An Introduction to Paul Virilio’s Christianity

An Introduction to Paul Virilio’s Christianity

Jacob Vangeest

Contributor at Christianity Now
Jacob Vangeest is currently studying social and political thought through the New Centre for Research and Practice. His research interests include the study of power in information, technology, and religion. He enjoys reading, hiking, and drinking tea.

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Paul Virilio can be a difficult thinker to place.[*] His work has developed through a plurality of subjects—from architecture, through war and politics, to media and art. Despite his study of art with Matisse and phenomenology with Merleau-Ponty in the 1950s, it was in architecture—a discipline in which he had no formal training—that he began teaching in the late 1960s. With such a diverse field of interests, there are a number of directions one could go to study Virilio. This introduction focuses on an area of Virilio’s life and work he chooses not to dwell upon in his own writing: Christianity.

Identifying as an ‘anarcho-Christian,’ Virilio professes a Christianity that is constantly at work in every aspect of his life. Because he claims to “not have the gift for it,”[i] Virilio shies away from ever discussing his theology in his theoretical work. Yet, despite his insistence to the contrary, it is my contention that his Christianity is visible throughout his works.

The Bunker

We begin in a seemingly divergent space: The bunker. Virilio’s architecture provides an essential insight into Virilio’s Christianity, as it is through the bunker that he discovered architecture. In an interview with John Armitage, Virilio confesses, “Without the bunkers of the Atlantic wall, without the Second World War, I would not have been interested in architecture at all.”[ii]

The spatial situates Virilio’s thought, and this spatiality comes about through the bunker. The bunker is a monolith: “While most buildings are embanked in the terrain by their foundation, the [bunker] is devoid of any, aside from its centre of gravity, which explains its possibility for limited movement when the surrounding ground undergoes the impact of projectiles.”[iii] The bunker is a “concrete mass built to hold up under shelling and bombings”[iv] as it is ready for attack from any direction at any time. It exists as a fortress, sticking out over the landscape, designed to withstand attack and protect those within its walls from the forces of the exterior.

In its construction, the bunker is not unlike brutalist architecture, which utilizes an excess of raw concrete to display the building as a mighty fortress. Virilio suggests this similarity is only skin deep. Brutalism is not about protection or concrete, but about “pulling out the insides, the guts of the building…Bringing out the pipes, displaying the supports, the structures, making a facade of the skeleton.”[v] Brutalist architecture, despite its fortress-like appearance, does not provide protection from the outside. Instead, it makes itself vulnerable. Brutalism is the opposite of the bunker. Bunkers are reactive, they have no progress, but serve as, “a kind of symbol of this century of concentration and elimination.”[vi] Bunkers blocked the new technologies of warfare during the second world war—providing protection against bombings and terror from the air. Because it is reactionary, the bunker is incapable of thinking forward. It is stuck in 1945: a fixed structure in the landscape which takes us back to the horrific past.

The Oblique

Before we can understand how the bunker relates to Virilio’s Christianity, we must first make a detour through his early architectural work. In the early 1960s, Virilio studied art and philosophy, which together led him to architecture.[vii] At this time, a group of architects came together to form the group Architecture Principe. This group included architects such as Claude Parent and André Bloc, and a number of others with whom Virilio became friendly. Together, these architects—including Virilio—developed a new form of architecture, an “open topology,” which sought to “collapse the opposition between inside and outside.”[viii] This architecture was given the title “oblique function”.

The oblique function refuses the normative distinction—the either/or—between the floor and the wall. It produces an inclined wall which, unlike typical walls, is accessible for human movement. Virilio says of the design:

The idea is that as soon as a third spatial dimension (the oblique) is brought into the relationship with regard to space and weight changes, the individual will always be in a state of resistance—whether accelerating as he is going down, or slowing down as he is climbing up, whereas when one walks on a horizontal plane weight is nil (or equal).[ix]

The oblique refuses the distinction between the wall and the floor, and produces something in between them upon which there is resistance, but not a blockage. Recall the distinction made between bunker and brutalist architecture. The bunker is reactionary. It is like the wall, stopping the opposition in their tracks and not allowing any movement to take place. Brutalism, on the other hand, is progress. It is like the floor. On it, one is able to speed up without any resistance as the “weight is nil.” Virilio refuses the dichotomy of the floor and the wall: the dichotomy of simple acceleration or absolute negation. The oblique function diverges from the dichotomy to provide an incline of resistance that is neither a blockage or a plane of zero resistance. Instead, it is a place of struggle.

Virilio’s Christianity

Paul Virilio's Bunker Church

Built between 1963 and 1966, the Church of St. Bernadette in Nevers Banlay materializes the coincidence of two streams of research: “archaeological bunkers” by Paul Virilio based on his book (Bunker Archaeology, 1958-1975) and Claude Parent’s research “Fonction Oblique” (Oblique Architecture) which was a modern exploration of the break and slope.

Virilio converted to Christianity around the same time he became interested in architecture. He says of his conversion:

I converted when I was 18, as an adult. The war had just ended then, and I had seen terrible things, and that was also one of the reasons for my conversion to Christianity. But then, you must know, that i converted in the company of ‘worker-priests’. Worker-priests are, in France, those priests who take an industrial job and go to live with the factory workers. They do not display their pastoral cross. I chose to convert with a worker-priest because I wanted something real, not some religious show with a guy in a costume.[x]

Here, we see the influence of the oblique in Virilio’s Christianity: We can already see the worker-priest functioning in an oblique role. The worker-priest denies the either/or of parishioner and skilled worker, the dichotomy of shepherd and sheep, by denying certain parts of the traditional worker garb that produces a difference between the working class and the priesthood. We can see further evidence of an oblique Christianity through the only building Virilio designed that was actually built: Sainte Bernadette du Banlay. The bunker church.

Here, we see the influence of the oblique in Virilio’s Christianity: We can already see the worker-priest functioning in an oblique role. The worker-priest denies the either/or of parishioner and skilled worker, the dichotomy of shepherd and sheep, by denying certain parts of the traditional worker garb that produces a difference between the working class and the priesthood. We can see further evidence of an oblique Christianity through the only building Virilio designed that was actually built: Sainte Bernadette du Banlay. The bunker church.

The inspiration for this church came when the architect attended a mass at a bunker, “Seeing a place like that Christianized, a place of terror, haunted by fear, that’s what interested me.”[xi] This led to the development of the bunker church in Lourdes. Lourdes is described by Virilio as a place full of prostitution and filth: a “place of horrors, the place of great fear.”[xii] It was a perfect place for the bunker church. When describing the construction of this church, he offers a valuable insight into how the church manifests his understanding of Christianity:

I chose the shape of a heart, the double ventricles, split in two, cut down the middle, broken. One of them is the choir for communion, and the other the choir for confession, where one says: ‘I admit that I am a total bastard, mea culpa.’ What I admit, you admit. You don’t say: ‘I’m wonderful, I’m pure.’ Then on the other hand as soon as you realize that you’re a bastard, at that moment, we can love one another. This is the whole question of Judeo-Christianity.[xiii]

Both the reason to use the bunker, and the source of his oblique Christianity, are contained in this relationship between bastard and love. The bunker is a space of reaction, stopping movement with the wall. But, through the use of the oblique, Virilio reimages the space by the transformation of Christianity. A place of horrors, representing the worst moments of human existence. This is precisely what opens it up to Christianity. Virilio doesn’t negate the bunker, but produces an incline—an oblique function—transforming the bunker into a church. The reactionary wall—the bunker—is transformed with the incline, becoming a church where the love of Christ is realized as a struggle within the horror of the world.

While the oblique takes place through the architecture of the church, it is integral to the Christian faith as a whole. Virilio’s Christianity can only begin with the realization that one is a bastard, that one is sinful, that one is broken. Beginning with this realization allows one to work from within brokenness rather than attempting to negate it. Christianity doesn’t seek a pure beginning, but is rooted in the very affirmation of fallenness. It is here that we can situate the oblique function of Christianity. Christianity doesn’t negate the perverse, but starts in the middle of the horror to understand and accept the world. Only from this acceptance can transformation begin to occur. By recognizing and accepting the horrors, we can come to love each other as we are, not against sinful being, but explicitly because of it.  Not a negation of the place of horrors, but a struggle through it: a movement on the incline.

 


 

[*] I am indebted to Jason Adams in my reading of Virilio. The introduction to his interview with Virilio, “The Speeds of Ambiguity” is of particular value.

[i] Paul Virilio, Virilio Live: Selected Interviews, ed. John Armitage, 1 edition (SAGE Publications Ltd, 2001), p. 20.

[ii] Ibid. p. 51

[iii] Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), p. 37

[iv] Ibid., p. 38

[v] Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, Crepuscular Dawn, trans. Mike Taormina (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2002), p. 25

[vi] Ibid., p. 24

[vii] Paul Virilio, Virilio Live, p. 52

[viii] Paul Virilio, Crepuscular Dawn, p. 15

[ix] Paul Virilio, Virilio Live, p. 53

[x] Ibid., p. 19

[xi] Paul Virilio, Crepuscular Dawn, p. 28

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

Virilio, Paul. Bunker Archaeology. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.

Virilio, Paul. Virilio Live: Selected Interviews. Edited by John Armitage. 1 edition. SAGE Publications Ltd, 2001.

Virilio, Paul, and Sylvère Lotringer. Crepuscular Dawn. Translated by Mike Taormina. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2002.

 

 

Photo by Carl Nenzen Loven