Criticizing Paul Virilio

In Panicsville: Paul Virilio and the Esthetic of Disaster, Nigel Thrift highlights the problematic tone of Virilio's work on modernity (his book City of Panic in particular). The author raises two issues: - Virilio's arguments are more jeremiads than an answer, which reminds me of Adam Greenfield statement that "nostalgia is for suckers" in his talk at PicNic 2007 (where he expressed that lamenting about the past of cities is not an answer). - The phenomenology of despair described by Virilio is not very well rooted in social or cultural research, as if the only evidence he was relying on were newspapers and books from other authors.

Some excerpts that I found interesting:

"Almost everything he says about the modern city would have to be seriously qualified or reconstructed or just plain retracted. (...) there is a veritable legion of careful empirical studies of information technology that very often show the polar opposite of what Virilio would have us believe. (...) each time he goes round the park, he exaggerates and this exaggeration is not just of the “well, this is an illustration of a general trend and should not be expected to play out equally everywhere,” or of the “well, take this as a warning of how things could become,” or of the “well, it won’t come to pass exactly like this but near to it” variety. It is systematic. And such systematic exaggeration is of more than mild concern. "

The sort of myth Thrift debunks here are for example:

"a common rule in this literature is “the more virtual the more real” (Woolgar 2002), that is, the introduction of new “virtual” technologies can actually stimulate more of the corresponding “real” activity. (...) The idea that increasing speed somehow has causality is an urban myth so deeply engrained in Western individuals’ idea of themselves and how they are that it is probably not dislodgeable – but that doesn’t mean that philosophers have to power it up."

Why do I blog this? Having read (and enjoyed) some books written by Paul Virilio, I was interested in these critiques. They actually echo my feelings about that author. Somehow, I have the same impression with all the books I have read in the same vein (mostly from french sociologist/thinkers/philosophers) such as Jacques Ellul, they are inspiring, they point to interesting issues but they're often exaggerating or hyperbolic ("forcer le trait"). And generally, it's because of the distance between the author and what happens down there. This is sometimes atrocious, when you read books from thinkers speculating about web2.0, television or video games and you definitely know that those persons are not using these technologies (some still call radio "TSF", the word employed 50 years ago in France).

Thrift, N. (2005). Panicsville: Paul Virilio and the Esthetic of Disaster, Cultural Politics, 1(3). 337-348.