Spinners is the first in a series of extracts from a book in progress titled Quickening (An Anthropology of Speed) to appear in West 86th.
To qualify a book that has been under way for more than a decade as being “in progress” may do undue violence to the notion of progress, and all the more so in the case of a book dedicated to the theme of speed. Yet the scope and tentacular ambitions of Quickening have dictated a pace better suited to Rousseau’s solitary wanderer than to the speedsters, human or mechanical, that drive twentieth-century tales of conquest and adventure.
Slow or fast, Quickening anoints itself as an “anthropology” in order to set itself apart from classic histories of modernity as the era of speed, like Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space and Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Train Journey (both of which I greatly admire), as well as from the present-centered teleologies of theorists like Paul Virilio (which I don’t).1 Unlike these and other authors, I find it more interesting to argue against the reduction of the history of speed to that of the modern era. My heuristic assumption, to the contrary, is that the enduring dromological imagination that is the object of Quickening becomes richly visible only when one challenges modernity’s own self-description as a rupture event.
Movement = life. This equation shapes elementary human beliefs regarding the distinction between the animate and the inanimate, and provides the basis for the attribution of chthonic, metereological, and cosmological motions to the actions of higher beings in religions, primitive to modern. The logical corollary to movement = life is the equation that shapes what, in Quickening, I call the anthropology of speed: more movement = more life. The “more” in question may be qualitative or quantitative, momentary or lasting, mental or physical. Its expressions vary from culture to culture and epoch to epoch, but always conjoin the world of mental constructs to the material remains that make up the cultural record.
Without exception, these additions to the human assume the form of myths of transformation whose contours are summed up by the seven centuries’ worth of meanings accrued by the English verb to quicken. To quicken is not just to accelerate, but also to give or to restore life: either that life which becomes evident when, in the course of a pregnancy, a fetus first begins to move or the higher life associated with spiritual pursuits. To quicken also means to stir up, rouse, or excite both physically and mentally in ways that converge with secondary meanings that link quickening with the leavening effects of yeast, the kindling of fires, and the production of drugs. All these life-giving, rousing, counter-gravitational, incendiary, and narcotic meanings are held together by a shared association of quickening with dazzling, glinting, flickering light.
So “quickening” in the expanded sense helps to explain why the speed of the Spartan sprinter Ladas in the sixth century BC is impossible to describe: impossible because, as the Greek Anthology tells us, pounding the soil and soaring above the stadium at the very same time, he possessed a speed that was less human than demonic.2 Likewise, it helps to explain how nineteen centuries later and nine heavens above the terrestrial sphere, an ecstatic vision of ever-faster concentric angelic rotations precipitated Dante pilgrim’s own metamorphosis into a wheel spinning with the infinite velocity of a divinity who is the drive mechanism of the universe.3 And, six centuries later, it informs Thomas De Quincey’s seminal account of how he was transformed into the protagonist of Confessions of an Opium-Eater (1821) by means of an experience of the “glory of motion” atop a speeding mail coach: an experience whose effect is encapsulated by the Latin phrase magna vivimus—we live great things.4 Closer to the present, it animates the dreams of the cybernetic imagination with its fusion of posthumans and thinking machines, outpacers of the human following in the footsteps of that unmoved mover known as HAL, the high-speed multitasking and parallel processing mainframe demon-god of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Human existence is defined by a set of “natural” paces and cycles: paces of walking, talking, breathing, and sensory perception, and cycles of wakefulness and sleep, activity and inactivity. Enabled and constrained by the capabilities of the human body, these spatiotemporal, perceptual, and communicational rhythms are embedded, in turn, within those of the natural world: day and night, seasonal flux, growth and decay, birth and death. When the relationship between the two is altered, the human as a category is pressed outward toward its boundaries: those with other orders of creatures, with more than “natural” forms of being and bodily expression, and with alternate modes of cognition, consciousness, or intellection. These boundary lines are themselves movable markers whose location shifts as a function of the everyday rhythms that characterize a given culture, conditioned by social conventions and technological possibilities. When mail coaches, trains, and automobiles first arose, their impact was traumatic and ecstatic; decades later, their velocities had been naturalized and normalized, absorbed within everyday routines. Speed, in turn, sought a home elsewhere: at the speedway, in the sky, between the planets, beyond the solar system, in atomic particles.
Even as it migrates from old to new homes, speed leaves behind it trails of signs and artifacts that have proved remarkably stable over the course of the history of human civilization. An extensive portion of Quickening is devoted to tracking such trails: those left by lightning bolts, winds, angelic messengers, arrows, dust and smoke trails, and nineteenth-century illustrative streamlines. In the case of Spinners, the sign/artifact under scrutiny is the wheel.
Among the signs of mobility in contemporary life, none is more pervasive or enduring than the spinning wheel. Early disk wheels were unlikely candidates for adoption as icons of mobility, however. They were heavy, solid-wood contraptions, assembled from multiple planks pieced together with mortise-held dowels (fig. 1). They were attached by means of robust axles to carts and wagons: compression structures intended for the transport of loads that could not readily be borne by asses, hardly suitable for hyperactive gods or godlike warriors on the battlefield.
The key breakthrough in wheel design came in the second millennium BC in Asia and Europe, in the form of spoked wheels. This was not an extension of prior disk-wheel technology, but rather a revolutionary break that soon gave rise to the high-performance sports cars of their day—a new category of war chariots that, like spoked wheels themselves, were essentially bent-wood tension structures (fig. 2).5
There were both heavy- and light-duty variants of the spoke wheel, which contained four to eight spokes, and historians estimate that ground transport speeds increased by as much as tenfold, “from the 3.7 km (2 miles) an hour for ox-transport to the 38 km (20 miles) an hour reached with ease with a modern replica of an ancient Egyptian chariot with a pair of ponies, the chariot itself with its harness weighing only 34 kg (75 lbs).”6
Suddenly the transport wheel was no longer akin to the stone grinding wheels of granaries, rolling along at the leisurely pace of a walker and sometimes weighing in at well over one hundred kilograms.7 Rather, much like potters’ wheels or spinning wheels used to create yarn or thread throughout the centuries, it spun fast: if not to the point of producing static or reverse rotation illusions (the so-called wagon-wheel effect), then at least to that of generating the dust clouds that shrouded ancient battlegrounds and, thanks to friction, even smoke. When the Roman poet Horace speaks of the fervidis rotis (glowing wheels) of racing chariots rounding the post, he is referring to a radiance akin to that of carbon-fiber disk brakes on today’s race cars: a glow capable of setting fire to the wheels of chariots or causing them to explode.8
Two visual iterations of the spinning wheel as a sign of speed arise in human history. The first registers the wheel’s velocity by staging its partial or complete disappearance into the clouds of dust that are stirred up by horse teams or by the suctioning action of wheels themselves. The second fixates on the optical properties of fast-turning wheels, from blurring to distortions in form to the wagon-wheel effect (fig. 3). Both locate the wheel at the threshold between the visible and the invisible, the evanescent and the enduring, the ghostly and the hyper-embodied.
Fig. 3. Wagon-wheel effect.
The first of these conventions is ancient, abundantly present in even the earliest literature of battle and sport. It is exemplified by the following description of a chariot race from The Iliad:
Rapidly they made their way over the flat land and presently were far away from the ships. The dust lifting clung beneath the horses’ chests like cloud or a stormwhirl. Their manes streamed along the blast of the wind, the chariots rocking now would dip to the earth who fosters so many and now again would spring up clear of the ground, and the drivers stood in the chariots, with the spirit beating in each man with the strain to win, and each was calling aloud upon his own horses, and the horses flew through the dust of the flat land.9
Homer omits any mention of the chariot wheels themselves in order to imply that they have dematerialized in the whirlwind, even if, more than one hundred lines later (ll. 505–506), the racers’ wheel rims are said to quite literally vanish into the dust. The result is the same as that of the land-based flight depicted, more than twenty-five centuries later, in tens of thousands of paintings, prints, illustrations, and cartoons, not to mention narratives, from the age of coaching and early motoring (fig. 4).
Like seacraft skimming the crests of waves, coaches, trains, and early motorcars are shown floating in self-generated clouds—clouds portrayed as the terrestrial equivalents of those once stirred up by the chariots of the gods (fig. 5).10
But instead of being associated with bouncing and pounding, such cloud masses increasingly figure as a soft perch from which the landscape can be observed streaming by, as if in a dream. Gérard de Nerval’s 1831 ode “Awakening in a Carriage” (“Le réveil en voiture”) exemplifies this new perceptual twist, enabled by the increasing smoothness of accelerated travel on land:
This is what I saw: The trees along my route
Merging as they fled, like an army in retreat;
And beneath me, as if moved by swirling winds,
The ground unrolled in waves of dust and cobblestone.11
The reversal in perspective that the poet experiences has become a commonplace in the era of frame-based dynamic media like the cinema. It seems as if the coach stands still, hovering above the ground with the landscape spooling by its windows like a film.12 The word “unrolled” (roulait), however, underscores the role of wheels as the device that enables a simultaneous coupling and decoupling between coach and landscape.
Wheels that soar yet grip the soil are ubiquitous in the mythology of modern transport, particularly in advertising graphics. In one famous ad, the Michelin “Comfort Balloon” tire sails through the heavens with winged effigies of Bibendum cast in the role of amorini (fig. 6).
Tires sprout wings in order to support the claim that they eagerly “drink up” roadways and “adapt themselves to the wheel of Fortune” (as contemporary advertising slogans were wont to claim)—the device is at least as ancient as a Phoenician silver drachma from 350 BC found in the collection of the British Museum (fig. 7).
Lionlike, they claw the soil even as they swirl in Armando Testa’s 1950s advertisements for the Pirelli Stelvio (fig. 8).
They even orbit the earth in a wide array of graphic works. Consider Gilbert Philibert’s classic image of a leaping Bibendum with spinning pneumatic at his side, or Herbert Bayer’s World War II propaganda poster featuring a tire traveling a clear path from Japan to Pearl Harbor to the United States (figs. 9–10). In other examples still, tread marks configure celestial pathways or crisscross the globe.
The icon of the floating, flying, or skimming wheel intersects a related set of conventions informed by a fascination with the wheel’s geometry that extends back at least as far as Plato. The point of departure is the readily observable (but illusory) fact that as a wheel spins on its hub, it retains the same contours. Every location along the perimeter seems to return to its original position, rotation after rotation, thereby effecting a symbolic reconciliation between movement and stillness, change and sameness, or, for the platonic tradition, time and eternity. The paradox is enhanced by the additional fact that, when placed in motion through space (as in the case of the drive wheels of a train moving along rails), every point on every wheel traces another shape rich in symbolism: the spiral. Representing forward movement forever folding back on itself, the spiral offers yet another figure for the reconciliation of otherness and sameness that has become part of the standard toolkit of abstract speed signs.
Two optical effects, both increasingly recognized through the increased rotational speeds achieved during the era of railways and motorcars, and through the rise of motion photography, transport us beyond the ideal geometries just described. The first was recognized before the modern era, even if it is absent from premodern visual representations of accelerated motion: namely, that as wheels spin faster and faster, their spokes vanish into a ghostly glow. The rim appears to spin free from the tension structure of the wheel itself as if self-supported, and, in ways that are invisible to the naked eye (but not to a high-speed camera), it begins to flex and to distort. Literary accounts of ancient chariot racing, like Horace’s “glowing wheels,” seem to allude to halo formations of this sort, even if such perceptions are hardly the rule. There are also indications of a similar awareness in ancient optics—for instance, in the works of Euclid and Ptolemy (and many centuries later, they become a favorite feature of modern optical toys).
In the visual arts, however, the most celebrated early attempt to represent wheel blur is Velázquez’s masterpiece The Spinners (Las hilanderas; 1657), which features a spinning wheel reduced to a flickering rim structure through which the figures of the spinners’ garments appear unfiltered, except for some stray concentric marks along the periphery and a series of highlights clustered around the wheel’s hub (fig. 11).
Over the course of time, Velázquez’s solution has become the standard one. Highlights, blurring, concentric arcs, fade outs from the wheel’s periphery to its center, dust clouds adhering to the wheel’s contours, and deliberately rough or sketchy treatments of all but the rim and hub have become the graphic code for conveying the idea of rapid rotation.
The code in question arose long before the birth of photography, and, though some have attributed its “invention” to the northern English painter and naturalist Thomas Bewick, it evolved slowly and as the result of a collective process that encompasses everything from etchings to drawings and paintings to dynamic art forms like cartooning. The great majority of early depictions of fast-moving coaches and trains, even in scenes involving extreme or fatal speeds, remain continuous with representations of war chariots from earlier millennia. In such depictions, rather than blurring, the artist stops the action. Every spoke is visible (unless buried in a cloud of dust). Motion is conveyed by means of other icons of speed (clouds, streaming garments, and the like).
The new code began to gain ascendancy during the second half of the nineteenth century, inspired by the “motion ghosts” of early photography (blurs initially viewed as errors to be eliminated, but later embraced for their scientific value and visual interest). By the end of the century, it had become obligatory. Wheels with blurred edges and glowing centers indicated fast movement. Wheels with visible spokes indicated slow movement or stillness. The result is evident in paintings like Thomas Eakins’s The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (also known as A May Morning in the Park; 1879): the leg positions of the horse team are rendered precisely, yet the spokes are reduced to abstract marks (fig. 12).13
Michelin tire ads again provide a somewhat later case in point. They exhibit faint haze, concentric arcs, cruciform glimmer patterns, and lightning-like zigzags in the place of spokes, even when, as in one classic bicycle tire poster from 1912, the Michelin brand name remains perfectly legible (fig. 13). (The rim is shown spinning, paradoxically, while the tire appears immobile.)
The cover of the May 1913 issue of the monthly publication Il pneumatico Michelin shows the spinning transformed into an all-encompassing vortex of light, with a tightrope-walking Bibendum lowering a tire down to a stranded motorist on a spiral support (fig. 14).
In the name of even greater acceleration, a vast array of contemporaneous works depict the wheels of motorcycles and race cars leaning inward or outward, buckled or splayed, their spokes glistening and halo-like. They sometimes even bend forward as if to exceed the limits of the wheel’s too-symmetrical structure. This principle of geometrical self-overcoming informs numerous early futurist paintings by the likes of Giacomo Balla, with staccato rhythms tracing the wheel’s conquest of space and time.14
After the turn of the century, however, it was not painting but motion photography that led the way (soon to be followed by the cinema). The first master of motion photography was Jacques Henri Lartigue. Fascinated by motion capture from his earliest years—his first self-portrait shows him, apparently at age ten, soaking in a bathtub with the propeller of a hydroplane bobbing near his head—Lartigue photographed anything and everything that moved: on the ground, in the air, and on the water.15 In 1912, at eighteen, he attended the French Grand Prix with an early ICA Reflex camera in hand. He tried to capture the passage of race car #6 in a full-frame image and failed, thereby creating one of the defining icons of early twentieth-century photography (fig. 15).
The photograph in question captures only the rear half of the speeding race car, which tilts strongly forward, while the backdrop landscape, including spectators, tilts strongly backward. The directional reversal between foreground and background, between those who go and those who stay (to echo a famous triad of paintings by Boccioni), is the result of Lartigue panning from left to right (but not quickly enough to frame the entire car) and of the relatively slow travel speed of the ICA Reflex’s top-to-bottom, focal-plane shutter. (The exposure, in other words, compressed a short temporal sequence into a single image.) At the symbolic hub of the split is the race car’s right wheel, whose contours lean aggressively toward the right edge of the image, whose distorted forms dialogue with those of two spares and the cockpit, and whose hazy spokes are reflected in the linear streaks of the streaming roadway.
Lartigue was hardly the inventor of such trick shots. Already in 1903, the Swiss photographer Guido Sigriste had produced a photo essay on an ill-fated Paris-Madrid rally for the magazine La nature, exploiting the same effect (fig. 16).
Others would follow. But what is distinctive about Lartigue is the encyclopedic character of his exploration of motion. He experimented with moving shots from coasting vehicles, overhead, and ground-level views. He shot collisions and their aftermaths, breakdowns, acceleration and braking, traction and skids. At the center of his viewing frame is the romance of the wheel: its swiftness, its fragility, its susceptibility to real or virtual distortion. Its stillness and speed becomes that of the camera itself.
The role of the glowing, spinning, blurring, self-reversing wheel as a self-reflexive icon with respect to the whirring reels of filmic capture and projection has become something of a commonplace in the historiography of early film. So I will instead conclude this fragment, drawn from a book-in-progress project, with a less familiar material expression of the abiding fascination with spinning wheels. Automobile wheel and hub designs have long sought to enhance or multiply the optical effects surveyed above. Spokes have been multiplied and slimmed down to the bare minimum to reduce their mass and speed up the illusion of dematerialization as the vehicle picks up speed. They have been perforated and sculpted to suggest both transparency and motion. Their surfaces have been polished and chromed to enhance reflectivity. The knock-off hubs that hold them on (and facilitate rapid wheel changes) have been designed like mini-propellers. The purpose of all this, along with a battery of other design features, has been to evoke the sensation of motion at a standstill.
A new chapter in the history of wheel design opened when, in the late 1980s, the Oklahoma inventor James D. Gragg began experimenting with a hub design that mounts the center caps on a bearing housing attached to the wheel hub so that the caps can rotate independently. The degree of residual friction is such that the vehicle’s forward motion spins the center cap, a propeller-like structure in the original October 28, 1992, patent application, but the resistance is so slight that the spinning in question continues well after the vehicle has reached a stop. So, instead of wheels that appear not to rotate on a moving vehicle (the wagon-wheel effect), here we encounter wheels that appear to rotate on an immobile vehicle because of turning hubcaps that convey the trace of a (now completed) prior motion.
Founded by Gragg, the American Tru Spinners company developed an extensive product line for the American custom car market around his design. A legion of imitators followed in his tracks, giving rise to a tide of patent infringement lawsuits. Cap designs assumed a legion of forms: disks, arrows, flames, blades, and streamlines (figs. 17–20).
Spinners were mounted inside wheels and cap rotation motorized. By the late 1990s, they had migrated from car tuning to rap music subcultures, thanks to the proliferation of floating hubcap designs in videos like Three 6 Mafia’s 2003 “Ridin’ Spinners” (fig. 21).
Fig. 21. Three 6 Mafia, “Ridin’ Spinners,” 2003.
We have come full circle in a world built around performance as flow; a world in which spinning disks signify sampling, mixing, busting moves and rhymes and singing songs; a world in which the pulse of the ideal life is a synthetic drum track. Secular dreams of transcendence meet ancient imaginings of godlike charioteers, and the metaphysical imaginary of prayer wheels, unmoved movers, and celestial wheelworks returns as a secular theater of city streets where the spinning never stops.
Jeffrey Schnapp is a Contributing Editor to West 86th and professor of romance languages and literatures at Harvard, where he also teaches in the Graduate School of Design. A cultural historian and curator, Schnapp has collaborated with institutions such as the Canadian Center for Architecture, the Wolfsonian-FIU, and the Milan Triennale, and his Trento Tunnels project—a 6,000-square-meter pair of highway tunnels in northern Italy repurposed as a history museum—was featured in the Italian pavilion of the 2010 Venice Biennale.
- 1. Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2003); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Train Journey (New York: Urizen Books, 1979). The standard starting point in Paul Virilio’s writings is Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
- 2. Anonymous, The Greek Anthology, trans. W. R. Paton, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heineman, 1928), fragment 53, vol. 5, 189.
- 3. See Dante, Paradiso 33, vv. 136–145.
- 4. Thomas De Quincey, “The English Mail Coach,” in The English Mail Coach and Other Essays (London: Dent, 1961), 37.
- 5. See Stuart Piggott, The Earliest Wheeled Transport from the Atlantic Coast to the Caspian Sea (Ithaca, NY.: Cornell University Press, 1983), 27–28, for an overview on this topic. In “The Rise and Decline of the Tutankhamun-Class Chariot” (Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23, no. 2 : 153–175), Bela I. Sandor makes a compelling case for the revolutionary character of these new types of conveyances, suggesting that their usage may have included racing from the start (even though the archeological record is slim on this topic).
- 6. Piggott, Earliest Wheeled Transport, 89.
- 7. Piggott (Earliest Wheeled Transport, 25) notes that early single-piece disk wheels made from oak, as found in several Dutch archeological digs, weighed as much as 322 kilograms. Tripartite wheels allowed for a considerable lightening, with spoked wheels completing the revolution.
- 8. On the subject of friction and fire in Roman chariot racing, see H. A. Harris, “Lubrication in Antiquity,” Greece and Rome, 2nd ser., vol. 21, no. 1 (April 1974): 32–36.
- 9. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richard Lattimore (Chicago, I.L.: University of Chicago Press, 1951), ll. 364–372.
- 10. A variant on the same principle is at work in J. M. W. Turner’s celebrated 1844 painting Rain, Steam and Speed: trains, steamships, and so on are seen only in their roughest contours, swept up in a vaporous storm of motion.
- 11. Gérard de Nerval, “Awakening in a Carriage,” cited from Jeffrey T. Schnapp, “Speed Readings,” Speed Limits (Milan: Skira, 2009), 196.
- 12. Though de Nerval’s perception of the relativity of motion on land may be novel, the insight that motion is relative and, therefore, that its perception depends on the relative motions of the viewing platform and of that which is viewed is not. It extends back to at least the fourteenth century, when both Nicholas Oresme and John Buridan employed the example of an observer on shipboard who is unable to determine whether it is he or the ocean that is moving: “If a person is in one ship called A which is moved very carefully—either rapidly or slowly—and this person sees nothing except another ship called B, which is moved in every respect in the same manner as A in which he is situated, I say that it will seem to this person that neither ship is moving…[By contrast,] if A is moved and B is at rest, it will appear to him as before that A is at rest and that B is moved.” Buridan, On the Books of the Heavens and the World of Aristotle, cited by Marshall Clagett, The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), 610. On this topic see also Walter E. Gross, “Relativity of Motion: From Occam to Galileo,” Annals of Science 31, no. 6 (1974): 529–545.
- 13. This painting is ably analyzed in Michael Leja, “Eakins and Icons,” Art Bulletin (Sept. 2001).
- 14. See, for instance, Balla’s painting Automobile in corsa (1913).
- 15. There’s a problem with the dating of this photo. Seaplanes weren’t invented until 1910, and the photo is supposedly from 1904. Yet in 1904, Lartigue was ten years old, not eight as is usually stated.