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La publication d’Anthropogénie est le couronnement, hélas posthume, d’une vie de penseur et de chercheur dont les jalons sont

The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism

by Enda Duffy
Duke University Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2009
320 pp., illus. 18 b/w. Trade, $84.95. paper, $23.95
ISBN13 978-0-8223-4430-8; ISBN13 978-0-8223-4442-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

It is difficult to make strong claims after just one reading of such a dense and innovative book, but this is undoubtedly one of the stronger monographs I have read recently. Although the theme of the book seems quite usual (there have been a lot of publications on speed and velocity in the year we celebrate the first centennial of the “Futurist Manifesto”), it brings such a new wide and depth to the theme that one can only conclude that we have here a really groundbreaking study on a topic we falsely believed we knew already too well.

Duffy’s larger framework is much indebted to Fredric Jameson: the Jamesonian axiom of “always historicize” is the basic stance of the book, together with the desire to fully politicize the stakes of whatever historical data are put forward by the historical analysis. Moreover, Duffy shares many of Jameson’s visions on modernity, commodification, alienation, and, more importantly, on the necessity of reading history and society from a Marxist point of view. Finally, and totally in accordance with Jameson, Duffy accepts the dialectic relationships of time and space as the most fundamental issue in the development and the understanding of modernization. Yet The Speed Handbook is not at all a simple application of Jameson’s thinking to the period of high-modernism (1900-1930), which is central in this book (despite some smaller excursions to previous and later periods).

First of all, the author does not fully adopt all of Jameson’s critical paradigm as developed in his theory of “cognitive mapping”, in which Jameson interprets some of Modernism’s strangeness in geopolitical terms, i.e. as a side-effect of the gap between life at home and the colonies abroad. What Duffy puts forward, is something completely different: The Speed Handbook takes as it starting point that at the end of the 19th Century there are no longer blank spots on the map. It argues that the complete colonization of the world through Western empires has created a new situation in which the disappearance of any real frontier provokes phenomena of more intense colonization (Duffy uses the term “endocolonization”, or “interior” colonization), no longer of places out there but of the citizen’s sensorium and body. This rereading of Modernism as endocolonization is an important step forward in the materialist history of culture as defended by scholars like Jameson.

Second, and corollarily, Duffy manages also to nuance the very strong distinction between Modernism as a time ruled (and hence historical) paradigm and Postmodernism as a space ruled (and hence ahistorical, if not antihistorical) paradigm as theorized by Jameson in much of his writings on contemporary culture. Although the focus of The Speed Handbook is not at all on Postmodernism, Duffy makes very clear that notions of space and place are definitely at the very heart of Modernism, including at the very heart of its obsession with the seemingly temporal aspects of movement and speed. In the wake of his basic assumption of Modernity as a geopolitical situation deprived of any external frontier (since the various empires cover the whole world around 1900), Duffy argues that space and place are not “ignored” or “marginalized” by the dominantly temporal or chronological paradigm of Modernism as innovation, but that the very notion of speed (as well as the related notions of movement, progress, innovation, etc.) can only be read as a specific answer to the destruction of place and its substitution by abstract space. The vanishing of any frontier produces both a destruction of the heterotopic utopia of the colony and of the place formerly called home (which can no longer be defined in contrast to a heterotopia that no longer exists), while at the same moment the concreteness of all these places starts to be replaced by abstract notions of movements between points in space. This terribly unsettling evolution, which disintegrates traditional subjectivity, is then compensated by something completely new: speed as pleasure.

For Duffy, speed is defined as the pleasure of driving fast (a car), and it is absolutely essential to stress the cultural and political underpinnings of this definition.

Speed is not just an increase of movement and velocity, for this evolution had started much earlier. In the beginning of The Speed Handbook, readers may be astonished by the almost absolute distinction the author makes between travelling fast (by train) and driving fast (a car), but page after page the nature of this distinction becomes obvious: in the former case, the traveller is being transported and does not control speed herself; in the latter, it is the subject himself that becomes capable of going faster and faster). Speed is then a pleasure because it produces a self-produced thrill, a kick, an excitement that goes beyond all known experiences and opened to a much broader public than ever before.

Yet speed is not only a historical “novum”, it is also a deeply politicized experience and practice. Not only because it redefines all traditional notions of time and space, but also because speed as pleasure plays a role in the social structure and organization of culture and subject. Speed was offered as a mass cultural pleasure (the production of assembly-line produced cars started in 1896) and was clearly functioning as a compensation for the ruthless transformations of modernization (destruction of place and community, rationalization of time management, commodification of the object, alienation of labour, and so on). At the same time, speed, more specifically the way speed was represented, both as a pleasure and as a danger, was also an instrument in the commodity culture as protected and enhanced by nation states. Speed as pleasure trained subjects to better participate in commodity culture, for the pleasures of speed had to be bought and enjoyed as spectacle (Duffy’s analyses are here quite close to certain ideas of Adorno and Horkheimer on the culture industry). Speed as danger (although always as an abstract or comic danger, for too direct a representation of the concrete horrors of the crash might have been incompatible with the praise of speed as pleasure) did not only render speed’s consumption pleasures more innocent, it helped also to further increase the subject’s surrender to the power of the state. The latter became, in Duffy’s saying, a traffic agent but whose more fundamental role was to streamline behaviour and to yield the subject to the constraints of modern commodified life. Speed, in this sense, is dramatically political.

This very short overview of what I consider the main lines of this exceptionally dense book cannot do justice to all of Duffy’s thinking. The author is also, besides of being a thrilling writer, a great close-reader. The Speed Handbook considerably renews our interpretation of books like Heart of Darkness (read as a complaint against slowness, and hence much more ambivalent in its attitude against Western modernity) or Crash (read as an example of going backwards into the future, the analogy of sex and crash culture preventing us from seeing what is really new, namely the crash). But most of all it is an impressive attempt to reconstruct the speed culture as it emerged at the end of the 19th culture in all possible cultural spheres: publicity, journalism, popular culture, philosophy, and the social fabric in its whole.

Speed is the basic constraint of a reviewer’s commitment: to read and write fast is a must, otherwise books are in danger of falling into oblivion before the even get a chance to reach their public. The Speed Handbook is one of these works that make the reviewer a little ashamed of doing what he is doing. For Duffy’s study may prove one of those that really count, but whose richness can only become clear after many and slow readings. Let’s hope that this will be the paradoxical fortune of The Speed Handbook.


Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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