Virilio used to be director of a school of architecture. He became relatively well-known as a philosopher of ``dromocracy": he frequently refers to velocity and related notions. But one sincerely wonders how much he understand his own words. Let us start with a typical example, which, however, is not the worst:
How can we account for this situation? It is necessary to introduce the specter of a new kind of interval, the interval of light (or zero-sign). In fact, in relativity the revolution of this third ``interval" is in itself a sort of imperceptible cultural revolution. If the interval of Time (a positive sign) and the interval of Space (a negative sign) have given impetus to the geography and the history of the world through geometrical measurement of agrarian space (allotment into parcels of land) and urban areas (cadastral surveys), the organization of the calendar and measurement of time (clocks and watches) have also presided over a vast political and chronological regulation of human societies. The sudden emergence of an interval of the third type thus signals that we are undergoing an abrupt qualitative shift, a profound mutation of the relations that as humans we are keeping with our living environment. Time (duration) and Space (extension) are now inconceivable without Light (absolute speed), the cosmological constant of the speed of light. [Virilio (1993)]
Here Virilio refers to the space-time intervals used in the Special Theory of Relativity, which are neither intervals in space nor intervals in time, without explaining what they conceivably have to do with ``the geography and the history of the world". But the rest of the text is more surprising:
Since the beginning of this century, the absolute limit of the speed of light has, as it were, enlightened space and time together. We are therefore no longer dealing so much with light that illuminates things (the object, the subject, and travel) as with the constant character of its absolute speed, which conditions the phenomenal apperception of the world's duration and extension. We do well to heed the physicist who speaks of the logic of particles: ``A representation is defined by a sum of observables that are flickering back and forth." [A representation is defined by a complete set of commuting observables.] The macroscopic logic of the techniques of real time could not better describe the macroscopic logic of this sudden ``teletopical commutation" that perfects what until now had been the fundamentally ``topical" quality of the old human city. [Virilio (1993), pp. 5-6]
Note first that I have inserted in italics the correct translation from the French of Virilio's text. This is a standard technical sentence copied from a quantum-mechanics textbook (he refers to a book by G. Cohen Tannoudji and M. Spiro, La matière espace-temps, Paris, Fayard, 1986). But this sentence is not easy to understand, unless one studies mathematics and physics for a while, and it has nothing to do with ``real time", ``macroscopic logic" (it is about microphysics) and even less with ``the old human city". Obviously here, Virilio knows that he does not know what he is talking about. Yet he is taken seriously by commentators (see below), editors and readers.
Other hilarious quotes include:
...it now seems appropriate to reconsider the notions of acceleration and deceleration (what physicists call positive and negative speeds). [Virilio (1993)]
Confusing acceleration and velocity is not bad, especially for an expert on ``dromocracy"! Finally:
...but instead of elemental particles (electrons and photons) that are transmitted at the speed of light. [Virilio (1989)]
But electrons never go at the speed of light! If they did, it would violate the theory of relativity that Virilio likes so much.
Here is an evaluation of Virilio's work in the main intellectual French newspaper:
With an astonishing erudition, which combines space-distances and time-distances, this researcher opens up an important field of philosophical questions that he calls ``dromocracy" (from the Greek dromos: speed).[Le Monde (1984)]
And in a review of a collective book where the quote on the ``flickering observables" appeared, one reads:
Re-thinking Technologies constitutes a significant contribution to the analysis of techno-cultures today. It will definitely contradict those who still think that postmodernity is merely a fashionable term or an empty fad. The nagging opinion that cultural and critical theory is ``too abstract," hopelessly removed from reality, devoid of ethical values and above all incompatible with erudition, systematic thinking, intellectual rigor and creative criticism, will simply be pulverized. ... This collection assembles some of the most recent and fresh work by leading culture critics and theoreticians of the arts and sciences, such as Paul Virilio, Félix Guattari, ...[Gabon (1994), pp. 119-120]
Frankly, more striking arguments will be needed in order to ``pulverize" our nagging opinions.