For humans, it’s easy to feel slow. Lions, tigers, and bears can outrun us by double—there’s even a Tiger beetle that, by comparison, leaves humans, and our plodding bipedal nature, in the dust. To counteract our innate slowness, we’ve developed means of gaining speed (for example, surely our Volkswagen beetles outpace tiger beetles) and now humans are propelled, by way of jet propulsion, upwards of 4500 miles per hour. Yet with this deliberate forward march of technological advancements have come some quickly-devised byproducts, including the language we use to describe speed itself.

To start, there are athletes who travel extreme lengths under their own power and choose to craft these experiences in written memoirs. These athletic memoirs offer a valuable lesson about the way movement changes the people we become. In writing about movement, landscape and body engage in an unavoidable give and take as each moves past the other; this is to say, when we walk or run, the scenery and people around us are not just passersby. Traveling at the speed of technological engineering—by jetplane or car—no such relationship is possible; only as humans do we experience the simultaneous slowness and expedience of speed.

Two athlete-authors provide prime examples of the way movement can change a life. As a prominent pioneer in the modern ultramarathon community, James Shapiro recorded his trans-continental run in his memoir Meditations from the Breakdown Lane. His writing reruns a 3096-mile journey from the Californian coast to the edge of Manhattan. Over the endeavor he loses his physical health and his body deteriorates from the constant exertion. But he gains a literal world-view—a significant change to his perspective. Shapiro begins his memoir struggling with his place in the world, and his reason for attempting the run. His final conclusion returns to the image of a lumbering bear that he addressed at the beginning of his writing:

“The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see. And what did he learn? That everywhere there is sky, everywhere there is ground. At every moment, everywhere, we are home.”

Shapiro realized that being anywhere, in the moment, meant belonging there—and that running was his way of belonging. The movement itself, at last, gave his run place and purpose.

Similarly, Jill Fredson’s Rowing to Latitude: Journey Along the Arctic’s Edge follows her on several excursions, with her husband, through some of earth’s least hospitable places. Her journey too gives her a new outlook and brings her closer to humanity. A sense of appreciation for movement develops in her writing, until it takes precedence. She writes:

“Sculling is the closest I’ll ever come to being a ballerina, to creating visual music. A good rowing stroke is fluid, circular, continuous. It is unmarred by pauses, lurches, or back heaves. The end of one stroke is the beginning of the next, the movement so smooth and graceful that it is impossible to tell where the power is coming from.”

As did Shapiro, Fredson finds that her journeys by scull bring her closer to the world and to other people through the figurative power of movement. The beauty and feel of the rowing stroke is that which enables her to see her surroundings differently. Movement for the sake of movement is at the core of each of these memoirs, reminding us that the experience of kinetic energy is an inherent part of being human.

Perhaps, given the connection between speed and physical state, it’s worth acknowledging another tiger beetle fact: this Cornell University study found that the bugs go blind while running at their top speed. It is, if not a scientific correlation, a perfect metaphor for the way speeds affect our image of our surroundings. As we move, the way we experience the world around us changes—the images we receive come to us not statically, but dynamically and of their own accord. High speeds scream detachment.

On this subject, in Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, theorist Paul Virilio gives us one such example of the way speed alters perception. The concept of the windshield-as-projection screen fascinates his analysis. He writes:

“Like an embu, the ground of the landscape rises up to the surface, inanimate objects are exhumed from the horizon and come each in turn to permeate the varnish of the windscreen, perspective becomes animated, the vanishing point becomes a point of attack sending forth its lines of projection onto the voyeur-voyager, the objective of the continuum becomes a focal point that casts its rays on the dazzled observer, fascinated by the progression of landscapes.”

Through the fog of critical terms and the application of artistic analysis, we see that Virilio wants us to witness an inversion. Although our speed behind the wheel is formidable, we remain still. This means the landscape gains animacy, it “attacks” the vision by way of its own movement. While the phenomenological often centers on the way our technology brings us “under attack,” the importance of these arguments is illuminated when we examine the way speed separates. Another hefty work of theory, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus takes on drug use and a user’s relationship to speed. Obviously, with a street name that cuts straight to the chase, a drug like “speed” has a very physical association with detachment from reality. The authors offer this on substance-induced altered reality:

“The problem is well formulated if we say that drugs eliminate forms and persons, if we bring into play the mad speeds of drugs and the extraordinary posthigh slownesses[…] Nothing left but the world of speeds and slownesses without material form, without subject, without a face.”

In light of the memoirs of movement, this quote illuminates the fact that an obsession with how fast we are moving destroys not only the experience of our getting there, but can destroy us ourselves.

Movement alone has a strong link to everything we write. With the language of destination and delay that technology has created, this link, and the qualities it evokes, are lost. We forget the way our bodies allow us to interact, and how our language comes directly from our lived, and ever-moving, experiences.

Further Reading:

Image credit: Sukanto Debnath via flickr