Not so invincible

Phillip Bounds reviews Paul Virilio, 'Desert screen: war at the speed of light', Continuum, 2002, pp148, £12.99

Like Jean Baudrillard, a thinker with whom he has much in common, Paul Virilio is a modish French academic who sees industrial civilisation as a sort of apocalypse in waiting. Nearly 30 years as director of the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture in Paris has done nothing to deepen his faith in human creativity. Gazing out at a world of satellites, aeroplanes and televisions, he comes to only one conclusion - we are all the "consenting victims" of the machinery that will destroy us.

Virilio blames most of our problems on what cultural theorists call "time-space compression". He insists that the distinguishing feature of modern culture is the ability to traverse vast areas of space in very short periods. This can either be done literally (by jumping in a car, train or plane) or purely at the perceptual level (by using electronic media to beam images from thousands of miles away into our domestic spaces).

The problem with this culture is that it alienates us from the places in which we live, blunts our curiosity and makes us immune to regional loyalties. And with the disappearance of regional loyalties goes the weakening of all those collective ties (eg, of class, race and gender) which tend to go with them. Virilio evidently sees the modern human as little more than a perpetually moving atom, obsessed with speed and incapable of working in groups. Desert screen is Virilio's attempt to extend his critique of space-time compression to the sphere of warfare. Consisting of a series of articles which Virilio contributed to the French press at the time of the first Gulf War, its implicit premise is that US imperialism has now achieved an unassailable position both at home and abroad. The sources of its unprecedented power are: (1) the surveillance technology which conveys military information across the world in the blink of an eye; and (2) the military hardware which enables the USA and its allies to target enemy action with unerring speed and precision.

Within seconds of an enemy commander issuing a hostile order (or even when preparatory movements of troops and weapons give a clear indication of what the order is likely to be), Washington will have heard about it and authorised a crushing response. As we saw on the opening night of the recent conflict, it is not even possible for Saddam Hussein to visit a Baghdad restaurant without having a cruise missile served up as his hors d'oeuvres - or so it was claimed.

Virilio also argues that the ability to crush opposition abroad is matched by a new power of bewitching opinion at home. In a culture of "global video production" in which Ted Turner is the "big boss", it is not only the military elite which has images of conflict beamed to it in real time - it is also the millions of viewers for whom TV is the primary source of information. Virilio's point is that instantaneous broadcasting is the enemy of democracy. Sucked into a televisual universe in which cities are bombed before our very eyes, we lose the ability to say j'accuse and become entirely seduced by the spectacle of absolute power.

There are several obvious objections to this counsel of despair. The most important is that modern surveillance technology is by no means as omniscient as Virilio implies. For all the satellites that have spied on Iraq over the last 20 years, no one was able to tell us where Saddam kept his weapons of mass destruction - assuming they existed. And no one can tell us today where Saddam himself is.

Nor is it the case that advanced weapons always confer total power on the countries which possess them. If the USA is indeed to impose its will on the various 'rogue states' in Asia and the Middle East, it will have to commit itself to an endless round of air attacks, ground invasions and military occupations. As Niall Ferguson and others have pointed out, it is most unlikely that the American electorate, raised on a diet of fast food and trash TV, would be willing to tolerate this state of affairs for very long. Instead of lolling uncritically in front of instantaneous broadcasts from the battle front, they would be just as likely to recoil from what they saw and adopt a militant isolationism.

Virilio's admirers would probably claim that his work is a form of science fiction, warning us about what might happen if modern trends are allowed to continue. No doubt this is true, but overestimating the power of the western states is a dangerous business. If imperialism is not exactly a paper tiger, it is still a lot less invincible than this interesting book would have us believe.