The Insecurity Of History

“The Insecurity of History” written by the late French philosopher and cultural critic Paul Virilio, was published in Log 23, Fall 2011.

Paul Virilio

Translated from the French by Julie Rose


Editor’s note: This essay is excerpted from The Great Accelerator, (Polity, 2008).


Paul Virilio is an urbanist architect who for many years directed the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris. He is widely acknowledged as France’s foremost theorist of the modern moment. 

To live every instant as though it were the last – that is the paradox of futurism, of a futurism of the instant that has no future. We might note that it also spells the decline in the propaganda of an endless Progress that, only yesterday, still fueled the history of past centuries. That history is now so wired, so hysterical, that it even claims to foresee actions, the reality of events that have not yet occurred. You’d think that, tomorrow, we’ll be able to construct an actual “History of the Future” – thanks to long-term forecasting. Such micro-narratives would impose themselves on the millennium of the avowed facts, as if the perspective of the real time of instantaneity suddenly annulled all durability. For, thanks to certain software programs and the modeling they allow, the mythology of futurism is even gearing up to renew the myths of our origins and of antiquity.

A recent anecdote might serve to illustrate this “phase transition” in History: at the beginning of the Year 2010, Bernard Accoyer, then president of France’s Assemblée Nationale, protested against the excessive use, by the French government, of a speeded-up process that limits both parliamentary chambers’ examination of proposed new laws to a single reading.

“We can’t go on working this way – not if we want decent laws and decent democratic debate,” Accoyer declared, adding that he would not hesitate, if the need arose, to resort to the possibility of opposing the emergency process in question by siding with his opposite number in the Senate, Gérard Larcher. “A good law,” Accoyer concluded, “requires an incompressible period of time for reflection.”1

The current legislative frenzy actually introduces the inertia of real time, a paradoxical inertia that results from the sudden acceleration of common reality.

In these very early years of the third millennium, the polar inertia produced by the instantaneity of interactive CONNECTIONS (LIENS) is actually poised to supplant the fixed-property inertia of PLACES (LIEUX) – including the most representative places of legislation and the law. The whole of historicity will then find itself shattered by this
“distortion of competition” between the past and the future that is so detrimental to the present, with the NANOTECHNOLOGIES of the infinitely short term already taking the place of the traditional chronologies of the medium and long term of past days, years, and centuries.

All of this undermines the sovereignty of History – and the sovereignty of all anteriority, with it. So, following the age of territorial insecurity comes the age of the insecurity of History and its tripartite division, PAST – PRESENT – FUTURE.2

·   ·   ·

This reversal of values, we might note, has already affected space. At the close of the last century, geopolitical strategists were, in fact, turning reality inside out like a glove and asserting that, forever after, the exterior was to prevail over the interior. Today, it is in the order of time that this turnaround is being accomplished, as posterity is primed to dominate all anteriority. Hence the sudden insecurity of History that now complements and completes the insecurity of a territorial sovereignty now threatened on all sides – from above, by its expansion, and from below, by its regional fragmentation. Hence the “repeat delocalization” we are currently witnessing under the pretext of globalization, along with the impact of a process of externalization – outsourcing – that is increasingly untethered to any practical reality.

In any case, the current debates between historians over MEMORIAL LAWS, codified bills dedicated to the memory of specific victims of historic crimes, clearly point to the damage done by “progress” regarding the notion of historical anteriority and its great narratives, which are in the process of disappearing. What is rising to the fore in their stead is what certain people are already calling the “great national novel.”

So, what we are now seeing, after the topographic and geometric effraction of distances, is the anachronistic effraction of the time intervals required for effective knowledge as well as for memory of the facts. FRACTALIZATION of physical expanse is coupled with fractalization of durations relative to the CONTINUUM of a general History that’s in the process of being instantaneously obliterated.

Let’s hear what Winston Churchill had to say on the subject, when, on May 13, 1940, he addressed the House of Commons. If a battle between past and present is allowed to break out, Churchill said, there will be “no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.”3 In other words, we’ll lose the future.

We know what came next: Great Britain as a space did not suffer the insult of occupation, but only because the British leaders avoided a chronopolitical battle over the TEMPO of the Battle of Britain.

That was an odd lesson in history; but it was also a lesson in geopolitics, in which the perspective of the CHRONIC temporality of events was undefeated by the prospect of the panicky instantaneity behind a “futurism” whose fascist origins were all too obvious, starting with Marinetti’s tracts celebrating the Great War as “the world’s hygiene.” The cult of the acceleration of history ended appropriately enough for the futurists in the Blitz, that lightning war of the failed invasion of the sky as well as of the British Isles.

As for us, if in the near future we let some Museum of the History of France settle permanently, whether in Paris or somewhere else, we will very swiftly find ourselves occupied – and extremely preoccupied. . . . Maybe we are already?

·   ·   ·

HERE is no more. Everything is NOW, and the HIC ET NUNC
of days gone by is about to disappear completely from the horizon of history. In his recent vade mecum, French public-
intellectual, economist, banker, and top-tier consultant Jacques Attali recommends “living every moment to the hilt as though it was the last.” Attali even goes as far as declaring, “Since time is the only really rare commodity, it is now the only one worth being saved.” That is why, he reckons, it is urgent “to focus on every instant.”4

A symbol of a fatal inertia, this verbatim account illustrates perfectly the inexorable nature of this delirious futurism that deconstructs all chronology and, with it, the melody line of history as well as the great narrative of our common memory. This is what really lies behind France’s recent spate of memorial laws and the growing threat to territorial identity of a nationality that is no more self-evident, in the end, than the geopolitical sovereignty of the legitimate national state. And this, in a globalized world constantly traversed by internal exiles in a closed-circuit exodus of just-in-time flows of people that some are already referring to as the migratory offensive of sustainable mobility in the 21st century – TRACEABILITY now being imposed on each and every one of us. This is why “magnetic portals” have been installed in ports and airports, along with “smart corridors” for passenger identification that are endowed with full-body scanners to strip search all those bodies in endless transit. We all know that where there’s a wall there has to be a door; but the only real difference between this wall and the old fortified wall that surrounded a city is the virtual nature of the contemporary enclosure of postmodern times, as well as the clinical radiography deployed at the main entrances of our current borders.

This may help us to understand the reason behind the Sarkozy government’s plan for a future Museum of the History of France, which would be a sort of health clinic for times past completing the one for times present, memory of which fades so quickly now, with a real danger of amnesia due to the fragile supports for the dead memories of our computers.

Then again, let’s not forget that the eternal present of Einsteinian relativity is not the same as the present that ruled the day, when light was still distinct from darkness. It is the real instant, confirming what Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed last century: “Technology has declared war on the day.”

Contemporary with the Blitz, that verdict beautifully defines the probable translation of the “illuminism” of the Ancients’ sun worship into the “instantaneism” of the techno-worship of the postmodern people we’ve all become.

We’d actually do better to swiftly abandon the grand illusion of a future Museum of History and substitute, in its stead, a Ministry of the Times, a great ministry of the relativity of both the weather (le temps qu’il fait) and of passing time (le temps qui passe), time now passing so quickly. AEROPOLITICS would then cleverly complete the CHRONOPOLITICS of the time behind the GEOPOLITICAL interactivity of our real-time communications.

Thanks to such administration of duration and of the time needed (le temps qu’il faut) to act conscientiously and not just interact with telecommunication tools, the ecology of the weather (le temps qu’il fait) would take on a “natural” intelligence that’s currently in the process of being discriminated against, as though it were outclassed by the feats of the “artificial” intelligence of computer programs and handy software that can do anything, and soon, undo anything . . . 

Such a great ministry of Times Management would manage the vital rhythms of the weather and not just the environment; it would be a ministry of Space Management, overseeing a space that is now exhausted not only in its biodiversity but also in its chrono-diversity, with seasonal shifts in climate being erased; as well as in its geo-diversity, with the differences in and extent of country landscapes being similarly erased. For the pollution of time distances now completes the pollution of substances, water, air, fauna, and flora; and the current domination of the real time of exchanges over the real space of the continents ends, as we see, in inertia. More precisely, it ends in the “moment of inertia” of the interactive CONNECTION (LIEN), an instant inertia that will shortly take over from the “fixed-property inertia” of PLACES (LIEUX) in a sedentariness that, all the same, goes back all the way to ancient times.

In the face of this astronomical shattering of our emploi
du temps
, our daily regimen, the shattering of a continuum
that’s about to go from being postmodern to become “post-historic,” we can legitimately ask ourselves about the INTEMPORARY amnesia of technically oriented civilization. The proposed ministry of the relativity that is restricted to our incredibly cramped planet would, in fact, open up a new avenue for hope, the hope of allowing for the kairos, the right moment for action and not just interactive reaction – that future “ghetto of CONNECTION” in a substanceless addiction that will soon supplant the “ghetto of PLACE” of age-old sedentariness on a telluric planet that’s decidedly too small for technical progress, just as it is too small for the profits of a capitalism unleashed by the systemic crash of the NANOTECHNOLOGIES of instantaneity.

It all ends, ultimately, in the “great lockdown” of History, the unanticipated renaissance of a new form of sun worship, one requiring sacrifices that are not only human (sociological) but rural (ecological). In other words, it ends in the inevitable revival of the illuminism of light through the illuminism behind the instantaneism of light’s limit speed. That is the new absolute of a god who clearly doesn’t play dice, but happily dons the ridiculous castoffs of the “Sun King” – or of Jupiter, god of the sky and of light, but also of thunder and lightning; divinity of this truly stunning, and not just explosive, instantaneity of a demandingly secular age. An age in which mono-atheism outpaces the nihilism behind the death of the gods, with the renaissance, the new age, of a late form of sun worship in which the speed of electromagnetic waves lights up, through its radiation much more than its rays, the radiant future of progressivism. This triumph of mono-atheism is particularly marked by the construction in Geneva of a circular (subterranean) cathedral, which is actually a 27-kilometer racetrack, destined to discover, at the end of the race, “God’s particle,” the HADRON – at the risk of ending in the obscurantism of a “black hole.” Such an accident in knowledge would no doubt put an end to the demand for experimental physics and thereby the exact sciences, promoting instead the eternal return of the magical thinking of the Pythagoreans of the digital and other programmers of handy software that can do anything.

·   ·   ·

So, it’s all too easy to see that, with the latest electronic illuminism, transhuman societies of the animal species are metamorphosing into hybrids of the plant species as they in turn become HELIOTROPICAL and photosensitive, “object-oriented” through the framing of point of view, and captured by the interface-to-face confrontation of the multiple screens of an environment that’s suddenly gone interactive.

We might now have a better sense of the havoc wreaked by progress in a KINEMATIC energy of instantaneous transmission, which has come to complete the KINETIC energy involved in the transport of bodies in the era of the industrial revolution that preceded the very recent information revolution produced by telecommunications. The kinematic energy involved in being carried away in the age of interactive synchronization rounds off the “reality effects” produced by the kinetic energy involved in the physical movement of individuals, at high speed.

“Just-in-time-zero-stock”: that slogan of large-scale commercial distribution today beautifully describes the mutation in the initial form of inertia, that of fixed-property settlement, into a final inertia, that of the instant or, more precisely, the “moment of inertia” in the interactivity that now defines our relationship with the world. A world globalized by world time, thanks to the restrained relativity of (instantaneous) exchanges. And this relativity leads not only to Einsteinian restriction, but to the ecosystemic reduction of the time distances of the star that carries us and supports us (with greater and greater difficulty), the original ark, EARTH, which the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl told us couldn’t move, since speed is not a “phenomenon” but the relationship between phenomena. For the temporal compression of interactivity is equivalent to the telluric contraction of the planet of living beings: this incredibly “Down-to-Earth” star of the QUICK, the live (vif), where the acceleration of the QUICK, the swift (vite), in the VOID (vide), has now become the primary issue for an ecology that is political – not transpolitical, as those pure disciples of the cult of the speed of light in the vacuum (vide) of deep space, the illuminists of the Last Day, would like to have us believe.

In the end, the major issue for the third millennium is indeed the issue of the regime of periodicity in an “aeropolitics of time” that would not, all the same, negate the geopolitics of the original settling of the EARTH and the CITY, that has turned into a WORLD-CITY, THE ORIGINAL ARK OF TOMORROW. Here, a metaphor springs to mind – of ocean navigation, with the invention of, first, the mechanical clock and, then, the onboard chronometer.

If the sky is indeed a monumental clock, that doesn’t make it easy to decipher, despite the compass and the sextant and ASTROLABE. For if we can calculate latitude by observing the height of stars above the horizon, longitude, on the other hand, can’t be verified except by considering the time difference between two different points of the globe. That requires the use of the chronometer, whereas the “wheelhouse hourglass,” very like a speedometer, merely showed a ship’s speed, with the aid of a log, that invisible lifeline lying submerged at the end of a piece of string, graduated in knots.5

Surely we can’t fail to see the enormous time difference that exists, today, between our at once untimely and interactive practices – practices involved in supersonic transport and instantaneous transmission – and our daily life, now so exhausted, so deprived of the intervals of time needed for reflection and responsible action. This is to say nothing of the “casino economy,” that infernal machine that is impossible to stop before a SYSTEMIC CRASH, the shipwreck of the original Ark, occurs, leading, this time, to a chaos we can well imagine. . . . A Chronic UTOPIA, or a topical UCHRONIA, as some people might call the future birth of a great Ministry of the Times or, more precisely, of the weather (le temps qu’il fait) and the time needed (le temps qu’il faut) here below, in the depths of a foreclosed world. A world that would, in the end, deserve this AEROPOLITICS of the periodicity of what is vital for chronophage societies, keen to crash, tomorrow, into the CIRCULAR time barrier at the end of the tunnel of LINEAR historicity. CERN’s “Great Hadron Collider” in Geneva has become the perfect symbol of a postmodern return of illuminism, the illuminism of the cult of light speed for a history operating in a different time zone to all common reality.

So, if we can just hang on a little while longer, the known world of our memory might well fade from the control screens of History and disappear, seemingly inadvertantly. 

1. See Le Monde, February 11, 2010.

2. See Paul Virilio, L’Insécurité du territoire (Paris: Galilée, 1993).

3. Winston Churchill, Address to the House of Commons, May 13, 1940.

4. Jacques Attali, Survivre aux crises (Paris: Fayard, 2009).

5. Gilles Lapouge, La Légende de la géographie (Paris: Albin Michel, 2009).