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Article - Acceleration and Culture, an introduction to Hartmut Rosa’s theory of Acceleration in the cultural sphere

Though technical progress, the ally of modernity, made the promise of freeing men from every constraint linked to a lack of time, the modern man feels under the yoke of the clock and trapped in his Time. We are running out of time despite the fact we are running faster and faster. Here stands the huge paradox that the philosopher and sociologist Hartmut Rosa explores in his outstanding book, an essay that will certainly be a landmark in the history of thought, Alienation and Acceleration : Towards a Critical Theory of Late-Modern Temporality [1].

For this thinker of the critical theory, the experience of modernization is an experience of acceleration. “L’accélération est la caractéristique centrale de la transformation des structures temporelles et est ainsi une force majeure de la culture et de la modernité [2] » So every experience of modernity can be understood through the prism of acceleration, and every social theory analyzed in its temporal dimension would be the more suitable to deal with the complexity of social change. The thesis of Rosa could be the following : “La modernisation n’est pas seulement un processus multidimensionnel dans le temps, mais qu’elle désigne aussi et avant tout une transformation structurellement et culturellement très significative des structures et des horizons temporels et que le concept d’accélération sociale et le plus adéquate pour comprendre la voie que prend cette transformation [3] ». Our own consciousness if the passage of time has changed ; giving us the feeling that everything is incessantly speeding up. But what exactly ? A speeding-up history ? Of culture ? Of the society ? Of the pace of life ? Or even of the time itself ? That the questions Hartmut Rosa tackles by dissecting every force of the feeling of acceleration.

Sociologist Rosa analyzes the three elements of the speed-up process : acceleration of the technological change, of the means of transport and communication, that should have resulted in slowing down the pace of life, acceleration of the pace of life,that is to say, the increase of the number of episodes of action or experience per unit of time, made of stress, sense of urgency and lack of time ; acceleration of the social change,  perceived as the evolution and instability of family patterns, lifestyles, religious beliefs and careers. Far from being linear of isolated phenomena, these three aspects of acceleration studied jointly for the first time by Hartmut Rosa, auto-power and trigger exponential sociotechnical acceleration.

                This realization of a change in the time perception is not so contemporaneous. In 1863’s Pointer of the Modern Life, Baudelaire depicted modernity as the kingdom of fugacity, “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other  half is the eternal and immutable.” The culture of modernity may be the one of the ephemera, in love with movement and change. But if speed and movement brought hope of the idea of progress, the acceleration of the late modernity that Rosa dated from the 1970s seems now to threaten  the very project of modernity. The modern man is sick with time, either powerless or in a hurry, either hyperactive or depressed. He yearns for “deceleration oasis”. The promise of autonomy and emancipation from bondages has vanished. To sum up, “le noyau de la modernisation, l’accélération s’est donc retournée contre le projet de la modernité qui le motivait et le fondait originellement [4].”

                The Acceleration thesis is particularly convincing and appropriate when it is applied to the cultural field. The culture of an individual is in itself dependent on his conception of time and the temporal frameworks of society work out his time perception. The way he shapes his own identity, according to various temporal horizons, the way he lives the present time, and the way he looks into the future.

Culture, as a practical experience of transmission and modality of reception and appropriation required time and duration. What happens if everything time is speeding-up ? How long has the individual to learn, cogitate and analyze ? What are the cultural practices of the late modernity ? What are the leisure and for what needs of “disjunction”. Is there a special conception of time as soon as it deals with cultural matters ? Is there a “long time” for culture, a creative bubble outside of the increasingly faster whirly ? Do artists create differently thinks within a late-modern temporality ? Questions are so numerous that the concept of culture is protean.


A contribution of Sciences Po Paris, by Guillemette Carette

[1] Rosa, Hartmut, Accélération, Une critique sociale du temps, La Découverte, Paris, 2010, traduit de l’allemand par Didier Renault : Beschleunigung, Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne,

Surkamp Verlag, Francfort, Berlin, 2005.

[2] Rosa, Hartmut, op.cit., p45. Traduction : « Acceleration is the central characteristic of the transformation of the temporal frames, and that’s how it is the main force of the culture of modernity.»

[3] Rosa, Hartmut, op.cit., p.16. Traduction : « Modernization is not only a multidimensional process through the time, but also it is first of all a decisive structural and cultural transformation of the temporal frameworks and horizons and the concept of social acceleration is the more suitable to understand the way tool by the transformation.”

[4] Rosa, Hartmut, op.cit., p.357. Traduction : « The core of modernisation, acceleration has turned against the project of modernity that originally motivated and grounded it. »