Earlier on this month, Hartmut Rosa gave a fascinating lecture at the LSE, marking the launch of this new book on the Sociology of Speed. It’s a great overview of his theory of acceleration, but it also included some things I hadn’t encountered before:

  1. His intellectual trajectory was shaped by encountering Charles Taylor’s work while at the LSE for two terms at the age of 23. I knew Taylor was a huge influence, given Rosa’s PhD was devoted to his work, but I hadn’t realised how linked to speed his interest was. As he describes it in the lecture, he was fascinated by Taylor’s focus on the role of strong evaluations in structuring how people orientate themselves to their lives but felt it lacked an important temporal dimension. Evidently, people often address the urgent rather than the important, suggesting temporal constraints subordinate ultimate concerns to practical considerations. My reaction to reading Taylor as a philosophy student was an overwhelming desire to sociologize his work, something Rosa does with an astonishing degree of systematicity, though of course there are alternative ways we could approach this task. Consider Doug Porpora’s wonderful Landscapes of the Soul.
  2. I recall the ‘contraction of the present’ from Social Acceleration but I’m unsure if it is the framing that has changed or my response to it. Rosa’s argument is that patterns of association and social practices change at an increasing rate. This means that the “decay rates of knowledge increase”: the purchase of our knowledge about the world and how it works degrades at an increasing rate because the reality of that world and how it works undergoes change at an increasing rate. The period of stability when “you know how the world works, who is where and how one does things” is contracting. If one accepts this claim, it has huge ramifications for how we engage with the idea of “information overload”. There’s a temporal dynamic to the overproduction of facts which is too little analysed.
  3. I like his description of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life as mysterious. We respond to this challenge by attempting to speed up life, seeking more episodes of action per unit of time. We multi-task, speed up each action and try to eliminate pauses and intervals. I like his example of taking the last possible train to an event, in order to avoid waiting once there. This is something I do entirely habitually, such that I rarely even consider allowing for contingencies unless there’s some reason to expect them. But when it goes wrong, the time saving action gets revealed as a false efficiency. There are so many examples like this, where what feels like saving time in fact costs us more time at some unpredictable point in the future. I’d like to hear more from Rosa on the ‘mysterious’ character of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life because I think it suggests something important about chronoreflexivity: the limited scope of how we orientate ourselves to time & the way in which habitual orientations circumscribe considered decision making about efficiencies.
  4. He offers the useful trajectory of the downwards escalator which I don’t recall encountering before. This is a metaphor for how we find ourselves compelled to “run faster and faster to keep pace with the world”. Rosa suggests we stand on a downward escalator relative to every system we’re embedded within and that we stand on many overlapping escalators. Furthermore, “functional differentiation increases the number of escalators on which we stand”, proposing that this issue can be placed at the heart of sociological analysis. Every change within each system necessitates action from us in order to cope. As Rosa puts it “we have to run faster and faster, on more and more escalators, just to stay in place” and the “feeling that time is scare commodity” leads us to seek faster technologies. What Ruth Müller describes as anticipatory acceleration in the context of careers could be extended into a general theory of the relative autonomy of agency vis-a-vis temporal structures i.e. when the necessity of ‘running faster and faster’ becomes sufficiently engrained, we begin to accelerate in an open-ended way as a taken for granted approach to life. I’m very interested in the cultural role played by productivity discourse, life hacking etc in encouraging and consolidating such a response to the world. Plus technology is embedded in this discourse at the cultural level (it’s a central focus of discussion) and the agential level (the solutions offered are often technological).
  5. He stresses that we are not just victims of the speed logic, identifying how it is tied to our notion of freedom. Drawing on Blumenberg, he stresses how death comes too early, before we have completed the world and the possibilities it offers for us. The fast life on this view represents the full life. This is a familiar argument of Rosa’s but I’d previously read it as an inditement of acceleration, rather than an analysis that is appreciative of the promise while remaining sceptical about its viability
  6. He has a greater emphasis upon what has not speeded up than has previously been the case. He talks about five dimensions of deceleration: natural and anthropological limits, cultural practices that could speed up but haven’t, territorial zones insulated from speed up, segmental pockets of deceleration under pressure to speed up and intentional deceleration. This latter category is one which fascinates me and am writing about as ‘triaging strategies’ used to cope with acceleration. As Rosa describes it, these strategies pursue “slow down in order to keep up the high pace of life”. They are ways to cope with acceleration rather than challenges to the temporal structures of digital capitalism. He also recounts being told that the average speed of traffic in London has been going down for decades, representing an example of collective slow down as individuals seek to go fast. He claims that these five dimensions of deceleration are either residual or reactions. He argues there’s an asymmetry between deceleration and acceleration, grounded in the different mechanisms producing each.

These ideas made me think of one of my favourite genres of YouTube videos:

 

In Margaret Archer’s work on Reflexivity, this faculty is seen as mediating between structure and agency. Our capacity to ‘bend back’ upon ourselves, considering our circumstances in light of our commitments and vice versa, constitutes the point at which structural powers operate upon individual lives. On this view, structures don’t operate automatically, they only exercise causal power vis-a-vis the attempting doings of agents, even if the implications of the former for the latter are utterly opaque for the people concerned. In contrast Harmut Rosa sees time structures as the mediating factor, providing “action with normatively binding force, largely stable expectations, and an orientating frame this is experienced as if it were a natural fact” (pg. 225). His argument is basically a functionalist one, with the structuring of time horizons constituting the process through which “systemic requirements” are ‘translated” into “individual action orientations”:

our sense of who we are (hence of our identity) is virtually a function of our relationship to space, time, fellow human beings, and the objects of our environment (or to our action and experience). (pg. 224)

The phrase ‘virtually a function’ is rather ambiguous to say the least*. Clearly, he wishes to recognise some independent variability to identity in relation to what may otherwise be convergent circumstances. However he also dismisses this variability, describing it as ‘virtually a function’, such that this variability comes to be seen as peripheral to the subject matter of our investigation. In essence Rosa treats this as if it were not variable, continually describing uniform responses to social change. He occasionally acknowledges that these claims are empirically questionable but this is seen as something secondary to the theoretical inquiry, as opposed to an important matter that should be incorporated into its terms of reference. Unfortunately this variability matters because if we believe action has (any) efficacy vis-a-vis structure then variable individual responses feed back into the social changes that are reshaping time horizons. If we don’t recognise this variable component of feedback then acceleration comes to seem entirely systemic, revolutionising social life but unfolding by its own logic independent of the actions of individuals or groups.

It’s for this reason that I feel the need to very cautious when engaging with Rosa. The critical theory he espouses is close enough to my own theoretical position (probably because of the legacy of Marxism feeding into both critical realism and critical theory) that much of what he says immediately resonates with me. But there are also these massive points of disagreement that can seem rather small until I stop and think about them. However he does have rather a lot to say about time which fascinates me. What’s particularly relevant for my own work is his account of structural changes to biography:

the predominance of individualization in the transformation of relationships to self and world in classical modernity leads to a temporalization of life, i.e., to a perspective on one’s own life as a project to be given shape in time, while the same process of dynamization in the late modern phase of its development effects a “detemporalized,” situational definition of identity. (pg. 226)

His point concerns the temporal dimension to “socially dominant forms of self-relation” (pg. 224). Though she’s retreated slightly on this point, Archer’s early work on reflexivity was concerned with the spatial dimension of dominant forms of self-relation. In Making Our Way Through The World in particular, there was a focus on the way in which patterns of mobility in early life have implications for the forms of self-relation upon which individuals can come to rely as they go through adolescence. Rosa’s quasi-functionalism notwithstanding, I don’t see any reason why we can’t sustain an interest in both: the spatial and temporal  dimensions to socially dominant forms of self-relation, as well as the relational dimension to personally dominant forms of self-relation (with the macro operation of the former being mediated through the micro operation of the latter).

Rosa sees a mode of biography as “the directed movement of life along alternative development paths” operating in modernity, dependent upon “the liquefaction of forms of life and community, which reached epoch-making levels during the industrial revolution” being “steered onto relatively fixed, institutional rails in the increasingly ‘organized modernity’ of the welfare state” (pg. 228) He cites Martin Kohli’s work here, who argues that

a life course divided into temporal sequences has a double function: on the one hand, it undergirds the institutional order of the welfare state (the educational system, the social insurance system, the pension system, etc.) and conversely becomes a socially obligatory standard through this system of institutions; but, on the other hand, it establishes an identity-guiding, orientating schema in the concept of the ‘normal biography,” which allows of respective three-stage ‘schedules’ in professional life (education, gainful employment, retirement) and the familial structuring of life (childhood in the ancestral family, own family with kids, older phase after the kids move out) (pg. 228)

The transition from tradition to modernity is seen as one from a static and situational identity to one that is dynamic and trans-situational. In late modernity this in turn becomes dynamic and situational. This renewed status of being situationally bound is not a function of spatio-temporal immobility as in traditional society but rather a consequence of the breakdown of stable temporal horizons. Identity implies evaluative and action orientations towards our circumstances. Rosa’s claim is that social acceleration creates a tendency to compress those orientations ever further into the boundaries of situations because the context in relation to which we evaluative and act increasingly changes with such speed that our orientations towards it have no trans-situational durability.

He contrast this to the tempo of modernity in which “the horizons of expectations remains stable enough to allow long-run, time-resistant life perspectives to develop, the gratification of needs to be systematically postponed, and the completion of the biographical pattern to be patiently awaited.” (pg 230). On his view, the identity-constituting task facing adults in modernity was to “find your own place in the world”: “choose a career, start a family, decide on a religious community, and find a political orientation.” (pg 229). While people did revise these choices, these revisions were relatively marginal and incorporated into a life narrative in terms of progress towards authenticity i.e. my previous choice was wrong, I realised and thus I revised it. In the absence of these stable time horizons, Rosa argues that this orientation towards biography becomes untenable and thus far we are left with a situational identity. This means that chronological phases of life are losing their internal coherence and external interrelatedness: the ‘building blocks’ out of which biographies are built become less clearly distinguishable and the sequential relationships between them become less linear

Key to Rosa’s analysis is the notion that we’ve moved from an intergenerational to an intra-generational rate of social change. This entails an “escalation of contingency and instability” which serves to render identities relative to situations: “it is not one is a baker, rather one works as one (for two years now); not that one is the husband of X, rather one lives with X; not that one is a New Yorker and conservative, rather one lives in New York (for the next few years) and votes for Conservatives (pg. 147).  His argument rests on the sense in which “self-relations have an insolubly temporal structure in which the past, present, and future of a subject are connected”: “Who one is always also defined by how one became it, what one was and could have been, and what one will be and wants to be” (pg. 146). It is through this situatedness vis-a-vis temporality that social change exercises causal power in relation to individual lives. While Rosa systematically underemphasises the role of reflexivity in mediating this process, making universal claims about the consequences for individuals while ignoring the variability of responses by individuals, he is surely correct that intra-generational social change “will have far-ranging consequences for the possibilities and forms of social integration and cultural reproduction” (pg. 114).

Another important aspect of Rosa’s analysis is his account of how “the temporal regulation and deinstitutionalization of numerous fields of activity in late modernity society has massively heightened the cost of planning and thus the time required to coordinate and synchronise everyday sequences of action” (pg 126). As the rapidity of social change leads to the progressive dissolution of collective time structures, as well as a recognition of how fleeting those that remain must be, cultural synchronisation devices that could once be taken for granted instead “have to be repeatedly planned, negotiated , and agreed upon with cooperation partners all over again” (pg.  126). We can’t take for granted when others will do things or the order in which they will do them and hence there’s an additional cognitive burden involved in day-to-day social life. This also leads to a situation in which we come to be expected to justify our temporal decision making, as socially accepted standards of temporal rationality break down and the consequence for each individual of other’s temporal decisions become more pronounced: the range of ways in which my, say, failing to send an e-mail in time may impact upon a colleague increase because the significance of that e-mail vis-a-vis their own sequence of work commitments has become less standardised. Standards and expectations diverge when collaborative work is no longer embedded within shared horizons and converging circumstances.

This is partly a consequence of the diversification of system environments, “Since, from the internal perspective of a given system or interaction context, all other activities represent only disruptive delays and eliminable empty times” (pg. 191). This leaves conflicts over time occurring between people when operating across system boundaries (e.g. when I am preparing for teaching, the demands of a research commitment made by a collaborator seem secondary and vice versa) but also within the context of an individual’s life as they’re forced to negotiate the competing demands of divergent contexts. Rosa identifies a trend towards time management as “microtemporal oscillation between the demands of distinct functional spheres that are all running as ‘non-stop’ enterprise” (pg. 192) (which incidentally is a fantastic description of how and why Omnifocus works so effectively once you get the hang of it) – the disjuncture between spheres becomes too rigid for time managements, sometimes leaving too little time for ‘home’ commitments when at ‘work’ (and vice versa) but also sometimes leaving too much time, confining one to working commitments in absence of impending deadlines or anything approaching real urgency.

These circumstances pose a profound challenge to our capacity to direct our “energy towards a fixed, constant, subjectively worthwhile goal and to express it in action” (pg. 249). In other words, commitment becomes difficult when the things to which we might commit ourselves change so rapidly. This is the part of Rosa’ s argument that really fascinates me and I think he gets more directly to the heart of this issue then any of the other authors who address it. I’m interested in empirical detail about the life strategy through which people negotiate the moral logic of this situation. Where Rosa’s account fails dramatically, surprisingly so given his deep conversance with the thought of Charles Taylor, stems from his lack of appreciation for how ultimate concerns can function as meta-commitments: fleeting things in our lives take on mean relative to higher commitments which can transcend situational change. Certainly, this is not true of all commitments and I agree that sustaining commitments becomes much harder when social change reaches an intra-generational tempo. But I nonetheless think Rosa’s point is a dramatic overstatement and that the reasons for this hyperbole stem directly from his inadequate concept of reflexivity.

*It’s possible this may be an issue with the otherwise excellent translation, as Rosa is a wordy but precise author.

Integral to Harmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration (all references are to this book) is an understanding of cultural responses to acceleration and the role they play in intensifying the acceleration of the pace of life. This is not simply a matter of the valorisation of speed; in fact being satisfied with the identification of such a sentiment would be to restrict our analysis to the most superficial level. Instead what makes social acceleration so culturally loaded is the implications it has for the temporal horizons of human existence. Rosa is concerned with the “motives of action and cultural development”, specifically that of fear and promise, which Weber identified with the Protestant ethic: while he sees these motives as universal, in that they instantiate basic motivational categories of pain and pleasure, he nonetheless holds that “the characteristic feature of modern culture is the connection of those motives with the principles of time efficiency and the related expectations of acceleration” (pg. 178). He identifies what he takes to be a basic fear in modernity:

The generalised unease … namely, that of standing in all realms of existence, as it were, on slipping slopes, i.e., of being irrevocably suspended in a world of growing contingencies, of missing decisive opportunities, or of falling hopelessly behind, operates as the basic fear in the dynamized, mobile society of modernity. Time thus remains existentially scarce even after specifically religious foundations of meaning “die off”. (pg. 178)

The “strict, fastidious time discipline” identified by Weber as the “innerworldy asceticism” of the Protestant ethic was preoccupied by “the imperative of time efficiency, of the intensive usage and valorisation of every minute” (pg 176). To waste time risked one’s possible salvation, a fear that responded to the “torturous question of whether one was chosen and in a state of grace” – given the impossibility of knowing if one was predestined for salvation, particularly given the absence of reassurance from religious authority, arduous time discipline embodied in lifestyle came to function as a proxy for the identification of the elect.  Time discipline came to function as a way of dissipating the fear of damnation. But it also held the promise of salvation, with the imperative to trust in one’s own virtue (coupled with the growing belief in lifestyle as a proxy for virtue) functioning to bridge the gap between a putative predestination and a sense of moral agency in one’s own life.

Under present circumstances, notes Rosa, “there is no longer a promise of peace of mind in the turn to a powerful, reassuring God who is ready to intervene with respect to the contingencies of life” (pg. 178). However he argues that wealth serves as a functional equivalent. Much as the turn to God was motivated by fear of contingencies, the unavoidably uncertain horizons that emerge with the intensification of social change, so too does money come to be seen as a means through which to equip oneself for a future which we by definition cannot know: “In the form of capital, money has taken on the task of transforming indeterminable into determinable complexity” (pg. 179). Money holds out the promise of helping us master contingency. As Rosa puts it, we see the rise of a belief that “having the largest possible amount of money, and hence options, will allow one to appropriately react to future contingencies” (pg. 178).

What has changed is that this newer sense of salvation is imminent rather than transcendent. It promises a mastery of contingency within earthly time rather than a salvation that lies beyond it. This emphasises the continuity of the earth beyond the point of our own death: social life continues after we are gone. This can be responded to in a variety of ways. We might seek to cultivate a stoical equanimity such that we live our lives without attachment and thus lose nothing when we meet our end. We can identify with some greater continuity, seeing ourselves as connected to our broader movement through history as a consequence of our participation in something greater than ourselves: “individual life takes meaning and consolation from conceiving of itself as a link in a long chain that, even if does not amount to a new form of sacral time, at least bridges the gap between a lifetime and the time of the world” (pg. 181). We might also seek to immortalise ourselves through the production of works that survive us: “to leave behind a trace that extends the span of effects one’s own life has far beyond its own duration” (pg. 181).  However the response that Rosa sees as coming to predominate with the transition to late modern times is that of salvation through acceleration:

the idea that an accelerated enjoyment of worldly options, a “faster life,” will once again allow the chasm between the time of life and the time of the world to be reduced. In order to understand this thought one has to keep in mind that the question concerning the meaning of death is indissolubly tied to the question of the right or “good life.” Thus the idea of the good life corresponding to this answer, which historically became the culturally dominant idea, is to conceive of life as the last opportunity, i.e., to use the earthy time span allotted to humans as intensively and comprehensively as possible before death puts a definitive end to it (pg. 181)

On this view the good life is the full life. To live well is to live maximally in relation to social and cultural variety: doing as many things, with as many people, in as many places as we can. This can take a more humanistic form in which “the good life consists first and foremost in the most comprehensive possible development of the talents and potentials of a subject” (pg. 182). However I think there’s a further dimension to this which Rosa oddly seems to ignore in this section despite recognising it in other parts of his analysis: the embrace of speed as a response to a collapse of horizons, the fulfilment that can come from movement without any belief in where we are going, not concerned with self-cultivation or with maximisation but simply with embracing the present and grasping the moment. I think Atari Teenage Riot express this incredibly forcefully in the track I included at the start of this post:

Tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow
There is no future in the weastern dreamin’!
We feel it, we must beat’em !
It’s too late to create a new world!
Alternative living it must be given a chance!
Water the problem’s solution! No solution if you can’t use it!
And then I heard the siren of the police!
My blood went up to 90 degrees!
You can’t see white cats in the snow
Oh human being, how low can you go?
Risin’, risin’ to the top
the pills are ready to be dropped
1, 2, 3 and 4
Got the joker shoot the score!

Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it! Speed!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it! Speed!
Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed! Speeeed!

Another example of this ethos can be found in the film Spring Breakers. As I wrote about it at the time, “the private catharsis of drinks, drugs and sex is made public during ‘spring break’ and the film portrays the nihilistic collapse into a perpetual present which ensues when these are pursued as ends in themselves”. Atari Teenage Riot present an escape from a world they disdain through drugs and movement. Spring Breakers presents an embrace of that world through drugs and movement. What both have in common is an exploration of the perpetual present which ensues when people respond to social acceleration with neither an orientation to self-cultivation (in order to maximise possibilities) or to seek to maximise possibilities in order evade the damage to the self that would be seen to ensue from missing out.

Rosa’s important point about the limitations to self-cultivation and self-maximisation is that the options we forego will tend to increase faster than the ones we choose. As he puts it, “the very same inventions, techniques and methods that permit the accelerated realisation of worldly possibility and hence the increase of the total sum of options realised in a life also multiply the number and variety of realisable options” (pg. 185). In other words, the opportunity costs multiply with the opportunities: in selecting from our available choices, we miss out on the things we do not choose. However where I think Rosa goes wrong is in the assumption that an ethos of maximisation demands mastery – it doesn’t follow that a concern to live maximally necessitates an inability to tolerate the fact that the possibilities we seek to master always grow faster than our actualisation of them. This is where the notion of self-cultivation could be key: could we not conceive of a way of living maximally which seeks to cultivate equanimity in the face of the logic of escalation that Rosa identifies? We might strive to live more richly rather than fully, concerned with the poise which allows us to weave together a maximally diverse life from the endless threads available to (some of) us, not orientated towards a final resolution but instead seeking to let the process unfold more artfully and more dextrously with time.

It is a common sentiment that life is getting faster. However is it accurate and, if so, what does it mean? To talk of life, or social life, speeding up necessitates some working definition of ‘social life’ and what it would be for it to accelerate. Unfortunately these notions are more elusive than they may otherwise appear. Do we mean that things feel faster or that they are actually becoming faster? Whether we intend the former subjective sense or the latter objective sense, we face the problem of how to measure this putative acceleration – this is an empirical challenge of measurement but also a conceptual one concerning the units of measurement. In his Social Acceleration (source of all quotes in this post) Harmut Rosa addresses such questions in a sweeping and impressive way, offering answers to these methodological challenges and using them as a basis upon which to build a comprehensive theory of social acceleration. His account has two aspects: the circle of acceleration and the external ‘motors’ which drive it. These internal mechanisms of social acceleration are mutually reinforcing but this ‘circle’ is set into motion by external mechanisms which initiate the process and contribute to its progressive, though uneven, escalation through their respective impact on each of the three processes of acceleration within the circle. In his notion of the ‘circle ‘ of acceleration Rosa distinguishes between three distinct processes: technical accelerationthe acceleration of social change and the acceleration of the pace of life. Social acceleration becomes self-propelling because each of these processes contributes to the escalation of the others. In this series of posts, I’m going to discuss the three processes that are part of the ‘circle’ and the ‘motors’ Rosa sees as outside them. Then I’ll reflect critically on his work because I think there are some serious problems with it (specifically his treatment of agency) despite how energising I find his theoretical approach.

Technical acceleration changes the way in which human beings are in the world, their relations to each other and to their environment, with ensuing implications for how their respective spatio-temporal situations are subjectively understood. There are three types of technical acceleration considered by Rosa: the acceleration of transport, the acceleration of communication and the acceleration of production. This encompasses the “faster movement of humans, goods, messages, and … military projectiles across the earth, but also the more rapid production of goods, the speedier conversation of matter and energy, and, though in lesser measure, the acceleration of services.” (pg. 73). He also considers this to include “processes of organisation, decision, administration, and control – for example, in modern bureaucracies and ministries” because these are examples of the “intentional acceleration of goal-directed processes through innovative techniques” (pg. 74).

Our perception of time is a function of our perception of space because, as Rosa puts it, “a feeling for time develops because spatial qualities in our vicinity change; it becomes light as day and dark as night, warm as summer and cold as winter.” (pg. 98) It follows from this that well into the nineteenth century, the time of day differed from place to place because day time was defined by the relative position of the sun. The expansion of the rail network necessitated standardisation (there’s a fascinating discussion of this in a US context here) which was enacted temporally – the possibility of traversing previously vast distances as a regular part of day-to-day life newly demanded that these disparate regions be incorporated within a shared temporal frame of reference in order to make movement between them consistently comprehensible i.e. how do you systematically move around goods and people without a reliable sense of departure and arrival times? This serves to detach time from space, abstracting the former from the contextual specificity of the latter, in a way which also compresses space – our movement through space comes to be seen in terms of standardised time rather than time as bound within the specificity of place. This process of compression is compounded by the car and the airplane over the course of the twentieth century, with the result that space has shrunk to a sixtieth of its former size since the eighteenth century, with an average speed of transportation by ship and sailing vessel of 10 miles per hour before 1830 coming to be replaced by an average speed of transportation by jet plane of 600 miles per hour by 1965 (pg. 100). The latter innovation definitively frees people from the “topographical space of life and the surface of the earth”. Alongside this revolution in human mobility, the entrenchment of digital communications within social systems leads to an epochal change in how human beings orientate themselves within their environment where “human beings and goods are moving through space not only virtually but also really in historically unprecedented numbers and with great speeds” (pg. 102).

The trend described above concerns our relationship to space but Rosa argues that similar transformations can be discerned in our relationship to human beings and in our relationship to things. In each case, technical acceleration can be seen as the mechanism bringing about a substantive transformation: the acceleration of transportation transforms our relationship to space, the acceleration of communication transforms our relation to human beings and the acceleration of (re)production transforms our relationship to things. With regards to the acceleration of communication, “patterns of association and relationship are no longer or to a lesser extent bound to one common geographical space” and there is an “increase and rapid turnover of communication partners”: both are facilitated by a transformation in communications media (pg. 104). With regards to the acceleration of production, we see an increase in the speed of commoditization (“conversation of matter into useful commodities”) mandated by the imperative to accelerate “the turnover speed of capital”: the result is that “everyday objects that surround us and the material structures of our lifeworld as a whole become contingent and transitory” (pg. 105). I think Rosa’s point here is basically that the normalisation of  planned obsolesce becomes more significant than it might otherwise seem when we consider it phenomenologically: the things in which we are moved to take comfort (to paraphrase Danny Miller) are more disposable than ever and we are more inclined to replace them than ever. What then of the comfort we hope they may bring? As Rosa puts it, “identity-constituting processes of adapting to and growing accustomed to things become increasingly improbable” (pg. 105).

I got briefly obsessed last year by the observation that at a rate of one book a week between the ages of 5 and 80, it will only be possible to read 3,900 books in a lifetime. This is a little over one tenth of one percent of all the books currently in print – obviously an overall figure that continues to grow at an astonishing rate. Around the same time, I came across this odd little insight into the understanding AC Grayling has of the finitude of his own life:

As a shake-up, the philosopher AC Grayling is fond of reminding people that the average span of human life is less than 1,000 months. “If a third of them you are asleep and a third you’re in Tesco’s,” he says, “the other third, about 25 years, is left to you to live well.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/9035892/A-C-Grayling-the-master-of-positive-thinking.html

Much as I despise the man, it’s an orientation towards life which resonates with me. The reason that quantifying the number of books it will likely be possible to read in a lifetime struck such a chord with me (apart from the fact that I don’t naturally tend to think quantitatively and it just hadn’t occurred to me to place a number on it) was because I’d long noticed that my ‘to read’ list was becoming ever more problematic. At first it was a list. Then it was a stack. Now it’s a heap. This is a photo I took around last Christmas:

heap

Six months on and the heap is twice the size. Or perhaps it’s two heaps – I’m foregoing the impulse to make a geeky philosophers joke about the sorites paradox… my point is that it keeps growing and that this invites explanation. It may just be that I have a ‘book problem’. In some ways I clearly do, both in terms of my continuing to acquire them at a rate faster than I can read them and the problem of determining the ‘right’ thing to be reading when there’s so much from which to choose e.g. I recently found myself obsessively reading a 600 page biography unrelated to any research work at a point where I was in the final stages of writing a paper and should have been focusing my reading upon that task. Prioritisation is hard and so too is committing to reading a particular book when there’s always a further pile waiting for me that I’ve already selected  from a much broader pool of cultural variety.

However I think this example from my own life reflects a broader process. As soon as I try and write about my ‘book problem’ seriously I inevitably start using words like ‘prioritisation’, ‘commitment’, ‘selection’ and ‘variety’ – invoking social theoretical concepts that have been integral to my PhD research. Part of the problem is that my capacity to identify potential reading material and my inclination to select it both tend to increase with my reading and associated practices. I become more attuned to following references. As I read more, I read more literary publications (like the LRB and the culture bit of the New Statesman which I tended to skip in my early 20s) and identify more books to read, in turn inclining me to attend further to these sources of information about new books to read. The frame of reference I bring to books expands and so too does the range of what I extract from the books I read, broadening the range of things I might read in future and what I might take from them.

This is all taking place against the background of a necessarily finite lifespan. Time is literally running out. However our awareness of this finitude is always conceptually and culturally mediated. This might be a statement of the obvious but I think it’s very interesting to consider the implications of this for the variable ways in which we understand that finitude at different points in our life. One interesting way of looking at this is to consider ways in which it can be represented. This illustration from Wait But Why represents this in a way I find very powerful:

Weeks (1)

 

My point is that there is an existential challenge objectively encountered in the finitude of the human lifespan but that philosophical approaches to understanding this can often be insufficiently sensitive to the social and cultural factors shaping the ways in which people within a given social setting actually attempt to elude or build upon these inherent constraints. I think the mundane challenges of ‘time running out’ offer a very interesting way in which we can connect the everyday dimension to temporal finitude to the biographical dimension inherent in the limitation of the lifespan. I’ve talked about my ‘books problem’ simply because it’s familiar to me rather than it necessarily being a particularly typical or interesting example of what I’m suggesting is a broader trend.

However the lifespan itself is not fixed. Beyond the social and cultural factors shaping how it is understood, we have the similarly social and cultural factors shaping its temporal extension. Social institutions, relations, practices and ideas all contribute to conditioning the extent of the lifespan in complex and interconnected ways. So too does technology, though I’d suggest never in a way that can be abstracted from the relational framework within which technological interventions are enacted (the closest I can think of in relation to this is a nuclear destruction launched by one person accidentally pressing a button).

The social theorist Harmut Rosa distinguishes between the time structures of everyday lifelife time and that of the epoch in which they life. He argues that all persons continually struggle towards a degree of synchrony between these three dimensions to temporal experience. I think this is a really helpful perspective through which to address these issues. It’s from this perspective that I find the analysis of things like my ‘book problem’ so interesting – in identifying the mechanisms which lead to the intensification of the problem rather than its abatement, we get a fine-grained perspective on the temporal dynamics of the broader social system.

It also helps us understand what goes on in people’s lives when the struggle for synchrony backfires. A sudden awareness of mortality at the biographical level inculcates hedonism (live faster, live more) that proves destabilising at the level of everyday life. Or a concern to do work that matters leads to a day-to-day routines deprived of pleasures and so proves unsustainable. The strategies people adopt in the face of this central question (“my life is short, how do I make the most of it?”) necessarily play out in the three dimensions that Rosa delineates even if the person themselves does not recognise them. In fact many of the interesting unintended consequences emerge from the frequent disjuncture between the objectivity of these temporal dimensions and their subjective (mis)recognition. Things like productivity culture and self-help books can also be analysed in relation to a struggle for synchrony, as can their many failings. So too can religious practices which regiment time and social institutions which provide temporal structures that negate the existential pangs provoked by the absence of synchrony. Our attempts to get out of the mess of life are more temporally complex than we tend to realise.