Cover image for High-Speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity Edited by Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman

High-Speed Society

Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity

Edited by Hartmut Rosa, and Edited by William E. Scheuerman


$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03417-1

328 pages
6" × 9"

High-Speed Society

Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity

Edited by Hartmut Rosa, and Edited by William E. Scheuerman

This is an intriguing collection of texts centering on a theme about which social science has had little, and certainly little that is systematic and cumulative, to say. The editors’ idea is to try to capture the thought, ever more widespread since the eighteenth century, that more and more aspects of our lives—technological, economic, public and political, private and intimate—are speeding up. To what extent is this true? If true, what are its consequences, for instance, for the quality of individual lives and for the functioning of democratic politics, and for the condition of those marginalized by and excluded from this allegedly accelerating dynamism of modernity? It is an excellently edited collection of interesting essays on an important subject.


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  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Everywhere, life seems to be speeding up: we talk of “fast food” and “speed dating.” But what does the phenomenon of social acceleration really entail, and how new is it? While much has been written about our high-speed society in the popular media, serious academic analysis has lagged behind, and what literature there is comes more from Europe than from America. This collection of essays is a first step toward exposing readers on this side of the Atlantic to the importance of this phenomenon and toward developing some preliminary conceptual categories for better understanding it.

Among the major questions the volume addresses are these: Is acceleration occurring across all sectors of society and all dimensions of life, or is it affecting some more than others? Where is life not speeding up, and what results from this disparity? What are the fundamental causes of acceleration, as well as its consequences for everyday experience? How does it affect our political and legal institutions? How much speed can we tolerate?

The volume tackles these questions in three sections. Part 1 offers a selection of astute early analyses of acceleration as experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Part 2 samples recent attempts at analyzing social acceleration, including translations of the work of leading European thinkers. Part 3 explores acceleration’s political implications.

This is an intriguing collection of texts centering on a theme about which social science has had little, and certainly little that is systematic and cumulative, to say. The editors’ idea is to try to capture the thought, ever more widespread since the eighteenth century, that more and more aspects of our lives—technological, economic, public and political, private and intimate—are speeding up. To what extent is this true? If true, what are its consequences, for instance, for the quality of individual lives and for the functioning of democratic politics, and for the condition of those marginalized by and excluded from this allegedly accelerating dynamism of modernity? It is an excellently edited collection of interesting essays on an important subject.
“Hartmut Rosa and William Scheuerman have fathered a first-rate set of contributions and produced an excellent collection on an unusual yet deeply important topic. I know of no other book quite like it.”
“Ever since Paul Virilio coined the term ‘dromology’ (the study of speed) in 1977, searching for the meaning of ever speedier change has become a progressively more respectable path of scholarship. This anthology of writings dedicated solely to this topic is the first of its kind, and as such has great value, especially for readers who are unfamiliar with the major thinkers to have considered societal celerity seriously. . . . It could serve as a uniquely stimulating text for advanced theory students in the social sciences and humanities.”
“Scheuerman’s concluding essay thoughtfully assays the problematic effects of social acceleration on civic engagement.”

Hartmut Rosa is Professor of Sociology at the University of Jena and Affiliated Professor of Sociology at the New School University.

William E. Scheuerman is Professor of Political Science and Western European Studies at Indiana University.


List of Illustrations



Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman

Part 1. Classical Perspectives on Social Acceleration

1. A Law of Acceleration

Henry Adams

2. The Pace of Life and the Money Economy

Georg Simmel

3. The New Religion-Morality of Speed

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

4. The Mania for Motion and Speed

John Dewey

5. The Motorized Legislator

Carl Schmitt

Part 2. High-Speed Society: Theoretical Foundations

6. Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desychronized High-Speed Society

Hartmut Rosa

7. Is There an Acceleration of History?

Reinhart Koselleck

8. The Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Globalizing Capital and Their Impact on State Power and Democracy

Bob Jessop

9. The Contraction of the Present

Hermann Lübbe

10. Speeding Up and Slowing Down

John Urry

Part 3. High-Speed Society: Political Consequences?

11. The State of Emergency

Paul Virilio

12. The Nihilism of Speed: On the Work of Paul Virilio

Stefan Breuer

13. Temporal Rhythms and Military Force: Acceleration, Deceleration, and War

Herfried Münkler

14. Speed, Concentric Circles, and Cosmopolitanism

William E. Connolly

15. Citizenship and Speed

William E. Scheuerman

List of Contributors



Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman

Acceleration, Deceleration, and Critical Social Theory

What does its mean for society to accelerate? We all notice that events around us seem to take place faster all the time. Our computers process huge sums of information at ever more impressive velocities. What was experienced as being extraordinarily speedy just yesterday (for example, a 66 MHz word processor or an ISDN Internet connection) now seems extraordinarily slow. The shot lengths in movies, advertisements, and even documentaries have increased by a factor of at least fifty, and the speed with which speeches are delivered in parliament has risen by 50 percent since 1945. Athletes break speed records with frightening regularity. Although the velocities of trains, planes, and cars no longer appear to be increasing by much, traffic planners continue to promise abbreviated travel times. The time that elapses between an earthquake, a new disease, or a novel fashion in New Zealand and my being informed about it is getting shorter every year. Speed dating and drive-through funerals remind us that even basic life activities appear to be speeding up: fast food, fast learning, fast love. Neighbors, fashions and lifestyles, jobs and lovers, political convictions, and even religious commitments appear to change at constantly heightened rates. Perhaps most significant, the time we’re allowed to concentrate exclusively on one thing is progressively diminishing: we are constantly interrupted by a stream of incoming messages, phone calls, television and radio announcements, or merely by sudden breaks in our flow of consciousness that disrupt whatever activity we happen to be pursuing.

In what way, if any, are these phenomena interrelated? Do they signify an acceleration of society per se, or are they instead illustrations of separate processes of acceleration within society? Do they add up to a qualitative shift in the fabric of contemporary society? Have we crossed a critical threshold or speed barrier, or are recent experiences of speed only one-sided representations of an eternal interplay between the forces of movement and those of constancy and stability? These are among the most important questions that this book seeks to answer.

In debates about contemporary society, it is now something of a commonplace that core social and economic processes are undergoing a dramatic acceleration, while general rates of social change are intensifying no less significantly. Popular as well as scholarly literature includes innumerable assertions that society, history, culture, and even time itself evince substantial evidence of speeding up. In short, acceleration figures as a striking feature of prominent diagnoses of contemporary social development. The observation of a change in (spatio-)temporal structures also underlies present debates about globalization, as does the postmodern fascination with experiences of simultaneity and instantaneousness and fragmentation of identity. Pace Paul Virilio’s innovative recent attempt to initiate a new science of speed or “dromology,” however, the concept of acceleration generally remains elusive and poorly defined. Even in otherwise serious and analytically impressive intellectual work, too often the simplistic claim is made that in modern societies more or less everything is speeding up. While other structural features of Western capitalist modernity (for example, differentiation, rationalization, or individualization) have long been the subject of extensive theoretical debate, its key temporal dimension, acceleration, has been largely ignored by social and political analysis. Despite a recent body of social theory that convincingly underscores the need to take social temporality seriously, this oversight probably derives from a dominant atemporal conceptual framework that continues to plague mainstream social science. One aim of the present volume is to help fill that conceptual lacuna.

By clearing the path toward a better understanding of recent temporal trends, we hope to demonstrate that the concept of social acceleration is an indispensable tool for contemporary social and political analysis. Notwithstanding the intellectual and political distances separating the contributors to this volume, their insights help provide the necessary conceptual instruments if we are to distinguish better between serious social analysis and the superficial technobabble and imbalanced ideology ubiquitous in contemporary discourse about speed. The editors of this volume also hope to make a contribution, however modest, to a critical theory of society. In our view, the concept of acceleration holds out the promise of shedding fresh light on a host of political and social pathologies plaguing contemporary society. Although the diverse theoretical perspectives represented here offer no easy answers concerning the best way to overcome those pathologies, and although some of the authors included here endorse politically quiescent and even reactionary answers to the challenges of speed, we believe that paying closer attention to the high-speed contours of contemporary society ultimately places its core attributes in a critical light. If the unfulfilled quest for a decent society is to remain viable in the twenty-first century, a serious-minded analysis of the temporal driving forces underlying contemporary society will have to make up a crucial element of a renewed critical theory of society. We hope that the essays collected here, some by internationally renowned scholars and available for the first time to an English-speaking audience, can help generate a useful debate about social acceleration, as well as its causes and consequences.

Motivated by these theoretical and political concerns, this volume aims to provide a comprehensive survey of historical and contemporary perspectives on the following set of pressing temporal questions:

1. First, how should we conceptualize acceleration? What forms of acceleration are empirically observable in modern society? Which social arenas, spheres, institutions, or structures in fact change at higher rates than in the past? Is social acceleration a linear process, or does it instead constitute a discontinuous process subject to countertendencies, obstacles, and sudden leaps? In what sense—if any—is it justifiable to speak of the acceleration of society, rather than of various forms of acceleration within society?

2. Which structures, processes, and institutions seem immune to change? How do processes of acceleration relate to evidence of social, historical, and cultural deceleration?

3. How can we best describe the causes of acceleration? What drives acceleration, and how exactly do the driving forces behind acceleration relate to other developmental trends in modern society?

4. What are the consequences of social acceleration on the individual and on the texture of social life? How does acceleration impact on politics and law?

5. Are there individual, social, and ecological limits to acceleration? Is there a logical end point toward which changes in temporal structure converge?

6. What critical potential might an analysis of the temporal structures of society yield?

As the diverse contemporary and historical discussions of social acceleration collected here will quickly reveal, a wide variety of answers to each of these questions is possible. Let us screen them one by one:

(1) One of the most difficult dilemmas in formulating a theory of acceleration is the fact that a mere collection of symptoms or instances of acceleration will not suffice. As a brief glance at the examples mentioned above shows, we can easily find evidence for a wide variety of manifestations of acceleration. In their sheer totality, they are sometimes interpreted as indications for the speedup of contemporary culture, history, or even time itself. Before we embrace comprehensive diagnoses of this type, however, additional clarification seems necessary. First, it is essential that we pay attention to those realms of social life that do not accelerate and sometimes even appear subject to deceleration. Otherwise, our temporal diagnosis will necessarily be one-sided and thus potentially misleading. Second, it seems obligatory that we investigate how different examples of social acceleration may turn out to be interconnected. The readings collected in this volume should help shed light on both tasks.

On closer examination, we find that theorists of social acceleration generally concentrate on one or more of the following types of phenomena. First, the sense of an enormous speedup is clearly fueled by the profound effects of the acceleration in transportation and communication that took place over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The revolution in transportation and communication has indisputably changed the way we perceive space and time. Not surprisingly, our perceptions of innumerable facets of social life have changed as well. In contrast, other authors barely mention this form of speedup. Instead, they tend to concentrate on the speedup of everyday life, that is, on the increasing scarcity of time and, consequently, the acceleration in our pace of life. As the contributions to this volume show, this form of acceleration is exceedingly difficult, though by no means impossible, to define and measure. Yet another form of acceleration refers to increases in productivity and efficiency: we produce more goods in vastly reduced periods of time, and we also appear to consume them at a higher pace. Finally, some have identified a speedup of a very different sort, namely increased social and cultural rates of change. The number of technical, social, and cultural innovations, so the argument goes, is increasing dramatically. As a result, the lifeworld is constantly dismantled at an ever-faster velocity: fashions, lifestyles, product cycles, jobs, relations to spouses and sexual partners, political and religious beliefs, forms of practice and association, as well particular orientations toward social action become increasingly contingent and unstable during the course of modernity. This perception fuels the case for an acceleration of culture. To be sure, it might well turn out that this in fact is nothing more than an extension of a much older evolutionary principle of acceleration. Recall the familiar clock model of natural history often used to depict the history of life on earth in terms of the passing of one hour of time. During the course of most of the hour, nothing significant appears to happen; the clock’s hands barely move. Yet minutes and seconds before the hour is up, events visibly speed up at an exponential rate, and the rate of change steadily grows higher as Homo sapiens appears on the scene; the clock’s hands now spring forward.

Not surprising, how these different realms of acceleration are interrelated is a matter of heated debate. The answers provided to this question depend significantly on one’s view of the causes of acceleration (see Point 3 below).

(2) What aspects of social life are not speeding up? Aside from a whole range of more or less “natural” obstacles to speed and intentional slowdowns, two phenomena deserve special attention. First, many of the processes of acceleration identified above do not affect (adversely or otherwise) a substantial portion of the world’s population. In other words, there are many places where life pretty much goes on as it did in the past. In some regions subject to desperate poverty and crippling political disorder, core social processes understandably appear to have come to a standstill. Significant segments of the population of the developed world also appear to be excluded from key features of social acceleration: for the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, and many retirees, life sometimes seems subject to a slowdown rather than a speedup. To the extent that those who fall under these social categories now appear to be increasing in number as well, the experience of deceleration accordingly tends to appear relatively widespread. There are plausible reasons for postulating that this experience of deceleration primarily constitutes evidence of cultural and structural social exclusion. It does not necessarily undermine the claim that contemporary society is subject to a structural or cultural acceleration per se. Nevertheless, the fact that a significant portion of humanity experiences slowness at least as intensely as it does speed should caution us about the dangers of any overly general diagnosis concerning social acceleration.

Paradoxically, the widespread contemporary experience of sweeping social acceleration is also accompanied by an equally strong impression of a deeply rooted, complementary trend toward structural and cultural sclerosis and inertia. From this latter perspective, history is not speeding up at all; on the contrary, it has come to an end. Beneath all the frantic movement of events and appearance, we find what Nietzsche might have described as the eternal repetition of the ever-same: a terminal sclerosis of culture and ideas, or what Virilio has dubbed the “polar inertia” toward which we inevitably gravitate, notwithstanding widespread evidence of social acceleration.

Another key question that needs to be tackled concerns the fundamental nature of the process (or processes) of acceleration. How exactly does acceleration proceed? How can it be it observed? As some of the volume’s contributions suggest, there tend to be waves of acceleration that are subsequently followed by increases in the discourse on acceleration (along with futile calls for deceleration), as well as phases of relative stability. Since most authors agree that a significant period of acceleration took place between 1880 and 1920, it should come as no surprise that many of the most astute analyses of acceleration were written either during this period or slightly posterior to it. With the fall of communist regimes and the takeoff of the digital revolution in the late eighties and nineties, another impressive round of acceleration probably occurred. This second round similarly generated a wide-ranging debate on the causes and effects of social acceleration, as much of the recent debate on globalization can be interpreted as an attempt to make sense of the ramifications of social speed.

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