Volume 6, Issue 1: Spring 2010

Special Issue: Motorcycle--Beschleunigung und Rebellion?

Full Speed Burnout?

From the Pleasures of the Motorcycle to the Bleakness of the Treadmill: The Dual Face of Social Acceleration  

Hartmut Rosa

   

I Introduction

 

Modernity is about speed and motion—there can be little doubt about this.[1] In fact, one could argue that being modern, experiencing modernity is feeling unbound, feeling the exhilaration and power of detachment and the removal of resistance. Hence, it is small wonder that the turning wheel has become one of the core symbols of modernity, a symbol that signifies the idea of freedom through dynamic motion. Speed and freedom in modernity are intrinsically linked, and the motorcycle, quite obviously, is the most striking symbol of this fusion. The power and attraction of the motorbike is in the sensual experience of mastering life at high speeds, of being able—and having the power—to autonomously control and steer one’s motion; it is the promise of mastering space and time and conquering the world while leaving behind “all that is solid,” sluggish, earth-bound, heavy or burdensome. Thus, the motorcycle is, perhaps, the most compelling symbol of modernity’s love affair with speed.

 

However, as always, modernity’s drive to accelerate life has a flip side. Dynamization is not just, and not always, experienced as the promise of freedom and autonomy, but quite often, it signals the opposite: the incessant need to accelerate and rush things, to innovate, to adapt and change, the restlessness of modern life and the insurmountable shortness of time. The drowning speed of modern life results in the demand to “dance faster and faster just to stay in place” (Conrad 6; also see Robinson and Godbey 33), and thus, without being fully aware of it, the hamster wheel or the treadmill have come to replace the motorcycle as the core icon of our time: the wheels of acceleration stay in place, but wheels don’t always propel us forward: they can also spin around endlessly along their own axes without getting us anywhere. Thus, the argument I want to develop here is, first, that modernity is about speed, and that speed comes in three forms or dimensions (part one); second, that there are at least two external driving motors of speed, the first of which is symbolized by the motorcycle, while the second one is best captured by the image of the treadmill (part two); and third, that in late modernity, the attraction and promise of speed and acceleration seem to fade out, while the dread of the treadmill steadily increases. Thus, my—slightly depressing—conclusion will be that whereas the motorcycle is the symbol of “classical” or “high modernity,” the hamster wheel is about to become the icon of late-modernity.

 

II Speed, Power and Modernity

 

From Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s observation of the “tourbillon social” in his Emile through Marx and Engels’ notion in the “Communist Manifesto” of a capitalist modernity in which “all that is solid melts into air” (which became the title of Marshall Berman’s famous book about modernity) and Marcel Proust’s search for the time lost to James Gleick’s bestselling Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, the experience of modernity and modernization has always been the experience of an incessant acceleration.[2] Nevertheless, surprisingly, this temporal aspect has been largely ignored in the social sciences and their analyses of modernity. Thus, modernization has been discussed and interpreted as a process of rationalization, as individualization, as functional differentiation, or as the advance of instrumental reason—but the acceleratory aspect has never been systematically discussed. Hence, the primary question that arises in the context of a thorough sociological analysis of speed is this: what, exactly, is accelerating in social life—and what is not? Is the acceleration of social life a measurable social fact—or a matter of perception, a rhetorical topos, a phenomenon of consciousness?

 

My answer to this question, in short, is this: on the basis of all the empirical evidence one can collect on the changing rates of social tempo, there are three logically and analytically distinguishable processes of social acceleration which can be objectified through the methods of social scientific analysis.

 

First, the most obvious and most measurable form of acceleration is the intentional speeding up of goal-directed processes of transport, communication, and production that can be defined as technological acceleration. Furthermore, new forms of organization and administration that are intended to speed up operations also count as instances of technological acceleration in the sense defined here, i.e., as instances of intentional, goal-directed acceleration. Although it is not always easy to measure the average speed of these processes (which is far more important for the analysis of the social impact of acceleration than the maximum speeds), the general tendency in this realm is undeniable. Thus, the speed of communication is said to have increased by 107, the speed of personal transport by 102, and the speed of data processing by 1010 (Geißler 89).

 

This aspect of acceleration is at the center of Paul Virilio’sdromology,” a narrative of historical acceleration which proceeds from the revolution in transport to that in transmission and finally to the impending “transplantation” revolution dawning in the emergent possibilities of biotechnology (Virilio 9-15). The effects of technological acceleration on social reality are certainly tremendous. In particular, they completely transformed the “space-time regime” of society, i.e., the perception and organization of space and time in social life. Thus, in the age of globalization and the u-topicality of the Internet, time is increasingly conceived as compressing or even annihilating space (e.g., Harvey 201-210). Space, it seems, virtually “contracts” by the speed of transport and communication. Thus, measured by the time it takes to cross the distance from, say, London to New York, space has shrunk from the pre-industrial age of sailing ships to the time of jet-planes to less than 1/60th of its original size, i.e., from about three weeks to about eight hours.

 

Second, when novelists, scientists, journalists and ordinary men and women since the eighteenth century have observed the dynamization of Western culture, society, or history, they were most often not so much concerned with the spectacular technological advancements, but rather, they appear puzzled by the accelerated processes of social change that render social constellations and structures as well as patterns of action and orientation unstable and ephemeral. This increasing transformation of the patterns of social association, of forms of practice and the substance of (practically relevant) knowledge, defines the second category of social acceleration, i.e., the acceleration of social change.

 

Whereas phenomena of the first category can be described as acceleration processes within society, the phenomena of this second category could be classified as accelerations of society itself. The underlying idea is that rates of change themselves are changing. Thus, attitudes and values as well as fashions and lifestyles, social relations and obligations as well as groups, classes, or milieus, social languages as well as forms of practice and habits are said to change at ever increasing rates. This has led Arjun Appadurai to replace the symbolization of the social world as consisting of stable social aggregates which can be localized on maps with the idea of fluid, flickering screens representing cultural flows that only punctually crystallize into “ethno-, techno-, finan-, media- and ideoscapes.”

 

However, empirically measuring the rates of social change remains a significant challenge, not least because there is little agreement in sociology as to what the relevant indicators of change are and when alterations or variations actually constitute a genuine or “basic” social change.  Therefore, I suggest that to develop a systematic sociology of social acceleration, we should use the concept of a “contraction of the present” (Gegenwartsschrumpfung) to gain a yardstick for the empirical measurement of the rates of change. This concept was developed by the philosopher Hermann Lübbe, who claims that Western societies are experiencing an ongoing contraction of the present as a consequence of the accelerating rates of cultural and social innovation. His measure is as simple as it is instructive: for Lübbe, the past is defined as that which no longer holds/is no longer valid while the future denotes that which does not yet hold/is not yet valid. The present, then, is the time-span for which the horizons of experience and expectation coincide. Only within these time-spans of relative stability can we draw on past experiences to orient our actions and infer conclusions from the past with regard to the future. Only within these time-spans do we find some certainty of orientation, evaluation, and expectation. In other words, social acceleration is defined by an increase in the decay-rates of the reliability of experiences and expectations and by the contraction of the time-spans definable as the “present.” Now, obviously, we can apply this measure of stability and change to social and cultural institutions and practices of all kinds: the present contracts in the political as well as the occupational, the technological as well as the aesthetic, the normative as well as the scientific or cognitive dimensions, i.e., in cultural as well as in structural respects. As a rule of thumb, the reader may simply consider the decay-rates of his or her everyday practical knowledge: what are the time-spans for which he or she can assume stability for things such as the addresses and phone numbers of friends, the opening hours of shops and offices, the rates of insurances and telephone companies, the popularity of TV stars, parties and politicians, of jobs people hold and relationships they are engaged in?

 

In this sense, to formulate the argument more generally, the stability of social institutions and practices could serve as a yardstick for the acceleration (or deceleration) of social change. In the work of authors such as Peter Wagner, Zygmunt Bauman, Richard Sennett and Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash, theoretical as well as empirical support can be found for the thesis that institutional stability is generally on the decline in late modern societies. In a sense, the whole discourse about “postmodernity” and contingency hinges on this idea, although, in the context of this essay, it is only meant to serve as a starting point for future empirical research.

 

Third, perhaps the most pressing and astonishing facet of social acceleration is the spectacular and epidemic “time-famine” of modern (Western) societies. In modernity, social actors increasingly feel that they are running out of time, that they are short on time. It seems as if time was perceived like a raw material which is consumed like oil and which is, therefore, getting increasingly scarce and expensive. This perception of time lies at the heart of a third type of (objectively measurable) acceleration in Western societies that is neither logically nor causally entailed by the first two. Quite to the contrary, at least at first glance, this time-hunger appears to be totally paradoxical with respect to technological acceleration. This third category is the acceleration of the pace of (social) life, which has been postulated again and again in the history of modernity (e.g., by Georg Simmel or, more recently, by Robert Levine). It can be defined as an increase in the number of episodes of action or experience per unit of time, i.e., it is the consequence of the desire or felt need to do more things in less time. As such, it is the central focus of much of the discussion about cultural acceleration and the alleged need for deceleration.

 

But how could we measure the pace of life?  In my view, attempts to do so can follow a “subjective’ or an ‘objective” approach, with the most promising route probably being a combination of the two. On the “subjective” side, an acceleration of the speed of life (as against the speed of life itself) is likely to have the observed effects on individuals’ experience of time: it will cause people to consider time as scarce, to feel hurried and under time pressure and stress. Typically, people will feel that time goes by faster than before and they will complain that “everything” goes too fast; they will worry that they might not be able to keep up with the pace of social life. Hence, the fact that this complaint has accompanied modernity ever since the eighteenth century does not prove that the speed of life was high all the time; in fact, it does not help to determine “the” speed of life at all, but it does hint at its progressive acceleration. As we might expect, empirical studies indicate that people in Western societies do feel under heavy time-pressure and they do complain about the scarcity of time. These feelings seem to have increased over recent decades (Geißler 92, Garhammer 448-455, Levine 196ff.), making plausible the argument that the “digital revolution” and the processes of globalization since 1989 amount to yet another wave of social acceleration.

 

On the “objective” side, an acceleration of the “speed of life” can be measured in two ways. First, it should lead to a measurable contraction of the time spent on definable episodes or “units” of action like eating a meal, sleeping, going for a walk, playing a game, talking to one’s family, etc., since “acceleration” implies that we do more things in less time. This is a domain where time-use studies could prove highly important.

 

Indeed, some studies have found plenty of evidence for this.  For example, there appears to be a clear tendency to eat faster, sleep less, and communicate less with our families than our ancestors did.  Nevertheless, one needs to be careful with such results, first because the data for longitudinal time-use studies is extremely limited; second, because we always find counter-instances (e.g., the time fathers spend with their children in at least some sections of Western societies is clearly increasing) without being able to adequately determine the significance of these findings; and third, because it is frequently unclear what drives the measured accelerations (e.g., that people on average sleep less today than previous generations did might simply be attributable to the fact that they grow older and don’t work as hard physically).

 

The second way to “objectively” explore the acceleration of the pace of life consists in measuring the social tendency to “compress” actions and experiences, i.e., to do and experience more within a given period of time by reducing the pauses and intervals and/or by doing more things simultaneously, like cooking, watching TV, and making a phone call at the same time. This latter strategy, of course, is called “multi-tasking” (Benthaus-Apel). Surprisingly, empirical data from time-use studies is quite limited, since these studies are geared towards scrutinizing the shifts in time use between the different realms of social activity (like working, shopping, leisure-time activities etc.) and between the sexes and social classes.  Hence, while such data are not well suited to identify processes of compression, there can be little doubt that there is an overwhelming and almost unified tendency towards speeding up the pace of life through the compression of episodes of action in all modern societies.[3]

 

Now, of course, it is dead wrong to claim that all processes or “everything” speeds up in modernity. Of course, there are plenty of things that can’t speed up (the production of oil, for example, or a pregnancy, or many processes in our brains).  As well, there are many things, such as territories or populations, which could speed up but have been exempted or successfully resisted, at least to some extent (think of the Amish, the Andamanes or some segments of academic bureaucracy).  In addition, there are things that dysfunctionally slow down precisely because everyone wants to speed them up (think of the traffic jam, or, some forms of depression and mental burn-out).  Finally, there are processes that are intentionally and deliberately decelerated, like slow-food or yoga as a technique of calming down. Intentional deceleration thus can be either functional for further acceleration (e.g., yoga might help you to be faster and more efficient in your job) or oppositional to it (like some ecologically driven forms or movements of deceleration). But in any case, I want to argue, deceleration is either residual, i.e. it refers to things that are not (yet) accelerated, or it comes as a reaction to preceding experiences of social acceleration. Therefore, in modern societies, the powers and forces of acceleration systematically outweigh those of deceleration. It is in this sense that modernity is about acceleration, and modern societies can be interpreted as accelerating: first, there is an imbalance between dynamization or acceleration on the one hand and stabilization or deceleration on the other, and second, all three forms of acceleration (technological acceleration, the acceleration of social change, and the acceleration of the pace of life) occur simultaneously.

 

III Motorcycles and Treadmills: The Driving Wheels of Acceleration

 

At this point, obviously, the question about the driving motors of modernity’s speed-up becomes puzzling. If technology helps us to save time—there is hardly any technological device which does not help us to save time, from the car to the hair dryer to the photocopier to the lawnmower to the iPhone to the microwave—how is it possible that modernity is characterized precisely by a permanent coexistence of technological innovation and an increasing shortage of time, i.e., by the concurrence of technological acceleration and the speed-up of the pace of life? The answer to this, of course, is quite complex,[4] but nevertheless, for the present purpose, it suffices to identify two core causes underlying and feeding the modern acceleration machine.

 

a) The Motorcycle

 

Of course, it would be dead wrong to think that individuals are nothing but the hapless victims of socially caused acceleration. Quite the contrary, we are not just agents of acceleration; we also enjoy and desire the dynamization of our material, social and spiritual worlds. In short, speed in modernity is closely connected to the ideas of power and self-determination or autonomy, and hence, to the experience of freedom and even happiness. Thus, there clearly is a “cultural motor” behind the logic of acceleration, and this motor runs on two engines, so to speak: first, the great, shining and motivating promise of modernity, the heritage of the enlightenment tradition, is the modern concept of freedom as self-determination. To live a good life, in modernity, is equivalent to leading a rich as well as self-determined life, a life free from external brakes, obstacles, shortages and hindrances. The good life is the autonomous life.

 

To follow this dream and promise, society inevitably needed to be dynamized: one needs a “fluid” social order for subjects to determine their own course and place in this world. In pre-modern society, people’s position in the world was fixed by birth: one’s place in the social order.  One’s job, religion, political stance, family pattern and so on was given by tradition and convention, not chosen. Thus, the acceleration of the rates of change was a necessary precondition for social self-determination. But furthermore, the dynamization of the material world through the speed up of transport, communication and, principally, production, created the resources and possibilities needed to actually self-determine one’s life-course: it empowered subjects to move across the earth, to appropriate its fruits, to vastly increase their physical range, to choose and to autonomously develop an individual way of life. Hence, in the modern social imaginary, progress, speed and freedom are fused to one great promise—the promise of the good life as the autonomous life.

 

All of this is perfectly symbolized in the power, dynamics and speed of the motorcycle. To ride it is to sensually experience the fusion of speed and freedom, the lightness of being modern, of leaving behind all that slows us down and ties to the earth, of overcoming resistance. No one put this more forcefully, but also more bluntly than the author of the “Futurist Manifesto,” Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. “Speed, having as its essence the intuitive synthesis of every force in movement, is naturally pure. Slowness, having as its essence the rational analysis of every exhaustion in repose, is naturally unclean. After the destruction of the antique good and the antique evil, we create a new good, speed, and a new evil, slowness” (58), he writes in The New Religion-Morality of Speed. Marinetti then defines “Speed = synthesis of every courage in action […], scorn for obstacles, desire for the new and unexplored, modernity, hygiene. Slowness = arrest […], immobile adoration of obstacles, nostalgia for the already seen, idealization of exhaustion and rest, pessimism about the unexplored. Rancid romanticism of the wild, wandering poet and long-haired, bespectacled dirty philosopher” (57). Thus, speed is experienced as the overcoming of inertia and resistance, and because of this, it takes on a religious or divine property: “Speed finally gives to human life one of the characteristics of divinity: the straight line” (57). And of course, it is the motorcycle that exemplifies this full-speed straight line in its purest form. Small wonder riders feel the ecstasy of speed when racing along; by doing so, they exult in the promise and joy of modernity: “The intoxication of great speeds […] is nothing but the joy of feeling oneself fused with the only divinity” (59).

 

Interestingly, Marinetti explicitly deifies speed by fusing it with religion. This, perhaps, is no accident. I believe this to be the second engine of the cultural motor driving the speed-up process: in secular modern society, acceleration serves as a functional equivalent for the (religious) promise of eternal life; it is the modern answer to the problem of finitude and death.

 

The reasoning behind this idea goes like this: modern society is secular in the sense that, culturally, the central emphasis is placed on earthly life. Whether or not people still hold religious beliefs, their aspirations, desires and yearnings generally are directed towards the offers, options and riches of this world. Now, the richness, fullness or quality of a life, according to the dominant cultural logic of Western modernity, can be measured from the sum and the depth of experiences made in the course of a lifetime. Thus, in this conception of life, the good life is not just the free, autonomous life, but just as much the fulfilled life, i.e., a life that is rich with experiences and developed capacities (Blumenberg; Gronemeyer; Schulze). This idea no longer supposes a “higher life” waiting for us after death, but rather consists in realizing as many options as possible from the vast possibilities the world has to offer. To taste life in all its heights and depths and in its full complexity becomes a central aspiration of modern man.

 

But, as it turns out, the world unfortunately always seems to have more in store than can be experienced in a single lifetime. The options on offer always outgrow those realizable in an individual’s life, or, in Hans Blumenberg’s terms: the perceived time of the world (Weltzeit) and the time of an individual life (Lebens­­­zeit) dramatically diverge for individuals in the modern world. Acceleration of the pace of life, therefore, appears to be a natural solution to this problem: if we live “twice as fast,” if we take only half the time to realize an action, goal, or experience, we can double “the sum” of experiences, and, hence, “of life” within our lifetime. Our share or “efficacy,” i.e. the proportion of realized options to potentially realizable options, doubles.

 

Continuing in this train of thought: if we keep increasing the speed of life, we could eventually live a multiplicity or even an infinity of lives within a single lifetime by realizing all the options that would define them. Acceleration thus serves as a strategy to erase the difference between the time of the world and the time of our life. The eudaemonistic promise of modern acceleration therefore lies in the (unspoken) idea that the acceleration of ‘the pace of life’ is our (i.e. modernity’s) solution to the problem of human finitude.

 

However, this eudaemonistic promise of speed only is strong and plausible as long as social actors experience themselves as the agents of speed, i.e., as long as they feel to be in control. Precisely because of this, I believe, the motorcycle has become one of the shining icons of the good life in modernity: riders enjoy those moments of being in full control of power, speed and direction, of mastering the course, life and the world (in a straight line). Alas, unfortunately, this is not the only way we moderns experience social speed.

   

b) The Treadmill

 

When we look for the mechanisms driving the processes of acceleration in modern society, we surely cannot restrict our analysis to the cultural realm and the agents’ conceptions of the good life. Quite the contrary, there can be little doubt that the basic principles and the laws of profit obtaining in a capitalist economy play a major role as well. The simple equation of time and money we find in Benjamin Franklin’s famous dictum that “time is money” is true in many different ways. First, since working time is an essential factor of production, saving time is a simple and direct instrument for saving costs and gaining a competitive advantage. Second, the principles of credit and interest force investors and entrepreneurs to seek increasing speeds of returns and capital circulation that in turn accelerate not only production itself, but also circulation and consumption. Finally, being temporally ahead of one’s competitors with respect to innovations, both process- and product-related, is a necessary means for achieving some extra profits, which are indispensable for maintaining the entrepreneur’s competitiveness. Thus, social acceleration in general and technological acceleration in particular is a logical consequence of a competitive capitalist market system.

 

However, in modern society, the principle of competition by far exceeds the economic sphere. It is the dominating mode of allocation in virtually all spheres of social life, and therefore, as we know from Talcott Parsons, it is one of the central defining principles of modernity.

 

Obviously, all societies have to find and legitimate ways to allocate resources, goods and wealth, but also privileges and positions as well as social status and recognition. In pre- and non-modern societies, we find various ways of allocation. Most often, the distributional patterns are predetermined by corporative ascription. Thus, when you are born as a king, a peasant or a knight, your status, the recognition you deserve as well as your privileges and rights, and the goods you will have access to are more or less completely determined by birth. However, from the perspective of Western modernity, this is neither efficient in functional terms nor just from the standpoint of the reigning principles of justice. Consequently, the basic, dominating principle of allocation in almost all spheres of modern social life is the logic of competition. This does not need any further explanation for the realms of the economy or sports, but it holds true in politics (the privilege and position of power is given to the person or party who wins in an electoral competition), in science (the positions of a professor or senior researcher as well as the resources for carrying out scientific projects are earned in a competitive struggle), in the arts (where you either have to beat your competitors by selling more tickets, books or records, i.e., in the free market, or by impressing a jury), and even in religion (denominations and churches compete over the faithful).

 

Historically, the military and political competition between nation-states in the Westphalian system established after 1648 can be seen as a major cause for the speeding up of technological, economic, infrastructural and scientific innovations in Europe (Rosa, Beschleunigung 311-332). Furthermore, from the perspective of individuals, there is an ongoing competitive struggle over educational degrees and job positions, income, ostentatious consumer goods, the success of kids, but also, and most importantly, about winning and keeping a spouse and a number of friends. It is no accident that ads for intimate relationships are placed between the market sections for cars, jobs and real estate in the newspapers, and websites such as craigslist.org. And we all know that we can easily lose our “competitiveness” in the struggle over social ties: if we do not prove affable and interesting and entertaining and handsome enough, our friends and even relatives quickly won’t call us up any more. Most evidently, on websites like Facebook and MySpace, Twitter or HotorNot, where people count the number of their friends and get their images rated in terms of (physical) attractiveness, we can observe the rather bizarre forms this competitive social struggle takes on in late-modernity. Thus, the “position” an individual holds in modern society is not pre-determined by birth and it is not stable over a life (an adult life) either, but in permanent competitive negotiation.

 

However, since the determining or discriminating principle in competition is achievement, time and, moreover, the logic of acceleration, are directly built in to the central mode of allocation in modernity: achievement is defined as labor or work per time (power = work divided by time, as physics has it); hence, speeding up and saving time are directly linked to gaining competitive advantages—or, if everyone else tries to do the same, to keeping one’s position. The social logic of competition is such that the competitors have to invest more and more of their energy into the preservation of their competitiveness, until keeping up the latter is no longer a means to lead an autonomous life according to self-defined ends, but the single overarching goal of social and individual life alike (cf. Rosa, “Wettbewerb”). This we find confirmed in countless observations (and the repetitive and almost unanimous responses we get from interviewees in qualitative empirical studies) noting that we have to “dance faster and faster just to stay in place” (Conrad 6) or to “run as fast as we can in order to stay in the same place“ (Robinson and Godbey 33). Folk wisdom always knew this in the warning that “the competitor never sleeps.”

 

The only significant realm of allocation that is not governed by the principle of competition is the distributional patterns and measures of the welfare regimes (see at length Nullmeier). Hence, it is small wonder that people’s sense of social acceleration sharpens right at a time when welfare policies are partially reduced and partially opened up to more competitive elements. This, then, is how the experience of social acceleration is transformed into the experience of the treadmill: we no longer run to get anywhere, we just run to not fall behind, to keep the pace. And no matter how fast we run, at the end of the day, we never reach the bottom of our “to-do” lists. This has nothing to do any more with the eudaemonistic promise of speed identified in the last section; it rather is the exact opposite: the relentless speeding up of social life around us is not enabling us, but hindering us from leading the good autonomous life. It is the power of the deadline that dictates us what to do next. The anonymous forces of speed are not our liberators, but our dictators.

 

Thus, the logic of competition has become not the only, but the main driving force behind the spiraling dynamics of modern life. And with it, the symbol of the motorcycle fades away as the icon of the treadmill comes to dominate the time-experience of late modernity.

 

IV Losing the Balance: Why the Motorcycle becomes an Anachronism in Late Modernity

 

As I have demonstrated so far, speed in modernity is both a grand, eudaemonistic promise and attraction, sensually embodied in the experience of the motorcycle ride, and a relentless, inescapable force or pressure, the icon of which is the treadmill, or the hamster wheel. In the last step of my argument, I now want to claim that, unfortunately, in the progress of history, the attractive and promising character of speed tends to fade to gray, while its bleak and oppressive side grows stronger and stronger. Thus, it is no accident that by 2010, the motorcycle, this symbol of youth, power and freedom of the 1960s, has become culturally implausible and almost anachronistic: it is experienced as an out-dated, ecologically harmful, socially irresponsible machine possessed by those aged 50 or even 60+ (just watch the TV features from biker festivals all over the world for verification), while late-modern subjects choose to run on the treadmill instead. They move at high speeds without going or getting anywhere. The straight line of the motorcycle rider has been replaced by the fuzzy image created by those running and standing still at the same time, i.e., by those who have to run as fast as they can just to keep their place.

 

The motorcycle, I believe, signifies control and direction of high speeds. It is the symbol of freedom understood as (technically supported) autonomy and self-determination. Its attractive force lies in the idea of moving or being propelled forward. Therefore, the motorcycle culturally connects or fuses the ideas of motion and progress, of social acceleration and autonomy. In the twenty-first century, this is not how subjects experience social acceleration. Rather, they feel overwhelmed by the unpredictable, high-speed flow of events in the social world. “Daily life has become a drowning sea of demands,” Kenneth Gergen states (75).

 

From what I have argued so far, it should be evident that this is a natural consequence of the competitively driven acceleration game that keeps us in a relentless hamster wheel, speeding up incessantly. But it also explains how modern societies satisfy their need for coordination, regulation and synchronization of their enormously long chains of interdependence: they do so by the rigorous implementation of temporal norms, by the rule of schedules and deadlines, by the power of the short notice and the immediate, by the logic of instant gratification and reaction. These norms—like most moral norms we know from other societies or cultures—have the overwhelming effect of producing subjects of guilt: at the end of the day, we all feel guilty, because we have not met the expectations. We are virtually incapable of reaching the end of our “to-do” list, and the distance to the bottom of the heap increases almost daily.

 

Thus, those working in the business of advising managers and elites, and an increasing number of “life coaches” report that one of their central challenges is to teach their clients to accept the fact that they are incapable of working down their task list, or of getting to the bottom of their email account, and to interpret this as something normal and healthy. This reminds me of the psychologists who work on the guilt complexes of those with a restrictive religious upbringing. The churches were (in many instances, of course, quite rightly) blamed for centuries now for burdening believers with feelings of guilt and shame (“mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”). Yet, they also provided some means for hope and relief: first, they teach us that man is guilty by nature, so it is not our individual failure if we are weak, and second, Jesus Christ died for our sins: although we might be guilty, there is hope. And finally, as Weber reminds us, in the institution of confession and absolution, the Catholic Church at least provided its flock with a means for relief from feelings of guilt. Not so modern society: it relentlessly produces guilty subjects without the possibility for forgiveness. We have to pay the price for all our shortcomings, and the growing mass of those excluded from the hamster wheel by unemployment reminds us of how high that price might be.

 

Yet, these temporal norms, albeit being the dominant norms of society—just think of the way education is almost all about the habitualization of temporal norms: learning to defer gratification, to stick to schedules and rhythms, to resist and even ignore bodily needs and impulses until “the right time” has come, and, principally, to hurry up and be faster than the others—are very different from the moral or religious norms we know from the past or from other cultures. Even though they clearly are socially constructed, they do not actually come in an ethical guise, not even as political norms, but as brute facts, as laws of nature that cannot be disputed or discussed. Temporal norms simply appear to be “out there,” and it is up to individuals to fulfill them or not. Thus, there is no moral or political debate about the powers of the deadline and the dictates of speed at all.  The corresponding norms work as a hidden, silent temporal force that allows modern society to think of itself as being almost sanction free and minimally restrictive in ethical terms. “The silent language” of time, as Edward T. Hall argued some time ago, is efficient enough to satisfy the immense regulative need of modern societies precisely because it remains just that: silent, unnoticed, ideologically individualized and naturalized. Because of this, temporal norms reach an almost totalitarian quality in our age: they exert pressure on the wills and actions of subjects; they are inescapable, i.e., all subjects are affected by them. They are all pervasive, i.e., their influence is not limited to one or the other area of social life, but obtains through all social spheres, and it is hard or almost impossible to criticize and/or fight them. Hence, a critique of the hidden social norms of temporality could find its starting point right here: these norms violate modernity’s core promise of reflexivity and autonomy.

 

But in their late-modern guise, the dictates of speed have socially and individually undermined our confidence in the connection between acceleration and autonomy: the accelerated processes are no longer experienced as constituting a forward motion, as signifying progress. When politicians and economists remind us of making every effort to overcome the economic slowdown, to increase the rates of innovation, to speed up our efforts, they no longer appeal to the idea of a better life or a better society: they scare us with images of a bleak future and decay instead. Society can only reproduce itself and remain stable by increasing its intrinsic tempo: we have to dance faster and faster not to get anywhere, but to stay in place. The same is true for individuals: their lives have become an endless series of personal and professional changes and adaptations, they permanently are short on time and under pressure, but they no longer experience life as a process of development, as having a direction. Going Fast Nowhere, the title of an album by the German band Fury in the Slaughterhouse, is an apt expression of the corresponding sentiment.

 

As I argued at the outset, speed, in this process, loses its attractive appeal as the force of liberation and autonomy. Instead, it signifies the relentless motion of the hamster wheel. Just think of your desperate attempts to empty your email inbox. Every day, you start running up the mountain of unanswered messages, and as soon as you are on top and start to deal with some of your other (pressing) tasks, you inevitably start sliding back, until you restart the run the next day or a few hours later. The apt image of modern running man is no longer the “Easy Rider” of the ’60s; rather, it is the recurring figure of Sisyphus. Thus, it is small wonder that depression and burn out have become the dominant and widespread ills of the day. They both literally signify distortions of our temporal experience (cf. Ehrenberg). For the depressed and the burnt-out, time no longer seems to move, but to stand absolutely still; there no longer is a meaningful connection between the past, the present and the future.

 

In fact, the burnout might be an adequate metaphor for the disorder of late-modern time-experience. In motorcycling, a “burnout” is the result of the back wheel spinning frantically while the machine does not move forward, while it is (artificially) held in place. This, I have argued, is the situation of late-modern subjects: spinning like mad, they have the feeling of not going or getting anywhere at all; they have to dance faster and faster just to stay in place. Consequently, they burn out at full speed.

 

Notes

 

[1] See Conrad. Thomas H. Eriksen puts it even more bluntly: “Modernity is speed” (159).

[2] For historical and contemporary evidence, see Rosa and Scheuerman, High-Speed Society.

[3] For an extended discussion of such evidence see Rosa Beschleunigung, pp. 199ff.

[4] For an identification of many more facets in the causal chain that creates and sustains the modern “cycle of acceleration,” see Rosa, “Social Acceleration” and Rosa, Beschleunigung, Part III.

 


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