Covid-19, lockdown and the kinetic utopia of modernity

As often happens when I read older texts by Peter Sloterdijk, I’m struck by a sense of their enduring relevance compared to other thinkers who write in his register. In this extract from his Infinite Mobilisation (1997) he writes about the significance of those experiences when infrastructure struggles and we grind to a halt. What he calls the kinetic utopia of modernity recedes from view, as we begin to experience it as a failed (and failing) project rather than the natural order of things. From  pg 9-10:

The large-scale traffic jams on the summer highways of Central Europe (and the legendary power outages in New York that can make us feel nostalgic) are thus phenomena of historico-philosophical importance and even have a religio-historical significance. It is through them that a piece of false modernity fails and in them that we encounter the end of an illusion–they are the kinetic Good Friday when all hope for redemption through acceleration becomes lost. On those scorching afternoons in the funnel of Lyon, in the Rhine valley hell near Cologne, or wedged in at Irschenberg, Europe’s longest parking lot, where 1.5 miles of unmoving hot steel stretches out in either direction, dark historico-philosophical insights rise up like exhaust fumes and people begin to speak in tongues, uttering something critical about contemporary culture; obituaries of modernity waft from the side windows and, regardless of their educational level, those trapped in their vehicles begin to suspect that it cannot go on like this for much longer. Another “era” looms on the horizon. Even those who have never heard the term “post-modernity” are already familiar with what it entails on those afternoons spent in traffic.

This captures what I experienced as the eery sense of openness and obscene sense of promise which characterised the lockdown. I mean ‘obscene’ in a literal sense, in that even I was offended by the fact I perceived some fleeting promise in the clean air, absent cars and slow pace of life given the rising tides of social suffering visible all around me. But it nontheless felt like another era loomed on the horizon, only to retreat from view when the easing of these measures and the economic crisis hurtling towards down the tracks returned us to a familiar politico-economic register. Another way of describing the lockdown would be the partial “de-automobilization” of society, as he puts it on pg 28:

But can we seriously imagine our de-automobilization? Can we conceive of a way of being where the system-subjects would no longer be driven forward by their self-advancement propellers? Does a prospect even exist for us where the powers of the subject generate something other than otherworldly acceleration, enrichment, research, and empowerment?

It’s partial because he’s not just talking about movement. If I understand correctly, he sees movement as originating from a more fundamental capacity of the subject to initiate movement. In this sense the kinetic utopia is about our capacity to plan and shape, with movement being an outcome of this. Lockdown constrained this kinesis but it didn’t negate it. I wonder if the current housing market boom could be seen as pent up kinesis, as the inability to move fuelled the impulse towards movement. It would be interesting to explore if other life changes have become more pronounced post-lockdown as well.

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