Social Acceleration and Plodding Ethnography

I recently learned of German critical theorist Hartmut Rosa and his work on social acceleration (and I hastily ordered his book Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity) over at Mark Carrigan’s blog. Rosa is a professor in the Institute of Sociology at the University of Jena. Based on a couple of talks in English available on Youtube (see here and here), I understand his argument to be cented around the constant speed up of cultural life in which the possibility for us to live rich and complete lives diminishes as the scope of unrealizable opportunities expands (this idea is reminiscent of Heidegger’s argument that being is fundamentally null, in that we are composed of multiple possibilities that cannot be realized, though I have no idea if Rosa attaches this idea to Heidegger’s concept of nullity). Paradoxically, this process is rooted in the imperative of economic growth, which is oriented toward the maintenance of the status quo. In other words, we go faster as a society to stand still.

Reading Nancy Abelmann’s “plodding” ethnography, The Melodrama of Mobility, about South Korean women and the social change they experience and represent during the years 1992-2001, I came across a comment on the jarring speed with which South Korea has changed. According to Abelmann, the speed of change had consequences for studying and understanding contemporary South Korea.She begins with a discussion of Raymond Williams’ Key Words and how he ended his book by emphasizing ongoing language and history making. She then centers her own discussion of Korean key words in the rapid change of the country and the women’s lives she is studying.

It is through Williams’ spirit of conflict and change that sense is made of the cluster of words presented in this chapter. I suggest that these words are indices of change, and of the necessary conflict that change engenders. The words are dated in two senses: for belonging to a particular historical moment, and for being already out-of-date in South Korea for which the word ‘change’ seems somehow understated. Change in South Korea is not of the step-by-step variety; rather, it races, leaving behind perhaps only the likes of plodding ethnographers to dare to author some pages, just as so many blank ones unfurl ahead. During a recent brief sojourn to South Korea, I asked an anthropologist acquaintance of mine about the field-research project she had described to me in enraptured detail several years earlier. She responded hastily, ‘Oh that.’ South Korea is simply not a place for very long-lived interests or projects. Of the ethnographer of South Korea who resides outside of the country, South Korea makes an anachronism. Of my reader–and of her encounters with South Korea–I ask that she read on in the spirit of Raymond Williams’ blank pages, all six and many more of them. I look forward, to the future ethnographer who travels with clusters of key words, these or others, into the Web that is just now taking South Korea by storm… Ethnography of the variety that the reader will find in this work is of the human, heavy, and slow variety.

It may be tempting to move away from plodding ethnography to keep pace with change and not be left with key words of a just-bygone era. On the other hand, conducting and reading plodding ethnographies may be a way to resist social acceleration. They may prove to be sources of what Rosa calls “resonances,” those moments of lasting meaning. Ethnography, then, may serve a social function beyond increasing human knowledge by increasing human experience itself.

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