From The Mediated Construction of Reality, by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, loc 2896-2912:

While there are only so many bodies of a certain size that can fit into a finite space –there are certain natural limits to spatial packing, beyond which the attempt to pack just has to stop (otherwise, bodies get crushed) –the same is not true in time: there is literally no limit to how many messages, each sent in a non-synchronous mode, can ‘be there together’ in one’s inbox, each requiring response ‘now’ across a range of communicative platforms. The situation is very different with white noise, where countless signals cancel each other out so that nothing distinct can be heard. The challenge of communication overload is that each message can be heard –as the carrier of a distinct meaning –yet it cannot be attended to, since the time required for doing so is lacking. In this way, contemporary arrangements for communication tend to generate time-packing demands on individuals, from moment-to-moment, which along with the related of communicative obligations they can never, in principle, fulfil.

‘thin time’ where there is no wider normative framework for ordering action-sequences relative to each other. But they are deeply problematic in ‘thick’ time, or what Robert Hassan (2003, p. 233) calls ‘network time’, that is, ‘digitally compressed clock-time’ in which the temporal calibration of obligations within particular figurations is intensified. The contemporary workplace and the social relations of those periods of intense change in one’s social networks (such as adolescence or early adulthood) are likely to be periods of ‘thick time’ when the burden of communicative obligations left unfulfilled due to time-deficits is felt more strongly (Turkle, 2011). Problems of coordination in periods of ‘thick time’ become potential problems for any wider figurational order.

One of the crucial ideas for my new book are the temporal implications of the escalation dynamics which characterise social media platforms. In his Social Media in Academia, George Veletsianos identifies precisely the dynamic that interests me. From loc 834:

[R]emaining visible on a social networking and fast-moving platform such as Twitter means that one has to share often and frequently, or else one’s voice and presence are diluted in the sea of information that is already present.

The problem is that efforts to resist dilution of voice and presence, the eternal struggle to be ‘heard above the din’ as Dave Beer puts it, leads to an escalation of the activity necessary for others to achieve the same objective. My suggestion is that seeking to be visible, if not necessarily a function of using the platform itself, will always tend to lead to an increase in the activity required to ensure visibility.

The temporal commitment involved in this activity might be individually trivial but it can prove to be aggregatively consequential, particularly if the same dynamic obtains across participation in multiple platforms. The result might be a straight-forward time squeeze, it might be rushing to finish other activities, it might be multi-tasking and it might be a diffuse state of perpetual distraction. But it has consequences for our experience of time.

ht Su Oman. Wish I could apply for this. Shared in the hope others can.

ERRANS, in Time
ICI Fellowships for 2016-18 

The ICI Berlin announces ten post-doctoral fellowships for the Academic Years 2016-18 

Conceptions of time and varied modes of temporal experience seem more at odds now than ever. Hamlet’s hunch – that ‘the time is out of joint’ – has turned into an evergreen of critical discourse. Admittedly, ideas of physical, social, revolutionary time, internal time consciousness, or historical experience are far from settled in their respective discourses and practices. Yet attempts to harmonize or correlate the understanding of time and temporal phenomena generated in different disciplines all-too quickly – and largely with violent effect – resort to normative, if not teleological ideas of progress, efficiency, narrative sense-making, or experiential plenitude.

The rich traditions of critical thinking about time that challenge such normative ideas can, however, appear complicit with the new temporal regimes of capitalism. For example, they are marked by the increase of flexitime in the workplace, celebrations of discontinued employment, even obsolescence as ‘reinventions of the self’. Additionally, the fact that the time of cyclical crises proper to capitalism has been rendered opaque by the proliferation of hedging and speculating on ‘futures’ or that high-frequency trade algorithms enable transactions at posthuman speeds. With acceleration having reached the point of evoking no longer progress but ideas of a ‘frenetic standstill’ (Virilio, Rosa) or the end of history, it would indeed seem that radical opposition to a particular temporal mode – such as linearly progressing time – is neither sufficient nor necessary, but, rather, risks proving counter-productive.

In this second instalment of the Core Project ERRANS, we ask whether the heterogeneous relations between discordant conceptions of time and temporality can be understood as being ‘erratically’ structured, that is, as marked by inherent misapprehensions, a dissonance that defies regulation, and an unexpected variability. For example, boredom or suspense challenges our confidence in the homogeneity of the flow of time; for Fanon, decolonial struggle creates a new human being, but can only do so by reworking the entire past from its very beginning; involuntary memory undermines the supposedly cumulative experience of time throughout a lifetime; Kristeva’s notion of ‘women’s time’ and queer temporalities reveal the (hetero)normative investments in the naturalized time of reproduction; psychotic experiences of homogeneous time unsettle our confidence that linear time is intelligible at all, as do the divergent modifications of Newtonian time by statistical, relativistic, and quantum mechanics; and the explosive potential of temporal standstill undoes the dynamist model for ‘revolution’ inherited from premodern theories of planetary motion.

The different temporal forms of erring provide a possible point of departure. Thus, Homer’s Odyssey juxtaposes its hero’s classical errantry – frequently seen as anticipating bourgeois, enlightened, or capitalist subjectivity – with the errant ruse of Penelope’s nocturnal unravelling of the burial shroud she is weaving during the day. These modes of erring also need to be considered as gendered, as one could argue for many temporal categories. Penelope’s gesture presents a paradigm for radical, that is, ‘wilful’ resistance to the narrative strongholds on temporal experience and, by extension, to the dictates of the exploitation of labour time that only intensified with the creation of inactive leisure or ‘down’ time. Penelope’s unravelling, hence, is akin to the radically negative temporalities experienced in melancholia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, lethargy, or traumatic rupture, ultimately raising the possibility of an ‘empty’ or even ‘dead’ time. Similarly, neither the time that can only be killed nor the time buckling before the deadline, neither the crawl of monotony or tedium nor the unlimited expandability of imminence can be discounted as mere limit cases or pathological experiences, but would have to be taken seriously as errant misalignments of irreconcilable aspects of time.

A radical discordance of Euro-American time becomes most blatantly manifest in what Johannes Fabian has termed ‘the schizogenic use of time’ by well-intentioned anthropologists: interacting with indigenous peoples in one time and writing about them in another, they perpetuate a systematic temporal relegation that in colonial regimes was based on assumptions about non-Western peoples living outside of time and needing to be brought up to date or ‘civilized’. These vast lingering temporal injustices, but also the most modest temporal complications of affective experience remain linked to the peculiar afterlife of history – past the closed gardens of salvation and redemption, past (post-)Hegelian mobilizations, past other narrative closures. Much recent work on the temporal structures and textures of the everyday – changing dramatically in a media culture going ‘live’ 24/7 –, the monotonous, boredom, but also the event, trauma, catastrophe, or end, draws its power from a confrontation with the frames of history, enlarged, crooked, manipulated, or broken as they may be.

We welcome contributions from a wide variety of fields and disciplines, pertaining, for example, to:

Incompatible temporalities conjured up in aesthetic conceptions of vitality and vitalist legacies of the life sciences

Decolonizing metropolitan time, both questioning claims of belatedness at the periphery, and embracing indigenous epistemologies of time

A queer cultivation of nostalgia, complicating the relation to futurity

The relation of physics and philosophy regarding the complementarity of being and becoming, reversibility and irreversibility, or the entanglement of past, present, and future

The paradoxical mobilization and political value of an aesthetics of untimeliness

Media-specific temporalities in the constitution of the archive

The shifting valences of age and ageing beyond a teleology of deathbound decline

Temporal antinomies and narratological deviations in literature and other media

Controversies in psychoanalysis and theories of cultural memory revolving around the concept of belatedness/retroaction (Nachträglichkeit)

The importance of anachronism as a critical category but also as a deliberate strategy

Fashion as an ambivalent model of disjunctive temporalities

Ideas of survival, afterlife, and revenants beyond standard conceptions of tradition or genealogy 

The ICI Berlin invites scholars from all disciplines to engage in a joint exploration of ERRANS, in Time. We especially welcome applications from individuals who will contribute to diversity and equal opportunity in scholarly research.

The committed exchange between fellows is a central aim of the Institute. Applicants should be interested in a theoretical reflection upon the conceptual and intellectual basis of their projects and in discussing it with fellows from other disciplines. In particular, fellows will be expected to participate in the weekly colloquia, bi-weekly informal meetings, and other activities of the Institute, to contribute to a common publication, and to be resident in Berlin for the duration of the fellowship.

The fellowships announced are for the academic years 2016-18 (12 September 2016 – 13 July 2018). There is no age limit, but applicants should have obtained their PhD within ten years of the date of appointment or have fulfilled all requirements for receiving their PhD by 1 July 2016. Stipends range from EUR 1800 to 2000 per month. 

Interested applicants should read also the description of the Core Project ERRANS and follow the application instructions.

Application deadline: 6 January 2016 


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From The Boys, by Katherine Losse, pg 146:

My career upgrade from dungeon department to quasi- technical role meant, along with a better salary and more respect from the technical echelon of the company, that I was now on engineering time. This meant that while I could come to work later, as late as lunchtime, I was expected to stay up until all hours answering emails and devoting myself even more monastically to our new enterprise. However, even as the respect and pay were higher, which was a huge relief, genuflecting to external application developers, even if I didn’t agree with what they were doing, felt a lot like the eternal reverence we nontechnical employees were all expected to exhibit for Mark and the engineering department.

From page 152:

Becoming a fully fledged member of the engineering team that winter felt, as I long dreamed of doing, like going from being slave to being conqueror. Suddenly, I could arrive at work on my own time, as long as I was working late into the night, because it was assumed that I, like all the engineers, was upholding and advancing a whole new world, even if sometimes we were just sitting around in the office eating snacks and playing games. In engineering, getting to work late was cool, even necessary. It meant, in the ideology of the lone and maverick hacker, that you weren’t beholden to authority, and that you might have been up late coding something brilliant and life- changing and disruptive (even if you were just trolling Facebook or watching porn). Being in engineering wasn’t an escape from the game so much as the ultimate playground.

From page 155 to 156:

I spent days with the professional translators while they read through pages of translations and made corrections as needed. They were working by the hour, clocking out at six o’clock, and thought it strange that I seemed perennially online the entire week, answering chats, reading Facebook, talking with them, answering questions, and responding to emails at all hours. When they left the office at the end of the day, they were done until the next morning. That, in turn, seemed strange to me. I couldn’t remember when the last time was that I wasn’t within spitting distance of my computer and smart phone. As much as I had once made fun of the Facebook boys for staring at their phones more often than they looked up, I had become one of them.

This looks really interesting. I wish I wasn’t already committed that day, as I’d like to understand time use data much more than I do at present. Its deployment in parts of the acceleration literature is something that interests me more and more, the further I get into my current project:

The Centre for Time Use Research, University of Oxford are delighted to invite researchers from your Department to attend ‘Time Use in Britain’, a free Time Use event being held in Oxford on the 9th and 10th of November 2015. We would be very grateful if you could pass on this invitation to colleagues in your Department who may be interested in attending.

At this two-day event the CTUR will introduce four new data sources, including the release of UK 2014-15 data, and present a first look at our initial findings. The data launch will be followed by presentations from leading academic researchers, and roundtable discussions which aim to provide a unique opportunity for delegates to engage in cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Day 1: “Britain’s Youth: New Data New Perspectives” with Keynote speech from Prof Robert Putnam. This will include discussions on Changes in Young People’s Time Use Patterns in the UK (1974-2015), British and Millennium Cohort Studies, and talks on themes of Health, Media, Technology, and Education.

Day 2: “Great Britain’s Great Day”. This will include the introduction of the new UK Time Use Survey, and discussions on Work & Leisure, Health and Policy, and Collecting the UK 2014-15 Time Diary Survey.

For the full programme and to register to attend, please visit our event webpage at:

From Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 52-53:

One badge of membership in the super- elite is jet lag. Novelist Scott Turow calls this the “flying class” and describes its members as “the orphans of capital” for whom it is a “badge of status to be away from home four nights a week.” The CEO of one of the most prestigious multinationals recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his daughter to celebrate her graduation from college. He told a friend the two- week expedition was the longest they had ever been together. “They make a lot of money and they work incredibly hard and the husbands never see their children,” Holly Peterson said of the financiers of the Upper East Side. Their lives are driven not by culture or seasons or family tradition, but by the requirements of the latest deal or the mood of the markets. When Mark Zuckerberg rebuffed Yuri Milner’s first approach, the Russian investor, who was already a multimillionaire, turned up at the Internet boy wonder’s office in Palo Alto the next day, a round- trip journey of twelve thousand miles. In November 2010, the number two and heir apparent of one of the top private equity firms told me he was about to make a similar journey. I was a having a drink with him near Madison Park on a Wednesday night. He told me he needed to leave by eight p.m., because he had to fly to Seoul that evening. He planned to make the fourteen- thousand- mile roundtrip for a ninety- minute meeting. His putative partners had invited him to Korea just forty- eight hours before, on the Monday of that week. It was, he told me, “a test of our commitment.” When the European sovereign debt crisis came to dominate the markets in 2011, New York traders started to set their alarm clocks for two thirty a.m., in time for the opening bell in Frankfurt. Some investors in California didn’t bother going to bed at all. Wall Street e- mail in- boxes give you a flavor of the working lives of financiers, at least as they perceive them. In the spring of 2010, when the Obama administration first proposed a millionaires’ tax, an anonymous screed pinged its way around trading desks and into the electronic mail of a few journalists. It begins with the declaration “ We are Wall Street ,” and goes on to describe the intense workdays of traders: “We get up at 5 a.m. and work till 10 p.m. or later. We’re used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don’t take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don’t demand a union. We don’t retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill.”

It’s possible to trace out an awful lot of interest about contemporary higher education from this seemingly peripheral phenomenon:

No-shows are a common feature at conferences nowadays, but nearly every panel I went to was missing someone and most of them canceled at the last minute and could not be replaced in time. Several of these MIA’s were said to be in the grip of personal emergencies. I am not saying that wasn’t true, but Facebooking pictures of the “emergency” that took you on vacation this weekend was a truly bold move, I must say. There was some discussion in what remained of the hotel bar as to whether the emphasis on collecting vita lines in grad school has led to  a general belief in the younger generation that one must be constantly applying for things and agreeing to make presentations — a practice that then founders when the realities of a full time job and/or a full time family intervenes.

A great call for papers:

Guest Editors: Professor Bob Lingard, University of Queensland & Dr Greg Thompson, Murdoch University

Call for Papers: Doing Time in the Sociology of Education

The Guides, the Wardens of our faculties,
And Stewards of our labour, watchful men
And skilful in the usury of time,
Sages, who in the prescience would control
All accidents, and to the very road
Which they have fashion’d would confine us down,
Like engines…

– William Wordsworth, The Prelude

Many of the practices, processes, history and analyses of education and schooling in our contemporary milieu conceal powerful theorisations of time. These theorisations work to produce systems, structures, expectations and subjectivities. For example, the move towards mass, compulsory schooling that occurred in many countries in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the particular links it had to the organisation of the factory and the prison, conceal a particular mobilisation of time as linear and progressive that continues to dominate the work and aims of schooling. The purpose of this special issue is to revisit understandings and theorisations of time in the sociology of education.

While time is not a novel concept in critical examinations of schooling, this issue will be open to papers exploring time from a number of perspectives, including those that develop time as non-linear and/or multiple; to time as the silent foundation of conceptions of childhood and development; time as central to the structure and organisation of schools including school subjects, timetables and architecture; the relationship between education policy and political time; processes of subjectivation and identity formation; the impact of internet time; and notions of value and values in school. These could include applications of time in the theoretical work of thinkers such as Bourdieu, Virilio, Foucault, Bhaskar, Grosz, Barad and Deleuze and other thinkers with specific emphasis on education contexts.

Submission Instructions

Expressions of interest/400 word abstract to be submitted to the Guest Editors via email by: 1st August 2015

Full papers from accepted abstracts should be submitted through ScholarOne Manuscripts by: 31st December 2015

Special Issue publication (of accepted papers, only): Early 2017

Contact Information: 

Bob Lingard, School of Education, The University of Queensland, 4072, Australia

Greg Thompson, School of Education, Murdoch University, 6150, Western Australia, Australia

I noticed an unfamiliar precondition placed at the end of this interesting call for papers on Story’s Place In Our Lives:

Inter-Disciplinary.Net believes it is a mark of personal courtesy and professional respect to your colleagues that all delegates should attend for the full duration of the meeting. If you are unable to make this commitment, please do not submit an abstract for presentation.

I’ve never seen this before and I’m not sure what to make of it. On the one hand, I applaud the sentiment because it is likely to mitigate against people turning up solely for their talk then leaving, as well as encouraging the synchronisation of attention during the event so that the conference might become a zone of strategic deceleration*. On the other hand, it seems almost Canute-like if we take seriously the proposition of the sociology of time that we live in a desynchronised society.

The demand that every speaker must participate for the full three days places synchronisation costs upon attendees which they will be unequally able to meet. The intersection of temporal autonomy with other systems of stratification is an incredibly complex topic which I’ve only recently begun to think seriously about. But I’m convinced that we need to take what Sarah Sharma calls chronopolitics seriously if we’re trying to adapt institutions to cope with the attentional pathologies generated by digital capitalism.

This isn’t a criticism of the policy itself. I applaud the sentiment and I’ll seriously consider implementing a policy like this at some of the events I organise myself in future. But I think there’s a complexity to this which needs to be seriously considered and my impression is that we still lack a politically adequate language within which to talk about these issues in terms of temporality. I’m worried that invoking notions of civility and collegiality without addressing the novel challenges of the accelerated academy could prove unintentionally regressive in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

*Not the pithiest phrase I’ve ever come out with but I think I’m getting at something important with it.

Acceleration is often framed as a problem. Things are speeding up. We never have enough time. We’re always falling behind. These will be familiar experiences to most. While the problem is more complex than may initially appear to be the case, with little quantitative time squeeze actually registering, it nonetheless leaves us with a sense of late modernity as a ‘runaway world’ in which things are accelerating beyond our capacity to cope with them. This diagnosis tends to identify the causality at the systemic level and occludes the role of agency: it’s ‘modern life’ which is running away from us while we’re left merely struggling to catch up.

The difficulty here is that the role of agency is crucial if we are to understand the time-pressure paradox. If we have roughly the same amount of time, what is it about how we orientate ourselves towards temporality that accounts for the pervasive sense that we are perpetually running out of time? It’s important that we resist the urge to do what Andrew Sayer calls a ‘pomo flip’ and respond to the systemic bias of the acceleration thesis with a corresponding bias towards agency. The motor of acceleration cannot be seen as straightforwardly arising from the social system, in the sense that it produces changing circumstances to which agents can do nothing but adapt or fail. But nor should it be seen as something that arises from people ‘using time badly’ (whatever that would mean) or any other account of (implicitly pathological) responses by agents leaving them feeling more harried while the objective availability of time remains constant.

Instead we need to understand acceleration in terms of the interface between the social system & agency. Crucially, this doesn’t mean ‘agency’ in a schematic sense: we need to understand how embodied people, with capacities & liabilities, live through the temporal horizons obtaining within the system and, through doing so, contribute to the transformation or reproduction of those (temporal) structures. One useful concept I’m thinking about at the moment which helps in this respect is that of the pleasures of acceleration. For all that people complain about time pressure – particularly, it should be noted, when responding to researchers studying the time-pressure paradox – there are also pleasures to be found within it:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

We need to understand the pleasures as well as the pains of acceleration. Through doing so, it becomes possible to flesh out the rather anaemic conception of agency usually found within the acceleration literature and instead look at speed as something which matters to people, in ways that are complex and often contradictory. We don’t just have first-order responses to our circumstances (whims and desires) but also second-order responses (concerns and commitments) which are themselves shaped by our cumulative experience of circumstances past. Understanding how people cope with acceleration requires that we attend to the former and the latter. We can’t treat agency as a cypher in the analysis of acceleration.

Nonetheless my point isn’t that people are embracing acceleration because they (secretly) like it. I’m only suggesting that there are pleasures to be found in it, alongside the many pains, which need to be recognised before we can even begin to grasp the agential dimension of social acceleration.

I’m currently reading Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures by Mark Fisher. It’s an interesting book which explores a condition in which “life continues, but time has somehow stopped”. His claim is that this “stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement” and he explores it in terms of popular musical culture:

Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of cultural time. But faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared. This is quickly established by performing a simple thought experiment. Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be. While 20th-century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. (loc 183)

Can we see a similar process in higher education? The way Fisher describe the hyperactively inert quality of contemporary music immediately resonated with me: “the rates of innovation in both these areas had enormously slackened”. This is precisely the terminology Filip Vostal and I have been using to discuss the acceleration of higher education: we’re interested in how the rate of innovation relates to the rate of publication. Our hunch is that the former declines as the latter increases. We’d like to substantiate this. But perhaps more importantly, we’d like to explain it.

What would this hyperactive inertia look like in higher education? We’d see the same underlying ideas being expressed in news ways. We’d see the same underlying debates – conflicts between ideas – being pursued in new forms with no reference to previous skirmishes which largely or entirely addressed the same issue. We’d see reiteration that understood itself as novelty – making no reference to what has come before because the temporal horizons are sufficiently circumscribed that this novelty appears to unfold within a perpetual present. We’d see a perpetual forgetting coupled with perpetual innovation: nothing moves forward because the foundations upon which innovation might be built would be constantly discarded.

I’d argue we can see this. It’s a process that seems pretty obvious to anyone who’s kept up with academic literature over a sufficient number of decades (or maybe it’s just the people in this category whom I happen to talk to a lot). Part of the project we’re planning would intend to actually map this empirically. But the indicators are pretty clear: conceptual commonalities between referentially disconnected literatures, shrinking time horizons of citations, constant invocation of ‘turns’ in the name of innovation. Constant movement without anything ever progressing.

What makes this odd is how unnecessary it is. Since I started working at the Sociological Review, I’ve been slightly obsessed by the fact that the archive extends to 1908 and is fully digitised. It’s as easy to access a paper from 1915 as it is to access a paper from 2015. I’ve gone around telling anyone who might care about this in a way that extends far beyond any remit arising from the fact I’m employed by the journal. This fetishisation of the past is exactly what I take Mark Fisher to be concerned with – I’ve been hugely enthusiastic about these archives without ever seriously engaging with them. Crudely: I think it’s really cool that they are accessible but I’m not really sure why I think this. As Fisher observes, “it seemed that practically everything was available for re-watching. In conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost” (loc 105). There’s no technical reason for this loss of the sociological past but this seems to make little practical different, suggesting that the reasons for this loss have very little to do with technological capacity. This recent post by Graham Scambler identified one of the core reasons for this forgetting:

There is now a premium on roller-coaster productivity pertinent to crass metrics like the REF. To (appear to) stand still is to attract opprobrium, too often from line-managers as crass(ly ambitious) as the metrics they bend the knee to. We are fast accelerating away from the concept of education as intrinsically worthwhile. Education in its entirely needs defending against the bureaucratic instrumentalism characteristic of this vicious neo-liberal interlude.

The broader perspective of social acceleration helps situation this institutionally specific trend in terms of broader macro-social processes. But it’s important not to lose sight of the institutional specificity of higher education. I like how Graham describes the dilemma for scholarship posed by what I’m suggesting is the acceleration of higher education:

we already possess a considerable and under-utilized body of work, both theoretical and empirical (and yes, empiricist too). While the need for innovative theorizing and for up-to-date or novel data and analyses remains, there are published warehouses of the stuff that we neglect. It would pay us to tap and reflect on these. It really is okay to relearn lessons from dead social theorists, sociologists and researchers!

Much of my own recent output – mainly publications, but a few blogs too – comes within the orbit of meta-reflection. This is especially true of my work on health inequalities, but it applies also to my discourses on stigma. I have attempted to draw on and occasionally to develop extant theory as well as quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods investigations to explore optimal ways of determining the extent and nature of, and ultimately explanations for, enduring health inequalities and stigmatization. I have staked claims for theory that is in my view consonant with available evidence bases. I am of course deeply indebted to innumerable predecessors and contemporaries!

It’s for this reason that I think questions of scholarly communication are integral to the future of the social sciences. But my reasons for believing this to the case are somewhat idiosyncratic. This is another theme which we’re hoping to explore in our project (and at the conference we’re organising in Prague in December). There’s a big picture here that is getting lost because of the very academic specialisation it has some important consequences for.

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.

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.”

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:


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.

This wonderful letter by Maya Angelou was featured on Brainpickings last week. It was a contribution to a 2006 anthology, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, in which forty-one famous women wrote letters back in time to their former selves. The anthology itself looks very interesting & Maya Angelou’s letter is wonderful:

Dear Marguerite,

You’re itching to be on your own. You don’t want anybody telling you what time you have to be in at night or how to raise your baby. You’re going to leave your mother’s big comfortable house and she won’t stop you, because she knows you too well.

But listen to what she says:

When you walk out of my door, don’t let anybody raise you — you’ve been raised.

You know right from wrong.

In every relationship you make, you’ll have to show readiness to adjust and make adaptations.

Remember, you can always come home.

You will go home again when the world knocks you down — or when you fall down in full view of the world. But only for two or three weeks at a time. Your mother will pamper you and feed you your favorite meal of red beans and rice. You’ll make a practice of going home so she can liberate you again — one of the greatest gifts, along with nurturing your courage, that she will give you.

Be courageous, but not foolhardy.

Walk proud as you are,