Are we moving too fast for meaning? That's the argument put together by Franco Berardi in his essay Time, Acceleration, and Violence, published on e-flux. It's the latest in an expanding body of “are we moving too fast for”¦?” thinking, with meaning-as-victim following truth-as-victim (Zygmunt Bauman), character-as-victim (Richard Sennett), and promiscuity-as-victim (Miquel Brown). But does it make any sense?
From what I understand, Berardi’s argument is that among the many ills caused by capitalism's constant acceleration is an “inflation of meaning.” The increased production of symbols — aided, one assumes, by greater productivity among symbol-creators — has had roughly the same effect that increased production of dollar bills would, giving us a system rich in symbols but bereft of value.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my abbreviated understanding of the piece goes something like this:
- Beginning around the time of industrialization, time was equatable to money.
- Growth in production and value requires accelerated work time. Accelerated production, it's implied, requires greater amounts of capital, which is raised by creating more money, which results in inflation. More money yields fewer products. The same principle, says Berardi, can be applied to the “info-sphere,” where more symbols yield less meaning.
- With the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system and Nixon’s 1971 ending of the gold standard, there is no longer a fixed time-to-money relationship, since there is not a product to back value. Now “violence” (i.e., competition) is required, in place of gold bars, to continually assert the value of money.
- Because we rely on machines to communicate, and are constantly accelerating, we lose touch with the body, with expression, and with the world. We will become fast but purely functional.
It should probably be noted that digging these points out was no small feat. Many of his quotes are problematic: in an essay that purports to tell us about “our” experience with time, the vast majority of evidence comes from well-off white men, be they billionaires (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak), economists (Alan Greenspan), dead philosophers (Karl Marx and Henri Bergson), or famed misogynists (The Futurists). Often he veers into areas of not-quite-metaphor and sweeping generalization. For example:
You cannot explain what Alan Greenspan called the “irrational exuberance” in the markets without recalling the simple fact that millions of cognitive workers were consuming tons of cocaine, amphetamines, and Prozac throughout the 1990s. Greenspan was not speaking of the economy, but the cocaine effect in the brains of millions of cognitive workers all over the world. And the dot-com crash was the sudden disappearance of this amphetamine from the brains of those workers.
Well, no. Greenspan was, actually, referring to the economy, because he was likening the bubble of the late 90's to the recently-burst real estate bubble in Japan – where, by the way, cocaine use is almost non-existent. And Americans? As of 1995, one year before Greenspan's speech, cocaine use had dropped in the U.S. by 74 percent since the mid-eighties. This type of nonsensical lyricism leads one to wonder how applicable this is to, uh, reality.
At another point, Berardi notes that during the dot-com crash, “a collapse of the capitalist or capitalistic economies all over the world seemed inevitable.” Did it really? In a recession where the economy never actually stopped growing?
Overall, though, this is fact: things are moving faster. Berardi's right that there is less room for direct human interaction, and even that is being shaped by the speed of online communication. A recent study proved that we remember information less if we know we can look it up later, which says something about reading and art-viewing on the internet. He's also right to focus more on the speed of delivery, rather than the cultural products being delivered. He cites the problem of language, which can encompass anything from abbreviated, spoken laughter to communicating through an interface:
This generation, which experiences a problematic relationship between language and the body, between words and affection, separates language from the body of the mother, and from the body in general—for language in human history has always been connected to a fear of trusting the body.
Certainly, this concern for the removal of the body comes part and parcel with industrialization, from Chaplin’s Modern Times to 1960′s feminist critique to Roberta Smith’s call for a return to the handmade. I am reminded of the essay Clocking Out, in which J. D. Daniels mourns the mechanization of rock-and-roll: “Mechanization means never having to wonder what to desire next.” “Our relationship to the world will be purely functional,” says Berardi.
But is it even possible that we will “lose our relationship to the world”? And who is Berardi talking about? If we try to apply Berardi's ideas to art, much of its apocalyptic force seems misplaced. The centerpiece of Berardi's essay is the assertion that the production of meaning cannot be accelerated apace with the production of images:
Do not forget that your brain functions in time, and needs time in order to give attention and understanding. But attention cannot be infinitely accelerated.
To which art says: we know. That's why we're so selective – famously, cruelly, violently – about what we spend our limited attention on. If monetary value is sustained by competition alone, art world value is sustained by the canon, the problem of which has always been its very stability. Consensus, critical discourse, credibility: despite the best efforts of waves of critics and art historians interested in revision, you can't simply print more of this stuff. For better or for worse, the art world is an exclusive nation-state whose borders are scrupulously monitored, and the fences erected to keep the poor and uneducated out now serve to keep the meaning in.
A pre-selection process also applies to internet experience, though here we choose our critics. Rather than passively getting fucked by a cavalcade of information (aside from, yes, overbearing video advertisements), we spend our limited attention on dependable online venues, such as e-flux, which have done the editing for us. What is Google, if not an editing platform which transports us to the content?
If art has solved the consumption side of the attention economy through “art history”, it has solved the production side through ideas of human capital. While accelerated production of widgets and geegaws may reflect a reduction of value, we have long understood art to be a different class of object, produced by special workers who can compress years of training into a relatively short burst of concentrated labor. In 1877, James Abbott McNeill Whistler famously sued critic John Ruskin for libel, following Ruskin’s accusation that Whistler didn’t spend enough time on “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” for what he was charging. Dialogue from the trial illustrates changing notions about time and worth:
Holker: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?
Whistler: Oh, I ‘knock one off’ possibly in a couple of days — one day to do the work and another to finish it… [the painting measures 24 3/4 x 18 3/8 inches]
Holker: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
Whistler: No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.
That dialogue seems nuts today – no one would walk into a gallery demanding to know the amount of labor accreted into each object – but it is useful to know that these ideas were once in contention. (Aside: is it possible to read Holker's second question in anything but a hilarious voice?) Whistler understood that immediate production time is unrelated to the value of an artwork, echoing an idea of accumulated labor as human capital that stretched back a century to Adam Smith:
The acquisition of such talents, by the maintenance of the acquirer during his education, study, or apprenticeship, always costs a real expense, which is a capital fixed and realized, as it were, in his person.
These ideas firmly set artistic production outside the range of accelerated labor, basing its value not on quantity of production but on the scale of the artist's investment – in lived time – in his practice.
But even this dual negation of acceleration in production and consumption is insufficient. With the advent of happenings and relational aesthetics, much of art became directly dependent on time to enforce meaning. As Nicolas Bourriaud pointed out in Relational Aesthetics, the reaction of maker and viewer are no longer separable. A work of art, he wrote, became “a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion.”
If ever there were an art poster child for the unfiltered, techno-linguistic machine to which Berardi refers, it would be Ryan Trecartin. I quote Paddy’s recent review:
…somewhere along the line, Trecartin’s message got lost. It’s as if he’s contacting his audience to tell them their phonelines are broken and can’t be fixed, and we’ve responded by celebrating the progress communication has brought.
Paddy seems to feel that, though it’s garbled, there remains a message to be lost. While some of his older works conveyed meaning through loose narrative, she likens Any Ever to Google search results: the step preceding content.
The response to Trecartin's own videos reveals this. When I saw Any Ever, hordes of people had been lounging in the Ikea-style couches and armchairs before I sat down and long after I got up thirty minutes later. I didn't watch any piece in its entirety, but some people did. People wanted to catch the last day of the Alexander McQueen show so badly that, before the Metropolitan Museum had even opened, hundreds had lined up down Fifth Avenue, most waiting over two hours. In content, too, duration is a popular topic, and “popular” in a very real sense: the Hirshhorn Museum very recently put on a show mostly comprised of durational video. At least one commenter on this blog spent five and a half hours watching Christian Marclay's “The Clock” and subsequently formulated a very thoughtful response.
The taste for waiting and duration is so widespread that it has its own critics. A video game version of Marina Abramovic's “The Artist Is Present,” including the ticket counter and the lines preceding the performance, pokes fun at the amount of time that people are willing to invest in art – art which itself asserts that we're not paying enough attention. Whatever Berardi's feelings about society as a whole, art is providing useful and meaningful alternatives, and has been for some time. This is what it's supposed to do.