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  • Mark 4:17 pm on July 22, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Social Acceleration,   

    A few sketchy thoughts on how theory is accelerating 

    To speak of the acceleration of social theory can sound counter intuitive, as we often regard theory as a quintessentially slow pursuit in which careful reflection leads to a gradual accumulation of insight. But there are a number of mundane senses in which theory is getting faster:

    1. There is likely to be more being published with a theoretical inclination, even if it remains difficult to provide precise estimates. The journal system is growing at a spectacular rate, though it remains a matter of debate whether that reflects an increasing rate of publication by individual academics or simply the corollary of more academics operating within an increasingly globalised system. As a consequence what we refer to as ‘the literature’ within a particular field changes more rapidly, leading to a corresponding pressure to read more quickly and/or more narrowly in order to keep up with this change. Abbott’s (2008) observes the number of references in a typical sociology paper have increased alongside a decrease in the number of those references which refer to a specific page, suggesting an expansion in the scope of reading co-existing with a decline in the specificity of referencing.
    2. There are more opportunities to publish work with a theoretical inclination. This can be inferred from the increase in journals itself, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that journals with a theoretical focus are liable to be amongst the grass roots initiatives, utilising the affordances of open access software such as Open Monograph Systems, unlikely to be indexed in the main scholarly databases. But it also reflects the more public life which organised grey literature avenues such as work in progress paper series are likely to have   when research centres and departments are rendered digital in a comprehensive way, accessible through web pages and promoted through social media. Social media itself entails a range of opportunities for writing, not least of all through the informal yet substantial exchange facilitated by blogging. There is more theoretical writing one existence and it tends to circulate with greater velocity than would have previously been the case.
    3. While the relationship of theory to the social world is a complex question, the inevitably of some relationship gives reason for us to expect that an increase the rate of social change will lead to new objects emerging within theoretical discourse (consider populism, the anthropocene and the biosocial as major areas of theoretical inquiry which ave been driven by political, social and scientific developments respectively). Another way to make this claim would be to suggest that exogenous influences upon theoretical discourse have their own tempo. The occasional emergence of new objects of interest which are liable to become objects of concern for significant numbers of theorist may in themselves have little impact upon the temporal dynamics of theoretical discourse. But their continual emergence of new objects leads to changes within the theoretical landscapes that can be characterised in terms of fragmentation on the one hand and acceleration on the other.

    To suggest this means theory is getting faster necessitates clarification. A more precise way of formulating this claim would be in terms of the temporal structures which the academics who produce theory are subject to, as well how their negotiation of the associated challenges shapes  their ensuing work. The fact there is more to attend to does not mean that theorists must inevitably work faster, as would be obvious to anyone who has ever heard a complaint about lacking sufficient time to read. But this quotidian complaint helps illustrate the temporal predicament in which theorists find themselves when this intellectual intensification is underway. Should you follow the trails you encounter and read more widely at the cost of depth? Should you focus narrowly and ensure your specialism at the cost of being widely read? Should your sense of what ‘keeping up with the literature’ entails be reconsidered given the sheer quantity of literature which is available? There are not straight forward answers to these questions, itself reflected in the lack of a systematic language in which to frame them as environmental constraints upon a professional activity rather than idiosyncratic difficulties which individuals contingently encounter.  I only take reading as an example because it can be portrayed so straight forwardly. There are comparable questions which can be asked about any of the activities which theorists engage in, nor are they confined to those who work on social theory as Vostal (2014) illustrates.

  • Mark 3:00 pm on December 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Social Acceleration,   

    The social ontology of trans-human life 

    My notes on Maccarini, A. M. (2018). Trans-human (life-) time: Emergent biographies and the ‘deep change’in personal reflexivity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 138-164). Routledge.

    One of the interesting features of the recent Centre for Social Ontology project on defending the human has been the realisation that many in the group are entirely open to the idea of trasnhumanism even while rejecting the notion of posthumanism. Andrea Macacarini draws the useful distinction between a post-human society (the radically other autonomous subjects, originally human or otherwise, as well as the ensuing social order emerging from them)and the trans-human change of human beings (transhumanization = processes through which an enduring and significant transition in human nature occurs, expanding their capacities and characteristics beyond the current species average), with the potential for each being found in two groups of phenomena: the inner transformation of humans through deep relationships with emerging  technologies and the development of non-human and non-living entities which come to exhibit an apparently autonomous subjectivity. They are inevitably related in practice but need to be distinguished in principle because of the different relations they entail between (a) the relationship of human beings to emerging technological agents (b) how the character of human beings are changed by those relations. They lead, as Macacarini puts it, to a “criss of the idea of a human subject” with unique characteristics able to realise species-specific outcomes (pg 139).

    His concern is with  “conceivable forms of human enhancement that could lead to change  human beings with respects to their species-specific features” in a way “affecting their self-awareness, self-understanding, and lifestyle”. However most account of these possibilities “begin with technological advancements and then work their way through the possible meanings, consequences, required adaptations, and side effects of such technical tools and developments on culture, society and human beings”. This means that social and cultural analysis is restricted to the consequence of these facts, as opposed to a sociological approach which entails treating “the post-human phenomenon as a fully social and cultural fact” i.e. the prior social and cultural factors which allow these technological developments to have the impact which they do (pg 140). He argues that we can identify prior social and cultural trends which anticipate transhuman tendencies, finding their expression in technological change but with origins that precede it. As he puts it, “deep change is taking place, building persons who conceive of themselves as ‘differently human’, and thereby come to perceive the ‘trans-humanizing’ techniques as desirable tools to fulfil their needs”. Doing so helps us move beyond the choice of siding with either “enthusiastic post-humanism or with worried humanist” whose concerns, as well as the space between them, “constitute the core matter of many studies” (pg 142).

    He astutely identifies a ‘messianic hope in technology driven trans-humanization” underpinning “a hidden assumption, namely that post-human persons will represent the accomplishment of humans best dreams” (pg 144). This explains a certain optimism in the literature in response to problems he categorise as equality, collective survival and ontological dignity because post-humans are quietly assumed to retain and express the best of the human. Beyond the cognitive achievements and physical attributes of trans-humans what can we expect of their moral dispositions, deep identity and self-understanding? He makes this interesting methodological suggestion that the only way to address these questions is to “look into what humans are currently looking for when they seek self-enhancement, and why humans would want to become enhanced themselves” (pg 144).

    He explores this through the notion of the biographical scheme, relevant because it is a point of intersection where structure and cultural condition the unfolding of the life-course. Biographical schemes organise our experience of temporality, integrating our activity and experience over time into a coherent whole which links our inner experience of time through to time in our relations with others and on to the outer sense of history unfolding. He discusses a number of temporal transformations which might contribute to this: social accelerationtimeless time (beyond human experience e.g. computing), no waiting culture (the immediacy of current concerns fade into a continuous present: “the quest for achieving well-being by overcoming temporal limits” as he puts it on pg 153), performance culture (ever increasing temporal efficiency). Under these conditions “human beings are increasingly requested to develop rapid decision making, an enhanced capacity for computation ,management of emotions, simultaneous consideration of many factors, the capacity to work and make good decisions under pressure, the aptitude for team work, creativity in looking for fresh solutions, and more” (pg 150). Coping with these pressure might be contingently compatible with transhuman enhancement, constituting a vector of change because these enhancements are liable to change the conditions e.g. by increasing the experienced competition which led people to use cognitive enhancers in the first place.

    But what does this mean for human being? Macacarini draws on Archer’s conception of reflexivity over the life course, in which the necessity of selection (from available opportunities, as much as they might vary between people and across time and place) inevitably gives shape to a life as the accumulation of past-choices increasingly constraints future choices as the biological lifecourse unfolds. But this relies on the assumption of sequential experience (challenged by timeless time), locality (robotics and virtual reality), rhythmicity (challenged by performance culture and acceleration), irreversibility (challenged by emerging technologies such as anti-ageing innovations) and self-transcendence (challenged by longer lives and the experienced change of the social institutions through which self-transcendence was sought). If these changes are leading to a transhuman way to inhabit time then what does it mean for the ideals of living which intermingle with our approach to making our way through the world? He suggests the growth of “individuals who strive to ‘totalize’ themselves and to swallow as many simultaneous possibilities of action and experience as possible, rejecting any definite shape or enduring commitment” through their rejection of the necessity of selection (pg 159).

  • Mark 8:34 pm on October 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: atari teenage riot, , existential, , , meaning of life, Social Acceleration, ,   

    An existential analytics of speed 

    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.

    • Emily 6:36 am on October 25, 2014 Permalink

      You know..I was talking to someone about this…how do we go about finding our purpose in life when the more we find it the more we confused we are that there are so many options? You add an interesting angle..thank you.

    • Mark 2:52 pm on October 27, 2014 Permalink

      and the options always grow faster than our capacity to select from them!

  • Mark 7:22 pm on October 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Social Acceleration,   

    Social Acceleration 

    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).

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