- The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism
No one sunk in the horrifying slowness of getting a book into print these days could fail to be elevated by the structural irony of The Speed Handbook, a monograph study of speed as “the single new pleasure invented by modernity” (3). If the choice of motion itself as a research object is nothing short of perverse, this is of course merely an intensification of the truth that the objects we scholars pursue to arrest always already elude us, anyway. To accept profoundly this (banal) insight is to learn to speak not of objects as such, in our work, but of relations of deferral, which refuse the presence of the object itself, along with our needy critical distance from it. “As with any pleasure,” as Duffy puts it here, in his opening pages, “speed’s thrill is polymorphous and resists being pinned down” (5).
It comes as no surprise that, thus freeing himself from the discovered order of things affirmed by all properly disciplined scholarly prose, Duffy writes with style and passion on speed as somatic modernity, felt “in the bones” (4). Such physiologism portends no mere triumph of the Euro-Atlantic modernity that frames The Speed Handbook as a study of (mostly) British and US modernist car culture, cinema, and literature. Rather (or also), it finds in speed’s irreflection of representation a homology with the epistemic trauma of the loss of empire, suffered from within. Here, Aldous Huxley’s demand, in “Wanted, a New Pleasure” (1931), for speed as “the one genuinely modern pleasure” is superimposed on the closed system announced by Halford Mackinder in “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), completing the Euro-Atlantic imperial mapping of the amodern or nonmodern unknown world. It is in a crisis of representation, marked by this territorialization of space, that modernist culture emerges as a culture of speed.
Speed is politics, Duffy argues, in so far as the early-twentieth-century Western state, dilated in empire, at once produced speed in the automotive experience and managed it at the same time, through traffic regulation. In (and as) the modernity of modernism, speed annihilates the gap between the spectacle of relation, in commodity (especially car) culture, and the real social relation that Marx told us it conceals. In redacting the dimension of Marx’s sense of both forms of value (use and exchange) as abstract, such claims strain Duffy’s conclusion that the “traffic” of the twentieth-century commodity has not yet been adequately theorized. Still, in so far as such stenography is unavoidable, in a form (the printed book) with word limits, it hardly compromises the labor that The Speed Handbook, as a work of contemporary criticism, might be said to be doing both in [End Page 660] and against itself. That is to link the moment of Euro-Atlantic Erinnerung or interiorization, at the acme of imperialism, to the epistemic struggle to know empire itself as finite: to cope with the heat death, as it were, of its explorable world—and all the implications of that for university culture.
The “endocolonization” (a term Duffy borrows from Paul Virilio) of imperial Euro-Atlantic modernity thus finds its critical homologue in what one might call “masocriticism,” in which the imperial aplomb of influence meets the “neoromantic dream” (269) of an exteriority immune to research. The Speed Handbook is nothing less than dedicated to this involution. “We need speed” (273), Duffy tells us, in the form of “a new grammar of culture which overrides the imperatives of Western models of representation and aesthetic reception in modernity at least since Kant: a protocol which subsumes aesthetics under rationality by adhering to a model of critical distance and rational contemplation” (9). In the critical destruction of its own mandate and authority as an objectivizing work of research, The Speed Handbook is measurably less blind to its own implications, in this respect, than a great deal of recent literary-historiographic work on deterritorializing movement across land, sea, identity, culture, and language—much of which, measured by the critical self-awareness Duffy...