Urban, All Too Urban by Paul Virilio (bootleg translation)
“Strategic bombardments are indispensable to the analysis of the urban phenomenon…”
The following excerpt from Paul Virilio’s L’insécurité du territoire was published almost exactly one century after Nietzsche’s Human all too Human. Nietzsche’s work promoted a departure from the heavy methodological systematisation of his day, and saw him fully embrace the aphoristic form of philosophical inquiry. In aphorism 22 he describes an almost suffocating vision in which the scale of human life has become increasingly limited to a non-transcendental universe:
“One crucial disadvantage about the end of metaphysical views is that the individual looks his own short life span too squarely in the eye and feels no strong incentive to build on enduring institutions, designed for the ages.”
100 years later, after the chasmic ravaging of the European landscape of the 20th Century, it seems that Paul Virilio had exactly this crippling sense of human limitation in mind, this same inability to conceive enduring institutions designed for the ages. War, and its effects upon human cohabitation accelerate this post-metaphysical limitation to stellar degrees of ubiquity.
It seemed a shame to leave it untranslated, so here you go:
Urban, all too urban
I remember that balcony in Nantes, on the rue St-Jacques, a factory chimney emerged from behind the façade of the building across the road. Aligned with its smoke, I navigated like a captain at the helm… Those days, everything came or went from horizon to horizon: the refugees from the north who passed through the Loire towards the freezone (exodus), an armed column of invaders popping up one afternoon, after the retreat of the English at Saint-Nazaire. Those long lines of vehicles, abandoned upon the streets, empty.
That ominous plane, shot down, which a long succession of onlookers came to contemplate, as if coming from another world. Another epoch was commencing, that of the sky put to use, put into practice, into conquest… All those people looking into the air, abandoning their labours as soon as the noise of an aircraft, high and far-off, made itself heard: another world.
The aerial spectacle, the cat-and-mouse chase of the fighter planes, the screeching Stuka’s vertical dive meant to terrify the ground, just as one wears hideous markings in primitive warfare, the primitive sky of the second war. The mysterious night alarms when nothing came to pass except for the black-out and the furtive sneaking towards the walkways and shelters of the town’s inhabitants. The joy of the unfamiliar… everything moved, was exchanged, bartered: uniforms, goods, things, languages, come and go, hello, goodbye, from here to there, from one to the other, mobilised.
I remember, upon that balcony, not far from the bridges of the river Loire, an acquaintance calling me from the opposite footpath, and myself replying to him, all the while imagining that which was his vision at that moment… games of the mind and of space, of the dimensions low to high, from here to there, transparence and ubiquity, movement, the future and the future-now [l’advenir et l’advenir présent dès maintenant]. The conflict of a war, effectively global between sky and earth, ruptured and overcome for the first time.
Transparency was embodied in those goings and comings, those bursts, those artificial clouds, that immense dark smoke, immobile, suspended above the town after the bombardment. That crimson tissue turning slowly in descent, the raining thousands of silver shells that we pursued like gifts from somewhere else. The pamphlets, news from the other world.
We did not properly foresee the advent of the above, the saturation of space to the detriment of the below, perennially fascinated as we are by the inside and outside.
Our daily life, horizontal and bi-dimensional. The length, the perspective according to the horizon, the flattening, henceforth perceptible, which was to upturn all, flip the head over heels, ideas, customs, means and men.
The destroyed cities were not made so by accident, by cruelty; besides the strategic considerations of the aerial offensive, equally implicit is the fact that these cities had forever punctuated the conquest of the earth.
From the tiniest town to the hugest capital, these cities were to be the ports of a new coastline: the vertical. The point of descent in the spatial range, infinity began at rooftop-level [au ras des toits].
This enormous overturning of the world did not sufficiently warn us, we’ve been caught up in it ever since, unknowingly, we live leaning limply against the earth, we’re askew, we stumble unceasingly, unknowingly. The plane that flies overhead slices through our route. We stagger like the bent hominoid, primates, our objects and constructions are already unusable, uninhabitable: the depth of the sky gives us vertigo, but we don’t even know what it means when we sense the dread and attraction of distances, the agoraphobia responsible for the conquests of Empire and the claustrophobia that serves to this day to repress our enemies, to sequester our friends. Vertigo and freedom are not synonymous. The ceilings preserve us… yet no one has considered that they limit us better than walls. When we move in the street or in the field, our step is comparable to natation. We contemplate the background, recumbent, we escape into slumber where our dreams repeat the geometry of the day before, and when briskly we fall, we find ourselves standing, awake, facing the horizon.
The hominoid, upon its four members, never contemplated its feet, it looked straight ahead; straightening itself up, only its body moved in manual effort. One must still straighten the head, cease the narcissistic consideration of one’s hands and their works, in order to see the deep expanse of space without horizon, with the time as the final landmark. The stretched expanse above our heads, our roofs, is already a field of action, a barely known field but one which we must learn to put into practice if we want to begin all over again…
The horizon of regional or national appropriation hides that of range and duration. The horizon’s line is the first frontier of mankind, the worst (la pire). The blue line of the Vosges is the line of fire (la ligne de mire). “My future is the country that lays before me”, wrote Apollinaire in the poems of the first war.
The articulation of our relationships is based upon this flattening, upon this crushing weight of the sky that constrains us to horizontal escape; all of our past conflicts originate in the flat, worldly, land. The nazi Lebensraum was nothing but the last avatar of this geographic archaism. Hitler himself recognized it as such, where he avowed, just before the end of the war: “Why did I never dare to believe in the conquest of space…? If we had already had our rockets in 1939, the war would never even have been…” In effect, war would have been useless.
We have seen what follows, the passage to sidereal imperialism between the Soviets and the Americans, reconciled by technological adventure. But what has changed, perceptibly? Nothing, or almost nothing for the commoner… almost everything for the dominator. Formerly, the height of the turret indicated the range of the lordly estate, currently the altitude of the orbital watchtowers signals the range of planetary imperialism, and the city pursues its goalless appropriation… They walk over us, but we don’t go anywhere. Sedimentary, our societies cover and recover the preceding. More and more, we sense our enclosure within the horizontal borders of mankind, they speak of the science of habitat, of ecology; it would be a matter, they say, of conserving the equilibrium of the elements… but where is the place of expanse and duration in this new science? The recognition of the limits of habitat forces us into a consideration of the relation of here to there, of one to the other: put succinctly, which orientation are we to choose? Which mode of duration… which range? Will we have the freedom to re-orient ourselves?
The second war was my mother, my father. The extremity of the lived situations instructed me. It’s not a matter of complacent violences, like that decapitated head in the gutter or those trucks of dead and wounded ascending the street (my street) towards the Saint-Jacques hospital after the destruction of the Hôtel-Dieu, but of a vision of the world, inalterable. The second war is a reservoir of meaning indispensable to the understanding of our second peace.
The historical advent of the sky; the height, henceforth common; the above, present and omnipresent starting from year 40. Strategic bombardments are indispensable to the analysis of the urban phenomenon. It does not consist of a morbid taste for cataclysm, but rather of the cruel necessity for clinical consideration of the agony of cities in order to foresee the future construction, new life. Towns, mirrors, agonies, mirror games of the destructuration-construction of mortal life and living death.
I remember the month of September, 1943. That same morning I had been to the rue du Calvaire, in that street teeming with life, in those shops brimming with objects, with toys… that night, everything had disappeared, excised by the event, the event on top of the event, the war upon the peace of the everyday: the main street of a city – hundreds of kilometers from any front, bustling with the most diverse uses, with exchanges and with collusions, with the sun on the footpathes and the reflections in the shopfronts, had become Verdun. Untimely, everything had moved; buildings, perspectives disappeared; the rows of façades, volatilised… the sky, the transparency and the shadow of the ruins in the midst of piles of pebbles and rubble.
That which educated me, it wasn’t the horror of those buried alive in the basements, asphyxiated by ruptured gas pipes, drowned by the burst water mains (basically, since, whenever an alert sounded, I refused to descend into the shelters, preferring the gardens and courtyards, prefering to risk the impact of the blasts than the enclosure by rubble), but rather that sudden transparency, this change in the view of urban space, this motility of the inanimate, of the built.
Besides, the situation of French citizens was surprising, the enemy cohabited here below in the pacific everyday, even if ordinary life was from time to time punctuated by his excesses; he was there, next to us, made banal by the years of occupation, whilst the allies, ours, dumped their bombs all over the town. Paradoxically, however, it was impossible to condemn those who, from the heavens, crushed the tranquil assurance of everyday habits. The greatest horror, the most appalling crimes, the victims’ innocence, the fatal levelling of urban silhouettes, all of this seemed acceptable if not friendly…
Strange reality where death itself could not be condemned for the fact of ideological conflict. From that moment, it did not require much time to pass from that paradox to the following: the brutal vanishing of the urban décor was also an acceptable fact, a necessary dépaysement [change of scene / disorientation / exile], a forwards fleeting: in brief, an information, like those pamphlets raining upon us.
But one must not forget the infancy of the witness who played this grievous reality and collected the wreckages of the sky: blasts of bombs, of shells, weapon fins from the allied projectiles, pamphlets, windows, the debris of shot-down aircraft, like so many relics of another world, the allied world from which we were all exiled in this pseudo-everyday of the German occupation. Provisional our reality like our freedom, provisional the city that a tragic instant demolishes. The important, the durable, comes from elsewhere, from above; the sky and space are doubly the place of transcendence and ‘excedence’ [dépassement]. To watch the shining points of planes in the azure, to listen to the deaf rumbling of squadrons of flying fortresses, is to be elsewhere, with one’s people, exiled to the ground, the hour of ascension still to come.
The traces of condensation from the four-engines seemed to us like the signs of a language. Of course, one must protect oneself, escape if possible from death, but the sky is right: if we were to die, it would be by error, the bombardiers who navigate so high only desire the destruction of the décor’s fixture, of the facilities, to make our habitat transparent, which is to say corresponding to the space of their flight.
“Jéricho”, the anti-prison operation is the keystone of all the bombardments of the occupied zone. We are the prisoners not simply of the occupying forces, but also of the walls of our cities, they are our own constructions which serve to sequester us from one zone to the other. From that realisation, it did not take long to deduce that the liberation would also be the abolition of the city, of this treacherous city that could so easily turn itself against its population. For many young people, despite a tragic sentiment, the ruin of the cities was not as grave as one might suppose; the friends, the allies, had mutated us into so many Néros contemplating the torching of Rome.
Everything moves with the apparition of the sky in history, in the 20th Century. Our homeland is movement… but watch out! Not necessarily displacement [déplacement], there is even a debate pronounced between these terms with the question of displaced peoples, deportation. Exodus is different from obligatory displacement, this difference is essential to the understanding of the movement that initiates here. We’ve seen it, it’s firstly the sense of the environment which moves in relation to the zenith. It’s also the declared impossibility of being able to condemn totally the destruction of the milieu, which valorises the meaning of the event: the very fact that the enemies co-inhabit down below symmetrically devalues those here to the benefit of the beyond, of the allied above. Just as the sea yesterday unknown becomes the element allied to the navigator, space, the unpractised sky of yesterday becomes the milieu of man. The terrace and the roof become so many seawalls, from which we contemplate that which comes, and that which goes. The citizens are all of a sudden resemblant of the fisher’s family, in wait of that which comes or comes back from on high.
I remember another kind of game which consisted in gluing oneself to the façade of a building and, the eyes raised, watching fixedly the sliding by of the clouds. This quickly gave the feeling that the façade punctured by windows was upturning. I pursued this experience until the point of vertigo. The verticality de-materialised slowly, that which only dominated the confines of the landscape appeared short to our parallel view; perpendicular, to the ground which we barely saw any longer, elevation lost its meaning, altitude didn’t really count any more. The walls held us in, they literally crushed us, it was the height of the buildings which, in the collapse, buried their inhabitants.
The instability of this vertical orientation did not seem to us compensated by any advantage: one could burned alive up there without knowing it. We filled our attics with sand in order to avoid incendiary products unleashing running fire from the top to the bottom of the edifice. We lived in a house of cards, the city had become metastable, its buildings which, just yesterday, manifested the domination and hubris of the bourgeoissie, were rendered fragile in the extreme, and we were in the street a little like these sailors of the past who, docking alongside one another in multi-decked ships, feared at every moment that these would capsize them.
Capsize, this word reconstructs the exact situation. There was, moreover, a locomotive not far from the Pont-Rousseau depot, installed on the top of a hangar, a plane-tree upon the roof of a six-story building… sur-reality.
A factual sky, one which no longer completed the peace returned. Even if the social consensus was re-established, even if the pedestrian everyday [quotidienneté terre à terre] regained its rights, the pacficication served only to mask, as always, a new situation, and the reconstruction of European cities was only to be a repetition, an urban redundancy, a negation of the spatial fact made apparent during the course of the second world war (as you make your bed, so you must lie in it), only the armies, once again, will benefit from the event.
Imperceptibly, this aerial ocean in which the clouds flocked became the last natural element of the cities, after the vanishing of the vegetal, the rarity of the animal. But the profile of the urban coastline now reflected against an atmospheric element returned to its initial vacuity. It was the illusion of resuscitated cities, standing cadavers, symbols of the pseudo-society that had raised them.
Some wanted to reconstruct the cities elsewhere, next to their former implantations (Caen, for example); it was useless. Once evaporated, the cities, like the reverse projection of a collapse, fell back into place, into the same place… simplified but analogous, in their volume, smoother, higher, and the transparency of an instant discovered to be newly disappeared.
The sky above the roofs, the blue space changing to the rhythm of the season and the days now replacing the absent green space. We live henceforth at the edge of the atmosphere, literally at the limit of the world, at the aplomb of the void.
And while each turned to their customary occupations, strategic flights and aerial lines developed simultaneously as if the ‘Strategic Air Command’, Panam, Air France or Aéroflot no longer constituted a sole and identical company destined to colonise the new territory, to saturate it with waypoints and immaterial corridors.
For a moment, the creation of the aerial bridge at the occasion of Berlin’s blockade recalled the aero-portal character of every city, but then, once more, the sky was devalued, disqualified by the beginnings of the space-race, as if the sidereal conquests constituted a disconnect, as if a mysterious ceiling limited the value of space (one level, one story further, higher…). In fact, it was the very terms of altitude and apogee that lost their meaning, no longer able as they were to designate a last movement towards the void, towards the universal absence.
Then again, I remember that twilight when, watching the sun decline upon the horizon, I strained to forget the apparent movement in order to watch the line of the earth climb, like a crest at its zenith.