Paul Virilio, “The Overexposed City,” 1984.
Paul Virilio’s essay about the collapsing of space by (digital) technology is, perhaps, the most strikingly odd text encountered thus far in the Michael Hays anthology—not for its syntax or style or content, per se, but for the context. If Foucault taught us that traditional geographic space was drastically reshaped by industry and capital, then Virilio teaches us that technology continued to subvert our spatial illusion and the world of telecommunication is one where time is the measure of distance, not space. What is so striking about this text is that Virilio is talking about a technological world of fax machines, landlines, desktop computers, and television—technologies that, by now, have long been supplanted by portable digital devices that enrich and access the digital medium of the city in ways he couldn’t even have imagined. The result is a text that reads as extraordinarily prescient and simultaneously overreaching, as both visionary and waspishly resistant. Virilio’s overexposed city is a complex beyond geographic, literal urban concentrations and is, instead, one composed of proximities in time, as technology allows for both transparency and simultaneity across physical boundaries.
Virilio’s essay is part analysis, part manifesto, part dystopia, and the various strands are difficult to separate—made only more so by the actual, interim history of his subject matter. Initially, it seems helpful to use Foucault’s history of space as a light, the aid of which casts certain things into clearer definition. According to Foucault, once upon a time there were territories that included the urban center. With advancing industrialism and transportation technology, vast geographic distances of, say, the state were shrunk into a sudden proximity and the metaphor of the capitol city was applied to whole territories. This, in turn, not only had industrial implications but also cultural and sociological.
Likewise, the advent of cultural and social technologies—television, fax, tollbooths, or whatever—had severe implications for the idea of Space, but while Foucault’s space became a medium of power, Virilio recounts the replacement of Space with Time. This trick is also fairly easy to understand by itself, and it may be easiest to use the analogy of daily news. First, digital technologies are practically instantaneous, even when transmitting across the world. Consequently, any distance across the world is effectively rendered irrelevant by the immediacy of its availability. When watching the World Cup, for example, the physical space from here to there is irrelevant.
Secondly, just as any single distance is irrelevant, so too are the time zones of any destination. I can see news updates with a nighttime backdrop of Palestine and see daytime updates from California in juxtaposed news segments. In this way daily time, as a factor of physical information, also becomes irrelevant. What matters is the immediacy of information, what Virilio calls a ‘”permanent present.” Hays goes on to break down Virilio’s later work that equates the overexposed city to the body, equally porous to—for lack of a better word—radiation.
The remaining matter of the essay is given over to tracking different threads within and beyond these two fundamental parts—the permanent present and the collapsing of physical space into units of time, together summarized as the “law of proximity.” By far the most fascinating is the obliteration of architectural materiality or opacity. With technology—specifically with television, for Virilio, but even more so with the internet and smart devices—the architectural surface is no longer capable of resistance or privacy; the great wide world is brought right into your cathode ray television box. (lol.)
Instead, Virilio—in a quasi-apocalyptic, oracular tone—sees an altogether different body emerge:
“With the intense acceleration of telecommunications, the old city disappears, only to give birth to a new form of concentration: the concentration of residentialization without residence, in which property lines, enclosures and partitions are no longer the result of permanent physical obstacles but of interruptions of an emission or of an electronic shadow zone which mimics sunshine and the shadows of buildings.”
In this world, the only opacity that remains, that which has taken the place of architectural surface material (facades), is a glitch in transmission, the instances when information is delayed for microseconds, like a 20-minute window where YouTube or Facebook is down. “Opacity,” Virilio says, “is no longer anything but a momentary ‘interlude.’”
Another fascinating thread has to do with development of the urban fabric. If the “City” no longer resides in its physical urban fabric but in the instantaneous transmission of its parties, then all kinds of ruinous visions become possible for buildings, developments, and infrastructure. Virilio discusses these possibilities and their capitalistic relationships briefly, but each two-sentence paragraph is fascinating. Likewise the brief provocation of cinematography and aviation that compose the closing paragraphs of this essay.
As mentioned above, it is difficult to separate Virilio’s original agenda from events that have occurred in the interim 3 decades, and his tone—part Rem Koolhaas, part William Blake—doesn’t help focus our attention. There are many specific applications of the “law of proximity” to architecture and the city, mostly on a social level that precipitates the suspicion that Virilio is partially talking about a near future that never quite came to be, or that was quickly overcome. One such example is the nature of the Monument in the Overexposed City, defined not by physical dimensions but the amount of time and people waiting in line to access technological portals like phone booths. With Monuments, then, we can see the direct relation to architectural theory we are familiar with (like Rossi), as well as how Virilio’s almost-right predictions obfuscate the point.