In the bunker with Virilio again. This time with the walls closing in.

“For me the bunker is a kind of metaphor for suffocation, asphyxiation, both what I fear and what fascinates me”

(Paul Virilio in Virilio & Lotringer, (2002) Crepuscular Dawn: 23).

Image result for star wars compactor

It often happens this way. This time it’s breakfast. I’m half listening to the radio. BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenessberg has arrived in the studio to do a live chat with the presenter, offering up her thoughts on the aftermath of the Chequers declaration (the UK Government’s terms to be proposed to the EU for Brexit). You can sense it in Kunessberg’s voice, she’s building up to something. Here it comes. Ah, yes and its out. The B-word…

The bunker has been deployed once again as a poignant political metaphor, a way of encapsulating a leader’s seemingly last-days predicament. And, furthermore Kuenessberg was especially proud of her abject image-making, for she had added for even greater effect the suggestion that not only was Theresa May ‘in the bunker’ but that also (via some strange, unstated physics-defying mechanism) the walls of this structure were also closing in on her. Kuenessberg was so pleased with her doubling of the peril-image that she referenced it again, with palpable satisfaction, a few days later on the same programme.

But (apart from the addition of the cross-allusion to another cultural artefact: Han Solo and friends trapped in a shrinking garbage chamber in Star Wars: A New Hope) there was nothing new in this coinage. Political posters regularly roll out the bunker-image (and its never-quite-spelt-out allusion to Hitler’s final days confined – and losing the war –  beneath the burning streets of Berlin in Spring 1945). One of my first bunker related academic articles (Bennett 2011) was an attempt to identify and analyse the material and metaphoric routes of the bunker meme in present day organisational discourse. Writing that back in 2010 I drew on the ways in which former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s last days had been repeatedly framed in this way.

The bunker is a powerful meme – at a whisper it evokes either the Hitler’s-last-days trope or the survival-machine nostalgia of the nuclear shelter. This latter form cropped up on Channel 4’s political satire show, The Last Leg last week – all wrapped up in a nice dose of futility (the bunker rolled onto the stage was a rudimentary wooden shed (or ‘man cave’) which was then effortlessly demolished before our eyes). This latter trope has been more prevalent since the rise of Trump, the chill of Cold War #2 and the increasingly rash sabre / weapon / willy waving of recent months.

Against this backdrop I’ve been pulling together one of my two presentations for the Royal Geographical Society 2018 conference. My working set of slides are scrolling below. I’ll probably cut them down for the talk, but the current set takes time to spell things out (I think).

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The aim of my presentation is to build upon one of my introductory chapters from my edited collection published last year (Bennett 2017). That chapter had sought to show how Paul Virilio’s seminal work on studying the cultural significance of bunkers could be located in his own wartime trauma, of living through Nazi occupation. The chapter then went on to argue that his bunker hunting in the late 1950s and early 1960s needed also to be set the context of the highpoint of the ‘first’ Cold War. The aim of the presentation is to take the analysis chronologically onward – following the bunker’s continued haunting presence into Virilio’s post-Cold War theorising of ‘Hyperterrorism’ and the siege psychosis that he characterises as endemic in contemporary urban living.

In following this trajectory I seek to show how Virilio invokes the bunker as a powerful motif in each era of his writing – and that he does so partly for effect (it is an evocative rhetorical stance) and partly because he needs to (in that the bunker serves as a fetish for him; a terror-object which he compulsively returns to, and perhaps seeks to control through making-it-known, and bringing it out into daylight).

But – as Mark Lacy notes – it is hard to ascribe Virilio’s repeated return to the bunker (in the ‘flesh’ in the 1950s and 1960s, and in writing since the 1960s)  as purely a driven dynamic of trauma – for there are other (probably equally traumatic) experiences that he has chosen not to write about in his work, notably his time as a French army conscript during the Algerian War of Independence. So, the motives and ethics of Virilio’s exegis of the bunker are complex. He has certainly raised the salience of ‘the bunker’ within cultural studies. Perhaps in rendering it highlighted he has countered some of its otherwise ‘withdrawn’ power (the architecture of martial power prefers to hide in plain sight). But equally he has helped to normalise, and fetishise, these terror-objects, adding somewhat to the ease with which the bunker has been packaged up as a consumable artefact via its cultural embrace as a trope, meme, metaphor and metonym. This familiarisation, and the shorthand and allusional effects that it commands, have myriad impacts, some capable of aiding resistance to martial power but some helping to feed a masculinist, war-imagery (and imaginary) that normalises the architecture of security.

And, yes. I’m fully aware of being vulnerable to the same accusations: and that’s something that I try to tackle head-on in the book’s final chapter.

Reference: 

Bennett, Luke (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. (There’s a free-to-access copy of my working draft of that article here, and (subscription required) the published version is here.)

Bennett, Luke (ed.) (2017) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, Materiality and Meaning Making (Rowman & Littlefield: London). Details here (NB: hardback and ebook currently available, paperback edition coming soon).

Image credit:

https://goo.gl/images/Pc7nsU

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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