Paul Virilio (2003) Art and Fear

Trans. J. Rose. London and New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-6080-1

Icons of the Human

Robert S. Oventile

Barely a week into ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, American pundits began to worry that victory was coming too slowly because the American and British soldiers were bogging down in a potential ‘quagmire’. The US war on Vietnam required years of massive American violence to achieve its quintessential ‘quagmire’ status. Evidently, the temporality of ‘being a quagmire’ has accelerated. But, as the Bush administration emphasized, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ became perhaps the quickest ground campaign of such magnitude in history, with personnel, armaments, and supplies crossing territory at unprecedented speeds. Showcasing the latest military technologies, Gulf War 2 achieved more, faster than Gulf War 1. The Nazis invented Blitzkrieg; American ‘Shock and Awe’ strove to perfect it.

Speed energized not only the war makers. Before ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ began, peace activists took solace in the rapidity at which large anti-war demonstrations emerged, even in the American ‘Homeland’. To claim success, American progressives noted that similar demonstrations against the US war on Vietnam did not occur in America until years into the conflict. American leftist and rightist vanguards agree: speed legitimates. Unfortunately, speed’s hegemony favors the USA-centric empire: ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ is already old news, a lucrative set of done deals.

Paul Virilio’s readers may understand recent events as corroborating his analyses. War’s logic of speed has long been Virilio’s focus. Speed exemplifies what Virilio calls technological warfare’s ‘transpolitical’ dynamics, which escape and nullify traditional political distinctions, including ‘left’ versus ‘right’. In texts written during the last three decades, Virilio argues that contemporary war both defines and threatens human existence. War colonizes society’s various processes. Shunting ‘politics’ aside, war and technology meld to become the engine of a dubious ‘progress’. Rather than tranquil periods punctuated by discrete episodes of conflict, ‘peacetime’ actually constitutes the build-up to the next war. More precisely, a state of ‘pure war’ reigns. No longer alternating with peace, war becomes pure. The social, psychological, and cultural barriers between wartime and peacetime rapidly erode. Committed to war without end, America seems bent on giving Virilio’s notions their exemplary realization. America’s staggeringly extravagant ‘defense’ budget dwarfs all other federal expenditures, significantly diminishing most ‘peacetime’ government functions, except those briskly merging with ‘the war on terrorism’: law enforcement, ‘Homeland Security’, and intelligence gathering.

With technological warfare revealed as contemporary society’s key determinant, Virilio has sought to map pure war’s dystopian logic in the cultural realm. The Aesthetics of DisappearanceWar and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, and The Art of the Motor all pursued this investigation. In Art and Fear, Virilio elaborates a homology between pure war and modern and postmodern art’s interrogation and desertion of representation. The avant-gardes’ departure from representational art and dismantling of human form foreshadow and even collaborate with representative democracy’s continuing totalitarian eclipse and a fascistic assault on the human body. While representationalism, influenced by Christian piety, allowed for art solicitous of pity for human beings, a nihilistic academicism enforcing a pitiless ethos of hateful cruelty now dominates art. For Virilio, ‘the words PITY and PIETY are consubstantial’, and, in rejecting pity, contemporary art wallows in impiety (2003: 39).

The twentieth-century avant-gardes’ enthusiasts will find Art and Fear polemical. Indeed, Art and Fear‘s plea for ‘impious’ culture’s censorship will trouble many. Add Virilio’s alarm over rave parties, French law’s refusal to define fetuses as persons, public schools’ exclusion of Christmas ceremonies while retaining Halloween, and teenage girls who obtain abortions without parental consent (2003: 38; 2002: 3, 63, 30), and one might confuse Art and Fear‘s author for an American Christian fundamentalist surprisingly conversant with European culture. Such confusion would erase an important distinction. In America, the Christian fundamentalism that lobbied to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts has George Bush in the White House, and a religiously inspired quasi-totalitarianism is possible. In contrast, Virilio writes as a Catholic in a Europe where Christianity wanes and constitutes a relatively marginal political force.

To preserve Art and Fear‘s interest for secular readers, some might downplay the religious provenance of the text’s piety/impiety distinction. This gesture flees from Virilio’s reevaluation of artistic values. To register Art and Fear‘s impact, we need to understand how, for Virilio, pity and piety in art relate to idolatry, icons, and iconoclasm.

Virilio states, ‘as a Christian I reject nuclear faith’ (Virilio & Lotringer, 1983: 122). The 1980s movement against nuclear arms was ‘something of a conflict against idolatry’ protesting the attribution of ‘divinity’ to ‘the ultimate weapon’ (Virilio & Lotringer, 1983: 122). This attribution entailed an ‘idolatrous belief: the missile, no longer the Messiah’ (Virilio & Lotringer, 1983: 122). Only Christ’s messianic return will bring peace; to believe that nuclear armaments can secure peace idolizes a technology. Even during the ‘peacetime’ masking pure war, we confront ‘a cult. … Pure War is the absolute idol’ (Virilio & Lotringer, 1983: 171). Utterly impious, pure war as absolute idolatry threatens humanity.

Since the 1980s, idolatry has branched out from the nuclear bomb to the genetic bomb: ‘the impending explosion of a genetic bomb … will be to biology what the atomic bomb was to physics’ (Virilio, 2003: 55). Overrunning moral limits, genetic science threatens ‘the unicity of the human race’: ‘Having broken the taboos of suffocating bourgeois culture, we are now supposed to break the being, the unicity of humankind’ (Virilio, 2003: 51, 55). Humanity’s being inheres in a oneness biotechnology may dismantle by breaking humanity into the genetically enhanced and underprivileged, and even by hybridizing humans with non-humans. Virilio’s assessment of biotechnology’s threat to humanity’s unicity echoes the Biblical logic that makes Yahweh’s oneness inseparable from Yahweh being the only one. If merely one god among several, Yahweh may be compared to, enumerated among, and mixed with the other ones. Worshipping statues of Baal, Dagon, or Astarte in (the) place of Yahweh or juxtaposed with the covenant ark, idolaters compromise Yahweh’s oneness by implicitly hybridizing Yahweh with other gods. Similarly, insinuates Virilio, for humanity to be, it must be one, and so the only one, the species uniquely unmixable with any other.

Denunciation of human/non-human hybridization is not Virilio’s only echo of the Biblical polemic against idolatry. Besides hybridization anxiety, the Hebrew scriptures prohibit idolatry because idol worship neuters the begetting of Abraham’s generations. Moloch requires child sacrifices, and those seduced by idolatry divert from sexual procreation towards a sterile, fetishistic, erotically charged relation with the idol and the idol’s votaries. Canceling Yahweh’s promise of descendents, idolatry renders covenant circumcision purposeless, as may biotechnology. With cloning responding to a ‘demand for a spermless genesis’, contemporary genetic research follows up the nineteenth century’s ‘murder of the Creator‘ with the murder of ‘the procreator‘ (Virilio, 2002: 2). Desiring procreation’s obsolescence and parroting yet displacing Yahweh’s promise of life, biotechnology turns idolatrous.

For Virilio, technology’s idolaters are iconoclastic. How can idolatry be iconoclasm? The two merge when technological idolatry takes the human image, and then the human body, as the icon to be shattered. Virilio links the idolatry of biotechnology to the ‘iconoclastic wave that swept through Europe from the sixteenth century onwards’ (2002: 10). Rather than just striving individually to uphold the commandment prohibiting idolatry, the ‘German or Swiss reformers’ pursued iconoclasm by ‘systematically destroying any visible manifestation of the incarnation of Christ’ (Virilio, 2002: 10). Images of Christ’s human, ‘earthly life’ became targets (Virilio, 2002: 11). The incarnated Christ redeems the body of the creation, and sexual generation. But, in destroying icons of Christ, the European iconoclasts cultivated a hatred of the body and a yearning to live free of procreation and birth. Iconoclasm quickens the urge to clone. Virilio connects the ‘distrust of the act of generation’ found among the iconoclastic ‘English Puritan fanatics (the future pilgrim fathers of the Mayflower)’ to early Christian sects’ desire for a ‘life that escaped any beginning, the life before life which some of [these sects] called prebirth‘(2002: 11). Obsessions with ‘prebirth‘existence now flourish. The militant and, in the US, sometimes terrorist struggle on behalf of the ‘unborn child’ undertaken by a ‘sectarian fundamentalism turned towards the intimacy of foetal life’ has transpolitical affinities with Nazism’s eugenics and outlaw researchers’ efforts to clone humans (Virilio, 2002: 5).

Virilio evokes ‘the pyres of the iconoclastic holocaust’ because he judges the sixteenth-century iconoclasts as precursors, not only of Nazism, but also of a contemporary culture acting out a Gnostic ‘hatred of matter: what was called the mortification of the flesh – that of the human body and, more generally, of the body of the living world’ (2002: 11, 12). Adopting the Gnostic belief that the creation was the fall, technology’s idolaters would deliver themselves from the Christian God’s creation and from any ethical limits governing relations with and among God’s creatures. In 9/11’s aftermath, a transpolitical ‘global cover state‘ emerges that would accomplish the ‘”beyond-Good-and-Evil” which has for centuries been the dream of the high priests of an iconoclastic progress’ (Virilio, 2002: 82). This ‘iconoclastic progress’ fantasizes the solipsistic deliverance from creation of a ‘mystical ego’ that merges with a ‘techno-scientific ego’ ‘in a single desire to annihilate sensory life, the heterogeneity of our consciousness of the world as such’ (Virilio, 2002: 8).

Desiring to annihilate bodily existence to escape vulnerability to an ethical awareness of the world’s otherness, this ‘Techno-scientific solipsism can be seen, then, never to have been anything but a vehicle for hatred‘(Virilio, 2002: 13). The iconoclastic hatred of images of the incarnated Christ metastasized as colonialism’s genocidal history: ‘Just as torture heralds the imminent putting-to-death of the condemned man, so the iconoclasm of the sixteenth century inaugurated a series of historical exterminations – of cultures, laws, peoples, distances, and human time itself’ (Virilio, 2002: 13). As a body’s torture prefaces the person’s execution, so destroying icons of the exemplary human, Christ, prefaces the destruction of diverse humans who all embody God’s image. For Virilio, a pitiless synergy inflames modern violence and modern iconoclasm.

As Virilio admits, there ‘are many ways to be iconoclastic’ (Virilio, 2002: 47). One can ‘burn pictures and those who painted them’ or ‘break religious statues or blow up those of political idols, as at the end of the Communist era’ (Virilio, 2002: 47). Virilio asks, ‘But how is it when the iconoclast is the plastician himself?’ (2002: 47). What happens when the image-maker, the artist, turns iconoclast? Extending his reading of European iconoclasm, Virilio understands the iconoclastic artist to be the avatar of an anti-human nihilism. In Virilio’s judgement, avant-garde artists, and contemporary culture more generally, reduce the human image and body to materials to be impiously disfigured, pitilessly experimented with, and aesthetically refashioned.

Art and Fear elaborates Virilio’s sweeping judgment by way of what John Armitage accurately designates a ‘Christian humanist critique’ (2003: 23). Uncompromisingly outraged, Art and Fear reads like Tertullian’s polemics denouncing the Roman circuses in which Tertullian’s fellow Christians suffered vivisection for the spectators’ idolatrous enjoyment. Virilio accuses Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism of converging transpolitically in an attack on representational art and on ethical limits. Whatever political opinions distinguished Franco Marinetti from Andre Breton, their break with representationalism signaled their joint collaboration with the Shoah’s ‘smashing to smithereens of humanism’ (Virilio, 2003: 29). The European avant-gardes were Nazi cruelty’s artistic forerunners: ‘the visual arts of that historical period never ceased TORTURING FORMS before making them disappear in abstraction. Similarly others would not cease TORTURING BODIES afterwards to the tune of the screams of the tortured prior to their asphyxiation inside the gas chambers’ (Virilio, 2003: 87). Virilio asks, ‘Contemporary art, sure, but contemporary with what?’ (2003: 27). Roughly contemporary with Nazism, abstract art culminates painting’s murder of representational art’s icons of the human.

‘TORTURING FORMS’ parallels ‘TORTURING BODIES’: argument by broad analogy characterizes Art and Fear. Virilio weaves together striking juxtapositions, disconcerting quotes from artists, and summary ethical judgements: ‘PITILESS, contemporary art … shows all the impropriety of profaners and torturers, all the arrogance of the executioner’ (2003: 36). Readers may wonder how much argumentative weight Virilio’s repeated use of italics, boldface type, and capitalization can carry. But could Virilio utilize dispassionate expository prose? Such prose would insult Virilio’s moral urgency. Anything but an academic treatise, Art and Fear would be a prophetic cry in the wilderness. But still: why is non-representational art ‘torture’? How exactly does the avant-gardes’ ‘torture’ of the artistic representation of humans significantly relate to the torture of human bodies?

The icon’s theological aesthetics provide an answer. Conceptually and traditionally, the icon’s aesthetics derive from Christ’s incarnation. The Word became flesh, and, like the Eucharist, only if an icon performs incarnation does it merit veneration. For Virilio, representational art can evoke pity and so be pious, at least in part because Virilio thinks representation in relation to the Christian icon. Desecrating the Eucharist savages Christ’s flesh. Eucharistically manifesting Christ’s body, the sacred icon aesthetically performs the incarnation to which the icon refers. In destroying the icon’s sacredness, iconoclasts pave the way for the violation of the body’s sacredness.

Flaunting their impiety and acting as their own ‘torturers’, contemporary ‘body artists’ earn Virilio’s condemnation. Stelarc recalls ‘a certain Dr Josef Mengele’, and Orlan’s performances are ‘Baroque surgical mutilations’ (Virilio, 2003: 43; Virilio, 2002: 76). Rendering their bodies canvases for techno-surgical aesthetic experiments, Stelarc and Orlan nihilistically void the body’s iconicity. Orlan states that her ‘Carnal Art transforms the body into language, reversing the Christian principle of “the word made flesh”’ so that ‘the flesh is made word. Only the voice of Orlan remains unchanged’ (1996-7). Deploying ‘epidurals, local anaesthetics and multiple analgesics’, Orlan’s surgeries proceed while Orlan is conscious, so that she may speak as surgeons open her body: ‘long live morphine! Pain is defeated! … I can observe my own body cut open, without suffering! … I see myself all the way down to my entrails’ (1996-7). The voice as the body become language, a body that would reverse the incarnation, a voice expressing an aesthetic response to the created body disincarnated of the Word (Christ) and iconoclastically cut open: for Virilio, Orlan’s is the voice of an art frighteningly divorced from pity.

To Virilio’s disgust, the ‘impiety of art‘ spurns ethical restraint (2003: 44). If art can breach an ethical limit, art’s impiety presses it to do so, and no impiety (except perhaps idolatry) exceeds killing: ‘POLITICS, like ART, has limits … democratic freedom of expression stops at the edge of an abyss, on the brink of the call to murder‘(2003: 96). Like the politics of ethnic cleansing that raged ‘for ten years in the Balkans’, art’s impiety surpasses the limits of ‘democratic freedom’ (Virilio, 2003: 96). Just as calls for murder are illegal, so perhaps should be art that constitutes such a call. Virilio contemplates censorship, especially of ‘snuff’ art, but Virilio finds ‘snuff’ culture almost ubiquitous. ‘SNUFF LITERATURE’, ‘SNUFF MOVIES’, ‘SNUFF VIDEO’, and ‘SNUFF DANCE’ manifest contemporary art’s prevailing ‘snuff’ ethos (2003: 56-7). Orlan aesthetically enjoying her vivisected body epitomizes a culture of ‘THANATOPHILIA that would revive the now forgotten fascist slogan: VIVA LA MUERTA!‘(Virilio, 2003: 58).

Art and Fear prompts mass culture’s consumers again to ask: why do many filmmakers and TV-directors strain to depict, ever more graphically, the shooting, burning, stabbing, raping, and mutilation of human bodies? For example, America’s top-rated TV drama, CSI, about Las Vegas crime scene investigators, specializes in stylized yet grotesque images of murdered persons. The camera lingers over autopsy’s technical procedures. As the coroner explains the wounds to the investigator, anatomically detailed animation of remarkable verisimilitude depicts the relevant weapon penetrating the skin and destroying muscles, organs, bones, and nerves. Taking neither the victim’s nor the murderer’s perspective, CSI‘s camera trains viewers to appreciate the aesthetics of wound creation.

Even if Art and Fear succeeds in provoking readers to reconsider contemporary art and culture, many questions remain. What are we to make of Virilio’s Christian humanist revaluation of representational art? Sophisticated thinkers have found avant-garde art’s exploration of representation’s limits to resist the nihilistic legacy Virilio associates with fascism. Jean-François Lyotard comes to mind. Did not both Nazism and Stalinism persecute avant-garde art and artists while promoting official representational art? Virilio favors representative government, but European and American representative governments’ innocence of the violence Virilio deplores is anything but certain. The benignity of representationalist notions of art and culture is questionable. For example, a very strong case can be made that the humanist notion of art as representation promulgated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Stuart Mill was inseparable from British colonialism.

Many will find Art and Fear an intolerably blunt instrument. Virilio quotes Mark Rothko as stating that he ‘trapped the most absolute violence‘in his works (2003: 38). Virilio discusses none of Rothko’s paintings, much less how Rothko’s statement illuminates any particular Rothko canvas. Rather, for Virilio, this statement confirms that Rothko’s suicide was an inevitable consequence of Rothko’s rejection of human form’s representation. By committing suicide, Rothko exercised ‘the most nihilistic of freedoms of expression: that of SELF-DESTRUCTION’ (Virilio, 2003: 38).

In conclusion, Art and Fear gives readers new insights into Virilio’s understanding of war, technology, and art. Though Virilio finds contemporary art and culture nihilistically impious, American televangelists are unlikely to embrace Art and Fear. For readers sympathetic with recent critiques and deconstructions of humanism and representation, Art and Fear will be a useful provocation


Armitage, J. (2003) ‘Art and Fear: An Introduction’, in P. Virilio, Art and Fear. Trans. J. Rose. London and New York: Continuum.

Orlan. (1996-7) ‘Carnal Art’, Transcript: A Journal of Visual Culture 2:2

Virilio, P. (1981) The Aesthetics of Disappearance. Trans. P. Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e).

Virilio, P. (1989) War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. Trans. P. Camiller. London and New York: Verso.

Virilio, P. (1995). The Art of the Motor. Trans. J. Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Virilio, P. (2002) Ground Zero. Trans. C. Turner. London and New York: Verso.

Virilio, P. (2003) Art and Fear. Trans. J. Rose. London and New York: Continuum.

Virilio, P. & Lotringer S. (1983) Pure War. Trans. M. Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e).

Robert S. Oventile is Assistant Professor of English at Pasadena City College, Pasadena, California, USA. He attended Pasadena City College, where he first became a student of literature, and went on to the University of California at Berkeley (BA, English) and the University of California at Irvine (Ph.D., English). His essays have appeared in Postmodern CultureComitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance StudiesThe Review of Communication, and inside english. He is currently writing a book to be titled (Im)possible Pedagogies: Reading Literature after Diversity.