on social acceleration

Recently I’ve read two of the most stimulating, provocative, generative books I’ve read in a long time. One of them is Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. I hope to have something to say about that in the near future.

The other, and the one I want to talk about here, is Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration. This one poses some real challenges to me, primarily because it bears so directly on the book I’m writing but is not the sort of thing — it gets deep into the weeds of social theory — that I can treat at length in a book for a general audience. So as relevant as it is to the argument of Breaking Bread with the Dead, I won’t say much about it there, though it will surely end up in the notes a few times. (One of the things I most want to do in my writing for general audiences is to translate complex work in theology, philosophy, and social, cultural, and literary theory into terms accessible to the common reader — and to do so without defacing the ideas by oversimplifying them.) 

I’ll unpack a bit of Rosa’s argument here, then. Rosa looks at the phenomenon of acceleration in three dimensions:

  1. “technical acceleration, that is, the intentional acceleration of goal-directed processes”; 
  2. “acceleration of social change, that is, the escalation of the rate of social change with respect to associational structures, knowledge (theoretical, practical, and moral), social practices, and action orientations”; 
  3. “acceleration of the pace of life represents a reaction to the scarcity of (uncommitted) time resources. This is why, on the one hand, it is expressed in the experience of stress and a lack of time, and, on the other, it can be defined as an increase in the number of episodes of action and/or experience per unit of time.”

The relationship between these three dimensions, Rosa shows, is complex: after all, when you have technical acceleration, especially in the form of what we call “labor-saving devices,” shouldn’t our pace of life slow down? And yet it often doesn’t — or, perhaps more accurately, we don’t feel that it does.

Rosa also discusses various “decelerating” forces or institutions, and it’s the last of those that I want to focus on here. Unlike the deceleration of a technologically backward society with scant or no access to the most current technologies — and also unlike the deliberate choice, long term or short, of technological limitation (the family living “off the grid” or the techbro vacationing in a monastery) — this final kind of deceleration is “the paradoxical flip side of social acceleration.” Many people in our time have “the experience of an uneventfulness and standstill that underlies the rapidly changing surface of social conditions and events, one that accompanies the modern perception of dynamization from the very beginning as a second fundamental experience of modernization.” Rosa often uses in the book a phrase by the cultural theorist Paul Virilio: “frenetic standstill” — the widespread sense that the world around us is in constant flux and yet nothing essential is happening — nothing essential can happen. (There’s a fascinating section of the book on the ways that depression is a natural response to this and therefore the characteristic disease of late modernity.) 

This sense of “frenetic standstill” is especially common when the second dimension, acceleration of social change, crosses a certain threshold. Rosa looks at three social conditions, divided by two thresholds. In the first condition no obviously major change happens over several generations, or if it does happen it happens with imperceptible slowness, which lends to everyone in that society a feeling of stability, even permanence. Thus it was, thus it is, thus it shall ever be.

But when a major change occurs fast enough so that one generation of people can see that they’re living in a different form of life than their parents, or grandparents, did, then a threshold has been crossed. And Rosa argues that when this happens people tend to perceive that change as progressive: the world is going somewhere, it has a direction, and if I go with it my life can have a progressive direction too.

However: there’s another threshold to cross, as we have recently learned, and that’s when significant social change happens within a generation. Not only is your social world different than the one your parents experienced and came to count on, it’s different than the social world you experienced even a short time ago. When that happens, you see a couple getting a divorce because when they married they were “different people.” You get Farhad Manjoo feeling that the gender that he absolutely took for granted just a few years ago is now an “ubiquitous prison for the mind.” You get a Christian academic like David Gushee making a career of chastising people for holding views he himself held quite recently. And everyone thinks this kind of thing is normal: to look upon your very self of five years ago as a stranger, and presumably one for whose beliefs and actions your NowSelf cannot possibly be held responsible.

But, Rosa reminds us, we don’t really how what life on this side of that second threshold is going to do to us.

An intragenerational tempo of change thus undeniably raises the question of the temporally specific, so to speak, load-bearing capacity of cultural reproduction and social integration. The consequences of the growing intergenerational divide in lifeworld orientations and everyday practices as well as the ongoing devaluation of experience for the exchange between generations, for the passing on of cultural knowledge, and for the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity have hardly been studied at all.

It hasn’t been studied, but the consequences are going to be interesting (and, I think, not pleasant) to see unfold. For instance, here’s one aspect of the “ongoing devaluation of experience for the exchange between generations, for the passing on of cultural knowledge, and for the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity”: a currently small but increasing number of parents live in absolute terror of “assigning” gender to their children. Some decades from now there will surely be some powerfully embittered people who will despise their parents for having forced such choices on them when they were wholly unprepared to make them.

And yet many of those same parents don’t hesitate to forbid the eating of meat or Twinkies or Doritos to those same children, and will be deeply grieved when, as is inevitable, some of those kids end up as junk-food junkies. So I don’t think there will ever be a wholesale abandonment of “the passing on of cultural knowledge,” or of a desire for “the maintenance of intergenerational solidarity.” But what, specifically, people will want to pass down to their children will change. And there’s no doubt that as long as social change happens, or is felt to, at the current rate, parents will want to give their children free choices as often as they can possibly bear to. The “load-bearing capacity of cultural reproduction and social integration” will continue to decline, it seems likely. 

And yet maybe not inevitable. There’s a passage from Adorno’s Minima Moralia that I think of often — and that Rosa refers briefly to at one point: “Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars.”