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[Nettime-bold] CTHEORY Article 90[1] - Paul Virilio Hypermodern

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Subject: CTHEORY Article 90[1] - Paul Virilio Hypermodern


 Article 90[1]  15-11-00  Editors: Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

 Beyond Postmodernism? [Part 1]
 Paul Virilio's Hypermodern Cultural Theory
 ~John Armitage~

 Paul Virilio is one of the most significant French cultural theorists
 writing today.[1] Increasingly hailed as the inventor of concepts
 such as 'dromology' (the 'science' of speed), Virilio is renowned for
 his declaration that the logic of acceleration lies at the heart of
 the organization and transformation of the modern world. However,
 Virilio's thought remains much misunderstood by many postmodern
 cultural theorists. In this article, and supporting the
 ground-breaking work of Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, I shall
 evaluate the contribution of Virilio's writings by suggesting that
 they exist ~beyond~ the terms of postmodernism and that they should
 be conceived of as a contribution to the emerging debate over
 'hypermodernism'. Consequently, the article details Virilio's
 biography and the theoretical context of his work before outlining
 the essential contributions Virilio has made to contemporary cultural
 theory. In later sections an appraisal of Virilio's hypermodernism,
 together with a short evaluation of the controversies surrounding
 Virilio's work, will be provided before the conclusion.

 The World According to Paul Virilio
 Born in Paris in 1932 to a Breton mother and an Italian Communist
 father, Virilio was evacuated in 1939 to the port of Nantes, where he
 was traumatised by the spectacle of Hitler's ~Blitzkrieg~ during
 World War II. After training at the Ecole des Metiers d' Art in
 Paris, Virilio became an artist in stained glass and worked alongside
 Matisse in various churches in the French capital. In 1950, he
 converted to Christianity in the company of 'worker-priests' and,
 following military conscription into the colonial army during the
 Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), Virilio studied
 phenomenology with Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne. Captivated by the
 military, spatial, and organizational features of urban territory,
 Virilio's early writings began to appear while he was acting as a
 self-styled 'urbanist', in _Architecture Principe_ (Virilio and
 Parent, 1996), the group and review of the same name he established
 with the architect Claude Parent in 1963. Although Virilio produced
 numerous short pieces and architectural drawings in the 1960s, his
 first major work was a photographic and philosophical study of the
 architecture of war entitled _Bunker Archeology_ (1994a [1975]). The
 creator of concepts such as 'military space', 'dromology', and the
 'aesthetics of disappearance', Virilio's phenomenologically grounded
 and controversial cultural theory draws on the writings of Husserl,
 Heidegger, and, above all, Merleau Ponty.[2] After participating in
 the ~evenements~ of May 1968 in Paris, Virilio was nominated
 Professor by the students at the Ecole Speciale d' Architecture,
 and he later helped Jacques Derrida and others to found the
 International College of Philosophy. An untrained architect, Virilio
 has never felt compelled to restrict his concerns to the spatial
 arts. Indeed, like his philosopher companions, the late Michel
 Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Jean-Francois Lyotard,
 Virilio, like his current sympathetic adversary, Jean Baudrillard,
 has written numerous texts on a variety of cultural topics.
 Commencing with _Speed & Politics: An Essay on Dromology_ (1986
 [1977]) before moving on to _The Aesthetics of Disappearance_ (1991a
 [1980]), _War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception_ (1989 [1984]),
 _Politics of the Very Worst_ (1999a [1996]), _Polar Inertia_ (1999b
 [1990]), _The Information Bomb_ (2000a [1998]) and, most recently,
 _Strategy of Deception_ (2000b [1999]), the power of Virilio's
 cultural theory has only recently begun to be felt in the
 English-speaking world. This situation is probably due in no small
 part to the fact that, despite receiving several international
 speaking invitations weekly, he rarely leaves Paris and seldom
 converses in public outside France. Virilio retired from teaching in
 1998. He currently devotes himself to writing and working with
 private organizations concerned with housing the homeless in Paris.

 The importance of Virilio's theoretical work stems from his central
 claim that, in a culture dominated by war, the military-industrial
 complex is of crucial significance in debates over the creation of
 the city and the spatial organization of cultural life. In _Speed &
 Politics_, for example, Virilio offers a credible 'war model' of the
 growth of the modern city and the development of human society. Thus,
 according to Virilio, the fortified city of the feudal period was a
 stationary and generally unassailable 'war machine' coupled to an
 attempt to modulate the circulation and the momentum of the movements
 of the urban masses. Therefore, the fortified city was a political
 space of habitable inertia, the political configuration, and the
 physical underpinning of the feudal era. Nevertheless, for Virilio,
 the essential question is why did the fortified city disappear? His
 rather unconventional answer is that it did so due to the advent of
 ever increasingly transportable and accelerated weapons systems. For
 such innovations 'exposed' the fortified city and transformed siege
 warfare into a war of ~movement~. Additionally, they undermined the
 efforts of the authorities to govern the flow of the urban citizenry
 and therefore heralded the arrival of what Virilio (Virilio and
 Parent, 1996: xv) calls the 'habitable circulation' of the masses.
 Unlike Marx, then, Virilio postulates that the transition from
 feudalism to capitalism was not an economic transformation but a
 military, spatial, political, and technological metamorphosis.
 Broadly speaking, where Marx wrote of the materialist conception of
 history, Virilio writes of the military conception of history.

 Beginning in 1958 with a phenomenological inquiry into military space
 and the organization of territory, particularly concerning the
 'Atlantic Wall' -- the 15,000 Nazi bunkers built during World War II
 along the coastline of France to repel any Allied assault -- Virilio
 deepened his explorations within the ~Architecture Principe~ group.
 An absolutely crucial but somewhat overlooked aspect of Virilio's
 work from the beginning is his continuing allegiance to a
 psychologically based ~gestalt~ theory of perception.[3] This theory
 was not only chiefly responsible for Virilio and Parent's development
 of the concept of the 'oblique function' but also for their
 construction of the 'bunker church' in Nevers in 1966 and the
 Thomson-Houston aerospace research centre in Villacoubly in 1969
 (Johnson, 1996). Later, Virilio broadened his theoretical sweep,
 arguing in the 1970s, for example, that the relentless militarization
 of the contemporary cityscape was prompting what Deleuze and Guattari
 (1988: 453) call the 'deterritorialization' of capitalist urban space
 and what Virilio terms the arrival of speed or ~chronopolitics~.
 Reviewing the frightening dromological fall-out from the
 communications technology revolution in information transmission,
 Virilio investigated the prospects for 'revolutionary resistance' to
 'pure power' and began probing the connections between military
 technologies and the organization of cultural space. Consequently,
 during the 1980s, Virilio cultivated the next significant phase of
 his theoretical work through aesthetically derived notions of
 'disappearance', the 'fractalization' of physical space, war, cinema,
 logistics, and perception. Further, as Arthur Kroker (1992: 20-50)
 has suggested, throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Virilio
 critically examined the cultural repercussions of the use of
 remote-controlled and cybernetic technologies in the rapidly
 accelerating urban environment of 'techno' or 'crash' culture.
 Tracking the 'third age of military weaponry' in the shape of new
 information and communications technologies such as the Internet,
 Virilio's post-Einsteinian cultural theory is presently focused on
 the idea of 'polar inertia', the 'third', or, 'transplant
 revolution', Stelarc's cybernetic performance art, and the Persian
 Gulf and Kosovo wars.[4] Nonetheless, a significant strand of his
 current thinking is also centred on Virilio's critical conception of
 'endo-colonization',  'cyberfeminism', 'technological
 fundamentalism', 'the information bomb', and 'the strategies of

 Although there can be no doubt that Virilio has made a significant
 contribution to the Krokers' (Kroker and Kroker, 1997; Armitage,
 1999) initial development of 'hypermodern' cultural theory, it is
 important to stress that Virilio characterizes himself as a 'critic
 of the art of technology' and not as a cultural or social theorist
 (Virilio and Lotringer, 1997: 172). In fact, for the most part,
 Virilio abhors cultural theory and sociology in particular. Still,
 let us consider his theoretical writings by looking first at
 Virilio's contribution to our understanding of the oblique function,
 dromology, and the 'integral accident'.

 Virilio's Contribution to Cultural Theory
 Virilio's early work focused on the oblique function -- a proposed
 new urban order based on 'the end of the vertical as an axis of
 elevation, the end of the horizontal as permanent plane, in favour of
 the oblique axis and the inclined plane' (Virilio and Parent, 1996:
 v). Such writings also foreshadowed Virilio's military and political
 critiques of deterritorialization and the revolution in information
 transmission that surfaced in _Bunker Archeology_, his as yet
 untranslated _L'Insecurite du territoire_ (1976) and _Speed &
 Politics_. Moreover, it is these themes that make Virilio's current
 writings of interest to contemporary postmodern cultural theorists
 like Bauman (1999: 120) and 'global information culture' theorists
 such as Lash (1999: 285-311).

 Virilio's doubts about the political economy of wealth are primarily
 driven by his 'dromocratic' conception of power. Considering Von
 Clausewitz's _On War_ (1997 [1832]) to be outmoded, Virilio is
 decisively influenced by Sun Tzu's ancient Chinese text, _The Art of
 War_ (1993). Debating with himself about war, the 'positive'
 (Fascist) and 'negative' (anti-Fascist) aspects of Marinetti's
 artistic theory of Futurism, Virilio suggests that political economy
 cannot be subsumed under the political economy of wealth, with a
 comprehension of the management of the economy of the state being its
 general aim. Indeed, for him, the histories of socio-political
 institutions such as the military and artistic movements like
 Futurism show that war and the need for speed, rather than commerce
 and the urge for wealth, were the foundations of human society. It is
 important to state that Virilio is not arguing that the political
 economy of wealth has been superseded by the political economy of
 speed, rather, he suggests that 'in addition to the political economy
 of wealth, there has to be a political economy of speed' (Zurbrugg,
 2001: forthcoming.) Hence, in _Popular Defense & Ecological
 Struggles_ (1990 [1978]) and _Pure War_ (Virilio and Lotringer, 1997
 [1983]), Virilio developed his dromological investigation to include
 considerations on pure power -- the enforcement of surrender without
 engagement -- and revolutionary resistance -- Virilio's case against
 the militarization of urban space. The 'rationale' of pure war might
 be encapsulated as the logic of militarized technoscience in the
 epoch of 'Infowar'.  For Virilio, the epoch of Infowar is an era in
 which unspecified civilian 'enemies' are invoked by the state in
 order to justify increased spending on the third age of military
 weaponry and, in particular, in the form of new information and
 communications technologies such as the Internet. Thus, for Virilio,
 in the post-Cold War age, the importance of the military-industrial
 complex -- or what he calls the 'military-*scientific* complex' is
 not decreasing but increasing (Armitage, 2001a: forthcoming. Original
 emphasis.) For the weapons of the military-scientific complex are not
 merely responsible for integral accidents like the 1987 world stock
 market crash, accidents brought about by the failure of automated
 program trading, but also for the fact that, 'in the very near
 future' it '*will no longer be war that is the continuation of
 politics by other means, it will be the integral accident that is the
 continuation of politics by other means*' (Armitage, 2001a:
 forthcoming. Original emphasis.)

 In _The Aesthetics of Disappearance_ and _The Lost Dimension_ (1991b
 [1984]), Virilio, a devotee of Mandelbrot's (1977) geometry of
 fractals, argues that cultural theory must take account of
 interruptions in the rhythm of human consciousness and 'morphological
 irruptions' in the physical dimension. Using his concept of
 'picnolepsy' (frequent interruption) and Einstein's General
 Relativity Theory, he suggests that modern vision and the
 contemporary city are both the products of military power and
 time-based cinematic technologies of disappearance. Furthermore,
 although there are political and cinematic aspects to our visual
 consciousness of the cityscape, what is indispensable to them is
 their ability to designate the technological disappearance of
 Lyotard's (1984) grand aesthetic and spatial narratives and the
 advent of micro narratives. In Virilio's terms, Mandelbrot's geometry
 of fractals reveals the appearance of the 'overexposed' city -- as
 when the morphological irruption between space and time splinters
 into a countless number of visual interpretations, and 'the crisis of
 whole dimensions' (Virilio, 1991b [1984]: 9-28). Important here is
 that Virilio's concerns about the aesthetics of disappearance and the
 crises of the physical dimension are not exercised by the textual
 construction of totalizing intellectual 'explanations'. Rather, they
 are exercised by the strategic positioning of productive
 interruptions and the creative dynamics of what he, following
 Churchill, calls the 'tendency' (Virilio, 1989 [1984]: 80). As
 Virilio maintains in _The Lost Dimension_, the rule in the
 overexposed city is the disappearance of aesthetics and whole
 dimensions into a militarized and cinematographic field of retinal
 persistence, interruption, and 'technological space-time'. Speaking
 recently about the overexposed city within the context of the
 'totally bogus' court cases surrounding O. J. Simpson and the death
 of Princess Diana, Virilio suggested that, today, "*all* cities are
 overexposed". London, for example, "was overexposed at the time of
 Diana's burial' while 'New York was overexposed at the time of
 Clinton's confessions concerning Monica Lewinsky". (Armitage, 2001a:
 forthcoming. Original emphasis.)

 In _War and Cinema_, Virilio applies the idea of 'substitution' when
 discussing the different kinds of reality that have appeared since
 the beginning of time. Bearing a remarkable similarity to
 Baudrillard's (1983) concept of 'simulation', Virilio's chief concern
 is with the connection between war, cinematic substitution and what
 he calls the 'logistics of perception' -- the supplying of cinematic
 images and information on film to the front line. The importance of
 the concept of the logistics of perception can be seen in the context
 of 'post' and 'hyper' modern wars like the Persian Gulf War of 1991
 and the Kosovo War of 1998-9. For in these kinds of conflicts not
 only do settled topographical features 'disappear' in the midst of
 battle but so too does the architecture of war. Indeed, the military
 high command has only two choices. It can entomb itself in
 subterranean bunkers with the aim of evading what one of Coppola's
 helicopters in the film _Apocalypse Now_ announced as 'Death from
 Above'. Or, alternatively, it can take to the skies with the
 intention of invading what Virilio has dubbed in the _CTHEORY_
 interview, 'orbital space'. Conceptualising a logistics of perception
 where 'the world disappears in war, and war as a phenomenon
 disappears from the eyes of the world', Virilio has thus been
 analysing the relationship between war, substitution, human and
 synthetic perception since the 1980s, particularly in texts such as
 _L'ecran du desert: chroniques de guerre_ (1989 [1984]: 66; 1991c).
 [5] Virilio's interests in war, cinema and the logistics of
 perception are primarily fuelled by his contention that military
 perception in warfare is comparable to civilian perception and,
 specifically, to the art of filmmaking. According to Virilio,
 therefore, cinematic substitution results in a 'war of images', or,
 Infowar. Infowar is not traditional war, where the images produced
 are images of actual battles. Rather, it is a war where the disparity
 between the images of battles and the actual battles is 'derealized'.
 To be sure, for Virilio, wars are 'no longer about confrontation' but
 about movement -- the movement of 'electro-magnetic waves'.
 (Armitage, 2001a: forthcoming.) Similar to Baudrillard's (1995)
 infamous claim that the Gulf War did not take place, Virilio's
 assertion that war and cinema are virtually indistinguishable is open
 to dispute. Yet Virilio's stance on the appearance of Infowar is
 consistent with his view that the only way to monitor cultural
 developments in the war machine is to adopt a critical theoretical
 position with regard to the various parallels that exist between war,
 cinema, and the logistics of perception. It is a view he developed in
 his trenchant critique of _The Vision Machine_ (1994b [1988]).

 In Virilio's universe, therefore, people 'no longer believe their
 eyes'. For him, 'their *faith in perception*' has become 'slave to
 the faith in the technical *sightline*', a situation in which
 contemporary substitution has reduced the 'visual field' to the 'line
 of a sighting device' (1994b [1988]: 13. Original emphases.) Viewed
 from this angle, _The Vision Machine_ is a survey of what I have
 called 'pure perception' (Armitage, 2000a: 3). For, today, the
 military-scientific complex has developed ominous technological
 substitutions and potentialities such as Virtual Reality and the
 Internet. In Virilio's terms, 'the main aim' of pure perception is
 '*to register the waning of reality*'. The aesthetics of
 disappearance is a form of aesthetics that is derived from 'the
 unprecedented limits imposed on subjective vision by the instrumental
 splitting of modes of perception and representation' (1994b [1988]:
 49. Original emphases.) Hence, Virilio conceives of vision machines
 as the accelerated products of what he calls 'sightless vision' --
 vision without looking -- that 'is itself merely the reproduction of
 an intense blindness that will become the latest and last form of
 industrialisation: *the industrialisation of the non-gaze* (1994b
 [1988]: 73. Original emphasis.) Virilio further details the
 far-reaching cultural relationships between vision and
 remote-controlled technologies in _Polar Inertia_.

 In _Polar Inertia_, Virilio examines pure perception, speed, and
 human stasis. In 'Indirect Light', for example, Virilio considers the
 difference between the video screens recently adopted by the Paris
 Metro system and 'real' perceptual objects such as mirrors from a
 theoretical perspective that broadly conforms to what Foucault (1977)
 called 'surveillance societies' and Deleuze (1995) labelled 'control
 societies'. In contrast, other articles note the discrepancy between
 technologically generated inertia and biologically induced human
 movement. Discussing the introduction of 'wave machines' in Japanese
 swimming pools, the effacement of a variety of 'local times' around
 the world and their gradual replacement by a single 'global time',
 Virilio notes the disparity between 'classical optical communication'
 and 'electro-optical commutation'. In the era of pure perception,
 though, Virilio argues that it is not the creation of acceleration
 and deceleration that becomes important but the creation of 'Polar
 Inertia'. Here, Virilio proposes that in the early modern era of
 mobility, in his terms the era of emancipation, inertia did not
 exist. The idea of polar inertia thus excludes what would have been
 alternate aspects of the speed equation -- simple acceleration or
 deceleration -- in the industrial age. Yet, as Virilio has been
 arguing since the 1980s, in the post-industrial age of the absolute
 speed of light, real time has now superseded real space. In such
 circumstances, the geographical difference between 'here' and 'there'
 is obliterated by the speed of light as history itself 'crashes into
 the wall of time'. (Armitage, 2001a: forthcoming.) Additionally, in
 its terminal mode, as exemplified by reclusive billionaires such as
 the late Howard Hughes, polar inertia becomes a kind of Foucauldian
 incarceration. Holed up in a single room in the Desert Inn hotel in
 Las Vegas for fifteen years, endlessly watching Sturges' _Ice Station
 Zebra_, Hughes, Virilio's 'technological monk', was not only polar
 inertia incarnate but, more importantly, the first inhabitant of a
 'mass phenomenon'. Equally significantly, for Virilio, this
 phenomenon has stretched far beyond domestic cinema and TV audiences
 and on into the global war zone. In fact, according to him, in recent
 conflicts such as the one in Kosovo, the army now 'watches the battle
 from the barracks'. As he puts it, "today, *the army only occupies
 the territory once the war is over*." (Armitage, 2001a: forthcoming.)
 At the broadest level, then, Virilio's writings on polar inertia seek
 to show that large tracts of civilian and military physical
 geographical spaces no longer have significant human content.
 Therefore, in _The Art of the Motor_ (1995 [1993]), Virilio turned
 his attention to the relationship between the spaces of the human
 body and technology.

 At the beginning of the twenty-first century, then, Virilio's
 cultural theory is concerned with what he calls the third, or, the
 ~transplant revolution~ -- the almost total collapse of the
 ~distinction between the human body and technology~. Intimately
 linked to the technological enhancement and substitution of
 body-parts through the miniaturisation of technological objects, the
 third revolution is a revolution conducted by militarized
 technoscience against the human body through the promotion of what
 the Virilio calls 'neo-eugenics'. Such developments range across
 Virilio's (1995 [1993]: 109-112; Armitage, 2001a: forthcoming)
 criticisms of the work of Stelarc, the Australian cybernetic
 performance artist, to his concerns about the eventual fate of the
 jet-pilots in the Kosovo war. This is because, for Virilio, both
 Stelarc and the jet-pilot represent much the same thing: "the last
 man before automation takes command". (Armitage, 2001a: forthcoming.)
 Nevertheless, it should be stressed that Virilio's criticisms of
 automation are closely connected to the development of his concept of
 endo-colonization -- what takes place when a political power like the
 state turns against its own people, or, as in the case of militarized
 technoscience, the human body.

 As a result, in _Open Sky_ (1997 [1995]), _Politics of the Very
 Worst_, and _The Information Bomb_, Virilio has elaborated a
 critique of cyberfeminism that Plant (1997), following Haraway's
 (1985) 'manifesto for cyborgs', describes as a revolution on the
 part of cybernetic technology and feminists against the rule of
 patriarchy. Nonetheless, Virilio has little time for cyberfeminism
 or 'cybersex'; notions that he criticises, likening cybersex, for
 example, to the technological replacement of the emotions (Armitage,
 2000b: 5). For Virilio, it is imperative to reject cybernetic
 sexuality, refocus theoretical attention on the human subject, and
 resist the domination of both men and women by technology. According
 to Virilio, cyberfeminism is merely one more form of technological
 fundamentalism -- the religion of all those who believe in the
 absolute power of technology (Virilio and Kittler, 1999.) Having
 departed from the religious sensibility required in order to
 understand the contemporary Gods of ubiquity, instantaneity, and
 immediacy of new information and communications technologies,
 cyberfeminists, along with numerous other cultural groups, have thus
 capitulated to the raptures of cyberspace.

 Virilio's newest work, though, is _Strategy of Deception_. Focusing
 on the Kosovo War, Virilio argues that while war was a failure both
 for Europe and for NATO it was a success for the Unites States (US).
 In the world according to Virilio, this is because the US conducted
 an 'experiment' on Kosovo using the informational and cybernetic
 tools of the Pentagon's much-hyped 'Revolution in Military Affairs'
 (RMA). The RMA is thus a revolution that Virilio perceives to be
 analogous to his conception of 'the information bomb' and cyberwar as
 well as his contention that the present aim of the US is to seek what
 its military chiefs term Global Information Dominance (GID).

 Clearly, after a career spanning thirty years of writing and
 political activity, Virilio's contribution to cultural theory is
 considerable. The question is, what is its current significance and
 how might we begin to assess it? This question is the subject of the
 next two sections.

 [1] This article is a substantially revised version of an earlier
 conference paper of the same title presented at the _3rd
 International Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference_, Birmingham

 [2] For a useful and accessible overview of the works of all three
 thinkers see Kearney (1986.)

 [3] Gestalt psychology originated in Germany at the start of the
 twentieth century. Founded by Wertheimer, Kohler and Koffka,
 'gestaltists' believe that mental phenomena are extended 'events', or
 'gestalts'. For Gestaltists, cognitive processes cannot be
 comprehended in terms of their individual components. Instead, for
 them, when some new piece of information is acquired, an individual's
 entire perceptual field is changed forever. Virilio's own particular
 influence is Guillaume (1937.)

 [4] Virilio considers the Internet to be a constituent feature of the
 'third age of military weaponry' or what he sometimes calls _The
 Information Bomb_ (Virilio, 2000a [1998].)

 [5] Virilio's _L' ecran du desert: chroniques de guerre_ (1991) is
 currently being translated into English as _Desert Screen: War at the
 Speed of Light_ by Michael Degener. The Athlone Press will publish
 the book in 2001.

 John Armitage is Principal Lecturer in Politics and Media Studies at
 the University of Northumbria, UK. The editor of _Paul Virilio: From
 Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond_ (2000), he is currently
 editing _Virilio Live: Selected Interviews_ for publication in 2001.

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