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20 October 2008

From: Patrice Riemens [mailto:patrice[at]]
Sent: 20 October 2008 10:16
Subject: Paul Virilio on the current financial crisis

As the Dutch would have it, you could bet taking poison on that Paul Virilio would have something to say about the current financial crisis, the perfect illustration, if there is one, of his long announced "integral accident" - or that he would be asked to talk. This is what the French newspaper of record, "Le Monde" did last week-end, resulting in the following interview by Gerard Courtois and Michel Guerrin.

(French original at:

For thirty years now, the philospher Paul Virilio has analyzed the catastrophe as the unavoidable consequence of technological progress. He sees in the current financial crisis the most accomplished example of his theory, a catastrophe where the victims do not actually die, but lose the roofs above their heads by the thousands.

Gerard Courtois/Michel Guerrin:

In 2002 you have produced an exhibition at the Maison Cartier under the title "Ce qui arrive" ('that which occurs'). It was about the accident in contemporary history: Tchernobyl, 9-11, the Tsunami... A statement by Hannah Arendt was the banner of your demonstration: "progress and catastrophe are the two faces of the same coin". Is this where we have come to with the 'crash of the stock exchange'?

Paul Virilio:

Well, of course. In 1979, at the time of the mishap at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the U.S., I did mention the occurence of an "original accident" - the kind of accident we bring forth ourselves. I said that our technical prowess was pregnant with catastrophic promises. In the past, accidents were local affairs. With Tchernobyl, we have entered the era of global accidents, whose consequences are in the realm of the long term. The current crash represents the perfect 'integral accident'.

Its effect ripples far and wide, and it incorporates the representation of all other accidents.

For thirty years now, the phenomenon of History accelerating has been negated, together with the fact that this acceleration has been the prime mover of the proliferation of major accidents. Freud said it, speaking of death: "accumulation snuffs out the perception of contingency".

Contingency is the key word here. These accidents are not contigent occurences. For the time being, the prevalent opinion is that researching the crash of the stock exchange as a political and economic issue and in terms of its social consequences is adequate enough. But it is impossible to understand what is going on if one does not implement a (policy based on the) political economy of speed, the speed that technological progress engenders, and if one does not link (this policy) to the 'accidental' character of History.

Let's take just one example: the dictum "time is money". I add to this, and the stock exchange testifies to it: "speed is power". We have moved from the stage of the acceleration of History to that of the acceleration of the Real. This is what 'progress' is: a consensual sacrifice.


So accidents are too little researched?


The dominant form of writing about History limits itself to the study of facts as seen in the light of the long term. Contrariwise, I advocate a study of History based exlusively on ruptures.  (French) Historian Francois Hartog calls the dominant paradigm "presentism". We must go further. Our paradigm should be "instantaneousism".

In order to study accidents, one of course must research them, but also 'expose' them. The accident is 'invented', it a work of creation. Who could be more apt than artists to evoke the tragic dimension of human development (progress)? That was the intent behind the "ce qui arrive" exhibition - where, by the way, I did mention a stock exchange crash. It stood for the museum, or the observatory, of major accidents that I'd like to see coming about some day. Not in order to instill fear, but to make us face up.


But then, how would you define the crash of the stock exchange, over and beyond its surprise element?


Like with any contemporary event, it is essential to take into account the integration in synchronous time of various issues at the world-level. A synchronisation has taken place of customs, habits, mores, ways to react to things, and also, of emotions. We have left the era of class-based communitarism for that of instant and  simultaneous globalisation of affects and fears - but no longer of opinions. It was already the case with the attacks on the World Trade Center and with the Tsunami. The same happens now with the financial crash. After a short 'technical' phase - bank collapses, shares falling - kicks in a phase of 'hysteria-isation' of responses. There is talk of "markets going mad", of "irrational" reactions, you'd almost call it 'end of the world craze'. Terrorists have very well understood this mechanism, and they make use of it.


Do you, like some people do, believe that capitalism is nearing its end?


I rather believe that the end is nearing capitalism. My field is urban studies. This crisis shows that the Earth is not large enough for progress, for the speed of History (as we have it). Hence repetitive accidents. We were living in the belief that we had both a past and a future. But 'the past does not pass', it has become a monster, so much so that we do not mention it anymore. And as far as the future is concerned, it is severely questionned by the issue of the environment, and the end of natural resources like oil. So the only place left for us to inhabit is the present. But the writer Octavio Paz said it before: "you cannot live in the present moment, just as you cannot live in the future". It is excatly what all of us are now going through, and that includes the bankers.


But did not the financial world bring about (invent) a virtual world?


Since speed earns money, the financial sphere has attempted to enforce the value of time above the value of space. But the virtual is also part and parcel of reality. And to be frank with you, this so-called virtual world, in which one can also include tax-heavens,  is a form of exoticism which I tend to equate with colonialism. It is the (recurrent) myth of another livable planet.


As opposed to other accidents, the crash of the stock exchange remains something of an enigma to the public at large. Is this bad?


Well, one does not understand the fine points, but one can guess, and that is enough. One must guess (about) what occurs. Not being able to understand naturally reinforces fear. But, at the same time, we no longer have enough time left to experience fear. What is really disturbing is the rise of a 'civil deterrence' of sorts, which is individual and intimate, and which permeates all aspects of life. We are being deterred to do this or that as individuals. Ever since 9-11 we have been affected by a 'civil fear', and the industrialisation of the accident is its root cause. So, in order to study the impact of collisions, car makers stage 'test crashes'. The crash of the stock exchange is such a test crash - but at the real level. Even the break-up of relationships has been industrialised. One could even introduce some mechanism of quotes for divorces, risking hereby to show that the traditional couple and familly has become an illusion.


Could one also speak of a morality of the stock exchange crash, in the sense that also those who were making fortunes get blasted?


I am not a vigilante. I do empathise with critics who say that some people have made obscene profits. I do not deny the damage caused by the accumulation of riches in a few hands. But to merely criticise this acceleration of profits and History, this "galloping avarice", as Eugene Sue called it, while remaining in the materialist framework of profit, is a deficient, reductionist analysis.

What is happening is much more complex, and profoundly disturbing. We have gone into someting of a different nature. This economy of wealth has become an economy of speed. By the way, this is the problem the Left is currently facing. The Left is stuck in its old framework, states that capitalism is dead, and now thinks that more social justice will come about. This is a bit hasty deduction. We do really have a major problem on our plates.

If the state does not take stock of this 'futurism of the moment', we might well see instead a capitalism runing riot without bounds whatsoever.


You wrote once "By designing an 800-passengers airplane, the firm Airbus has simultaneously created 800 potential casualties". But till now, the crash of the stock exchange did not kill anyone.


The crash is not the Black Death, there haven't been millions of victims, and it's not the 11th of September either. We are not talking death here, save maybe a few suicides. The victims are somewhere else to be found.

Where did the current crisis stem from? the answer is: subprime mortgages; housing credit that proved unsustainable; land. The victims are the hundred of thousands of people who are going to lose their homes. The whole concept of sedentarism had already been challenged by immigrants, exiles, deportations, refugees - and the delocalisation of economic activities. This phenomenon is bound to increase. Till 2040, one billion people will have to move out from their their residence. Those are the victims. We are in the realm of "stop/eject". People are arrested, get expelled.


You believe in chaos?


Having destabilised the financial system, the stock exchange crash might well destabilise the state, which is the guarantor of last resort of collective life. For the time being, the state tries te be reassuring. But if the bourses keep on heading South, it will be state itself that will go in receivership, and that will plunge nations into chaos. This is not me embracing catastrophism. I do not believe in the unavoidability of the worst possible, I do not believe in chaos, that is an untenable position, intellectual arrogance. But that does not mean that one should be prevented from thinking about it. Faced with absolute fear, I counter with hope absolute. Churchill said once that an optimist is somebody who sees opportunity hiding behind every calamity.

Translated by Patrice Riemens.

With thanks to apo33 in Nantes for providing facilitation.

Original article in Le Monde at:


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