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Virilio's Crepuscular Dawn


Crepuscular Dawn. 2002

Virilio, Paul. New York: Semiotext(e). paperback, 164 pgs. ISBN: 158435013X.

"Crepuscular," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to a state resembling or pertaining to twilight, which is the interval between nighttime and day or daytime and night. But crepuscular, as the various instances of its use charted in the OED reveal, contains particular scientific connotations, referring to an area of the atmosphere in which "the light of the sun ceases to be refracted to us" and, in biology, to those creatures which operate before the rising of the sun. In Crepuscular Dawn, a series of interviews by Sylvere Lotringer of Paul Virilio (translated by Mike Taormina), readers are given a detailed and fantastic account of the coming global crisis that Paul Virilio has been investigating in its many dimensions for years. The paradox of the work's title tells of a world at the cusp of a new era, one characterized as "crepuscular." Unlike any we've known, the coming cataclysm will transform the world geophysically and subjectively, atmospheric and biological. This grand dawning of a humanity and world forevermore at its twilight, no longer seeing the light of day, is the story of globalization and the posthuman era, a humanity that has drowned itself in the excesses of speed, or dromospheric pollution.

Unlike most works by Virilio, which many scholars find difficult, obscure, and, sometimes, a bit crazy, Crepuscular Dawn presents a number of Virilio's key terms and major concepts in relatively easy to digest packets. The interview format, while it might lose some the aesthetic qualities of Virilio's other works (which many find appealing), is one which many scholars who are anxious to enter into can find useful (see, for example, Virilio's interview in Ctheory, or Apres-Coup). Dealing with grand concepts like Virilio's "Archaeology," "Dromology," "Eugenics," and "the Accident," the work presents a chronological discussion of his work, but succeeds in integrating them through the benefit of hindsight. In many ways, it is a retrospective of Virilio by Virilio, but in the end manages to frame all of his previous arguments with greater urgency. Each chapter begins with lists of key terms which function as a reference for discussions of specific topics, making the work usable as a handy reference tool for scholars who are interested in using or interrogating Virilio's insights.

Of special interest is Virilio's discussion of "Oblique Architecture," a style of architectural design which Virilio pioneered in order "to work with gravity, with heaviness, the way a sailboat works with the wind" (36). An early, but often unconsidered part of Virilio's practice, Oblique Architecture creates a situation in which "Every dimension, every direction of space becomes a modification of the body" (36). This conception of the built environment, which resonates so strongly "posthumanist" discourses, seeks to engage the body with the environment at every turn. But taken in the context Virilio's larger concerns with "the contraction of distances" (77) and the loss of the human body (117), the project of creating environments which readily call people to interact with them in unique ways brings about a different type of assemblage than that of the cyborg body. His description of the artist Stelarc's body modifications relates them to Mengele's dream of biology as the "art of creating monsters" (118), and as an offense to human ecology in the sense that this post- or trans-human body pays no respect to proportionality, and in fact tries to change proportion by enhancing speed, stamina, and size-the posthuman is an attempt to escape the confines of the earth. In this light, Virilio's architecture (and by extension, many other parts of the human milieu) which calls the subject into an assemblage, does so in a way to return human-scale to a world that is quickly attempting to render it obsolete. By interacting with an environment, not to surmount it, but to live in it, the function of the oblique seeks to undo the disregard for freedom that is the product of regulation engendered by speed-people are capable of a variety of different velocities (sitting, standing, walking, running, jogging), which are all brought into a uniform commutation of distance by the velocity of the jet (the new normative maximum for speed which renders irrelevant the variety of proportions available without high speed air travel). Between Virilio's practice as an architect and his project as a theorist, readers can understand the vision of a world made microscopic and macroscopic, and question the place of the human in this milieu.

Among Virilio's most useful works, Crepuscular Dawn is an important contribution to scholars interested in urban studies, architecture, culture studies, cyber-theory, ethics, and posthumanism. For those who seek to approach his work for the first time, Crepuscular Dawn is surprisingly accessible and organized in such a way that single terms or larger concepts can be explored with ease. For those who have acquired a taste for Virilio, this volume is an important one in that in integrates the history of his work in a meaningful fashion and offers the possibility of a deeper understanding of this important scholar.

Davin Heckman