events of ineludible impact, typically in oppresive environments of surveillance, manipulation and premeditated destruction (war). The Virilian world is harrowing and dystopian with no moments of calm,release  and relief. As mentioned earlier, his is a semantic emphasis on desocialization, disruption, irruption, degradation, loss of old forms into endless instability or mutability of them, as for instance when he explains the definitional changes in relation to “surface” and “dimension” in relation to the space once used to be called “city” (Lost Dimension, pp. 9-27). The reader will have the feeling that the ground under his feet is gone. This vertigo is the attempt to catch the status of the (fleeting) contemporary. The Virilian account has an aphoristic composition peppered wtih numerous neologisms, oftentimes capitalized. And this will force one to puzzle over the logic of the aphorism, a favorite Baroque modality of enunciation, as in Baltasar Gracián for example, a kind of non-narratival intuitive illumination that is not the most popular form in our contemporaneity (perhaps commercial Americana is the closest resemblance?). Where does this predilection for the aphorism come from? Is it after a synthetic, integrative tendency?



The writing does not fail to convey a “cut-and-paste” feeling of relative disorientation in which paragraphs and sections can be moved around without major damage to the overall, elastic structure of meaningfulness and of feeling conveyed by the “whole text” of small dimensions, easy portable let us say, and imprecise boundaries. It is as though there was a feeeling of imploding fragmentation continuously at work in the manufacture of the writing that does not cling to the thetic dimension of language. That is why I hesitate to call the Virilian account a “narrative.” It is as though his abbreviated descriptiions were unafraid to approach de-narrativization already happening socially. I would say that Virilio’s ways of knowing the contemporary world –displaying a thin engagement with anything happening earlier, particularly before the 19th century outside Euro-America– deprioritizes the concreteness of social relations, places them in the background so to speak, as though social agents were appendages to the latest, cutting-edge technological avatars. Big frames of intelligibility, what I like to call historicity, threatened by technicity, lose “ground” of belief and impact among collectivities: this could be one thesis that will not leave us alone. Does technicity synthesize social relations better than anything else available to us? Is digitality qua dematerialization and individualization of social relations the increasingly totalitarian, quintessential cultural modality of being contemporary? Everything that’s solid melts into the air? There are no warm visions of collective gatherings in Virilian prose. Society appears amorphous, easily manipulatable unrebellious mass receiving Orwellian messages from uncharismatic state officials. The Virilian analysis cuts across seemingly coming from nowhere. There is no insurgency, no community of hackers subverting the system either. No egalitarian forms of sociability. We “fall” so to speak individually accordingly, holding invisible hands with Virilio against no recognizable historicity of time-honored forms (we appear to inhabit already the traumatic psychological costs of the crumbling of immemorial cohesion to human life). It is as though society were a fiction of social relations generating “white noise” –also in the sense of Delillo’s novel– to the inevitable happening of technicity. There is a technocentric quality to Viriilian vision that does not become, as far as I can see, technophilia, although there is a certain fascination with war and communication technologies. There is no technophobia either, despite the insisting semantics of disaster as though this fascination with technology was always the stronger force taking us death drive, apocalypse. This is the Virilian situation, seemingly emotionally neutral and intellectually mercurial and unrestrained by conventional arrangement of the university disciplines. There is no one disciplinary path or method, no explicit “emotionalization,” as the recent term has it, no sustainable ethnography of social specificities in any one favorite circumstance. There is no sustainable plot: people do not do things, machines do, or at least in cyborg fashion. The occasional use of the prophetic voice must be imagined in relation to the theoretical possibility of the fracture or the break of the apparent determination of technicity unimpeded by what in the name of what? I think the absence of a force, para-technical if not anti-technical, although there is no luddism, is what gets Virilian thinking going. There is a strong phantasmatic quality to Virilio’s writing that includes very little chronology and precious geographies other than the primary observation platform of the North Atlantic First World big-city landscape: there is a certain neglect of the portrayal of conflicting collectivities with proper names, locations, interests, going at it, despite the fact that Baudrillard says that our author is, unlike him, “very interested in strategic vicissitudes.” I would still maintain that this is not happening in his writings displaying an “anti-humanistic” streamlining of social avatars in non-descript geographical boundaries, chronologies, agents in the subject, object positions, etc. It is as though we had entered a virtualized, post-political landscape of indefinite timespaces. The general climate is one of “conspiracy theory,” for lack of a better word, think of the popular series American television series of the “X Files,” of grand institutional control and invisible discipline and punish (the Pentagon, the media conglomerate). If his platform of observation is French, this is a stand-in for European, wtihin the centrality of the West, yet this is no civilizational accomplishment, but instead “First World,” technological emporium, monopolized by big-institutional US-dominated, industrial-military complex, at least since the 1950s (Second and Third Worlds find occasional reference but of little substance, and perhaps our author would say that this task is for ours to put on the discussion table). Perhaps this impoverished area-studies geography of his knowledge manufacture can invite open criticism. Yet we must all remember that his Europe is no more “cultured, or more “humanistic” or benign, and certainly not more technologically advanced against a background that is “apocalypse now.” Virilian Europe appears to be the post-WWII modernization high point of creation and destruction understood in the Heideggerian terms as previously quoted minus the political synthesis endorsed by the German thinker. There is a diffusionist modernization-theory trajectory assumed here accordingly, and perhaps he would say there is no other way to present things pedagogically, but only initially. His abstract writing conveys an apparently ineluctable modality of increasing global/ized being going the catastrophic trajectory of an apparently unstoppble death drive. This history of the world is more arresting and stronger than it seems “sucking” it (world and history) in with no apparent transcendence out of technological domination. The message: there is something substantial, mutational and arresting, existentially disorienting and genuinely troubling about the world  of computer science inside capitalist market forces, already unmistakably undermining, to name but one dimension, what passes as university knowledge[11]. And yet the adoption of an anti-technical position is not an option. We already inhabit an increasing fragmentation of knowledge practices pressurized by an instantaneity of transmission and perception that is not contained by the conventional divisions of the natural, social sciences and the liberal arts instituted at least in the US in the 1950s. There is something of a reconfiguration of disciplines, we appear to be situated in a kind of “mash-up” of interdisciplinarity with no grounds or narrative and with receding historical, social frames. This is a slow demise with no official ceremonies against the  thinning-out background of big frames of intelligibility fostered by digital technicity with its proliferation of minor discourses (or Babel babble). But sheer volumes of textual language yield to the dominance of audiovisuality. No more master codes, it seems. No more vital cores either, it seems. There is the arrested feeling that no one can inhabit this dematerialization permanently, that this existentialism is not sustainable without some kind of psychic damage. Or are we going for some psychic mutation as well? How to go on without meaningful points of sustainable symbolic referentiality? And yet this is our incresing virtual circumstance. This is where we are: thetic language-identity-container becomes non-thetic flow of identity play seemingly with no limits or boundaries. Is it a total Baroque illusion with no resolutions? The Baroque inspiration does not exist in Virilio but it does exist in thinkers such as Baudrillard, critics such as Neocalabrase and Buci-Glucksmann and 20th century artists. So perhaps there is something worth paying attention to in this saturation of signs, of ornamental excess. Mind you: Virilio is no “conservative” thinker who wants to hold on to some good past that may well resist such onslaught. Quite the opposite: this is a future-oriented disposition on “speed,” one of his favorite concepts, going fast to some catastrophic nowhere. A major force is needed to divert, let alone stop this historical trajectory. There is no (imaginary) alternative landscape in any of the Virilian texts, although one can say that the impulse is latent there, except some occasional minimalism crossing across the blurry demarcation line between technocriticicism and technocratism (the assumption of an occasional prophetic quality is perhaps what keeps the criticism uncivil and unbecoming to any one establishtment). His is still a technocentric world fixated on increasingly sophisticated destruction capabilities and readers will have to deal with this desolate vision in relation to social and thought control. Virilian parataxis builds connections between the monoatheism of an eccentric discrimination of a Global Brain (89), a kind of Alpha 60 in Godard’s Alphaville (1965), the ecological desertification of planet earth (129), corresponding to the imperial doing of putting desert (or barbarism) beyond its borders, but also between the stoic ideal of nothingness in the person of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Franciscan ideal of monastic minimalism (130). There is therefore the insinuation of a desire of stoic, minimalist mood in this rich mode of of semiotic saturation of various timespaces speeding towards a suicidal postmodernity. Virilio accuses the modern sciences of nihilism and here this is no Nietzchean praise. How to inhabit the Virilian house of being? How to get out? With or without intellectualist, discursive prejudices, how do we seek refuge in the apparent homelessness of this lucidity? Do we see any limits to this account that presents a limitless world of technicity modernizing itself in virtual / digital cultural modalities? Will mash-up interdisciplinarity do in furthering alternative visions? An affirmative answer is nowhere to be seen in University of Disaster with the primary focus on the natural sciences. Virilio’s modulated emotionality conveys no fear about the crumbling of the houses of knowledge already under occupation by commercialization and bureaucratization (slow-motion statism of national universities on the European side of the Atlantic and more nimble, unstable short-term, corporate privatization on the American side). Seemingly coming from nowhere, his occasional prophetic voice calls for the radical reform of the (Western-model) University in toto with no ethnographies or blueprints on either side of the Atlantic. His writing is not academic in the conventional sense of sticking quietly to one disciplinary mode while keeping the circle of social survivability intact. Recreating a Cornel Wester’s George-Clintonesque line: our author does not want to “de-odorize the funk.” Let it all hang out! No fig leaves covering the magnificence of old knowledge that leads to “disaster”! Leave the celebrations to the administrators and managers in their controlled environmnets. There is a bit of a “retro” look in Virilio –a bit of a Godardesque 1960s feeling if you wish– in the critical return to the moment of the creation of the nuclear bomb (the Manhattan project) within the context of WWII, fifty years ago. This dramatic success in the natural sciences, so the argument goes, produces the lacks phenomenological conscience. There is an “incredible ethical and philosophhical deficit” (118), and the connection is direct with the Madrid philosopher[12]. Hence Virilio repeats the sense of alarm in relation to the “dangerous (false) securities of the European culture in a historical moment [this is in 1933] of the irruption of barbarism in the world” (1933). Why is Virilio insisting in 2007 on this disastrous science around the  middle of the 20th century? Is this a historical analogy of the future ahead of us? Virilio’s epigrammatic writing does not answer in straight-forward fashion, as though denunciation could only advance obliquely in the double lack of conscience and faithful narratives.



The supremacy of the audiovisual on the screen over the written word spells disaster for an idea of the university that has passed down to us since the year 1000. And it is easy to see how a statement of this magnitude is easier said than processed. The critical vision is that we inhabit the crisis of the foundations of knowledge structures, and indifference and inertia may only keep the university going strong with increasing irrelevance (Harootunian has spoken forcefully of this automatic pilot implemented in Area Studies with special focus on Asia Studies, mutatis mutandis…). Or is it unintelligent to try to maintain a kind of transcendental institution that wants to cover a big, if not universal picture, as opposed to privatized commodifications away from civic commonalities? The substance of ethics: communal ties. Yet of what kind? There is the mounting feeling that digitality / virtuality, as one modality of technicity, reconfigures dramatically social ties, perhaps we can go as far as use the more intense vocabulary of violation and violence[13]. Where is the vigorous interrogation of these social mechanisms taking place, done comparatively with visions of other social models? The future ahead may go in the direction of monadic nomadism, gathering quickly and dispersing one click away suspending and rearticulating notions of community, belonging, attachment, perhaps following modalities such as facebok. Virilio makes you stare at the possibility of the dematerialization of (emotional, intellectual) attachments, the virtualization of a sustainable geographical proximity or even the logic of linearity. What if prepositions and deictis become obsolete in a post-spatial, post-chronological exchange ruled by the supremely immanent here-and-now against receding, obsolete “classic” backgrounds? Marc Augé, a second French anthropologist, has spoken of the tremendous silence surrounding not only the discipline of anthropology, but of knowledge production in general. I would say we inhabit thick silence about the self-justification, the  desirable sustainability, the apparent pragmatic “groundlessness” of our knowledge endeavors. Virilio is one of the few thinkers who does not hesitate to speak of the emergene of cretinism and obscurantism in our global societies (34), posed against “the Greco-Latin origins of our differetn branches of knowledge” (possessives and deictics make explicit Virilian’s  authorial positionality allowing for a Cassandra disposition). We appear to inhabit a sustained disbelief in the power of reason to deliver what we need to get us out of troubles. It is not clear whether Virilio is presenting the Spanish Baroque author Baltasar Gracián suggesting “divination” as valid historical alternative to the, for him,  wrongful, external, total and disastrous (false) objective viewpoint of the natural sciences exemplified by the English physicist Hawking (more about this soon). But there is something of a skepticism in the powers of reason alone, not to mention the disentanglemetns from the bureaucratic pressures of institutional reason mentioned earlier. Digitiality reinforces a-literacy, let us have the general statement as such,  and the possibility of the reversal is the typicl claim for the survival of the humanities (the desirability of rhetorical skills in argumentative, discourse production, conventionally in relation to the invigoration of a democratic society). Virilio speaks of the unnerving fracture of the conscious and unconscious divide in the brain of each of us (this is a nice port of entry for ideological critiques such as Zizek). And individual volition could only go so far: there is a willful “rendition” of individual responsibility in the finding of knowledge items: Google does the searching for you, Wikipedia does the  “disambiguation” for you, and the GPS in your car will tell you where to go irrespetive of toponyms, road signs, social interactions. I am aware that I am taking each one of these technologies to a perhaps silly extreme to prove the point of the transformation of a certain withdrawal from the Cartesian cogito, the marker of the liberal subject still in our age of increasing de-individualized standardization. But where can this type of inquisitive thinking take place when universities are barely maintaining a differential space that will allow them to generate a critical interrogation of panoramic visions of their societies? Are the universities strong points of reference for global society out there? Do we seek knowledge there when we need it in life avatars? Do we seek ethical ties there? How vigorous is their intercourse in increasingly fractured timespaces with their own national societies, let alone international settings? We appear to be caught in between two undesirables: the European model and the American model. Could we think of the latter as increasingly privatized spaces allowing for a horizontal socialization occupying a certain space along hierarchical structures in an increasingly unequal society? I remember the comment by Richard Rorty that the University years were, simply put, socialization for most students before the “real” life of the workplace, now in a funk, takes them elsewhere for good. Now, two nagging questions: socialization of what kind? And what for? If this is so, knowledge is exposure to cultural artefacts, familiarity with codes of communication and access to social circles in specific spaces alongside class differentials. This is Fukujama’s (liberal) end of history of a thoroughly institutionalized and privatized society of monads engaging with each other “technically” and quickly against no other, more substantial background different from the immediate institutionality (there is the telling use of “technically speaking” in informal American language, meaning “precisely” as though technicity was the sole horizon of meaningfulness, well… precisely). Hence, the “proper” behavior for such as short time is the proper faith of the (cynical) “customer who is always right” (cynical, in the romance-language sense of the word, not in the conventional American English sense either), never wanting of course to intersect publicly with other settings that could do serious damage to the credibility of such immediate institutional circumstance, at least for the time of the affiliation. We are talking the naturalization of deterrence, domestication and silencing of “noise.” Virilio emphasizes precisely this mechanism also in relation to university settings, increasingly isomorphic within privatized, commercialized timespaces, mostly in the aforementioned platform of the transatlantic First World. Virilio speaks of the deterrence of reality and of knowledge –of the disruptive reality of new knowledge– in University timespaces undergoing the same accelerated, commodified and privatized convulsions. Are we misguided in clinging to a transcendentalism or universalism of the university –believing in the etymology so to speak—in another time and place cutting through other, more limited instittutional interests? Isn’t this “humanist” wrongdoing in the age of the normality of anti-foundational post-structuralism, post-1980s, coinciding with no traumas with official, institutional liberalism, at least inside diminished “humanities” sectors of the education platform? Isn’t a certain (liberal) idea of the intellectual attached to this transcendental notion of a vast social exegesis that does not genuinely contemplate tugs of political war among different groups? Isn’t the logical conclusion in the current predicament the substitution of the intellectual figure for the technical expert, and the practitioner or the self-styled pragmatist docilely within the immediate, institutional horizon of pragmatism (again, “intellectual” is not a word one uses publicly in the US, it is loaded with pejorative connotations, which is eloquent testimony of some of the things rendered by critical US sociology, of the Richard Hofstadter and David Riesman type)?[14] Now, one has to pause here with no quick follow-ups.  Why would anyone threaten a specific timespace of interaction when the profit of cultural capital may be round the corner, may be at risk? Using Kuhnian language, why would anyone risk a paradigm shift, the production of crisis, anomaly, disruption, “noise,” inside burocratized, commodified spaces…? Unless there are ways in and out combining various institutionalized timespaces. Perhaps “freedom” is no more no less than the desirable, incremental “reality-simulacrum” play among institutions. Any exteriorities out there? Or do we give up such type of critical thinking altogether?



Now, conventional users, customers and practitioners in their virtual / digitial fields of immanence will not see Virilio’s evaluation coming: we inhabit a disastrous world in our own lack of conscience (suspension of cause, effect, totality, etc.), and he waits for the possibility of termination, liquidation or “catastrophe” as a sign of regeneration of a centuries-long process of degradation. Let us think of intellectual health as a williful plasticity and openness to lucid metamorphosis. What he means by the use of disaster is, I think, the welcome of the interruption of the unexpected (or chance operations) and of the production of malfunction in timespaces predicated upon the ideal of functionality and efficiency (think of smooth bureaucratic and managerial everydayness, also near your modest humanistic houses of “minor” knowledge production). Without presenting a blueprint, our author wishes a new radical transformation of the status quo. Virilio’s idea of (healthy) knowledge is then close to this idea of the beneficial “out of the blue” irruption that, quite uninvited, challenges oppressive, functional, immanent orthodoxy (technicity can be one of these orthodox names, market liberalism, another). Somehow our author does not want to let go of the theoretical possibility of something outside totalitarian technicity. He wants to maintain the mere idea of a beyond, transcendence not fully captutred by institutionalization processes. Here, there is only the “modern” immanence of the “here-and-now” that zooms in and out at the blink of the eye morphing one image (un-) consciously to the next and off to the next screen increasingly following a fast pace. Virilio wants us to embrace the possibility of deepening the disaster. Think of disaster as short circuit that kicks in reflective language in the (momentary) shutting down of the machine built in with planned obsolescence and allowing the theoretical possibility of comprehension of complex phenomena intellectually, emotionally. Or think of a blackout. Even “terrorism” as the upset of the status quo, totem and taboo, that dares not speak its systemic name, at least conventionally in the US (capitalism). This is our “hell.” Or is this an unacceptable exaggeration you –my dear reader– are not willing to look into?



Virilio provides a summary critique of the current stage of the sciences without a conscience. In The University of Disaster, there is no conventional tripartite division of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The last ones are the only ones that take his critical attention and they only ones that matter, apparently. They represent the avant-garde of knowledge in the 20th century streamlining into the mechanical arts of cybernetics with the latest development of virtuality / digitality, subverting the knowledge sructures that once were there. It does not appear exaggerated to speak of a revolution of forms of social relaations with strong content-mutational impact following the McLuhanite dictum, the medium is the message (we can perhaps think of Virilio as a more conspiratorial and “mystical” European contemporary continuation of McLuhan). The digital dematerialization of knowledge content establishes some kind of uchronic atopia with no orthodoxies or fixed points, which is celebrated enthusiastically by some. The extreme logic of modernization culminates, according to Virilio, with the atomic bomb discovery shortened by the Manhattan project. The fission of the atom epitomizes the tremendous succcess of the natural sciences and its gnoseological amputation and misery: the “disaster” of unprecedented destruction potential, upending tremendous intellectual creativity so to speak, that is still with us. What knowledge could step into this arena and take this cognitive situation elsewhere? In the ruin of the sciences, Virilio leans on the Chilean cognitivist Francisco Varela’s suggestion to return to the phenomenology of the sciences. In typical Virilian fashion, the suggestion is there for others to flesh out. By that I think he means the refocusing on the recuperation of the situated field of vital experience, the retrieval of “subjectivity” into knowledge-production situations, that cannot do without accounting for origins, reasons, objectives and collective well-being. There is willful impulse towards the vision of totality, also of the social body, that one may call “post-political,” with some hesitation (Baudrillard speaks of “trans-political” in relation to Virilio). Virilio makes this phenomenological move while keeping Varela underdeveloped against the hermeneutic desire for an external standpoint of total conquest which he puts side by side the English physicist Stephen Hawking. This is personification of the extreme logic of modernization (pp. 97, 115, 123, 130, 148), parallel with, if not identical to the totalitarian logic of destruction and domination epitomized by Nazism (I am not aware of Virilio’s engagement with the Heideggerian pronouncement aforementioned, regretably so). This is the extremity of modern technology that Virilio presents to the readers. This is the catastrophic teleology of technicity and we now live in the unresolved aftermath of that, still with no epistemic alternatives, at least according to our main author (Christopher Simpson has written of cycles of toleration of genocidal measures among those who will profit from them). Side by side the Nazi rocket developer employed after the war by NASA, Wernher von Braun (86-7), Virilio seeks inspiration in the figure of the theologian assassinated by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, always in a nutshell presentation against the immediate “hellish” history of the last decades, difficult if not impossible to inhabit. “Theology” is this field of knowledge that emerges, only in extremis, as though in another tongue in impossible situations?, in the midst of the technological lack of conscience (a second name in this alliance of Christian theology and natural sciences along the Franco-German divide could be that of Theilard de Chardin, not included in The Universityo of Disaster, Virilio could be the “postmodernity” of both McLuhan and de Chardin).



The proximity between a total (natural) science personified by Hawking, side by side the Google search engine, the increasing Sixth virtual continent typified by the device of Google Earth (23-6, 67, 70), a kind of Godard-like, external totalitarian computer, Alpha 60 for the contemporary Lemmy Cautions, is with the Nazi political formulation of this total modernity causing unprecedented destruction. Yet this horizon is not put out there in the hands of others, but in here at the empty core of the university of disaster. In this precise sense Virilio is engaging in the critical interrogation of the assumptions underpinning technical knowledge, what Ortega called “tecnicismo.” What both authors care about is the intellectual foundation of “technicity:” the Virilian denunciation is clear in the middle of the book and leaves no one untouched (no hypocritical blaming of outside or external societies). Virilio’s strong point is to bring this legacy home: we –(post)modern individuals—inhabit this modernization path and the uncomfortable association of the war knowledge and war technology dominates our global reality. The (post-)modern university of Western disaster is embedded in the texture of the military-industrial complex, as the Eisenhower rubric has it, and the proliferation of separate fields of knowledge is not the way to go. The desire is here after the unity of total knowledge, a sort of “human-species standpoint” advocated by Francesco Varela and Humberto Maturana, and specialists in the natural sciences will be better equipper to follow this line of inquiry, critically. The critique is of the blinders of the little donkies caught up in the disciplinary narcissism of small differences set up in their respective institutionalities, and missing out on the big picture of contemporary avatars, and one wonders how long affording this disrelationship. This is the denunciatory core of this arresting text displaying moments of apocalyptic, lyrical, dissident creativity with precious little warmth. Any intelletual ways out? Any emotional release or outlet? Besides the Chilean cognitivist Francisco Varela (47, 77, 87, 118, 119, 134), there is another parallel: the predilection for Vladimir Jankélévitch within the phenomenological tradition of Merleau-Ponty (Virilio studied with Merleau-Ponty). This is again put against the bad model or normality personified by Allan Kostelecky, “British physicist by trade, working in the US,” “mere” constructionist seeking the great theoretical unit following the fidelity of the small sensation in laboratory experimentation (47). So, here there is a bit, a pedagogic trick?, of a “Latin” imputation of a dangerous science of Anglo-German extraction, technocratic-positivist with a repudiation for big questions, let us say business-culture pragmatism versus a more wholistic, emotion-escorted historically conscious “phenomenology,” that does not have to be stretched along ethnic lines too much. Career-center individuals will advise new generations to “modulate emotion” in institutional settings, to keep emotion apart from strategizing and networking, how to make business decisions away from emotional investment and they will not hesitate to declare, also about themselves, that Americans do not do “existentialism” very well.



Yet there is more: an eccentric excess or intrusive parallel to what passes as knowledge. Virilio “contaminates” his prose with Old Testament biblical sources in the early Christian tradition historically in the shadow of the Roman Empire, the Book of Psalms,  in particular in the chapter “The University of Disaster,” side by side contemporary figures such as the “theologian and martyr of the Blietzkrieg” Dietrich Bonhoffer (123). This is an exceedingly rich timespace that is acting upon the aftermath of WWII, the direct history that matters for Virilio, also the beginning of his own biographical history.



Stephen Hawking shares the space with Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658), and the universalist Christian tradition shares the (Baroque) stage with the universalism of the natural sciences culminating in the technological achievement of the atomic bomb by the figure of Julius Robert Oppenheimer (118), and this rich diachronicity of disparate sources is what someone like McLuhan will not be interested in doing. The medium of virtuality / digitality appear to expand (implode?) any kind of content, theoretically presented with no apparent limits. We are in this “university” of “disaster” of increasing inability to discriminate or differentiate among timespaces with no conscience beyond the immediate, narrow, strategic, short-term interests of individualism framed by the horizon of institutionality. Virilio presents the big picture of “big science” following geopolitical interests with fatal consequences for the majority of the inhabitants of the planet (the planetary dimension and the world wide web are not coterminous entities yet). Virilio does not let go of diachronicity. Like Ortega, he juxtaposes the Oppenheimer-led Manhattan Project and the Renaissance figure of Galileo, early representative of the  power / knowledge of the Western university, a brilliant mind who volunteered his telescopic knowledge for the wars of Venice (pp. 21, 120, 127)[15]. Destruction, intimately in the birth moments of tremendous intellecual creativity and a historical incrementalism in the last four centuries:



This is where the paradoxical project of radically reforming the university comes in, using as an excuse the failure of the growing success of BIG SCIENCE. It would no longer be a mater of some scientific luminary’s litany of repentance, or of a series of Nobels in Physics surrounded by a few Peace Nobels. It would mean official inauguration of this UNIVERSITY OF DISASTER, which would constitute the indispensable MEA CULPA now essential to the credibility of a knowledge in the throes of becoming completely suicidal (capital letters included in the original, 119).



The nomothetic or universalizing impulse of the natural sciences bears it away as the strongest epistemic force apparently, over the ideographic, culturally diverse or differential disposition of the human sciences, with the social sciences dangling unevenly in between (the nomothetic-idiographic distinction comes from Wallerstein). What passes as “knowledge” comes from the natural sciences, mostly physics and biotechnology streamlining itself in nanotechnology, and nothing else in the other sciences catches Virilio’s interest, at least in this text with no discernible narrative and no main characters to follow around an easy plot (my own account is trying to put together a series of quotes in separate environments, the characters being eclectic, the sources disparate, and always introduced in nutshell, parable-like manner). Hence, Virilio’s proposal is for a science of accidents, an “accidentology,” that does not conform to the predictabilities of any big frame of knowledge production at least as currently existing. “Theology” is here the expansive knowledge that vindicates conscience emerging influenced by, but not entirely subservient to technocentrism (a big issue would be what the fullness or satisfactoriness against the empty core of modern technology might have been for Ortega, what might be for Virilio, a second effort at a synthetic relationship to the essence of technicity for Heidegger?). “Theological knowledge” is the tradition invoked going along the achievements of Galileo circling around the “light of the possible extermination of all critical awareness” (21). The 20th century represents for our main author the apotheosis of this “blinding light.” Hence, Virilio speaks of the generalized confusion of intellectual endeavors, feelings and belongings as thoroughly emblematic of our predicament, a certain framelessness of intellectual life that the digital world exacerbates. This genuine epistemological and emotional disorientation is the collective reality at least since WWII. There are no retreats to a better past that wasn’t and there are lessons still to be learned from the immediate and not so immediate past (biographically, Virilio experiences the trauma of WWII in Nantes, The Paul Virilio Reader, p. 11, 15; yet his vision of modern science inside an expansive conception of life has to contemplate larger dimensions). And this impulse towards the excesssive dimension of any one individuality: the good of a collective dimension may not be immediately intelligible to the nomadic nomads, the Lemmy Cautions of today, with no easy ethical ties in the digital circumstance. In texts that are emotionally neutral, fear and panic are however alluded to as the dominant emotions manufactured in synchronic, standard fashion. It sounds manipulative and totalitarian, almost agoraphobic and cospiratorial with strong Huxleyan and Orwellian overtones. This is the dominant emotional modulation of Virilio’s “transpolitical” vision. Yet, the interrogation –that I may still wish to call philosophical—still wishes to want to hold on to mindfulnes of our best efforts how to learn to, using Heideggerian language, meditate, strive, shape and work, entreat and thank. Intellectual life must have to do with the maintenance of interrogations with no easy answers, comfortable forms, soothing content, with or without the encroachments of institutional-bureaucratic conditions, come what may[16].



In the Manner of a Conclusion.

This article began with genuine skepticism as to what the relative amorphous, “minor” body of university knowledge called the “humanities,” or most commonly, at least in the US, the liberal arts, might do in the contemporary situation of knowledge production, other than ornamentalism. Now, university knowledge production is in a genuine crisis of self-justification, dwelling in “groundlessness” let us say in Heideggerian fashion, whether institutions wish to come to terms with such crisis in public using vigorous discourse is another matter altogether. The big frame here has been the military-industrial complex of US supremacy, and the “not-for-profit” social relations of class access embedded in a capitalist society with zero-tolerance for theoretical alternatives to the way things are. Perhaps this is a good an opportunity as any for “minor” disciplines to continue pushing existing states of uncertainty, since they have nothing to lose that they have not already lost in the vicinity of the serious interrogation of what passes as “knowledge” and “education” in our increasingly global circumstances. How “Spanish and Spanish American Studies” as the allocated field of area-studies knowledge will play is anyone’s guess and there are not many occasions for celebration that I can see in the immediate past, say since 1970s, which is the “classic” background period of such studies in the immediate American circumstance. Hence, the thing is how to remain belligerent with the repressive toleration of the American-University-based humanities that do not know themselves inside the larger institutional structures undergoing convulsions, also inside a convulsive society that has not learned to relate epistemically to the world at large in terms other than belligerence.  Will other settings do better?



In light of the previous Virilian rendition, it is fair to state our current predicament is one of inhumanities within conventional disciplinary configuration mash-up and also one of inhumanity. And yet one has to politicize both “negative” terms in relation to local intensities and global designs never believing that the immediate institutional circumstance is the be-all and end-all of social totality. Virilio helps us say that we inhabit an environment of deterrence of knowledge production, that anti-intellectualism is not “out there” with the outsiders inside and outside American society but well inside “here” in processes such as bureaucratization and mercantilization of social relations inside houses of higher learning. It is intellectualist and discursive prejudice to believe that the most articulate and most intelligent will honestly bear it away: but do we want to let go of it, publicly? Now, the big picture of the official policy of Cold War containment may find parallels inside the deterrence implemented largely by university settings with glorious few exceptions. Or perhaps we are moving towards silence over international avatars (preemptive war, rendition, illiberal illegality of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib) making their way into everyday relations around pedagogy and scholarship. Where are the dissident voices emerging from universities in relation to big events or the small ones in the tea-cups of university disciplines offered out there to the hermeneutic appetite of customers and users? Are we blinded yet by the “light of the possible extermination of all critical awareness”? Don’t we already inhabit the functional and cynical nihilism of the current system that dares not speak its proper name in public, while manufacturing desertification of radically alternative possibilities, while playing the vuvuzelas of cultural diversity?  “Spanish / Hispanic” positions are among these diversities –always in relation to stronger uniformities– and one must not hesitate any longer to come out and say how profoundly unsatisfactory the current predicament is from a political, social and historical standpoint, but also intellectual and emotional. And this expression of intellectual discontent knows full well that the policy of containment of minority / diversity positions is not going to change any time soon, particularly now that the “center” of institutional life inside imperial nations, appears empty of content, with no convincing, coherent narrative. “Language no longer says anything, as our dramatits would have it” (106): So here we are, at least according to Virilio, in the midst of disciplinary fission, with the incresing domination of the audiovisual, handling disincentives to knowledge production, beset by fear and ignorance, right at the core of institutions self-appointed “liberal” against “illiberal others,” sinning by omission and lacking  sustainable frames of historical intelligibility in relation to their own historical history, let alone others. Virilio takes it further: big frames of intelligibility (historicity) are challenged by modern technical science (technicity in Heideggeresque) and the final thesis may be repeated now: this is the political unconscious of Americanness as the “exceptional culture,” somewhat separate from all others, while being the recipient of most migratory flows, best giving body to the logic of modernity, and perhaps nothing but modernity. Is this so? It appears to be so in relation to the severity of the loosening of social bonds mentioned earlier in relation to Hobsbawn and Anderson. Yet, who can doubt that this technological determinism is the de facto if not de iure collective, political unconscious of most (native) Americans conventionally schoold in America in the face of the fast disentangle of time-honored social ties? Is Americanism the fundamental ideology of this extremism of technicity that holds sway to the system the most fundamentally when the narratival rationale and historical sensibility are at their most fragile, in the manner of the trapped characters in Buñuel’s Angel Exterminador? The digital culture exacerbates this monadic nomadism made structural away from inherited textures of ethical life. Does this virtualization of social relations feel like a necessary, drastic liberation from the dusty conventionalities of old forms? No more atavisms of any kind, finally? Feelings of exhilaration? Not yet, particularly in the vicinity of our author.



In the current dysfunctionality of big narratives, Virilio’s aphoristic thinking forces us to take a look at the determinations of intellectual life making do inside bureaucratic-privatized houses of higher learning. Any outsides? But this is not only an intellectual problem, although it is a Cassandra-like intellectual presenting a condemnation in toto. Where is he looking from in putting together his critique of conventional disciplinary arrangements? What is his observation platform? I have spoken of the technological centrality, or determinism, of his vision. And yet there is a clear sense that digitality / virtuality is really not –and cannot possibly be– the vital core of his preoccupations. There’s got to be something else. And this is the space occupied by biblical quotes. Should we call this space “theological”? Do we endorse it, embrace it against his desert landscape of the catastrophe of modern technology? There is no throroughness or systematization in The University of Disaster, or if any of the other texts consulted. The condemnatory disposition is unambiguous in relation to the cosubstantial violence implemented by the technicity of self-appointed liberal societies. This is the hegemonic undersanding of “modernity,” at least in the U.S., that is, no longer linked to the history of the West, or history of civilizations, or the biography of the nation-state, but mostly, and perhaps mostly unconciously to the latest technology. And the latest technology presents itself informally, light-hearted, value-free and politically unencumbered and neutral, good to use, against all “fundamenalisms.” It is high time therefore to confront the regimentations of liberal societies in relation to subject formations, but also to its own knowledge-production mechanisms, instead of throwing undesiderata out there to some phantasmatic area-studies exteriority, which is the everyday phantasmatic xenophobia that gives this country its bad name, and rightly so (the strong insinuation has been to try to see how the big picture of geopolitics appertaining to the imperial nation finds its way, never directly or explicitly mind you, into area-studies sections in regular university offerings in fundamental agreement of goals and objectives for the most part). Virilian criticism is mostly operative indoors, accordingly, inside the dominant transatlantic platform of the First World, and the previous pages have tried to put together the formatting of his eclecticism. His axiology has been accounted for in relation to its interdisciplinary format that does not respect conventional tripartite faculty divisions (natural and social sciences and liberal studies). His has been, at least in The University of Disaster, a preeminent concern with the successses, oblivions and disasters of the natural sciences, that are again not “out there,” but “in here.” How does he break free? Or does he? There is the occasional assumption of the voice of the prophets coming out of the book of Psalm, as though our author could not possibly find any other way out of these entanglements. His style is anti-biographical,  almost entirely impersonal and mood-neutral, trans-individual, as though he was spared from the extremism of planetary catastrophe (managers and practitioners’ lack of response with this type of content is one of the conventional mechanisms of institutional deterrence). It has been said that his condemnations “return” to the lack of phenomenological conscience side by side the atomic-bomb moment of the end of WWII, and here there is no perceptible sense of great victory, as though he had this dystopian situation ahead of us, which is certainly unnerving to say the least[17].




It has been Baudrillard who has made some criticisms of Virilio in relation to the theme of the compressed acceleration of timespaces. It has to do with the push to the extremes:

Virilio’s calculation is to push the military to a kind of extreme absolute power, which can ultimately cause its own downfall, place it before the judgment of God and absorb it into the society it destroys. Virilio carries out this calculation with such an identification or obsession that I can only credit him at times with a powerful sense of irony: the system devours its own principle of reality, inflates its own empty forms until it reaches an absolute and its own ironic destiny of reversal. I myself am not so interested in military hardware, but in software. It’s the form of his idea that strikes me as valid[18].

Baudrillard acknowledges sharing the “scenario of deterrence” with Virilio (ibidem, p. 105), who is interested in strategic vicissitudes (p. 105), unlike Baudrillard’s lack of patience for them. For the author of the slippage of reality into simulacra, Virilio moves between the real and the mythical, the metaphorical and the reality of the atomic bomb and of nuclear apocalypse: is this a Baroque game of distorting mirrors of reality and appearance with no final solution[19]? There is, I feel, less play in Virilio’s predilection for the phenomenologically inspired natural sciences a la Varela and Maturana, and none of it in relation to Nazi blietzkrieg of extreme modernization logic. Virilio quotes from those assassinated by the Nazis. The type of irony alluded to by Baudrillard appears more to be his own play of keeping things at a distance. Virilio’s fantasies are more “obsessively” conspiratorial and these, in the light of Zizek’s previous comments, are more difficult to shake off.


We inhabit a tremendously difficult mutational moment, not only in the US currently in the middle of vast transformations that may largely speaking put this imperial national formation as another country among others, no more no less and this is the trauma that authors such as Wallerstein and others are already putting on the table. Yet, this is the kind of “un-American thinking” that will not be easily get to circulate inside university settings and outside on the commercial streets. What about the circulation of larger vistas provided by Virilio, Wallerstein, Ortega, Heidegger, Baudrillard if not in reduced academic circles? Virilio’s summary periodizations tend to be diffusionist and conventionally Eurocentric, for example when he serializes the intimate cohabitation of corrupt power –there is no intimation of what good political power will be– with universalizing technologies of communication from the Renaissance until now. He begins with the dawn of the printing press, continues with the secret papers in the moment of the Enlightenment, reaches  The New York Times with its own receiving stations for transatlantic communication, the “greatest news machine at the beginning of the century,” and lands in the 20th century after 1914, with the mass observation of the cinematography, the first multiplex news transmission, followed by the arrival of television in 1948 as a means of civil deterrence vis-a-vis the nuclear deterrence (Desert Screen, pp. 42-3). His nutshell or abbreviated historicity is technologically determined, technicity winning the historical game, so to speak, but our author does not want to go easy into that “night.” He opens up historical vistas in one or two paragraphs, only to close them down with an ominious sign towards contemporaneity. Virilio’s real interest is in the 19th and 20th centuries with the eyes wide open on the European-American platform of observation and control.  One can say, however, that despite moving inside the conventional Great-Power-format of geopolitical arrangement of big planetary arrangements, he does not want to remain docile there. He proposes a big-scale mutation towards what he calls the “metropolitics of globalization… [taking over] the geopolitics of [strong] nations, just as the latter once took over from the city-state of the antique origins of politics.” Hence, his vision of a new global map includes “a progressive loss of the geopolitics of our origins in favor of a metropolitics that is fundamentally crepuscular” (City of Panic, pp. 15, 16). This is a vision of an amorphous or mass society in big urban concentrations comparable to visions of the multitude by recent Italian thinkers (Virno, Negri, Agamben) against past imperial and national frames. Theres is a certain suspension of frames of collective referentiality that could correspond with the framelessness of digitality / virtuality. The big picture is quintessential Virilian, also in the “smuggle” of the observation point that appears to do entirely away with the very notion of perspectivism or (social) positionality (isn’t this a certain “return” of the disembodied, trascendentalist Cartesian cogito?). And yet, Virilio’s semantic field conveys a mood that is not expansive, or celebratory, but cautious, circumspect. This type of dismantling of a certain Euro-American normality, historical negative model if you wish may be then reappraised. We appear to be moving away from imperial Great-Power nation-state frame of official meaningfulness with identifiable centers of power / knowledge to a  more diffuse, chaotic, abstract megalopolis network (were the Twin Towers a strong point of reference for New York?, is New York the multilingual, multicultural commercial center of the US?, where is the center in New York?, how rapid its constructions and destructions?, how easy to reckon with its historical dimensions?, etc.). The main thesis of The University of Disaster is the “blinding light, brighter than a thousand suns, of the possible extermination of all critical awareness” (21), in relation to the paradoxical creativity exhibited of the natural sciences in the 20th century. The accusation is that of lack of conscience in dealing with modern technical knowledge. Could the other sciences do anything worthy of critical attention? Ominous silence in The Universityo of Disaster.Virilio occupies this twilight zone while signaling the whole disincentive tissue of deterrence and of anti-intellectualism of not wanting to know, of not wanting dissident, seductively foreign knowledge of consequence right there, or here, in the houses officially devoted to education and knowledge production.

Do we go back reactively, conservatively to old forms of knowledge and sociability, or do we eagerly still embrace the modernist ethos of wanting the new forms, the newer the better? Is it possibly that the more supple and lighter, the (American) forms of social relations, the more conducive to unpredictable change –as opposed to older, slower, and more stable and more tradition-bound (European) forms? Ortega and Heidegger did not think so. American society does not appear to be interested in any kind of  “conservatism,” and this dynamism, also impermanence and ephemerality, eminently dismissive and forgetful of past forms, was labeled, ungrateful and barbarous by the Madrid philosopher[20]. Isn’t it true that academic institutions follow labor structurations and destructurations dictated by advanced capitalism, just like regular businesses, under the good name and banner of “mobility”? And who can doubt that these conditions of knowledge production find their way into the current ephemerality of cultures of scholarship agendas? Who will risk upsetting this “dynamism? I do not see Virilio making any final choice between the two seemingly isomorphic sides of the Atlantic, or within subsections, at least as far as the natural sciences and computer sciences are concerned. His level of engagement is with the intellectual foundations of the natural sciences, identical to Ortega’s focus in what he called “tecnicismo.” Virilio does not engage intellectually with varities of religious forms either, despite Christianity being, for him, the dominant point of reference. Nor does he do social-relations approaches to competing knowledge-production entities (his is a “trans-political,” or “post-political” approach, “conspiratorial” and perhaps unconvicing). His macro-vision does not provide alternatives to the “crepuscular” status quo except the occasional emergence of the prophetic voice speaking of other, drastic things to come. He does not intellectualize it. He welcomes it. Is this a “hole” to be welcomed in his otherwise unrelenting illusion-free critical analysis of the phenomenological mindlessness embedded in the supreme, natural sciences? Our author does not appear to need to be mindful of anthropological reconstructions, of the more or less desirable instances of everyday life on this or that side of the Atlantic, discriminating among richer or poorer articulations of historical sensibilities, lifestyle habits, ethnic affiliations, sympathies or solidarities, immagined communities of national belonging, immigration trajectories and good and bad behaviors, etc. He does not do indulge in cultural-diversity comparativism not finding it significant, intellectually, not even in communicational modalities. He refrains from stating his own preferences, typically demarcated by nationalities (the Italians do this, the French do that, etc.). In short: Virilio remains more monothetic than idiographic, if unconventionally so.  And his criticism suggests indisciplinary knowledge following the tradition of phenomenology suggested by Varela. His eclecticism also subverts conventional disciplinary divisions by opening up the “theological” language of prophecy inside the Christian tradition. What does it mean to invoke, and respectfully so, these old forms of religious intelligibility in the global space of supreme imminence of modern technicity and of the virtual and digital communication culture? Surely this bringing of theological knowledge inside structurally secular fields of knowledge is a provocation. And yet this religiosity does not appear in institutionalized form, nor with a long history. Where is it then coming from? Virilio does not seem to care about aesthetics much. He does not go “baroque” in the same way that Benjamin does with the German tragic drama against the age of mechanical reproduction. So what does it mean to invoke prophecy in the age of digital virtuality? Is Virilio after “nonsense,” perhaps in the same way Lemmy Caution was after poetry in interfacing with the global computer Alpha 60 in Alphaville? Could cyberspace informalities be a fundamental space for a new knowledge production, also of new forms of sociability emerging from the loosening of inherited forms of ethical life? Could ephemerality play to one’s advantage inside larger national-state frames of turbulent global capitalism, and of consumerist culture seemingly flattening out all fundamental resistances.

Our faulty representations of some immense communcational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely the whole world system of present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating, not so much in its own right, but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imagination to grasp –namely the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself [21].

There is mesmerization in Virilio. And it is against this grand landscape of an unimaginable, unthinkable network and of big institutions that the use of the Book of Psalms and St. Paul is a disconcerting move. Are these networks at our fingertips? Do we get to land intellectually, emotionally, easily in the big cities that the airplanes that we take pass pass by? What matrices of sustainable intelligibility at the street-level semiotic richness of the audiovisual consumer culture? Is Virilian “revelation” evidence of a failure of thetic, evaluative discourse that wishes to break free from an undesirable orthodoxy, tries to, but can’t, and is thus kept wanting and waiting? Is it a frustrated desire for fracture? Is it a convincing way out? Is it a denaturalization of capitalistic forms, increasingly digitized and virtualized? (and try to apply critical interrogation of the most current forms embedded in the dominant (American) political unconscious in public and private timespaces, inevitably informed by these forms and functions, and officially devoted to the pursuit of higher-education knowledge!). What kind of knowledge is this revelatory knowledge? At the end, I am still of two minds about this rhetorical move of his that “concludes” with a fifth, slim chapter called “Revelation.” Is this reference to the book of the apocalypse, a puzzling form of enlightenment or another form of obscurantism in the new age of digital technicity, repressively tolerated by liberal plurality of options of minor knowledge practices? An expansion of, or a retreat from the critical mind so far exercised? Is this a culmination or a failure? A form of refusal to compromise inside a critical vision that is “crepuscular” inside an uncompromising, if unacknowledged fundamentalism of digital, virtual technicity? Where does our axiology rest? Where does Virilio’s, fundamentally? But, what does conclusion mean in relation to some of the big themes outlined here: the meaning of education and knowledge in out immediate circumstance against other timespaces; the structural debilitation of the humanities in fields of general university education, particularly in the so-called “liberal” institutions, and the neutralization of all content, or belief-system (throwing the baby with the dirty bath water?); the historical need for structures of intelligibility and of feeling in moments of nomadism and monadism, (what are the points of referentiality in ‘twitter,’ ‘yahoo,’ ‘google’?); the confrontation between technicity and historicity; the confrontation between the One and the many; the prison-house of any one institutional house of being and the ideal possibility of greater play, or “freedom,” among several institutionalities; the discipline and indiscipline of knowledge production, and the negotiation of the jargons of legitimacy not only out there, but in here, the thetic and non-thetic dimensions of linguistic, discursive production in the age of the domination of the audiovisual, etc. It is not easy to see Virilio’s fundamental value system (or axiology) and this is my limitation, not his. Inside his vision of a global landscape of technocratic nihilism (value is nowhere) that he critiques, he does not hide his criticism of the lack of phenomenological foundation of the natural sciences, the crown jewels of knowledge production in the last century. But there is disaster here, and this imperial knowledge is catastrophically naked. This is the drastic negative evaluation that will not go away at the end. Without wanting easy pronouncements, what prevents our main author from endorsing a fully technocratic disposition? A form of knowledge and emotion –perhaps religiosity– still to come? Should we make much of the invocation of divination in the vicinity of the historical figure of Baltasar Gracián? Should we go further into this foreign horizon against the naturalities in the immediate circumstance, accordingly? How to deviate, turn around, if not upend the normal, naturalized state of capitalistic forms, the “formal Being,” ontologically speaking, in our increasingly digital “cultures” of rapid, virtual dentity interfaces? That is a big, final question that will stay with us in the end, once the computer has been turned off.

Oberlin College,  23/06/10


Any comments, suggestions, get in touch,


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[1] Ortega y Gasset, “Meditación de la Técnica,” Obras Completas. Tomo V. 6ª. Edición, [1947] 1964): p. 357. Translations mine unless otherwise indicated.


[2] The British dimension delivers the quaint split of Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, as (post-)imperial legacies of international relations. The American setting, always less eloquent and less historically tested, has no patience for such niceties appertaining to international relations and puts them typically subordinated to U.S. foreign policy formats. Think of the typical area studies coverage of a recognizable journal such as Foreign Affairs, for instance: mutatis mutandis the parallel in areas of study of the social sciences and the humanities with their literatures, cultures and languages. Think of the articulation of Spanish and Spanish American Studies inside King’s College. Think of the various institutes at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, for instance. The point is to see how these fields and areas may translate into representational academic coverage of nations or continents, but also of official relations between Britain and foreign governments. Typically, the Europe-US platform behaves historically as the “non-area” studies area, the neutral or default position, the same way “white” does in census forms, but perhaps increasingly less so. How does the sign “Spanish / Hispanic” fare in these institutional mutations of global and local typologies if not unevenly? Think of the separated section four of the Hispanic “origin” including subtypes, and the section five dealing with “race” not allowing the the “Hispanic” option, in the latest US 2010 Census Bureau. “Hispanic” –also “Latino”– occupies the typical “majority minority” status in the nation, but not inside the single-digit “diversity quotas” inside workplaces and most institutions of higher learning. There is no typification of “Hispanic” in the national census context of Great Britain. I am highlighting the correlation between geoopolitical divisions attending to the impact of power and influence, foreign relations and cultural missions of national governments, and the (dis-)relationship with branches of disciplinary knowledge established historially in public and private institutions. The US provides in general a more dynamic, also chaotic, model of mostly privatized correlation to trends and pressures based on the Cold War priorities, always with a thinner historical sensibility and declining comparative, international self-awareness. An excellent article is by Carl E. Pletsch about Cold War partitions of 1-2-3 worlds and the allocation of the sciences in the timeframe of 1950-1975. We live in the smithereens of such official thinking with no defining continuities and alternatives.

[3] Philosophy as a discipline is completely kaput in the US in its analytical Anglo closedness with only marginal opening to (continental) philosophy (read: European), a revelatory symptom is that those of a philosophical disposition have had to find refuge in fields of literature and culture, Duke University in the 1990s for example, Richard Rorty in the University of Virginia and Stanford University, among others. I am always interested in the institutional history of the different fields of knowledge, their origins, epistemic shifts, mutations, debilitations and demise.

[4] Perry Anderson, Spectrum: from Right to Left in the World of Ideas (p. 303).

[5] The average American conventionally schooled in the seven-continent division (North and South America being two), at least since the 1950s, will be lost here in Virilio’s “classic” European-based geography. The dominant (American) English variety of the global lingua franca splits ever so naturally America into two “continents,” against the still resisting orthodoxy of mono-continentality among the romance languages, with the typical crass oblivion of anything that may have preceded this 1950s way of thinking. Did the “founding fathers” in the foundational moment of the Enlightenment speak of two continents (North and South America and not Americas)? This blinding ignorance is shining light upon the imperial hill. Let us mark the normal use of the name of “America,” metonynimically appropriated for itself while discarding the big portion of the rest that then needs the Latin demarcation made foreign and out there, not in here since the early moments of European colonization, one only has to check the Spanish-language toponyms inside contemporary USA borders. This conventional “arrested (historical) development” shortens and reifies the name of the nation, “United States of America” becoming “America,” and let us not think further about the Columbus moment of the discovery of  “America,” a misnomer that bespeaks European colonization, the moment of the Indias Occidentales, etc. This genuine geographical disorientation bespeaks the perhaps unconscious impact of geopolitical realties and the American “natives” conventionally schooled in the American territory without the luxury of comparativism will typically not like to be reminded of these amputations.Michael Novak commented the “vast process of vast psychic repression” Americanization represents and this frightening quote is quoted approvingly by influential author Samuel Huntington in his latest Who are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity? (p. 61), a brutal anti-Hispanic book. We can cross the pond: the School of Advance Study at the University of London has the “Institute for the Study of the Americas” of recent creation. Hence, let us mark the need, in the English language, to pluralize “the Americas,” still something of a university-based neologism, not yet conventional use in the media or at the street level, where the plural sounds affected and contrived, bigger platform of comparative interrelations in the Western Hemisphere (what corresponds to “América” in the Spanish language). “America” is thus property sign of the official US, in the same way the “West” has been appropriated by the “Coalition forces” in missions in other geographies, and fun is guaranteed in queries about the “classic” relations between the timespace of the “West,” the US, Europe and Latin America. To develop a bit further reflexivity around geographical thinking, see Lewis and Wigen’s good book Myth of Continents.

[6] Wallerstein intertwines Wilsonianism and Leninism in the same ideology of industrial modernization or developmentalism in the first half of the 20th century (After Liberalism, pp. 176-206). We might as well remember the skepticism of Ortega y Gasset in the seconf half of the best-seller Revolt of the Masses about the American option within the platform of the West, side by side Heidegger’s skepticism about such loose form of planetary technicity, the culture business, Americanism, included in the Spiegel Interview aforementioned; and there is no doubt some resilient Eurocentrism in both European intellectuals. There is one telling film, Mission to Moscow (originally produced in 1943), in which Ambassador Joseph E. Davies displays his admiration for the early moments of the Soviet Revolution under Stalin against the early perception of the aberration of Nazism kept equidistant from capitalism and socialism. Wallerstein makes these two disparate ideological lines intersect from the perspective of critical, post-Cold War hindsight, and this reading remains provocative and genuinely unconventional.

[7] His corpus is divided in humanities and social sciences holdings, typically separated from the arts, at least in the US, the latter section conveniently including those with “art” in the title. These fragmentations appear artificial in relation to an author who appears less concerned with the history of aesthetics and seemingly most unconcerned with proposals for a synthetic formulations (postmodernism, neo-Baroque, transculturation, multiculturalism) for the second half of the 20th century. There is little –or nothing—in Virilio of the type of intertwining of aesthetics and politics at the beginning of The Origins of Postmodernity by Perry Anderson following a Jamesonian inspiration.

[8] Zizek ‘s Lacanian-inspired Marxism suggests the “modesty” of the traversing of the fantasy, keeping it at some playful distance,  against three other options available in cyberspeace: the psychotic suspension of Oedipus, the continuity of Oedipus by other means and the perverse staging of the law. He appears to be mostly concerned with the inequalities and repudiations, explicitly or most typically implicitly articulated, informing the structural hypocrisies of our self-appointed “liberal” society. His ideological critique privileges what he calls the overdetermination of the network of sociosymoblic relations, power and domination, and not cyberspace per se (cyberspace being but one powerful, increasingly influential modulation of these).

[9] See “Tracking the Dinosaur” by Harry Harootunian (History’s Disquiet, pp. 26-58), directly concerned with post-WWII Asia Studies in the US, a nice follow-up to Pletsch. Mutatis mutandis…The hypothesis is that the areas of interest of the military-industrial complex can be nicely superimposed with the university-based area studies and their typically literary and cultural services. “Spanish” is European in focus in its institutional foundaton in the US, still strongly during Ortega’s times, and progressively less so, going along the progressive de-Europeanization of American university and society in general.

[10] Inevitably timespaces will include subject relations operating, attached or embedded in them: “our” vision of the Baroque ‘classic’ Baltasar Gracián, say, should “we” have one, will have to take into account our platform of observation, interests, insights, blindness etc., engaging Gracián and significant interpretive moments after Gracián’s times, inside legitimate structures of uneven meaningfulness and of “feeling,” as Raymond Williams highlighted. Even in the negative “we” have to be able to articulate why Gracián may not be a strong point of reference at all as the horizon Baroque typically is not so in the Jeffersonian-Palladian Anglo-American platform officially anti-Baroque, historically. What about in realms of popular culture of little historical sensitivities? This double interrogation will be for another time and place. The sugestion remains that the most persuasive historical reconstructions will deal with various timespaces and subject positions typically in institutional localities, retroactively speaking, that is, from the timeframe of the historical reconstruction going backwards, another thing is whether these reconstructions keep these timespaces honestly explicit typically in unequal situations of power/ knowledge. I am trying to stipulate the method of the geopolitics of scholarly agendas and/or interpretations of social avatars. This hermeneutic caveat does not at all mean that connections have to be immediate, rigid, causal, direct, etc. Virtual / digital technicity makes these timespaces and socil relations more slippery, unpredictable and ad hoc, but it does not at all mean that timespaces vanish into the thin air.

[11] Digital technology disrupts the original idea of the Western university, the acquaintance with universal or total knowledge, which is related to the “catholicity” of Christianity, emerging from totalizing medievalisms, splintering in early modernities by the protestations of Protestantism in the European context. Ortega observes that the mechnical interpretation of the Universe, the contemporary notion of technique, begins around 1600 around the figure of Galileo among others in “Meditation on Technique.” This is conterminous with the Cartesian cogito and Baroque aesthetics, prefiguration of a certain modernity, however maligned. Virilio does not explicitly develop this historicist, philologist, etymological “Eurocentric” way of thinking, but it can be affirmed that he is embedded in them, that these trajectories are implicit in his apparently frameless world vision, since he does not attempt to present a contradition to them. He appears incurious and unconcerned about the possible syntheses of politics and aesthetics of the 20th century or other centuries. in any of the forms, avant-garde and modernismo / modernism, postmodernity / postcoloniality, neo-Baroque debates, transculturation.

[12] Ortega’s great if uneven technical meditation states the two-edge sword of prodigious technical expertise: “the prodigious expansion of technical science first made it stick out of the modest repertoire of natural mental activities, such modesty allowing us to acquire full consciousness of the technical knowledge, but since then, its sober growth caught in the full swing of a fantastic progression, threatens to cloud such consciousness” (“Meditación de la Técnica,” ibidem, p. 332).

[13] Americanism being perhaps exceptionalism of this violation and violence of timespaces effected by modernization: can we think deeper into the fracture of the texture of ethics, the violation of filial pieties, the dominant model of assimilation of those immigrant cultures,  the “final (monadic) solution” to historically inherited bonds, the release of communal associations into the framelessness of the digital technicity in the shorthand of world wide web? Ortega already spoke of the massification process, or “de-individualization,” of modern societies, as something threatening and unstoppable. The avant-garde movements were part and parcel of it with various political dispositions to be sure. Ortega y Gasset’s existentical historicism defends accordingly “personhood” (personalismo) in the subjective form of the quintessential philosopher in all of us inevitably embedded in the circumstance, however still to be “saved.” Heidegger has beautiful comments, following Holderlin, about what “saving” means (The Question concerning Technology and other essays, ibidem, pp. 28-29, 48-9). The final Spiegel interview has identical Holderlin emphasis, if unspecified. The transcendental thinking-subject formulation is an evolution of the Cartesian cogito, seemingly with no attributes, hence “universal” or “universalizing” in its (d-)enunciations. And one can easily see the open door for contemporary, multicultural criticism to come in. A beautiful interlacing between these two sophisticated meditations may be developed: “Technique” is fabrication, construction, industry, the “supernatural” endeavor that is “superfluous” well and above the merely circumstantial, natural or animal level of humanity in the Madrid philosopher. For the German philosopher, technique is never a soulless tool that alienates, but the ideal principle of the house of Being, if properly channelled. There is an ominous projection of a “de-ontological and groundless” thinking, barbarous normality, in both thinkers, as the eminently operational and pragmatic, within the deliberately reduced horizon of pragmatism, against the presumably “bad side” of ideological, political and philosophial deviations, typically not to touch publicly also in instittutions of higher learning.

[14] The final sections of the lecture series “Meditación de la Técnica” deal with the figure of the “technician” producing modern technical knowledge, and how this modernity is different from ancient, traditional dimensions (Weberian sociologism could enrich these visions of burocratized collective institutionalities). Ortega engages in the interrogation of the assumptions underpinning technical knowledge, what he calls “tecnicismo.” What he cares about is the intellectual foundation of “technicity:” the questioning of the ways of knowing that receive the name of “technical.” He  makes a reference to the rise of the “technocracy” (citing Allen Raymond) on the American side of things. He signals the embarrassment of apparent theoretical illimitatons with an empty content in the most intense technical moments in human history. He historicizes such modern technology with the vignette of the mechanical arts, flying bird-like artefacts devised by Juanelo Turriano for a retired Charles V in Yuste as dawn of modern technique (Bacon, Galileo, Descartes… ). His promise of a “cultural compartivism” between the techniques of Euro-America and those of Asia was unfulfilled (pp. 363-375).

[15] Galileo, someone who suffered the disgraceful results of the Church trial of his knowledge denial, but Virilio does not find the trial proceedings disgraceful. And this is a crucial distinction to bear in mind. A self-imposed assignment will be to read Brecht’s play on Galileo (1938) against the immediate American travels. Galileo’s recantation vis-a-vis Brecht’s encounter with the House of Un-American Activities? Incidentally, the contemporary American playwright Richard Foreman vindicates the contemporaneity

of Baltasar Gracián, the “great student of human duplicity and fallibility.” Gracián’s navigational endeavors are also Brecth’s, at least according to the American author, and this will be a window into historical reconstructions for another time and place (Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Penguin Classics, New York, 2008): pp. x-xi). Ortega y Gasset writes “En torno a Galileo” in 1933 and he begins his “Galileísmo de la Historia,” precisely with the image of a seventy-years-old scientist kneeling in front of the Inquisitorial tribunal in the city of Rome. This is, he declares, a foundational moment of the crisis of the belief constitutive of modern reason, the “renaissance” proper, that may still be with us, even in the negative overdetermination of the network of sociosymbolic power-and-domination (post-)colonial relations including non-European lifeworlds. A mutation of the very idea of knowledge production emerging from the “middle ages” happened circa 1600. Perhaps we are living one such momentous mutation circa 2010.

[16] Wallerstein’s commendable intellectual trajectory has forcefully demostrated healthy skepticism in relation to the university setting coping with vast transformations. He wonders whether the university –a transplanted European creation of about 200-hundred years on the American side of things– can survive current transformations. Where are the alternatives? Where will knowledge come from then? What will “education” come to signify a few decades from now in relation to the history of knowledge of previous centuries? That intellectual life is currently under (virtual) siege by privatization, commercialism, bureaucratization, commodification mechanisms: Doubts anyone? How else when the morphological stability of reality is threatened with collapse? Are there any chances of conveying this “agony of historicity,” these emotion-laced epistemic struggles in standard university instruction? Are there fundamental differences between for-profit businesses and not-for-profit corporate institutions of higher learning? What about labor conditions of the vast majority of faculty members, the access of knowledge spaces by the vast majority of students? It is not obvious anymore that universities are eminently about knowledge-production at all. Where they ever? There is less doubt there is a tremendous amount of deterrence of any one knowledge production that may deliver instability to  already disoriented institutions (European Universalism, p. 69).

[17] Wallerstein’s predictions are sobering, if not horrific: see The Decline of American Power, pp. 273-94 & After Liberalism, pp. 176-206.

[18] “Forget Braudillard: An interview with Sylvere Lotringer, in Forget Foucault, pp. 71-125 [104]).

[19] Baudrillard defends the contemporary meaningfulness of the Spanish Baroque Jesuit author, Baltasar Gracián, identified as satisfactory intellectual engagement with the “eternal suspense,” the  “nothing but means, without ends” of teleological models or progressive-evolutionary processes of cognition. Baudrillard defines the order of politics as this eternal suspense. What would “transpolitical” be in relation to Virilio then? A

way out of immanence understood to be an impasse? The existence of God makes no fundamental sense for us since we are only engaged in “strategic worldliness.” The virtue of the Spanish Jesuit is the realization of the impossibility of proof of God’s existence, hence the assumption of suspense. There is only means, whether moral or immoral. There is only play. Any difference with Machiavellianism? Baudrillard does not address the Virilian psalmic disposition, a recent tendency? Attempts to engage the Baroque may revisit this insight (Forget Foucault, ibidem, pp. 111-2).

[20] “La ingratitud del hombre y la desnuda realidad,” Obras Completas, ibidem, p. 398.

[21] Fredric Jameson, quoted in Yúdice, George, “Postmodernity and Transnational Capitalism in Latin America,” (p. 16). In this article, Yúdice presents a Latinamericanist,  differencialist reading of the synthetic renditions of contemporary aesthetics (modernity, postmodernity, allegorical national narrative for the Third World, etc.) in explicit disagreement with Jameson. There is no strong and dynamic historical background (no inspirational presence of the Baroque) for either.