Duffy plunges full-throttle into speed’s “adrenaline aesthetics,” offering deft readings of works ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, through J. G. Ballard’s Crash, to the cautionary consumerism of Ralph Nader. He describes how speed changed understandings of space, distance, chance, and violence; how the experience of speed was commodified in the dawning era of mass consumption; and how society was incited to abhor slowness and desire speed. He examines how people were trained by new media such as the cinema to see, hear, and sense speed, and how speed, demanded of the efficient assembly-line worker, was given back to that worker as the chief thrill of leisure. Assessing speed’s political implications, Duffy considers how speed pleasure was offered to citizens based on criteria including their ability to pay and their gender, and how speed quickly became something to be patrolled by governments. Drawing on novels, news reports, photography, advertising, and much more, Duffy provides a breakneck tour through the cultural dynamics of speed.
About the Author
Enda Duffy is Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of The Subaltern Ulysses.
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THE SPEED HANDBOOKVelocity, Pleasure, Modernism
By Enda Duffy
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSpeed Theory
All revolution is movement, but all movement is not revolution. -Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics
Consider speed. Specifically, imagine again the intense new thrill felt by those who at the dawn of the twentieth century drove a car fast for the first time. This is how Aldous Huxley describes it in his essay "Wanted, a New Pleasure" (1931):
Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure. True, men have always enjoyed speed; but their enjoyment has been limited, until very recent times, by the capacities of the horse, whose maximum velocity is not much more than thirty miles per hour. Now thirty miles an hour on a horse feels very much faster than sixty miles an hour in a train or a hundred in an airplane. The train is too large and steady, the airplane too remote from stationary surroundings, to give their passengers a very intense sensation of speed. The automobile is sufficiently small and sufficiently near the ground to be able to compete, as an intoxicating speed-purveyor, with the galloping horse. The inebriating effects of speed are noticeable on horseback at about twenty miles an hour, in a car at about sixty. When the car has passed seventy-two, or thereabouts, one begins to feel an unprecedented sensation, a sensation which no man in the days of horses ever felt. It grows intenser with every increase in velocity. I myself have never traveled at much more than eighty miles an hour in a car; but those who drunk a stronger beverage of this strange intoxicant tell me that new marvels await anyone who has the opportunity of passing the hundred mark.... Two hundred miles an hour must be absolute torture.
You can sense Huxley's quaking with doubt about his proposition even as he wrote it, but you sense too that he knew his idea was too brilliant and audacious to let drop. As he sees it, despite vast changes through the centuries, people's experience of pleasure has remained remarkably the same. To claim that, with the car, the technological advances that had been a hallmark of the industrial revolution had finally brought to individual human subjects a new pleasure that they could tangibly experience-that it would give each of them a thrill which had never before been felt-is to posit a fundamental and truly wondrous kind of revolution. It also begs a host of questions. Why did it happen now? Was it a pleasure that was rationed, and who had access to it? How is it connected to the effects of other technological advances that were such a feature of that historical moment: the bicycle, the phonograph, the telephone, the airplane, the movie camera, even mass electrification and electric light? How does it jibe with the shocking changes in art, literature, and, soon, film that burst on the scene at the same time, the diverse experiments we now call modernism? If people's pleasure was radically revised, how did this impact the old, familiar pleasures? Finally, was the pleasure policed, and how did it matter to communities and even nations as well as individuals? Which is to say, what exactly are the politics of this new pleasure? Speed, as pleasure and as politics, would shake things up; here we begin the exploration of how and why.
To think of speed as a pleasure is to think of it strategically. It forces us to think of speed sensationally, that is, how it feeds our sensations, our senses, working on our bodies to produce physical as well as psychic and psychological effects. Centrally, it makes us attend to the way speeding changes how we experience space. Speed in modernity has, most frequently, been thought of as a matter of conquering time: the regime of clock time, timetables, clocking in, schedules, being on time, meeting deadlines, going faster. This is the modern urban regimen described by Georg Simmel in "The Metropolis and Mental Life." It is the aspect of speed that modernity forces on us; it is the part of speed that is onerous. It is the speed of modern stress that the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek had in mind when she said of New York, "I'm just afraid that the speed and noise would make me mad as soon as I set foot on land." When we think of the thrill of speed as pleasure, however, as, for example, in driving a car at a hundred miles per hour, then we think of traversing space more quickly. If speed's nastiness is about beating time, speed's pleasure seduces by recasting our relation to space. To understand the politics of speed, why it came to be granted first to the rich and then to masses of people in the early twentieth century, how it was rationed and policed, how it was represented as a thrill to be desired, then we must theorize it as part of a revolutionary change in the ways in which space was reorganized in modernity, and in the ways in which people willingly embraced such changes. In terms of the history of the organization of the world's space, the salient fact in or around 1900 was that this was the moment of greatest expansion of the Western empires: the age of empire, in which a small group of Western nations ruled over vast swaths of territory and controlled the sea routes of the globe. At the same historical moment, the first cars were mass-produced: technological speed would first be offered as individual pleasure to masses of people in the West. The age of empire and the age of speed coincide; how to trace their relation?
Speed is not only a pleasure that has a politics; speed, it turns out, is politics: the expression of a new order of the organization of global space. My key proposition in this chapter is this: that masses of Westerners were granted access for the first time to the experience of speeds made possible by technology at the moment when empire was at its height, but more importantly, at that paradigm-shattering moment when it became clear that the whole world had at last been mapped and conquered, and that global space was finite. Until this time, in the age of empire as exploration, it had suited Western ideologies to encourage dreams of exotic "other" spaces, spaces to be enjoyed, mapped, and conquered. This had been the basis for a long-standing Western conception of space as a dualist entity, with the known home close at hand, and the exotic and potentially infinite space of exotic and threatening otherness faraway. When the sources of such other-continent dreamscapes ran out, attention turned inward to the excitement of movement for its own sake: Western culture turned to speed. Fantasies of movement as adventure and exploration aimed at discovering uncharted lands were replaced by fantasies of the rate of movement for its own sake: fantasies of speed. The dream machine of the earlier travel had been the ship; of the new speed, the race car. Books like Robinson Crusoe had distilled the lies and dreams of the older ways of thinking about space; it remains to be seen what text or film will become the classic of the new. Speed, as the achievement of the technologies of Western modernity, was offered as personal sensation to individuals as a means to experience space in a new way, at the very moment when there was no more new world space left to organize. The new mass availability of speed as technology's tangible pleasure, and the organization of the world's territory known as empire, are deeply related.
This, then, is a global context for speed's pleasure. We can theorize it not just as a novel phenomenon experienced by people everywhere in this century, but as a new experience attached to the dynamic realignment of global space in modernity. To read speed in these terms is to grasp technology as a deep form of ideology: not merely as a cause that had cultural effects but as a force that at this moment not only infiltrated people's consciousness and their unconscious but offered people a wholly new sensation. We can trace the connection between the developing grammar of this sensation and the shifts taking place at the same moment in the global reordering of space. First, however, I hope to prove this (on the face of it, unlikely) collusion between the state's culture of empire and the mass-culture phenomenon of the speeding car.
To understand the modernist collusion between politics and sensation, it is useful to consider some theoretical work in geography, cultural studies, and critical theory, on issues of place, space, and the importance of territory, from the "new geography" to theory's "spatial turn." This work shares an attention not just to space but to movement and to the rates of movement, that is, speed. Speed issues, even speeding automobiles, crop up at crux moments in key essays by the thinker who taught cultural studies how to read starred spaces, Michel Foucault; in the work of Henri Lefebvre, who pioneered the study of spaces in materialist critical theory; and in that of Fredric Jameson, who first combined these materialist and culturalist perspectives for English-speaking audiences. Recent writing in the field of architecture has also become obsessed with speed. Each of these theorists of the reorganizations of space in modernity theorizes flows, traffic, movement, and speed, often, as it were, without knowing it. It took the arch-theorist of speed in modernity, Paul Virilio, to point up the force of speed in the West's reorganization of space. Each, likewise, places the matter of empire at the heart of his discussion of spatial reorganization. We will turn first to the work of David Harvey, a follower most directly of Lefebvre, and the leader of the "new geography," to see how his explanation of the end of the "spatial fix" in late-empire politics and economics becomes a rationale for the turn to speed in Western culture. We will then go on to consider how the theorist's fascination with speed might be read: we will formulate some rules for speed reading.
Speed Theory: Theory's "Spatial Turn" and Speed
On July, 1907, the Paris Herald quoted an American spectator at a race in Trouville as saying, "No one who did not see the race can in the least imagine the ecstasy of exquisite sensation that permeates one's being when a machine flashed by at that frightful speed.... You realize the awful danger. You sympathize in the keenness of the delight." Compare this for a moment with the shock provoked by the high art of the modernist period. Could the shock that was elicited by the best high modernist art be an analogy to the shock of the new technological speed? Not quite; the visceral shock of the speed experience and the aesthetic-intellectual account of an encounter with an artwork occupy different registers. Nevertheless, to take speed into account is to revamp debates about how high modernist art reacted to the apparently shocking, cacophonous, disorienting social forces of modernity. The shock tactics of modernist prose, poetry, music, and art have been read convincingly as an education in high capitalist stresses, by theorists such as the architect Manfredo Tafuri, or as attempts to register or "map" the confusions of dislocated social forces, as Fredric Jameson suggests in an essay we will consider in a moment, "Cognitive Mapping." Once speed has been taken into account, the modernist artwork can be read as a specific-if sometimes quaint, even cumbersome-version of an energy-manipulating technology itself.
Modernist literature, from Eliot's Prufrock to Joyce's Ulysses, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and Kafka's The Trial, as well as Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project, returns obsessively to the figure of the city pedestrian, the flâneur, at the very moment when the car was taking over the city. (Robert Musil's modernist magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, opens with Viennese pedestrians as wittily blasé witnesses of a car crash.) In the years in question, only the Futurists were celebrating speed explicitly; here, while casting a cold eye on their bombast and politics, we will reread some other modernisms in the light of the speed-representing strategies they explicitly espoused. By making their heroes and heroines flâneurs in radically fragmented texts, Joyce, Woolf, and the rest came to terms in the early twentieth century with a new sense of urban space. By the end of the century, the theorists had caught up with them and were fascinated by shifts in the organization and perception of space as well. Focusing on speed as the basis for a modernist revolution in spatial perception, I want to carry forward the project of developing a materialist theory of space already elaborated by critics of the postmodern moment, from Edward Soja and David Harvey to Fredric Jameson. These thinkers, retheorizing twentieth-century culture and social life in political terms, reassessed how obscurity, a defining attribute in the century's cultural productions, can be read in the light of the tectonic shifts and strategic trajectories of globally rampant capitalism. All focus on material space. Each also turns out to be preoccupied with movement and the rate of movement, speed.
Speed has had a fugitive, supremely fragmented existence among some of the crucial academic disciplines of the twentieth century. The stresses of speed and speed's repetitiveness have, at important moments, such as Freud's investigation of "shell shock" and war traumas after World War I, been crucial issues for psychoanalysis. The most important and advanced branches of theoretical physics in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been concerned, respectively, with dynamics, as in the second law of thermodynamics, and energy, as in Einstein's theory of relativity. Speed has been an explicit concern of mechanical engineering, in solving problems of faster engines, and of the new science of traffic engineering, in the planning of efficient road traffic flows. The effects of speed vision have concerned the makers of camera machinery at least since Etienne-Jules Marey. Kinesis, or kinesthetics, has been the express area of study of dance and dance theory. Despite this dispersal, however, speed has entered the field of vision of cultural and materialist theorists only recently. Why has theory avoided kinesis, velocity, speed? Materialists have had a difficult time theorizing technological advances. They are tempted to see them as perverse undercutters of labor power: capitalist tools. Forces as nebulous as "speed" seem impossibly elusive for deterministic accounts of social progress, especially for materialist critics who value their rigorous engagement with history. Jameson staked out the long view and stressed an engagement with time rather than space as the prerequisite for materialist analysis with his imperative to "always historicize!" Yet materialist critics of culture, including Jameson himself, have also subsumed questions of history into those of spatial organization and perception.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: The Adrenaline Aesthetic: Speed as Culture 1
1. Speed Theory 17
2. Thriller: The Incitement to Speed 59
3. Gaining Speed: Car Culture, Adrenaline, and the Experience of Speed 111
4. Blur: Rapid Eye Movement and the Visuality of Speed 157
5. Crash Culture 199
Epilogue: Overdrive 261