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Comment on “Social Acceleration”

by Hartmut Rosa
Barbara Adam
Hartmut Rosa’s stimulating paper brings together work from a wide range of
theoretical and empirical sources in order to develop a coherent theory of the
acceleration of late-modern society. Its particular strength lies in the elaboration
of the diverse features of this acceleration, showing their connections, i.e., how
the elements relate to each other, and explaining the mechanisms that lie behind
them. In the process of constructing this complex web of interdependencies, Rosa
manages to show how the processes, together with their opposites, explain the
complex mutual dependencies and model some of the prominent feedback-loops
involved. Irrespective of whether or not one agrees with the central thesis that
modernity is driven by acceleration, this is a paper to be admired for its breadth
and depth of analysis and its impressive theory-building capacity.
Rosa has created a rich tapestry of ideas and theories that includes work from
cultural theory and history, sociology and social psychology; he weaves the
threads of supporting evidence from developments in technology and politics,
work and occupational structures. The resulting construct relates categories to
mechanisms and drivers and these in turn to paradoxes and consequences. While
not all sections of the paper are equally convincing, Rosa presents an excellent
case for the paradoxes and contradictory tendencies that arise with the time
compressing processes of modernization: acceleration leads not to time saving
but time shortage while simultaneously being seen as an answer to the chronic
shortage of time. Increases in the speed of information transfer and the pace of
life fulfill neither the prospect of more efficient communication nor the promise
of a good life; instead they result in information overload, entirely new worlds
of services and entertainment, and an exponential increase in non-realizable
options. Speed limits and deceleration are integral to the modernist logic of
acceleration irrespective of whether they derive from physical limits, cultural
islands of arrested time, unintended consequences of intended acceleration, or
deliberate deceleration by anti-modernist tendencies. The modernist logic
appears to fold back on itself. It seems that the success of acceleration begins to
undermine its own preconditions for continuity, a process alluded to by theorists
such a Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard and identified by Ulrich Beck with the
concept of “reflexive modernization.”
We could continue this train of thought
by suggesting that the limits to and countervailing tendencies of acceleration
could become sources of new innovation and deliberative change. That is to say,
Constellations Volume 10, No 1, 2003. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
when particular acceleration processes have reached their limits, as for example
in the case of communication at the speed of light, competitive advantage is
sought in new processes such as flexibilization, just-in-time systems which elim-
inate all unproductive time from economic processes, multitasking structures, the
network society, and so forth, each accompanied by its own unique contingencies
and time-compressing features.
Early in the paper Rosa presents his thoughts on the process of modernization
in a figure that relates Weber’s work on rationalization to Durkheim’s theory of
differentiation, Simmel’s writings on individualization, and Marx’s thoughts on
the domestication of nature. He then connects each of these approaches to
patterns of acceleration. With respect to Marx, however, the focus on domestica-
tion bypasses the far more important work on commodification, one of Marx’s
central contributions to understanding the modernist trend towards time compres-
sion. While the domestication of nature is a process that extends to the beginning
of agriculture, the commodification of nature and time are firmly tied to moder-
nity and the organization of (re)production to the clock-time beat.
Marx’s principal point regarding commodification was that an empty, abstract,
quantifiable, universally applicable time was a precondition for its use as an
abstract exchange value on the one hand, and to the commodification of labor and
nature on the other. Only on the basis of this neutral measure could time take such
a pivotal position in all economic exchange. Not the variable time of seasons,
aging, growth and decay, joy and pain, but the invariable, abstract time of the
clock, where one hour is the same irrespective of context and emotion, is trans-
latable into money. In Marx’s analysis, clock time is the very expression of
commodified time.
When time is money, the production of something of equal quality in a shorter
time allows for a reduction in the price of the product, which increases its compet-
itiveness. Equally, the faster an invention comes to market the better it is for a
competitive edge over business rivals. To be first, to be faster than competitors, is
crucial, and this applies whether the ‘product’ is a new invention, a garment, a
news story, or a new drug. Thus, when time is money, speed becomes an absolute
and unassailable imperative for business. At the same time, when speed is equated
with efficiency, time compression and the intensification of processes seem
inevitable. This argument is presented by Marx in volume one of Capital, where
he argues that in a context of competition, commodified labor time as abstract
exchange value has to be intensified in order for employers to stay competitive
and profitable. Competition, Marx proposes, compels employers to intensify the
energy expended by workers:
It imposes on the worker an increased expenditure of labour within time which
remains constant, a heightened tension of labour-power, a closer filling-up of the
pores of the working day, i.e. a condensation of labour, to a degree which can only
be attained within the limits of the shortened working day. This compression of the
greater mass of labour into a given period now counts for what it really is, namely
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50 Constellations Volume 10, Number 1, 2003
an increase in the quantity of labour. In addition, to the measure of its ‘extensive
magnitude’, labour-time now acquires a measure of its intensity, or degree of
density. The denser hour of the 10-hour working day contains more labour, i.e.
expended labour power, than the more porous hour of the 12-hour working day.
The means by which this intensification is to be achieved are manifold and can
involve managerial strategies focused on the use of machinery on the one hand,
and the rationalization, and reorganization of labor on the other. All in turn are
underpinned by a purely quantitative approach to time. Governments have the
power to limit working hours, but they have no jurisdiction over the intensity of
work. Thus, as soon as laws are in place to restrict working hours, capital tends
to compensate for this with compression, “systematically raising the intensity of
labour, and converting every improvement in machinery into a more perfect
means for soaking up labour power.”
Commodification, compression, and inten-
sification are therefore to be sought in the quantification, decontextualization, and
rationalization of time and in the calculation of time in terms of money, effi-
ciency, competition, and profit.
Apart from this missed opportunity to give a central place to Marx’s theory of
commodification and time compression for an overarching theory of acceleration,
the paper’s problems relate primarily to the compression of Rosa’s arguments in
their current form. As a result, a) the detailed development of single parts of the
arguments on a number of occasions has been sacrificed to the complexity of the
overall structure and b) concepts drawn from a wide range of disciplines, social
science perspectives, and intellectual traditions are sometimes used inconsistently
or in ways that depart without comment from established conventions. This lack
of explanation and conceptual consistency is particularly troubling in the early
parts of the paper but becomes less so as Rosa draws us ever deeper into the intri-
cacies of his conceptual construct.
In a particularly strikingly example of this tendency, the use of de-temporal-
ization, as in the “de-temporalization of life” (or politics and even history) and the
“temporalization of time,” is at best confusing, at worst contradictory. The two
processes are meant to confirm each other: it is suggested that the “de-temporal-
ization of life,” the loss of the ability to plan a linear life-course and the accom-
panying rise of contingency, parallels the “temporalization of time,” which also
refers to contingency and “situationalist,” evolving responses in specific contexts,
as opposed to “time-resistant priorities,” i.e., long-term individual life plans or
collective political projects. It is not clear how the two opposing concepts can
possibly refer to the same process of increasing contingency. George Herbert
Mead wrote extensively on the de-temporalization of time,
as did Heidegger,
Bergson, and Kierkegaard. They employed the concept of de-temporalization for
clock-time: it represents a spatial time that moves along an unchanging circle and
tells time by assigning atemporal numbers to quantifiable units of time where one
hour is the same irrespective of place, season, or point in the diurnal cycle. In
contrast, they suggested that the temporal is marked by becoming and embodied
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2003
Comment on “Social Acceleration”: Barbara Adam 51
change; it interrelates past, present, and future. Given the prominence and long
intellectual tradition of this distinction, the use of temporalization and de-tempo-
ralization in this paper, be it with reference to life, politics, history, or time, would
need further elaboration and more conceptual consistency.
It is the mark of a good paper to raise new questions that suggest further explo-
ration and study. Rosa’s expansive answers to the how of acceleration provoke an
array of why questions which all testify to the richness of this insufficiently
explored topic: Why should speed be valued over grace and decorum? Why should
acceleration and destabilization be valued over stability? Why should speed and
acceleration become an unquestioned value when we know that the creation of
good things and high quality takes time? Why should the acceleration of the pace
of life, and with it the increased fulfillment of options and choices, function as a
secular equivalent of the religious promise of eternal life when the extensively
filled life seems to pass so much more quickly? Why should the temporal dimen-
sion be foregrounded in analyses of late modernity when de-temporalized clock-
time processes fuel the engines of modernist commodification and the
compression of time? Why should the decline of certainties and the rise of contin-
gency in late-modern individual and political life desynchronize society beyond
(re-)integration? Do we need to abandon thinking in binary opposites and before-
and-after states – acceleration in classical modernity and deceleration on late
modernity – and begin to work with different conceptual tools such as dis/
continuity and implication, the past and future in the present, deceleration in the
context of acceleration and contingency as both condition and outcome of the
quest for speed and certainty?
1. Beck, “The Reinvention of Politics: Towards a Theory of Reflexive Modernization,” in Beck,
A. Giddens and S. Lash, Reflexive Modernization (Cambridge: Polity, 1994).
2. Marx, Capital, Volume I (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 534.
3. Ibid., 542.
4. See esp. Mead, The Philosophy of the Present, ed. A.E. Murphy, preface by John Dewey
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980 (1932)).
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52 Constellations Volume 10, Number 1, 2003