Speed and Autonomy

by craigepplin

A few months ago, at LASA, I heard a great paper that got me thinking about the relationship of speed to autonomy. I later read Melville’s Bartleby and had a conversation that got me wanting to figure out that relationship. Here’s a somewhat long exploration of it.

(The post has been slightly modified after a reader helpfully alerted me to a misinterpretation. See comments.)


Autonomy is predicated on speed, or rather on the difference between speeds. Different spheres or selves have different rhythms, and they remain intact as long as their parts continue to move more or less in tandem. Change happens and things fall apart when something accelerates or slows down. This is the secret of Bartleby’s passive refusal. With his refrain, I would prefer not to, he slows down the business of collating and revising, decelerating as he shrinks back behind the folding screen that isolates him from the rest of the office. He decelerates with respect to the other copyists, who go on working without him. Their idiosyncratic daily rhythms—one is cheerily productive in the morning and chronically drunk in the afternoon; the other is ill early on and fine later in the day—might seem to lend each one a limited sort of autonomy. But this is an illusion. Their particular rhythms make them individuals, unique characters, but they are not really autonomous. Their alternating tempos fade into the general hum. They balance each other out and blend in with the furniture and walls and piles of paper. With a shrug the lawyer accepts the composite speed they attain. Like pistons in a car, one up while the other is down, these two work in harmony with each other and keep the chassis moving forward.

Bartleby does not. His refrain, together with his gentle ways, renders him at once indisposed and indisposable. If his coworkers’ rhythms adjust to the velocity of work, his own becomes intolerably slow. He eventually grinds to a halt, and the office can no longer function. The attorney flees but must return to account for Bartleby. He is only uprooted by force, when the police cart him off to the tombs, where he decelerates further toward the final immobility of death.

This consistent deceleration generates a strange “zone of indetermination,” as Deleuze puts it, around Bartleby. It renders him vaguely independent. Acceleration, however, would have served this purpose equally well. We can imagine an alternate Bartleby who throws a wrench into the workings of the office by copying and fetching too well and too quickly, disrupting the stable comings and goings in place upon his arrival. Mathematically plotted, his trajectory would be a long line intersecting and surpassing the sine and cosine curves of his coworkers. A line curving upward, drawing an ever faster escape, reminiscent of the way the Czech distance runner Emil Zátopek always ran his fastest laps at the end of the race. This line, not exactly straight (just as Zátopek’s stride and carriage were uneven and painful to observe), is unlike the line traced by the Bartleby of Melville’s story, which is shorter and curves downward. The lines are distorted mirror images. What they reflect in common is a will to escape the orderly rhythms that prevail in the office.

That escape, and not the refusal in itself, is the key to understanding the strange autonomy Bartleby achieves. He is on the one hand a model for “the literature of the No,” to use Enrique Vila-Matas’s formula, but he is also something else: a practitioner of variance. To say so is to align him differently in literary history—differently from the way Vila-Matas understands him. His story is about more than a refusal to keep moving. It is about how refusals, and affirmations too for that matter, issue forth from movement itself. Speed and rhythm are primary. This is what makes Bartleby a predecessor of, for example, the surrealists. They too were scriveners, in as much as automatic writing is a sort of copying, but they also understood the importance of speed as a basis for autonomous action. Write quickly, we read in their first manifesto, penned by André Breton in 1924. Write quickly enough to outrun the memory of what’s just been written. Quickly enough to evade judgment, which silences truth. “With every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard,” we read further. That sentence struggles to reach the surface. It can only emerge through the practice of automatic writing, a flight from the rhythms and velocities of everyday life.

Both Melville and Breton understand that flight in relation to space. We don’t have to imagine the contours of the office where Bartleby works; Melville describes them for us. We know that Bartleby’s corner was provisionally walled off by a semi-permeable membrane, a screen behind which he couldn’t be seen but through which he would hear his boss’s requests. It’s a perverse arrangement and not the most comfortable one. But then the late nineteenth century is not defined by its comforts. Marshall McLuhan once imagined an archetype for that age, the newspaper editor sitting square and high in a workaday chair, which he contrasted with a figure symbolic of the twentieth century, the patient splayed out on an analyst’s couch. The first of them is overbearing and businesslike, perhaps also given to vice, while the second is languid, stretching out and allowing neuroses to waft upwards like steam from a hot sponge. Bartleby is like neither character. He tends to stand still or curl up on the floor. He occupies a desk, for certain, but he refuses to participate in the movements around him: retrieving things from outside or huddling around the boss’s desk to review papers. His softly articulated statement of preference is mirrored by his bodily dispositions. His tendency to be immobile is an improbable flight from the jerking, sitting, and bustling bodies that move around him.

Breton is similarly assiduous in describing the physical circumstances that facilitate automatic writing. One must be comfortable and passive, open to introspection. The automatic writer is likely seated, but at any point she might extend her legs over an ottoman or the far end of a divan. In fact, we can easily imagine her perched on a couch, the better to allow unconscious energies to flow—even if they come not through the talking cure but through the furious action of the pen on paper. Except for this slight turbulence, the scene is perfectly placid. It is as if Breton wanted to draw the greatest possible contrast between the warm environment and the fury of that pen, bellwether of an internal agitation, marking the limit between the realm of the world at large and the realm of surrealist creation.

The two autonomies are not the same. Bartleby moves about, and then stands still, in a drab world of clerkly duties. The autonomy he manages involves wresting the body loose from the rhythms of copying documents and running errands. Breton’s writer, on the other hand, seeks to liberate the secrets papered over by the conscious mind. Automatic writing establishes its own territory by speeding up the flow of language. Territory is the wrong word: it is a river, a flood of writing that pours forth. The slow autonomy of the laboring body, on the one hand, and the fast autonomy of language set free on the other: what they have in common is the introduction of rhythms distinct from those that structure the world around them. We can imagine an heir to them both, a composite figure who would reclaim leisure and wandering, attuning bodily motion to the irregular compass of the unconscious mind. We don’t even have to imagine this heir. We can simply read Guy Debord’s autobiography to get a good idea of what he would be like. The situationist walker on a Parisian dérive is a Bartleby-like character who has also read Breton.

There are others too. Other members of the extended family. One of them is César Aira. In the mid-nineties, in his introductory remarks to a series of lectures on the life and work of Alejandra Pizarnik, he said that surrealism remains our predicament today. He meant that the dialectical relationship between process and product is still the central problem of aesthetic culture. We, however, can cast the mold differently. We can say, rather, that by seeking to speed up writing to the point of eliminating reflection surrealism staged the central task of all critical aesthetics—the introduction of new rhythms and velocities into the world of sensation. In a way, it’s another version of the same question that Aira constantly asks in his own work: how does the speed of writing relate to the static character of the finished product? It’s a question about materiality, about the way aesthetic energies are physically channeled or harnessed. No matter how fast or slow I am in writing, no matter how freely I allow the unconscious to roam, once my words are printed and distributed their movements and stillness depend on forces beyond my control. They become like Bartleby once he is imprisoned: the word “bound” serves equally to describe captives and books.

Aira’s oeuvre is housed in books, but it seems restive there. His little novels often begin with a stutter and end by changing the subject. Their plots are oddly paced, stalling and accelerating at unexpected moments. Besides, as their author insists, they are entries in a process that exceeds them, the material remnants of what Aira has famously termed a “flight forward”—his name for a writing procedure that moves in one direction, forward, without turning back to revise or reflect. If this sounds like a riff on Breton’s automatic writing, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. Just as the unconscious sentence cries out from under the surface, brought forth by the surrealist poet, Aira’s writing pulses unevenly under the binding of the book.

This is why his work is full of little scenes of fantastic, material construction that imagine alternatives to the conventional book. In La serpiente, for example, the narrator imagines a device that would connect a pen and notebook to the brain. One would write just by thinking, automatically, bypassing all criteria of selection. Isn’t that what Breton wanted? Access to the internal velocity of thought, the deepest recess of truth? Yes, but also not exactly. Aira’s automatic writing machine spares nothing. It admits no such thing as truth. It translates all mental activity into written words. Breton’s procedure demarcated two realms: that of the repressed truth and that of surface illusion. The former became accessible only through the introduction of a new velocity, the speed of automatic writing. Aira’s device allows for no such difference. All thought pours forth at the same speed. Nothing is autonomous.

This is what’s most disturbing about Aira’s work. Reading him, one inevitably comes to suspect that the frenetic pace of his writing resembles all too closely the frenetic pace of other aspects of our lives. Like the pace of job turnover in a precarious economy. Or the pace of commodity production or of digital communication. Bartleby slowed down, and Breton sped up. Both of them thus introduced difference. By imagining a way to speed up even further, is Aira simply falling into step with the world at large?

To answer this question, we should place the writing machine of La serpiente into the context of other such inventions. Or reinventions, rather, for scenes of textual production in Aira’s work often hark back to earlier times. My favorite comes midway through El volante, a novel conceived as a flier that goes on far too long. At one point, the narrator tells us how he’s making the text:

I’m using the method called, in English, “stencil,” or “extensil” as you’d pronounce it, and I’ll print it out later on a mimeograph. Today fliers are made with the photocopy system, I checked it out, but it was quite expensive. And besides, even to make simple photocopies (more expensive still, although with the advantage that I could make them as I distributed them), it was necessary to have a typed original, and it just so happens that I don’t have a typewriter.

The impoverished narrator, unable to afford a typewriter or photocopies, carves his own typeface into wood blocks, which he’ll reproduce on a mimeograph machine. He is as much an artisan as he is a writer. In La serpiente, Aira imagined a fast and futuristic scene of writing; here, he recalls a much slower, much older way of creating text.

El volante was written in 1989 and published in 1992. Two decades later, another flier turns up in Aira’s work, toward the end of Yo era una mujer casada, the final entry in his Yo era… trilogy. The novel’s protagonist is a woman married unhappily to a deadbeat who does little more than sit on the couch and get high. She eventually finds a way out of her misery: she decides to become a clown. She needs a stage name, but whatever she comes up with will do just fine. “I thought about it just for the flier,” she says, “which I had to edit, send off to the printer, and hand out in the neighborhood.” She mulls over what to write, eventually opting for the story of her life, which is of course what we’ve been reading all along: “No matter the time it might take me, nor the amount of paper needed to print the flier. Essentially, I saw it as an infinite labor.”

The technology is different this time around. Here, the protagonist, though similarly impoverished (for her husband spends her meager earnings on drugs), has access to a copier and can afford to pay for printing. The impulse, however, is the same: to merge life with its representation, to bridge the gap between writing and living. In La serpiente, this seemed to happen in a frictionless manner, as the writing machine was intended to be a perfect translator of inside and outside. The fliers, however, are different: there is a lag, an explicitly long one in the first case, between experience and its recording. The process of making and doing, of carving woodblocks and dwelling on stage names, is a physical reminder of that lag. Even the most perfect registration of thought can’t capture the dynamic, electrical and biological event of thought in the brain. This lag is constitutive of all communication—or to put it differently, of all translation.

Aira’s work registers this lag at a basic level. It’s there, for example, in the way he always dates his books. Every one of them ends with a date—the day, month, and year of the manuscript’s completion. That date is inevitably different from the date at the beginning of the book, the one on the copyright page, which tells us when it was published. Between writing and publishing there is always a delay, just like the one between thinking and writing. Aira reminds us of this halting temporality. In spite of his fantasy in La serpiente, he won’t let us believe in the illusion of instant communication.

He thus imagines at least two velocities. The first advances at the speed of thought (or faster), while the second is slow, manual, artisanal. Neither of them is primary. To put it in Aira’s terms, this means that neither process nor product ultimately wins out, that the literary work is constituted by their dialectical relationship. In my scheme, it means that neither of the two velocities definitively establishes an autonomous realm. Rather, the strange world of Aira’s novels is crisscrossed by these different speeds. This is why they always feel like fragile objects, like they could come apart at the seams at any moment. They’re full of tangents, for example, and tangents are by nature centrifugal.

Bartleby slowed down and made the office uninhabitable (by inhabiting it too intensely). Breton imagined a writing that would speed up to the point of leaving reflection behind. Aira does both and neither; his works advance in fits and starts. His strange rhythms don’t allow us to establish easy, binary oppositions: worker versus boss, for example, or the unconscious against the superego. To my mind, the mash of speeds that characterizes Aira’s work reflects something beyond the unevenness of the world we all inhabit—an unevenness that was no less present for Bartleby and Breton. It reflects, rather, the difficulty in understanding what it would mean to articulate autonomy today. Acceleration and deceleration seem equally vulnerable to cooptation as capital itself moves at the speed of light, but also adjusts to the lumpy contours and circadian rhythms of our bodies. If there is a strategy of speed in Aira, then, it seems to be a strategy of the unpredictable. This bears out not only within his books, but in the way he has published them—sometimes on artisanal, process-oriented presses like Eloísa Cartonera, others on standard, transnational imprints. Each format can be conceived as a wind tunnel with its own particular air speed. Aira’s books would be like pedestrians on the improvised sidewalk that passes through that tunnel, struggling to evade cars and flying debris to make it safely out the other side.

That is no mean feat. It calls for an irregular advance. That is why the multiple rhythms of Aira’s writing alternate between fast and slow; they are unpredictable and never quite right. To be not quite right: that’s perhaps a good aspiration for literature today, a contemporary version of preferring not to. Absent the clarities and virtues of autonomy, what we have left is something even more unstable and delicate, variance itself.


César Aira. El volante.

—. La serpiente.

—. Yo era una mujer casada.

Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Modernity.

André Breton. “Manifesto of Surrealism.”

Guy Debord. Panegyric.

Gilles Deleuze. “Bartleby; or, The Formula.”

Jean Echenoz. Running: A Novel.

Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media.

Herman Melville. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.

Enrique Vila-Matas. Bartleby & Co.