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Virilio's Art and Fear


Art and Fear.

Virilio, Paul. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Continuum, 2003. 112 pages, hardcover, $16.95. ISBN: 0826460801.

Art and Fear is a logical step in Paul Virilio's long and distinguished career as one of the few true humanist scholars who has consistently challenged the assumptions of an increasingly post-human world. A ways down the road from Speed and Politics (1977), which focused more squarely on the shifting scale of the urban landscape, this recent work shifts his critique to the arts, while maintaining the same terse preoccupation with cultural technologies that assault the senses, and by extension erode sensitivity. Grim and apocalyptic in its tone, Art and Fear is not so much an academic text as it is a science fiction novel for a post-historical world. Virilio writes about the dystopia that has already happened. He tells a history of art that dreams of a world without humanity, and a history of science that is already bringing this dream to life.

The body of the text is a bit short (69 pages), consisting of two sections: "A Pitiless Art" and "Silence on Trial." However, the detailed introduction by John Armitage serves as an important secondary source for all who want to read and understand Virilio's work -- which often comes across as a challenge for readers both familiar and unfamiliar with Virilio's style. Providing both an historical and ethical context for Virilio, whose humanism sprouted in the bitter soils of a war torn Europe and stretches for sunlight in the shadows of Auschwitz, Armitage credits Virilio with rejecting "the fashionable scientific and artistic idea of the human body as a technologically assisted survival unit that has outlasted its usefulness" (13) and meeting "ethical dilemmas head-on" (9).

Reaching back into the romanticized archives of the avant-garde and its move towards abstraction and concept, in "A Pitiless Art" Virilio interrogates such programmatic aesthetic techniques in light of scientific and technical innovations that have sought to program and annihilate human beings through industry and war. Skillfully drawing parallels between dismembered bodies in the arts and the science of the death camp, Virilio identifies a lack of pity and cold acceptance of human suffering and destruction. Drawing on exemplary figures such as Gericault, whose portraits of the insane were used by his contemporaries as scientific records of pathological bodies, and whose Raft of the Medusa (1819) aestheticized a real world tale of disaster, death, and cannibalism on the high seas, Virilio launches into a fearless critique of Modern art (39). He brings this critique up to the present with Günther von Hagens' grotesquely popular World of Bodies (1998), which dispenses with sketches of the dead, dying, or institutionalized, and instead offers up 200 actual human corpses, preserved, sculpted, and flayed to satisfy creative longings and morbid curiosity (41). Virilio continues, connecting such aesthetic practices with "the great transgenic art" of "SCIENTIFIC expression" which hopes to produce an improved species as the triumphant capstone to the 20th century's most ambitious hopes for sculpted bodies through the art of eugenics (61).

In "Silence on Trial," Virilio provides a refreshing development of his lifelong analysis of speed, which has typically focused on optics, into the realm of sound. Beginning with analysis of the incorporation of sound in cinema and leading into the overwhelming nature of the contemporary audiovisual onslaught that saturates even supposedly non-commercial spaces with its far-reaching grasp, Virilio laments the loss of silence. Less convincing than the previous essay, "Silence on Trial" draws attention to the automating effects of sound transmission, and links it to other technologies of automation: "Machine for seeing, machine for hearing, once upon a time; machine for thinking very shortly with the boom in all things digital and the programmed abandonment of the analogue" (77). The audio track introduces itself as another step on the path of speed and cybernetics, undermining human-guided sensation in favor of automated productions. Without silence, reflection withers and the opportunity to articulate a response is drowned out by the various sounds of a multimedia world. Turning to the controversial figure of hypermedia performance artist Stelarc, Virilio criticizes art for its complicity in the movement towards automation and encoded techniques of production which attempt to create audiovisual experience and thus participate in the propagation of an ever more committed spectatorship (93).

In Art and Fear, Virilio proves once again that he is a brave and radical advocate of humanity. Choosing to direct his critique at the sacred world of avant-garde art, Virilio boldly offers much needed reflection for an art world that is too often reluctant to rigorously question its ethical commitments. For art historians, this challenging work will offer an alternative to a history of Modern art which is all-too-often peopled with heroic trailblazers and lovable rogues. For scholars interested in investigating the post-human, Virilio's work provides a disquieting meeting place for optimistic speculations and violent realities. And, finally, for those who are simply trying to keep up with Virilio's work, Art and Fear builds on an exciting repertoire, adding discussions or art and sound that extend earlier discussions of the built and the virtual.

Davin Heckman