Tag: society

If you had told me in January that the best article about Christianity I’d read all year would be in the New York Review of Books…. And if you don’t need to wipe away the tears after reading it, you’re stronger than I am. 

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.”

engagement 24/7

I’ve talked about this before, in bits and pieces, but just for the record: My wife Teri and I believe that our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to tend to the seamless garment of life — our understanding of which I’ve tried to describe in some detail here — and we try to back that up in various ways. Teri does more of this than I do: she tutors a middle-schooler who lives in poverty and a broken home, and has been supportive of Waco’s immigrant population. In addition to tithing to our church, we have contributed to Sandy Hook Promise and are members of the Nature Conservancy. But we also are strongly, passionately pro-life in the everyday use of that term, so we also support, among other like-minded organizations, Anglicans for Life.

All that by way of context.

Yesterday we were watching one of our favorite shows, The Starters on NBA TV, and to our surprise were treated to a little in-show infomercial for Planned Parenthood … and our hearts sank like stones. Now you may adore PP — and if so, there’s no need to tell me why, I’ve heard it all before — but just understand: in our view, there’s no nonprofit organization in America that does as much harm as PP. (The NRA doesn’t come within miles of it, though, speaking more objectively, it may be the only nonprofit that’s more controversial than PP). So we were no longer in the mood to enjoy funny banter about basketball; we turned off the TV, and may not watch the show again. Time will tell. We’re not the boycotting type, but that was a serious annoyance. 

Later on I was thinking about my reaction, and recalled the recent absurd kerfuffle about that arose when some Fox News yammerer chastised NBA players for their political activism and told them to shut up and dribble. I asked myself: How am I any different? Am I not saying to The Starters, “Shut up and make basketball jokes”? 

I’ve been turning over the question in my mind, and I think there is a difference. As it happens, when players like LeBron James speak out about racism in America I almost always agree with them, but even if I didn’t, their views don’t alter my experience of the game they play. (The same is true of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, though I don’t watch the NFL. If I did, I could just wait until kickoff to turn the TV on.) Similarly, I don’t care whether the chef at my favorite restaurant has totally different politics than mine, nor am I interested in what charities he or she supports. 

But if that chef came out between the appetizer and the entrée to explain what charities she supports and to press me to support them too, I would be pretty pissed off (even if I supported those charities myself). If LeBron could call a time out in the middle of the third quarter, grab a microphone, and give the audience a lecture about Black Lives Matter, I would be seriously annoyed (even if I were a fervent supporter of BLM). 

So that was my problem with what happened on The Starters. I would never try to find out what charities the hosts of a show I watch supports or what their politics are, and if I happened to find out I wouldn’t stop watching the show. But for them to use show time to cheerlead for one of the most controversial, one of the most widely despised, nonprofits in America — that strikes me as a violation of the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience. And once that implicit contract is violated, then there’s no way to know whether or not it will become a regular feature — which is why I may not be watching the show again. 

But here’s the thing: what I have called “the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience” no longer holds, at least not generally. The infiltration of every corner of culture by politics, of every former site of pleasure by culture wars, is nearly complete now. I have no doubt that The Starters see promoting their politics on the show as a mark of seriousness, a mark of true virtue, and will therefore be pleased rather than chagrined by any pushback they get.

If you don’t want to be engaged in the struggle 24/7, your only refuge now — if you’re lucky — is your dreams.