A Portrait of Homo Velox

September 1, 2012
Jeffrey T. Schnapp

A Portrait of Homo Velox is the second installment from Quickening: An Anthropology of Speed, a book in progress. Read the first installment here.

How to portray the human subject of speed? The task is deemed impossible by Pierre Nioxe, the fast talking/thinking/acting hero of Paul Morand’s 1941 novel L’homme pressé (The Man in a Hurry): “I warn you,” he tells the German social scientist Regencrantz, a specialist in the study of impulsive movements who is intrigued by the “originality and beauty” of Nioxe’s hyperactivity, “I warn you, no one has ever managed to draw me because I simply won’t sit still.”“Est-ce pour fair mon portrait? Je vous préviens qu’on n’a jamais pu me croquer; je ne tiens pas ma place.” Paul Morand, L’homme pressé (Paris: Gallimard, 1941), 11. Regencrantz expresses his admiration as follows: “A moi, spécialisé dans l’étude des mouvements impulsifs et dans l’anatomie des réflexes, votre fougue m’est parue très extraordinaire, pas du tout proportionée avec son objet. Cela avait de l’originalité même de la beauté. Dans la manière d’une panthère sautant sur un moustique” (11–12). By definition the speedster is always on the move. On the move as an individual specimen but also on the move in history, blazing a trail from era to era, from one human type to the next, from one medium to another. In the fast-forward version, the sequence encompasses a diversity of new human types. These include

*the dandy/driver of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cabriolets, a mechanically enhanced predecessor of the Baudelairean flaneur for whom driving is a variety of flirtation and mobile self-display outside the framework of traditional notions of social circulation and identity formation;

*the sportsman of the early nineteenth century, who, like John Mytton and later descendants such as Thomas de Quincey, tests the outer limits of hunting, horsemanship, and stagecoach driving in the pursuit of accident as adventure, trauma as hyperstimulation, shock as addictive thrill;

*the self-propelled athlete and recordman, for whom, unlike his classical predecessors, competition is rule governed, non–site specific, and based on the quantification of performance, and for whom the aim of training is not the fulfillment of a nature that is already given but rather the transformation of nature itself—“body-building” qua bioengineering;

*the avant-gardist, who, according to Max Nordau, suffers from the ailment of nystagmus, that trembling of the eyeball which transforms the world into a flux devoid of firm outlines—the Futurist multiplied man for whom speed disrupts the unity of the Cartesian subject, explodes the body’s contours, and relocates identity in a hypothetical future;Max Nordau, Degeneration (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 27. and, last but not least,

*the everyday speed freak, Morand’s Nioxe: a globe-trotting trader in ever newly uncovered antiquities, a multitasker before the invention of multitasking, a human parallel processing system, a man for whom sleep is time lost and hyperactivity is the norm.

Other characters could be added to the pantheon of hommes et femmes pressés: the cyclist, the pilot, the astronaut, the market speculator, the cybernaut. Yet Nioxe deems them all equally (and, one might add, heroically) unrepresentable: “I simply won’t sit still.” Nioxe’s claim of unrepresentability amounts to a declaration of independence: the subject of speed, it implies, is not reducible to the logic of productivity or to that of mechanical conveyances upon which he depends, nor is it capturable by means of even the most dynamic medium. Rather, Homo velox’s perpetual flight into the future represents a principle of transcendence within that overall acceleration of time and compression of space that is modernity—an engine of individuation within an overall drive toward standardization, conformity, uniformity, and predictability. Hence his “originality and beauty” even in the eyes of a social scientist.

The fast-paced linear prose of Morand’s novel betrays the fact that, like the young Morand who once spouted effusions regarding the advent of a heroic new era of speed, Nioxe is deluded. And doubly so. On the one hand, he is headed for a heart attack: sufficient proof that a high price has to be paid for endowing a modern body with the tools and organs required for life in the fast lane, and that modern forms of “originality and beauty” are indissociable from evanescence and obsolescence. And on the other hand, even as he asserts his defiance, he has already been captured and portrayed in an industrial-era paperback distributed worldwide by the publishing house Gallimard by means of a transportation network that includes ships, trains, and airplanes. The mobility of a hypermobile subject is no obstacle to portraiture, not to mention to commodification. Like the prose itself, the blur, the stroboscopic staccato, and the compressed layering of visual planes and informational domains, stream and force lines, and collage and montage techniques may be expressions of a rupture within the regime of Western art, but they are also a standard repertory of communicational techniques, supported in turn by media technologies, on which industrial and postindustrial economies rely. The same could be said of Nioxe’s stamina, hyperactivity, and ability to rapidly process competing tasks and complex data streams. So Homo velox figures at once as the Homo economicus of the eras of industry and information and as the exasperation of that very economic logic. The incarnation of hyperproductivity, he is also a ticking time bomb.

I have opened with the paradoxes that animate Morand’s fiction (and the broad horizons of our collective ruminations on speed, technology, and invention of change) in order to raise a question and to launch my own modest exercise in portraiture by way of a response. The question regards whether, as Nioxe would have it, culture as interpreted by real or fictional individuals exceeds or performs an anticipatory role with respect to the transportation and communications technologies on which it relies and the economic system within which it operates or, on the contrary (as even highly nuanced cultural histories of technology tend to assume), whether such technologies and their economic context ultimately drive cultural iterations of speed. The answer that I provide argues for the former and will assume the form of a portrait or, rather, a sketch of a mid-seventeenth-century ancestor of Homo velox, executed via readings from two characteristic products of the golden era of baroque poetics: Matteo Pellegrini’s Delle acutezze che altrimenti spiriti, vivezze e concetti volgarmente si appellano (1639) and I fonti dell’ingegno ridotti ad arte (1650). By analyzing how the treatises in question open a breach within traditional rhetorical theory and practice, I hope to suggest that long before cabriolets were trampling Paris pedestrians, trains were inflicting ailments like railway spine upon passengers, and the Pierre Nioxes of the world were multitasking and parallel processing, a human subject endowed with a new kind of intelligence, a new set of cognitive skills and new communicational tools, was being brought into existence. In other words, baroque aesthetic theory and practice, with its celebration of mental quickness and that verbal counterpart of mental agility known as wit, provided a kind of “software” for somatic mobility, time-space compression, and information acceleration a century in advance of the arrival of the requisite “hardware” supplied by the Industrial Revolution.

Before attempting to trace the contours of Pellegrini’s aesthetics of mental agility, I wish to clarify that in emphasizing this particular theorist, I am making no special claim about his originality with respect to contemporaries like Baltasar Gracian and Emanuele Tesauro. On the contrary, Pellegrini’s works are largely of a piece with Gracian’s Agudeza y arte de ingenio (1642) and Tesauro’s Cannocchiale aristotelico (1654), preceding each by only a couple of years. But whereas Tesauro’s principal commitment is to wit as an act of inscription, especially in such proto-advertising domains of visual-verbal overlap as emblems, rebuses, ciphers, and hieroglyphs, Pellegrini and Gracian steer the discussion toward a courtly context where verbal acuity functions as a kind of situational persuasion, self-display, and one-upmanship. All three operate within an overall framework that is continuous with classical traditions of rhetoric extending from Aristotle to Cicero to their Renaissance heirs. Yet within that continuity, discontinuity surfaces in the form of the disproportionate stress that the baroque era begins to place in a once marginal repertory of special effects: effects produced by means of novelty, extravagance, surprising twists and turns, acceleration or delay, improvisation, instantaneous reasoning without transitions; effects that can be systematized and codified but that ultimately elude systematization and codification, much like Nioxe believes he can elude all acts of portraiture.

Throughout the classical and premodern eras of Western culture, velocity had been a cultural theme of mostly minor or secondary significance. It was either cosmic (as in the perfectly regular whirling of the celestial spheres) or comic (as an inversion of the gravitas demanded of authority figures), otherworldly—the attribute of angels, demons, or gods—or, if thisworldly, identified with natural phenomena or with the lower social orders: messengers, couriers, actors, cooks, and thieves. Apparent exceptions like ancient athletes and charioteers confirm the rule. Godlike in their poise, they rarely break a sweat. Physical exertion and expenditure are no less alien to classical and premodern notions of beauty than would have been Marinetti’s futurist dream of turning poetry into a lyrical sport in which poets compete to break quantifiable records.

Classical rhetorical theory reflects this overall bias in favor of slowness (which it considers commensurate to dignity, authority, and age) and against velocity (which it associates with childishness and youth). From Aristotle to Cicero to Quintilian and beyond, speed hovers at or outside the periphery of models of communication and persuasion. Rarely if ever mentioned, it is envisaged as a menace to eloquence and an enemy of proper forms of persuasion. Rhetoric was much more than a repertory of verbal techniques. It provided a complete system of literary, moral, and civic education, based on the study and veneration of tradition. Normative in character, it set out to police and regulate recourse to figures, tropes, and other forms of ornamentation so as to enhance the persuasive efficacy of plain speech without undermining its reliance on logic. This explains why—like expressions of passion or recourse to perilously artificial devices such as neologism—accelerated speech, extreme forms of concision, surprising argumentative jumps, rapid gesticulation, and other breaches of “natural” or “balanced” argumentation would be deemed acceptable only as exceptional ornaments within the framework of a carefully choreographed sequence where the overall effect is not theatricality but instead naturalness and transparency. Whether applied to oratory or to written composition, rhetoric was a system of pacing and restraint meant to limit the speed of execution and to turn the focus of attention away from the body of the rhetor/writer and toward the logic of argument and the collective good.

Here is where, for all Pellegrini’s debts to Aristotelian and Ciceronian tradition (and they are considerable), a divergence surfaces. As signaled by the very titles of his works, Pellegrini welcomes a newly compressed, artificial temporality and spatiality into the fold of rhetoric that one is tempted to describe as “theatrical”: Delle acutezze che altrimenti spiriti, vivezze e concetti volgarmente si appellano (On Those Forms of Mental Sharpness Referred to in the Vernacular as Spiritedness, Vivacity and Conceit) and I fonti dell’ingegno ridotti ad arte (The Sources of Wit [Ingenuity] Translated into a System). The first treatise lays out a theory for the elaboration of brilliant figures, especially metaphor, irony, paradox, pun, and antithesis—the more extravagant and far-fetched, the better they will dazzle and startle listeners, readers, and viewers. The second treatise explores the nature of wit, or ingegno: that agile mental/verbal/visual faculty that, no longer restricted to making apt or illuminating comparisons (as in Aristotle and Cicero), has been freed up to test the limits of the strange, the extraordinary, and the unique, as well as to discover or invent connections between remote and apparently unrelated things. (Note the fundamental untranslatability of this vocabulary: ingegno means, literally speaking, “genius,” and figuratively speaking it points in the direction of what the nineteenth century would come to understand by the word imagination; invenzione, like its Latin counterpart inventio, means both “discovery,” as in finding precedents or revisiting past usage, and “invention,” as in the forging of something unfamiliar or new; acutezza refers simultaneously to mental and perceptual sharpness while, much like the word wit in English, implying incisiveness, levity, or humor; concetto means “concept” as well as “conceit”; arte means both “system” or “teachable craft” and an art that is ultimately unteachable; spirito evokes “spiritedness,” as in the French expression jeu d’esprit, immaterial beings such as fantasms, and “spirit” in the sense of overall character.)

Pellegrini’s account of the functioning of ingegno begins by openly admitting that the mobility of his topic may ultimately render all efforts at systematic treatment futile in the end. Like Nioxe, ingegno is a perpetually moving target:

It is worth confessing that my subject matter is hard to comprehend with rigor for it is entirely based on the workings of genius and fantasy, something highly slippery and shifty, and therefore extraordinarily difficult to grasp or upon which to fix one’s attentive gaze.Matteo Pellegrini, Delle acutezze che altrimenti spiriti, vivezze e concetti volgarmente si appellano (Genoa: C. Ferroni, 1639), 19. 

The effort to capture wit’s elusive workings, to the degree that they are capturable, is built on the analogy between its cognitive and combinatory operations, architecture, and travel:

Wit doesn’t suffer fetters. It finds its substance in extremely agile and mobile spirits that are continuously flaring, flitting, and sparkling. Which doesn’t mean that, so to speak, it can simply be led by the hand. Certain sources, known as agents of excitement [eccitanti], must first be placed in its service, so that it never finds itself lacking in them, and so that masterful surveys may be readied and a factory built according to the proper angles and perspectives, in harmony with all the practices codified in Chapter 4. Aside from this one limit on its freedom, wit’s natural agility suffers neither prisons nor shackles lest, as in the case of the nightingale that had been condemned to a cage, it will wither away in silence.Matteo Pellegrini, I fonti dell’ingegno ridotti ad arte (Bologna: Carlo Zenero, 1650), cited from Trattatisti e narratori del Seicento, ed. Ezio Raimondi (Milan: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1960), 174.  

Like Chapter 4 of I fonti, Delle acutezze deals with the social purposes of wit and in particular with the vastness of the kingdom of art and science, with respect to which man’s creations function like a sublime mountain peak that, for all its immensity, serves as a platform for contemplating the smallness and finitude of human art. Whereas in classical rhetoric, human art was fettered to tradition-bound norms of communicative naturalness and transparency, Pellegrini demands only that it respect a few overall guidelines and that it tap into the accumulated treasury of preexisting “agents of excitement”—that is, the tradition of wit—less to imitate them than to avert the risk of exhaustion. Its workings assume the form of a mobile factory, a fabrica in the preindustrial sense of a workshop where objects are crafted that, though based on nature and classical precedent, exceed the boundaries of the natural and the classical. Its works assume the form of unstable modern constructs: they are componimenti fiammanti, flaming, vibrant, flamboyant compositions, whose success is measured by the degree of sfavillamento (sparkle) that they exude and by the degree to which the fantasmo eccitante (agitatory phantasm) on which they rely transports the imaginations of both creator and audience.

Such extravagant creations are no longer constrained by the need to respect “natural” sequences or relations in time and space, as had once been the case under the regime of classical rhetoric. Novelty is embraced, even when understood as dangerous: “The ray of novelty is so bright that it initially blinds even the sharpest vision; its shimmer casts such a powerful spell that nothing else can distract our focus, so much so that it readily puts good judgment to sleep.”Pellegrini, Delle acutezze, 254. Improbable but plausible links can be discovered or made up by means of the conceptual telegraph that is ingegno: “As regards the means of interconnection and the reciprocal fit between objects that are brought together, they should be uncommon so as to elicit admiration for the might of the wit that found them.”Ibid., 45. Even accident becomes a powerful engine for propelling discourse toward unexpected heights:

Happenstance, which is to say contingency, plays a decisive role in this field, firstly, because, given that it cannot be governed by rules, it provides ingegno with an infinity of occasions to put its abilities [to the test and] on display: the glory of ingegno being, as earlier stated, an ability to function with brilliance precisely where there exists no possibility for firm rules. . . . The range of contingencies is incomparably vast. It encompasses all forms of accident: not only present but also past, derived from the entire span of centuries; not only real but also imaginary; not only those that can be supposed to have actually occurred but also the potential.Ibid., 136.  

This dream of an improvisatory intelligence, acquainted with precedent and with rules but able to perform nimbly without them, places the virtue of prestezza at the center of Pellegrini’s pantheon of ideal human attributes. The word implies both a state of constant readiness and a quickness of execution: the ability to bridge the gap between the real and the imaginary, the present and the remote. Prestezza requires daring but not foolhardiness: its masters “sing praises of the bold [arditi] and of those who take risks, not of the mad [forsennati].”Ibid., 256. It elevates ordinary mortals above their peers and is not shy about actively soliciting their admiration:

This speed, this happy ability to make discoveries [invenzioni], must be understood by comparison with the wit and intellect of ordinary people. Here one again encounters the origins of the marvelous that reside in remoteness from the commonplace, for as Saint Thomas [Aquinas] correctly stated, novelty and remoteness from the commonplace breed admiration. It therefore follows that marvelous forms of wit depend more on appearances than reality. Their aim is pleasure and an audience’s admiration. Grace and marvel have no need for reality, so much so that the more marvelous a marvel, the more it finds its home in the realm of appearance, the less in the realm of substance.Ibid., 42.  

In this passage, “admiration” retains its Latin meaning and refers to an audience that has been blinded, stunned, awestruck, reduced to silence, by the operations of wit. Rather than eschewing the crowd’s attention, the baroque artificer welcomes its gaze, but within a negative framework: a built-in obsolescence and evanescence that is ontological, not a function of fashion. So the pinnacle of his art is an art that is all flash and no substance: tanto più mirabile è mirabile, quanto hà più d'apparenza, e meno di sussistenza. The more it appears or, rather, the more fully it succeeds in inhabiting the realm of appearances, the more it overwhelms. And the more it finds itself overwhelmed, in turn, by the limits of mortal artifice. In the words of Tesauro, the pinnacle of art is to leave behind a “taste of ashes.”

To jump forward from the shimmering surfaces of baroque art to the vibrating eyeballs of futurists, from seventeenth-century performances of literary artifice to the modern road racer’s performance of space-time compression on the tarmac, from Pellegrini’s tracking and cataloging of fantasmi eccitanti to contemporary forms of thrill seeking, would no doubt enact an excessive leap. It would mean overleaping an abundance of discontinuities, discontinuities that I would be happy to enumerate in our open discussion but that include fundamentally divergent concepts of nature and artifice, invention and innovation; history, technics, and art; even of performance. 

Yet I hope, nonetheless, that this sketch has provided an unexpected and provocative vantage point from which to revisit not just the history of how industrial culture came to conceive of itself as part of a global technological process of acceleration but also the lingering association in the modern and postmodern culture of speed with hyperbolic expressions of selfhood and individualism, whether in the domains of work, leisure, or art. However distant and complex, the genealogical affinities between Pellegrini’s uomo presto (agile individual) and Morand’s homme pressé confirm that the history of velocity is more than that of industrialization or of the rise of modern transportation and communication networks. “More” because the complexity of processes of innovation and of the interplay between the socioeconomic, technological, and cultural forces that inform them make a forceful case against techno-determinism, not to mention against determinisms of a less fashionable sort. While it is hard to resist the neatness of arguing for an essential simultaneity and cohesiveness between these various strata of sociohistorical development, this very neatness can sometimes amount to a leveling trap. Which isn’t to say that decoupling one stratum from the other, thinking discontinuities or delays, embracing accident rather than causality, always provides the cure. Often it doesn’t and can lead to missing connections of a decisive sort. Still, if this modest exercise in ancestral portraiture has achieved its aims, it will have steered a middle course even while pursuing the second of these lines of historiographical inquiry. If the resulting portrait is still fragmentary and blurry, perhaps part of the fault lies with culture itself, which simply won’t sit still and only seems to as accelerations and decelerations become less readily observable over the course of many centuries.


Jeffrey T. Schnapp is faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Jeffrey T. Schnapp teaches in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His most recent books are Modernitalia (2012) and The Electric Information Age Book (with Adam Michaels, 2012). He is a contributing editor to West 86th.



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Cesare Ripa, CELERITA, from Nova Iconologia, (Padua: Pietro Paolo Tozzi, 1618)

Cesare Ripa, VELOCITA from Nova Iconologia, (Padua: Pietro Paolo Tozzi, 1618