Cultural Speed-up

Cultural Speed-up is an issue that comes up quite a bit in my teaching. Students often discuss the speed of the transformations they are observing. The discussions we have of Georg Simmel’s piece is often a source for thinking about how quickly fashion changes – Simmel has done thoughts in that piece on the mobility of fashions and trends. Of course, others have suggested that we are actually in a period of relative stability with little in the way of genuine social change. Mike Savage’s article ‘Against Epochalism‘ makes some strong arguments in this regard. In that piece Mike takes a stance against grand epochal changes or sudden moments of transformation from one era to another. Mike though is talking mostly of large scale and significant forms of change and continuity, within this we might observe very fast moving if perhaps largely surface level changes. It is the speed of such changes, and how we might conceptualise them, that is accounted for in a fairly small set if literature on speed. The questions tend to focus on how we account for the speed, acceleration, deceleration, variability, intertidal and time/space interactions of cultural and social developments and movements.

I was reminded of these debates by Filip Vostal’s recent piece ‘Thematizing Speed: Between critical theory and cultural analysis‘. Filip’s piece brings together different perspectives and theories on social and cultural speed. It’s good to see this issue getting further attention, particularly given its apparent relevance.

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One of the books that Filip refers to is John Tomlinson’s The Culture of Speed: The coming of immediacy. This is a text I’ve used a few times in various pieces. It’s a detailed account of cultural speed-up and of cultural accounts and motifs of acceleration. Beyond this, my original encounter with the issue was with Nick Gane’s excellent piece ‘Speed up or slow down? Social Theory in the Information Age‘. Nick’s piece looks at accounts of speed in social theory, looking at the speed up and slow down of culture, whilst also focusing upon how social and cultural theory should respond, asking if it too should speed up of slow down. The central point is whether theory needs to reflect broader processes of social and cultural acceleration/deceleration, or if it should find its own pace. In other words, should theory keep-up or can it operate at differential speeds.

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