Sunday, 13 June 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part Six: The Cultural Motor

As I indicated in the previous posting, Rosa saw the economy as just one of three motors of social acceleration. The other two he labelled as cultural and structural. I think we’ve got to take all these designations with a pinch of salt. Depending on how the analysis is structured, one can give primacy to one or other area. The important thing to recognise is that that there is a dialectical relationship between these areas- they all act upon, influence and transform each other.

Rosa’s treatment of the cultural motor is a case in point. He draws upon the works of Hans Blumenberg and Marianne Gronemeyer to present a reworking of the early and pre-modern notion of the good life being equated with the fulfilled life. In this version, the idea of the fulfilled life is striped of its religious connotations of a higher life attained after death and is reworked in light of the decline of religion and the secularisation of time. This is to say, we no longer have confidence that time is articulated in terms of a religious narrative. We do not feel ourselves to be participants in an unfolding drama of sin, repentance and salvation. In the absence of this, time drained of its meaning and calls out for an alternative interpretation.

We no longer believe that by being virtuous and patient in this life we will be rewarded with fulfilment in the next. However, fulfilment remains an important, perhaps the important, goal of life. In the absence of transcendent, otherworldly fulfilment, which might relativize the limited nature of mortal life, what we are left with is a kind of nagging imperative to experience as much of the world and of life as possible in the time available to us. However the options available to us inevitably outstrip our capacity to explore them, prompting us to become ever more frenetic in our pursuit of fulfilment.

It’s not difficult to see what’s meant here. Imagine the broad acceptance that people had of their position in life and the possibilities that they were afforded by that position a few hundred years ago. You were the blacksmith’s son, you would go on to be the blacksmith. Work was a necessary evil and your obligation to the community. There was little option about who you were and what you did. People didn’t expect to be fulfilled in their personal lives (if such a notion even existed). The expectation was that they would lead a sufficiently virtuous life to guarantee the safe passage of their souls after death.

What a difference from now when people not only expect to feel fulfilled in the here and now, but consider it a failure if they are not. And there’s the catch, because fulfilment is most definitely not something that people experience as a matter of course, but they don’t want to be stigmatised as a failure and so the only way out is to pretend. Think about how routinely people exaggerate the satisfaction that they derive from their work. It seems that to express dissatisfaction or boredom is a sign of failure and people flee from it. The willingness to maintain the illusion of satisfied fulfilment is, socially, far more important than the reality which such insistent claims of satisfaction mask. The best way for someone to convince themselves and others that they are both satisfied and fulfilled is to stay busy. And even if one remains unconvinced, at least there is less time in which to think about it.

So the basic plot of our lives has changed from a sweeping theological drama in which the individual played a highly relativised, marginal part, to a personalised drama in which the individual, and his or her quest for personal fulfilment, takes centre stage.

Time becomes highly rationalised and the goal becomes to maximise the effective use of that time. Time is divided up into fragile structures such as work time and leisure time, being with friends time or being with partner/family time. We attend to these different temporalities and relationships in a way that is not dissimilar to the way we attend to the various websites, social networks and blogs to which we subscribe. We browse them, keep them ticking over, do what is required to maintain them, knowing that they are but one among many, that they are dispensable and that it wouldn’t do to get too bogged down in any one area, because there is so much more to attend to.

Doing nothing in particular provokes anxiety because the sense of unproductive, meaningless time becomes tangible. The meaningfulness of our lives has become externalised in temporal structures which act as temporary bulwarks against the meaninglessness which throws us back upon our own, much depleted, resources. Time becomes a weight that presses down upon us, provoking mild, but nagging feelings of guilt and emptiness. It is not dissimilar to the situation whereby multinationals like Monsanto sell genetically modified seeds to farmers, producing temporarily improved yields at the cost of the farmer’s autonomy.

And I don’t think this parallelism is accidental. It brings us back to the question of causes and whether all this can be seen as determined by the economic motor. To say that our cultural activities, our social lives, our relationships have been increasingly subverted by and subordinated to the demands of the market is not necessarily to argue in favour of economic determinism, however there is no question that economic factors were at the heart of the many tendencies that have been transforming our cultures and our way of life since the middle of the last millennium. Changing attitudes towards religion, new ways of thinking and technological innovation have all played an important role and one could construct a narrative in which any one of these areas is fundamental. However it is the development of universal, abstract money that has acted as the enzyme capable of catalysing all areas of human activity, reducing them relentlessly to a universal and abstract value. And following the logic of capitalism, the effect of this enzyme is to increase the rate of metabolic change within the social flows.

This has been a very fragmented, partial and un-nuanced survey. My intention has been more to throw up some ideas (none original) and see how they land than to construct a convincing argument. In the next and final posting in this series I will consider how to evaluate this process I have been describing and consider the limitation of some of the terminology I have been employing.

Saturday, 5 June 2010


No final installment of "what is social acceleration" this week as I have been working on a posting for my other blog The Long Legged Fly about the Bilderberg meeting in Sitges this weekend. It deals to some extent with the idea of social homeostasis, although I will work that out more fully on this blog. Take a look.

By the way, after watching an installment of David Harvey's fantastic reading of Capital, I go back on what I said about him being and economic determinist.