Social Acceleration
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Social Acceleration

A New Theory of Modernity

Hartmut Rosa, Jonathan Trejo-Mathys

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eBook - ePub

Social Acceleration

A New Theory of Modernity

Hartmut Rosa, Jonathan Trejo-Mathys

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About This Book

Hartmut Rosa advances an account of the temporal structure of society from the perspective of critical theory. He identifies three categories of change in the tempo of modern social life: technological acceleration, evident in transportation, communication, and production; the acceleration of social change, reflected in cultural knowledge, social institutions, and personal relationships; and acceleration in the pace of life, which happens despite the expectation that technological change should increase an individual's free time.

According to Rosa, both the structural and cultural aspects of our institutions and practices are marked by the "shrinking of the present," a decreasing time period during which expectations based on past experience reliably match the future. When this phenomenon combines with technological acceleration and the increasing pace of life, time seems to flow ever faster, making our relationships to each other and the world fluid and problematic. It is as if we are standing on "slipping slopes," a steep social terrain that is itself in motion and in turn demands faster lives and technology. As Rosa deftly shows, this self-reinforcing feedback loop fundamentally determines the character of modern life.

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PART ONE
THE CATEGORIAL FRAMEWORK OF A SYSTEMATIC THEORY OF SOCIAL ACCELERATION
1
FROM THE LOVE OF MOVEMENT TO THE LAW OF ACCELERATION: OBSERVATIONS OF MODERNITY
1. ACCELERATION AND THE CULTURE OF MODERNITY
Since the Renaissance, which began a historically reconstructible debate concerning the “newtime” (neue Zeit), the defenders and the despisers of modernity have agreed on one point: its constitutive experience is that of a monstrous acceleration of the world, of life, and of each individual’s stream of experience. A series of recent historical works has made clear just how much the entire cultural history of modernity to the present day can be interpreted in light of this basic experience. Their common focus lies in the construal of the cultural self-understanding of modernity as a reaction to a changed experience of time and space.1
Like Peter Conrad, for whom modernity is quite simply a matter of the acceleration of time (and linked to this the dissolution of fixed spaces),2 the political scientist and urbanist Marshall Berman defends the thesis that the term modernity describes a condition of ceaseless dynamism that finds its most vivid expression in the oft-cited formulation from The Communist Manifesto: all that is solid melts into air.
In his book of that title (with the subtitle The Experience of Modernity) Berman writes:
There is a mode of vital experience—experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils—that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience, “modernity.” . . . Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.”3
Berman then traces the way this experience of dynamization, transformation, and the continual unsettling of certainties accompanies all processes of modernization. The culture of modernity thus consists in working out, interpreting, and more or less bringing this experience under control. (Berman consistently speaks of modernism as a reaction to modernization.)
He lets modernity in this sense begin with Rousseau’s observation of the tourbillon social or “social whirlwind” in Émile and achieve its first complete artistic expression in Goethe’s Faust.4 In the fate of Philemon and Baucis, who in the last act of Faust are literally victims of the setting in motion of the Earth and hence symbolically represent the passing away of the old world of inertia or persistence, Goethe makes visible just how much the social whirlwind links together internal and external changes. As Friedrich Ancillon had already remarked in 1823, this culturally shifts the burden of proof, as it were, from movement to inertia: “Everything has begun to move or will be set in motion. And with the intention or under the pretense of perfecting everything, everything is called into question, everything is doubted and we approach a universal metamorphosis. The love of movement for its own sake, even without a purpose and without a definite goal, is what has resulted from the movement of the times. In it, and in it alone, the true life is sought.”5 The burden of proof was borne from then on not by those who wished to change things, but by those who held fast, whether in everyday life, politics, or culture, to what currently existed, something Berman makes clear with a quotation from the New York developer Robert Moses: his bulldozers demolished large parts of New York, and especially the Bronx, with Faustian violence in the middle of the twentieth century (similar to the machines of Haussmann in Paris a hundred years earlier), and, according to him, people who “love things the way they are” have “no hope” in modernity.6 The love of movement for its own sake, as Ancillon formulated it, appears to be the fundamental modern principle.
Of course, this principle is experienced as ambivalent from the very beginning, both as a path to the true life and a promise of progress and as a limitless abyss and an all-devouring whirlpool. This ambivalence is constitutive for the entire culture of modernity. It can be seen in Goethe, who vacillated between enthusiasm and admiration for the social and technological achievements of the new world, on the one hand, and concern regarding the deeply destructive qualities of its “velociferian,” Mephistophelian tempo,7 and also in Nietzsche, whose dynamic, energetic Overman is overshadowed by the fear of a new barbarism: “With the tremendous acceleration of life mind and eye have become accustomed to seeing and judging partially or inaccurately. . . . From lack of repose our civilization is turning into a new barbarism. At no time have the active, that is to say the restless, counted for more. That is why one of the most necessary corrections to the character of mankind that have to be taken in hand is a considerable strengthening of the contemplative element in it.”8 In the Untimely Meditations Nietzsche leaves no doubt that the acceleration, liquefaction, and dissolution of existing relationships and convictions, “the madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web,” is the basic principle of modern culture.9
Nietzsche believed that this development was the seed of decline and decadence. When he “thinks of the haste and hurry now universal, of the increasing velocity of life, of the cessation of all contemplativeness and simplicity,” it almost seems to him that “what he is seeing are the symptoms of a total extermination and uprooting of culture.”10 This ambivalence may also explain the effect of Charles Baudelaire’s influential characterizations of modernity. In his essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire defines (and celebrates) modernity as the passing and always already disappearing, as “the transient, the fugitive, the contingent, one half of art, whose other half is the eternal and the unchangeable.”11 The fleetingness of the modern moment thus actualizes in a new way the longing for the eternal and permanent, the other half of art, on whose behalf Baudelaire greets the constitutively modern idea of (technological) progress with nothing but hatred and contempt, as when he observes that the will to self-annihilation that inhabits the thought of progress is suicidal and leads to eternal despair.12
Nevertheless the question here is not that of appraising the experience of an expanding dynamism, but rather of demonstrating its effect on the character of modern culture. From architecture, painting, and sculpture to literature and music, it was definitive in all fields of cultural production.13
In the works of the cubists and futurists, like those of Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Giacomo Balla, or Umberto Boccioni, but also of course in the works of William Turner14 or Marcel Duchamp, who attempted in his picture of 1912, Nude Descending a Staircase, to artistically put into practice Einstein’s idea of expressing space and time through the abstract representation of movement, one sees clearly the effort to translate the dynamization and fragmentation of the experience of space and the world into a new formal language (Formensprache).15 Drawing on the work of Stephen Kern, David Harvey shows how much, say, Robert Delaunay’s cubist painting of the Eiffel Tower (1911) expresses precisely the same idea of representing time through the fragmentation of space that underlies Henry Ford’s acceleration of industrial production through the assembly line.16
It has often been observed how much the tempo of the performance of classical works in music has sped up since the nineteenth century. If one compares the average duration of recordings of a given work over the decades, one can in fact detect unambiguous “tendencies of compression,” leaving aside a few countermovements that aim at “deceleration.”17 It has, moreover, been claimed that, in view of the faster pace of contemporary life, works like Beethoven’s symphonies must be played faster in order to bring about comparable effects.18 However, even in the compositional techniques themselves, contrasts of tempo and hence dynamic effects become more and more important from at least the Baroque period onward. A piano sonata of Schumann rather astonishingly begins with the prescribed tempo “as fast as possible” only to immediately follow this with an indication of “even faster.”19 The most pronounced experimentation with dynamic effects is perhaps that of Maurice Ravel, whose Boléro, for example, achieves an illusory effect of acceleration through changes in instrumentation. Finally, Darius Milhaud heightens the idea of musical acceleration to the point of absurdity in his three operas minutes (1927) by running through the material of three Greek tragedies in a few minutes.
The musical forms of jazz and many styles of pop and rock music have also repeatedly been interpreted as reflections of the breathless pace of modern urban life. The word jazz itself appears to be a slang expression for speed.20 It doesn’t seem implausible to conjecture that new stylistic movements in pop music display a tendency to become ever faster for a time until a critical limit is reached (that of playability or intelligibility). After this, new forms of expression have to be found or one faces the threat of a loss of popularity. The same holds true for the punk music of the 1970s and ’80s, for heavy metal, which achieved and passed its zenith of popularity in the second half of the 1980s in its breathtakingly fast variety of “speed metal,” and for the techno music of the ’90s, in which there was a genuine competition over the highest number of “beats per minute.”21 The effect of such music on the hearer can be thoroughly ambivalent: for example, in her book, Teenage Wasteland, Donna Gaines writes that “thrash [a closely related variety of speed metal—H. R.] is so fast it actually calms you down; it’s relaxing, like Ritalin,” and, regarding the perception of time in the techno scene, Barbara Volkswein reports the effect of a “flipping over” (Umschlagen) of the experience of racing time into a feeling that time is congealing and even standing still that will be central to my general theory of social acceleration.22 Things are different with another phenomenon: the attraction of disco music, as well as a large part of techno music, is clearly in some way essentially related to the fact that its basic tempo lies just above the normal human heartbeat and thus has a snappy stimulative and accelerating effect. Nevertheless, it is in this case much less about artistically working through a transformed experience of time and space than it is about industrially reproducing it. Its traces can also be seen in other developments in popular culture and the media landscape: for instance, in the way image sequences and editing have grown faster and faster in the course of the twentieth century, reaching the point at which the principle of linear narrative connection is technologically replaced by fragmentary, associative, and kaleidoscopic transitions, as, e.g., MTV made popular worldwide through its ads and music videos.23
Last, in the literature of modernity encounters with that “social whirlwind,” the ongoing, accelerated metamorphosis of existing social forms and the traumatic, shocklike experience of technologically altered lifeworlds are ubiquitous. We find them not only in Goethe and in the novels of Rousseau but also in, for instance, the poetry of the Romantics: in Adelbert Chamisso’s “The Steam Horse,” in the “model of all that is fast,” that “the course of time” leaves behind it,24 in Heinrich Heine’s only half-ironic observation about the annihilation of our basic concepts of space and time by the railroad,25 or in the testimonies of expressionism, for instance, in Georg Heym or Georg Trakl, for whom the “demonic” quality of cities lay in their violent pace of change and dynamic movement.
The great novels of the twentieth century can also be understood as reactions to modernity’s expectations of acceleration. James Joyce’s Ulysses transforms and represents them in a stream of consciousness that appears to only allow for the present, while Marcel Proust sets off in search of a past that seems to be, in the “age of speed,” always already converted into a museum piece and irretrievably lost.26 Thomas Mann sets up his Magic Mountain as a “novel of time” that not only reflects on the paradoxes of the experience of time but even makes acceleration the principle of its narrative structure: time flows faster and faster as the novel progresses, so that the same number of pages recount a few hours of narrated time at the beginning of the book that later portray days and then weeks, until by the end of the work months and years are compressed into a few pages.27
From these observations, David Harvey concludes that the culture of modernity as a whole can only be understood as a reaction to the transformed, crisis-ridden experiences of space and time that result from successive waves of “time-space-compression” and thus must be conceived as consequences of the acceleration of the pace of life and the annihilation of space through time.28
This leads me to conjecture that waves of acceleration, as the core of the modernization process, are produced in particular by technical innovations and their industrial implementation. The introduction of the steam engine into factories and, soon after, the construction of railroads; the mass diffusion of bicycles and then automobiles and later planes; the acceleration of communication through telegraphs and then through telephones and finally through the Internet; the social entrenchment of transistor radios and “moving pictures”: all these forms of the technological acceleration of transport, communication, and production altered the lifeworld and everyday culture in occasionally shocking and traumatic ways and led to a shifting sense (Empfindung) of being-in-time and being-in-the-world. Since the industrial revolution, as Stefan Breuer remarks drawing on Virilio, this world appears to befall subjects “unceasingly, with the violence of an accident,”29 so that medical concepts of shock and trauma appear to be completely appropriate categories to use. In short,...

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