Sunday, 16 May 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part Three: Hartmut Rosa on the Motorbike and the Treadmill

In his recent article, Full Speed Burnout? Hartmut Rosa offers two metaphors which he believes capture the metabolic rhythm of modernity and late-modernity. The first, relating to modernity, is the motorcycle, the second, relating to late-modernity, is the treadmill. More than just metaphors, each represents a practice embedded in the period to which he refers.
The motorbike was the embodiment of man’s longing for individual liberation through the conquering of time and space.
“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.” (1)
This is most definitely directional stuff. It is about the autonomous individual taking the measure of the vastness of the horizon and annihilating it through mechanically induced speed. Paradoxically, while the biker seeks to overcome space and time through speed, he also depends upon both in order to carry out the performance of annihilation. In the same way, speed is contrasted to the “inertia and resistance” of everyday life, thereby creating a dependence upon such inertia.
One could equally think of the 70’s rock guitar solo. In both cases the individual frees himself from the monotonous rhythms that were holding him back to breathe the finer air that only the risk of crashing at high speed can make available.
This metaphor is clearly connected to the highways and big, open spaces of the United States as opposed to the swarms of mopeds that clog up the streets of southern European cities. These people are more likely than not on their way to work, and that’s definitely not the idea.
By contrast, the treadmill represents the transposition of this acceleration into the productive circuits of everyday life. Directional speed and the longing for liberation become accelerated rhythms of production and consumption, which reach into, and transform, every area of our lives. This is exemplified by the tightly-coupled networks that were considered from Gleick’s book. Competition in post-industrial societies, driven by the capitalistic requirement for capital accumulation, requires tighter and tighter margins, ever greater efficiency savings and increased consumption. As Rosa says;
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. (1)
Rosa considers the motorbike to have been displaced by the treadmill as a guiding metaphor for our times. Clearly there are plenty of objections that one might raise to such a sweeping caricature. Nonetheless, the metaphor of the motorbike resonates strongly, evoking key features of what has come to be called modernity, most notably relating to space, time and personal autonomy.
However, I would take issue with Rosa’s second metaphor, the treadmill, because I don’t think it does the work that is required of it. It’s not the drudgery of everyday life that he wants to pick out here, but the increasingly frenetic rhythm of social life and the requirement that you keep up. The treadmill may work as a metaphor if you think Bill Murray struggling to keep his balance on a hotel treadmill that has gone rogue, but I’m not sure this is the first image to come to mind.
I think the wheel spin is a better one.
The wheel is rooted to the ground, but spinning irrelevantly as it seeks to gain traction. The faster it spins the less possibility there is of forward motion, but the driver, unable to conceive of any course of action other than increasing the velocity, keeps his foot firmly on the accelerator. The situation is clearly unsustainable and the only possible outcome is a rapid overheating and blowing of the engine.
As was mentioned earlier, in the case of the motorcycle, time and space remain in place and the sense of liberation is won through annihilating them through speed. In the case of the wheel-spinning car, the relation to space and time is severed as the vehicle embarks upon a metabolic intensification, which can only lead to a system failure.
In The Pataphysics of the Year 2000, Baudrillard invokes a similar dynamic, although by means of a different metaphor;
“…one might suppose that the acceleration of modernity, of technology, events and media, of all exchanges- economic political and sexual- has propelled us to escape velocity, with the result that we have flown free from the referential sphere of the real and of history. We are liberated in every sense of the term, so liberated that we have taken leave of a certain space-time, passed beyond a certain horizon in which the real is possible because gravitation is still strong enough for things to be reflected and thus, in some way to endure and have some consequence.” (2)
Escape velocity, in this case, would be the equivalent of the moment at which the wheel loses traction with the ground. It then enters a hyper-reality in which forward motion is no longer possible and the vehicle becomes autonomous, responding only to the dynamics of its own metabolic intensification, until the point at which overheating occurs, or the stress on the components becomes unbearable.
In their frenetic search for investment opportunities and value, the capital markets invest in non-existent future markets, non-existent wealth that the banking sector persuade people to borrow, mortgaging their future earning capacity in order to generate value now and non-existent companies that, while they don’t produce anything, may convince others that others may be convinced that they are worth investing in. If ever there was a metaphor for our having reached escape velocity, or entered full wheel-spin, the financial markets surely provide it. And, as has been made plain in recent weeks, it is those markets which control our destiny far more effectively than any government.
So much for metaphors, in the next posting, I will look more closely at the theoretical underpinnings of Rosa’s position and connect it with David Harvey’s notion of space time compression.
(2) Baudrillard, J. (1995) The Illusion of the End, Polity Press


  1. Hi Oliver,

    I'm a fellow-student of Carolyn. I have posted a link to your blog to a friend of mine who is a philosopher, but without a mission in life. Maybe you two can connect. His name is Ken Dalton, and he is one of my friends on Facebook, if you're using that. Hope to have time to read yours properly when my studies are less frantic.


  2. Hi Marie,

    Thanks for passing on the link. I understand that with the course you're doing the last thing you need is extra online reading!


  3. Hello Oliver,

    This is a fascinating blog. Thanks for introducing me to Harvey and Virilio's work on Time-Space compression through this. I was not at all familiar with it, but I have a very similar concept I call STEM compression. I'm president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation (, a small nonprofit in Mountain View CA studying this topic.

    I hope you will pass me your email, by reaching me at johnsmart(at)accelerating(dot)org. I tried to find your email but was unsuccessful after 5 mins of searching.

    Congrats again on a very interesting blog, and I look forward to conversing with you.

  4. Me too. Fascinating read, thanks. Can I suggest another analogy? A centrifuge instead of a wheel – momentum increases to the point where we are pinned to the spot by an irresistible force, and eventually the combination of speed and gravity will split us out into our constituent parts, like blood in a lab test. The centrifuge is fine – but depending on your view point we are destroyed, or changed into different, unknowable forms.

    The irony of humans resisting change while pushing the accelerator to the floor is glorious material for writers and poets.

    Enjoyed the read very much and look forward to more.

  5. The power and attraction of the motorbike is in the sensual ... it will true when you apply....know more about of the it.....