Speed and Incertitude: A Brief Reflection
7 February 2022
One of the characteristic features of modernity, starting roughly in the eighteenth century, argues Hartmut Rosa, is a seemingly ceaseless spate ‘of diagnoses of an acceleration of tempo (of life, of the world, of society, of history—or even of time itself)’ (2013: 14). Indeed, Rosa suggests, a grasp of the phenomenon of social acceleration is crucial for understanding modernity as such. Although it is tempting to view our own era as uniquely beset by oppressive time pressures, continuous upheaval, and temporal disorientation and desynchronization, it is readily apparent that such concerns and anxieties are part and parcel of what Marshall Berman describes as the paradoxical ‘unity of disunity’ peculiar to the experience of modernity, which plunges all of us into ‘a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish’ (1988: 15).
In this spirit, let’s consider the following passage, written by Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 1870s:
Because time for thinking and quietness in thinking are lacking, one no longer ponders deviant views: one contents oneself with hating them. With the tremendous acceleration of life mind and eye have become accustomed to seeing and judging partially or inaccurately, and everyone is like the traveller who gets to know a land and its people from a railway carriage (1996: §282).
Although the development of railways is often overlooked in favour of the electric telegraph, invented soon afterward (and pivotal in the expansion and coordination of rail networks), the steam locomotive was a crucial medium for communication through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thanks to its unprecedented speed of transport (surpassing even sailing ships) and its indefatigable reliability (when compared to delivery by horseback). Here, Nietzsche is not directly attacking the railway itself (as his contemporary Søren Kierkegaard did); rather, he is using the fast-moving, indistinct vista seen by the rail passenger during their journey as a metaphor to express an altered perception of the world stemming from a more generalized acceleration of life. We have adjusted ourselves, Nietzsche suggests, to the demands of an increasingly rapid experience, resulting in an attenuated, inadequate understanding of things, devoid of possibilities for genuine contemplation – the vita contemplativa – and fearful of viewpoints that might challenge received wisdom. We have internalized a hasty mindset, one that has learnt to deal with speed.
As David Nye remarks, railways altered the appearance of the landscape, for ‘[t]he slow unwinding view seen from a wagon or a horse was transformed into a sliding world that seemed to move by while the passenger sat immobile’. Passengers were not conditioned to seeing ‘these hurtling objects glimpsed in a rush’, and thus ‘had to learn to focus on the distant panorama’ (1994: 53). Likewise, argues Alison Byerly, ‘the rapid blur of scenery through the window of a railway car’ joined other contemporaneous media such as panoramas furnishing a continuous sequence of stimuli that created ‘an essential indeterminacy about the physical location of the body within a dynamic environment’ (2013: 19). It thus unsurprising that the view from a locomotive would provide, for a nineteenth century philosopher, an appealing image for depicting the disorienting speed of modern life. Indeed, for exactly this reason, this image would come to achieve considerable currency as a symbol of mechanical dynamism within early twentieth-century modernist art (most notably, in the work of the Italian Futurists).
Whereas the Futurists were thrilled by the violent power of this forward-moving dynamism, Nietzsche (in one of his more sober moments) worries about its deleterious effects upon thought itself. In particular, that to which Nietzsche is alluding in his deployment of this image is a sense of helplessness or impotence: the feeling of travelling at such a speed that one loses grasp over one’s surroundings, unable to pin down reality. ‘Train travellers’, notes Byerly, ‘frequently felt disempowered, threatened, and diminished by the experience’ (2013: 149), even as they were awed by the power of the steam engine and the reach of the rail networks. One might be reminded of Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that, rather than acting as the locomotive of world history, ‘revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake’ (2003: 402).
Images of vehicular mobility as an attempt to represent the effects of acceleration have remained persistent, even in the face of further technological developments. See, for instance, Paul Virilio’s withering condemnation of the ‘violence of speed, this unsuspected violence produced by the vehicle, this celerity that tears us away so abruptly from the places travelled through and in which we abandon ourselves in shared transport’, a ‘sensory privation of the passenger’, a ’vehicular mediation’ which robs us of direct contact and immediate experience (2005: 42). Here, vehicular mediation signifies a kind of universal displacement, an attenuation of our sensibility and our understanding:
Today it seems we live less in our own habitat (its field having practically disappeared) than in the habit of velocity; accepted as reality, its verisimilitude alienates us to the point of eliminating the optical effect of celerity, thereby normalizing the blurring of perception caused by acceleration (Virilio 2005: 121, translation altered).
Blurred motion is a recurrent motif in Virilio’s philosophy, representing what he elsewhere describes as the ‘crisis in perceptive faith’, the ‘automation of perception that is threatening our understanding’ (1994: 75). The development of digital optics, i.e. the visual faculties of computational media, he argues, has resulted in
a blurring of perception that affects the real as much as the figurative, as though our society were sinking into the darkness of a voluntary blindness, its will to digital power finally contaminating the horizon of sight as well as knowledge (1994: 76).
The notion of socio-technical acceleration as a sensible and intellectual ‘blurring’ reinforces the feeling that we are powerless in the face of these large-scale processes and transformations. It is used by Virilio to describe a general condition, one that fundamentally affects and determines our perception of the world. Do we, however, actually encounter this blurring, this inability to pin down reality, outside of the specific media that we utilize (whether the fast-moving landscapes seen through the windows of cars, trains, and planes, the interminable flow of televisual images, or the endless scrolling facilitated through various social media platforms and apps)? Which is not to say that there is no material basis to the recognition that we live in an accelerating society; on the contrary, such anxieties reflect a host of widespread technical and political economic conditions. But do such conditions need correspond to a simultaneous sense of epistemic incertitude and political impotence?
To what extent are the concepts that we use to analyse this state of affairs, in both academic and vernacular contexts, determined by the media technologies that are entangled with our everyday experience (and the ideological imperatives that have in turn informed their design)? And as a corollary, what resources does media theory possess to not only critique the phenomenon of socio-technical acceleration in its various material and ideological aspects, but to bring into relief the recursive relationship between the objects of media criticism and its corresponding concepts, and to open the possibility of other ways of grappling with such phenomena? To explore such questions thoroughly would require us to conceive of media theory as a properly epistemological project, tackling the multitude of ways in which our knowledge and experience, as well as their communication and dissemination, are conditioned by media technologies, and the ways in which our capacity to think mediation is itself thoroughly mediated.
7 February 2022
Tom Sutherland is a senior lecturer in media studies, and programme leader for the MA Studies in Media and Culture, at the University of Lincoln.
Contributed as part of Workshop 2
Walter Benjamin (2003) Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’. In: Selected Writings Volume 4, 1938-1940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 401-411.
Marshall Berman (1988) All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Penguin Books.
Alison Byerly (2013) Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1996 ) Human, All Too Human. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
David E. Nye (1994) American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Hartmut Rosa (2013 ) Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Trans. J. Trejo-Mathys. New York: Columbia University Press.
Paul Virilio (1994 ) The Vision Machine. Trans. J. Rose. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
Paul Virilio (2005 ) Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy. Trans. M. Degener. London and New York: Continuum.