La Chambre Clair
The question of movement in the twentieth century usually leads to the answer of speed. But in his mid-1950s essay “The Jet-man,” Roland Barthes dropped an enigma in speed’s path. “We must here accept a paradox,” he wrote, “that an excess of speed turns into repose. The pilot-hero was made unique by a whole mythology of speed as an experience, of space devoured, of intoxicating motion; the jet-man, on the other hand, is defined by a coenaesthesis of motionlessness…as if the extravagance of his vocation precisely consisted in overtaking motion, in going faster than speed.”1
The word Barthes uses to describe this condition—coenaesthesis—comes from nineteenth-century physiology and psychology. It refers to the body’s total internal sense of itself, as distinct from sense data about the external world’s stimulation of the body. The word appears a second time in “The Jet-man” to describe the movement from propeller to jet aviation as a succession of the buffet by the swoon. “Mythology abandons here a whole imagery of exterior friction and enters pure coenaesthesis: motion is no longer the optical perception of points and surfaces; it has become a kind of vertical disorder, made of contractions, black-outs, terrors and faints; it is no longer a gliding but an inner devastation, an unnatural perturbation, a motionless crisis of bodily consciousness.”2 Note that what Barthes earlier called the “repose” achieved by excess speed is anything but restful: bottled in a cockpit, the jet pilot retains an external composure but goes internally haywire. Speed used to happen to the body. Now it happens in the body.
It’s useful to ponder what’s become of the coenaesthesis of motionlessness now, sixty years after “The Jet-man” appeared in Barthes’s Mythologies. If you saw Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) in IMAX 3D, you know what it’s like to sit absolutely still inside what amounts to a theater-sized helmet while your vestibular system trips alarms in your vital organs. The International Space Station VR Simulator for Oculus Rift goes after similar effects by strapping a tiny IMAX theater to your head. “Unnatural perturbation” isn’t just for test pilots anymore.
It’s harder to point to art that anticipated Barthes’s ruminations. But consider the French director René Clair’s film, Paris qui dort (1924), known to English-speaking audiences as The Crazy Ray. Filmed on location in Paris, Clair’s urban castaway narrative clearly belongs to the age of the propeller. Yet in the film’s play with vertiginous altitudes, in its sci-fi time-stopping conceit, and in the attention it draws to the film speed of the freeze frame, we find some premonition of G-suit, blackout, and power-dive—some leading edge of slowness at speed’s apogee.
In its premise, Clair’s film takes speed technologies and reaffiliates them with stillness. When a mad scientist’s ray paralyzes Paris and its inhabitants, the few who escape the ray’s effects gather at the top of the Eiffel Tower. That icon of modernity becomes the crow’s nest from which our heroes look out on a city-turned-ice-floe. But rather than just make us antsy for a “normal” speed it finally restores, Paris qui dort shows us speed’s variability by pairing the paralysis ray with the movie camera. 3 In its most metacinematic scene, two characters wrestling over the ray’s lever are essentially fighting over the camera speed, causing traffic to speed up, slow down, and halt. Yet even when the image is frozen, the film in the theater must keep running at 16 frames per second. What we experience as the phenomenon of cinematic stillness is really the epiphenomenon of a perpetual cinematic velocity. This is Paris qui dort at its most coenaesthetic, repeatedly shifting the viewer’s attention from images of hurtling bodies to a perpetual hurtling in the body of the image.
Clair’s film offers one corrective to Barthes’s account of the new order of speed. When time stops in the film, money becomes meaninglessly plentiful, even as the non-paralyzed are able to redistribute wealth. To acquire money and be able to deploy it meaningfully, you need to be able to manipulate the social production of time. Conversely, you are moving at the speed of money if you are moving at all. The old velocity of “exterior friction” at least had the virtue of wearing its mechanism, and hence its monetary dependencies, on its sleeve. The new speed produces the impression of repose to the extent that it fuses the body with the mechanism, making the jet appear a function of the pilot, the VR headset an outgrowth of the head. Paris qui dort insists that there is no separating the “coenaesthesis of motionlessness” from the economic flows that undergird it utterly. One name for Barthes’s “contractions, black-outs, terrors and faints”—for that “inner devastation” he names, or just for that queer feeling in the pit of the stomach—is capital.
- Roland Barthes, “The Jet-man,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 71; emphasis in the original.
- Barthes, “The Jet-man,” 71–72.
- Annette Michelson makes this observation in her classic analysis of the film, “Dr. Crase and Mr. Clair,” October 11 (1979): 30–53.
Paul Saint-Amour is Walter H. and Lenore C. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania