“We must here accept a paradox , which is in fact admitted by everyone with the
greatest of ease, and even consumed as a proof of modernity. This paradox is that an
excess of speed turns into repose.” — Roland Barthes, “The Jet-Man”
The speed of motion through space is what Barthes had in mind. It was the image of the 1950s era jet-man — the pilot of a jet aircraft, who, while moving through the air at incredible speeds, sat motionless and at ease in his cockpit. Barthes was targeting as well the myth that, in the early years of the jet-age, took shape around the jet-man in his “anti-g suit” and “shiny helmet.” Today it all just sounds like campy science-fiction, these silver-suited men forming a quasi-priestly cadre of humanity mediating between space and earth. Perhaps it strikes us so, in part, because of the success of Barthes’ brand of demythologizing cultural critique. But that one line — “an excess of speed turns into repose” — has lodged itself in my mind and it has refused to budge until I do something with it.
Barthes called it a paradox and claimed that it was taken for granted in the modern age. Perhaps it is even better to see this paradox itself as the hope around which the myth of modernity coalesces. To see this we need to understand “speed” more broadly than the rate at which space is traversed. It includes as well the speed of activity (which does not necessarily involve motion across space) and the speed of information (as opposed to bodies). In each case it is assumed that once a certain threshold is crossed, “speed” will yield to repose. And, of course, it is technology of one form or another that drives the acceleration of motion, activity, or information.
But, as with the jet-man, it is in motion that repose finally comes to be found. The pilot is motionless while approaching the speed of sound. Repose is no longer understood to be the opposite of motion, nor is it what may be found at the far end of furious activity or at the culmination of rapid thought. Repose, the ideal state, is now found in the activity, in the motion, in the consumption of information.
If we accidentally stumble upon repose in the shape of the absence of motion, activity, or the processing of information, we are undone. We do not know what to do with ourselves in such instances. Repose of the sort which was formerly understood to be the goal of motion, activity, and thought now becomes a cursed and anxious state to be avoided at all costs. We are at rest only if we are in motion.
This means of course that motion, activity, and information processing have become and end in themselves rather than a means to some other end. As such, they can never cease or be interrupted. They are self-perpetuating. We pursue motion, activity, and information as if they will bring us to some longed-for state of contentment, fulfillment, or rest; but all the while we are denying or failing to recognize the real state of affairs. We are aiming at nothing so much as the maintenance of motion and activity. We have nowhere to go, but if we keep accelerating we hope not to notice.