“There is a great threat to writing. … It is real time that threatens writing. Writing is always, always, in a state of deferred time, always delayed. Once the image is live, there is a conflict between deferred time and real time, and in this there is a serious threat to writing and the author.”
—Paul Virilio, interview with James Der Derien, 1997
Two months ago, I was put off by vaguely humanoid Stable Diffusion generated shapes that people were passing off as their own work, and unnerved by an exceptionally warm day in October. Today, I was disgusted by an ad promoting paid services for bot-written essays, and horrified by what felt like a summer day at the onset of winter. The dismal reality at hand is that things aren’t just moving fast anymore; the speed at which they speed up is itself speeding up. We lurch further, with every passing minute, into an unending and banal milieu of crises, and all we can do is watch as the death spiral etches towards a velocity we can no longer keep pace with. The long awaited man-made horrors are advancing beyond our comprehension as everything else stumbles and falls onto the asphalt.
These prophetic-adjacent cynicisms aren’t anything new nor are they my own; they’re in the back of everybody’s mind and they’ve been the subject of more insightful scholarship than my own (though that isn’t anything special) since even before the end of history. Paul Virilio – a French thinker of the last century’s second half, albeit one that lived long enough to witness the unremarkably terrifying rise of cyberspace and its consequences – undertook one such project that grasped the essential nature of our circumstances in greater fidelity than any other (sane) thinker thus far. A military man at heart, he understood the grand narrative of history to be driven along by the logic of speed, “dromology,” and that of modernity, an increasingly frantic sprint towards a time where the distance between events and and their representation in a global information network closes entirely – where happenings occur on-screen everywhere in “real time.”
Both the precondition and consequence of this spirit has, paradoxically, been the industrial revolution still unfolding and geared entirely towards the accentuation of speed. This movement comprises three stages, two of which are behind us and a third, the most anti-human of the trio, perhaps imminent. The first brought acceleration to transportation, it began with the steam engine and has now ushered us, regrettably, to the vanity space flight. The second, revolutionizing transmission of information, began with the telegraph and has now, to the great dismay of those who naively hope to immunize themselves against propaganda, culminated in an internet infrastructure enabling near-instantaneous transmission of anything we could possibly want, or more often not want, to consume. The third will, according to this man who the events of the internet age have ripened into an oracle, be a revolution of transplantation. In this third one, real space is superseded by something faster, where the physical limitations that have kept our ravenous Faustian tomfoolery in check for the better half of twenty millenia will fall away in the face of a cyberspace that takes precedence over our worldly world of flesh and faeces. It is the third forecast – though I’m hesitant to call it anything short of unfortunate clairvoyance – that will signal the end of the modern age, which Virilio sees as still very much alive (and the concept of a holistic postmodernism, by contrast, very much an absurdity).
Now, given the failure of Zuckerberg’s attempt at making a lame mimicry of Second Life more immersive, I’m confident in asserting that we have a good few years before this particular horror rears its silicon head – these are years that give us time to push the de-facto enterprise of the modern academic project a little further and digest the previous two moments of the industrial epoch a little more before whiplash from the third sends us all to hell. Given that, I’d like to propose that the latest half of the second part of the revolution has impacted the academy in a way we haven’t fully grasped yet – there’s a new tension between book learning and not-book learning that universities and their constituents alike haven’t recognized, one now forcing rampant incoherence into every orifice of the scholarly realm within its reach.
The tension is as follows: good research is slow, even when directed at the examination of the fast. There’s an inherent sluggishness in the scholarly rigour required of any endeavour that seeks to move a field forward – though, as will become important later, not of those that don’t have innovation in mind – and, unless you can somehow find a way to make people think harder faster (barring Adderall) that fact remains a constant. While research requires engagement with writing, education need not – an hour lecture can convey an idea that would normally take a book, though perhaps omitting a great deal of the supporting evidence that you would need to investigate and critique the thesis further (i.e. research) and what I will now call speed world loves this. As cultural, economic, political, environmental, and technological developments accelerate, the initiative arm of the academy responsible for the production of new academics responds by marginalising the slow mode of reading in favour of the fast modes of listening and watching. So the question arises: how does one go about thorough scholarship – an essentially plodding act – when the hellscape demands and promotes speed at the expense of engagement with the material that the act depends upon? Research in any field is contingent upon a communicative mode, writing, that doesn’t bend to tolerate the new temporal paradigm – it contains thoughts slowly and meticulously collected over a period of time that are then disseminated in this package that takes longer to consume than speech. What are the consequences for scholarly work of the lecture hall taking precedence over the library?
This reduces to a question of teaching and initiation: speed world demands that teaching accelerate, which itself requires a marginalisation of study employing writing and an emphasis on that which relies on audio-visual means. It wants speech, but we still need writing. For my part, I have been assigned podcasts and documentaries as class readings, often adaptations of texts too long to be read in a given timeframe. The inherent issue is not that podcasts and documentaries can’t or shouldn’t be used to teach, but rather that it’s difficult to take a paper seriously if it lists podcasts and documentaries in its bibliography – the moat between learning and working is growing with this.
Our academic landscape, and the factors that constitute an individual’s authority within it are, through and through, held together by the intense weight of an omnipresent logocentrism, a weight that, despite its growing incongruity with speed world, has not been shed. We still, in a time where time is limited as is the time we have to manage our time, maintain expectations predating the intensification of information’s acceleration; expectations that separate the act of learning, which is now no longer so literary, and working, which remains for all intents and purposes an act of writing. Adding to that, the vertigo-inducing mass of new writing expelled from the bowels of the world’s publishing houses each and every day furthers the rift between what you know and what you’ll need to cite to do anything with what you know. The fast world both facilitates, through the instruments of mass production it allows to be birthed, and necessitates, through the character of commercial demand it allows, that all literature be forced out of all those able-minded at a rate that outpaces our ability to digest it. Compounding all this is that we are no longer forced to digest anything at the very beginning of our odysseys through the academy – the implied requisite of hyper-literacy never gets a chance to make itself explicit, trampled under the urgency of the nimble.
Digressing now to a corollary, the advent of a monolingual global academy enabled by speed world’s tech and the Anglocentrism it reinforced has led to a sublime and intense marginalization of academics from the not-West, creating an even more disparaged class of neophytes. In saying this, I understand the internet to be a colonial system born from the Anglosphere that perpetually reinforces the conditions of imperialism that contextualized its advent. The internet is ruled by English-speakers, be they tendrils of the American military-industrial complex or withered arms of the state, and as a result, the academy’s reliance on this new technology comes with an implied Anglocentrism. Where a series of European lingua-francas had a chokehold on the world of academic writing before, that has now been reduced to a hegemony of the English tongue alone that pushes away from the centre (more than even the old Eurocentrism): Dutch-speaking Indonesian neurophysicists, French-speaking Algerian humanists, Russian-speaking Kazakh geologists, aspiring Spanish-speaking socio-linguists, and, how could I forget, Portuguese-speaking viticultural scientists from Macau. All these and more (students) are forced further from the core of the learned centrifuge when even their former overlords’ languages have been subdued in the face of a technology emanating from an imperial centre in the New World. The new mode of communication has entrenched linguistic (and their related geopolitical) power structures that were just exiting their prime the time of its birth.
The stasis of linguistic dynamics parallels a concurrent stasis in scientific paradigms in the age of the dromomaniac info-tech death cult. Stagnation follows information’s unbounded proliferation and the extension of the means of its production to all – to be blunt, when everybody can write an academic article, when the means of getting your work out there are democratised, not only does pseudo-intellectual drivel make its way onto the scene, but so do stubborn attempts to save phenomena and to reinforce whatever status quo persists in the connective tissue of a particular field. You can’t have a change of paradigm when, for every innovative paper produced by a manic savant that makes it into a journal with an impact factor, there are another 10 unoriginal elaborations on the threadbare minutia of an existing system only written so that somebody can claim to have written them. The pressure to publish these, the push to procure prestige and prove prodigy, must also be understood as resulting from the race mentality perpetuated by the speed world and its unquenchable thirst for more words. Dromomania infuses every inch of culture with a feverish lust for greater momentum that, in the end, leaves in the dust anybody whose productivity, whose output of demonstrable product, is not put out at a competitive pace.
Undergraduate publications have a role to play as well in that, while the work they present may be exceptional for what it is, a large number of undergraduate-written articles are expository rather than argumentative, and therefore serve more to highlight the exceptional research ability of a student (in such a way that makes them competitive in the race) rather than contribute something meaningful to a field. I must clarify before speedily going further that this is, in large part, the ethos behind undergraduate publications; many see them as showcases of prodigal academic prowess rather than sound written inquiry. That said, I think there are many undergraduate journals that publish meaningful and innovative research and many undergraduates that are capable of producing it, but like their grown-up equivalents, modest and infertile papers, even more openly sanctioned in this context than in the upper echelons of the scholastic world, are easier to write and, at least on paper, bestow the same degree of prestige – consequently, they are favourable to any original composition. Even in the world of the second- and third-year, the ethos of the race – one born from a technological environment where the hurdles aren’t access to information or the means to communicate that which you produce, but the competition to have what you write predominate – seeps in and works to degrade serious research.
Not wanting to stumble my way into incoherency and ruin what is otherwise a more or less cogent article, I should stop while I’m ahead (not in the race, where I’ve already fallen far behind). I can distill what I’ve said into a single sentence: this century’s particular strain of the acceleration of information transmission detailed by Paul Virilio and its consequences have been a disaster for any and all serious learning. The ecosystem of near-instantaneous knowledge transmission and seemingly uninhibited accumulation of junk has fostered an academic landscape where bromidism is implicitly advised and where a gulf has emerged between reading and working that makes it difficult to break into the latter from the former. A healthy academic landscape – and by healthy I mean in accordance with the ethos outlined in the aftermath of the scientific revolution and birth of modern historiography in the 19th century that were harbingers for our Comteian naturwissenschaften and geisteswissenschaften respectively – relies on a filter of information that the dromological world, in its frenzied rush to do as much as possible as fast as possible with instruments as effective as possible, has done away with. There is a certain scarcity that underpins good written work and good reading, and modernity’s promethean quest to go fast has disintegrated any semblance of it. Illiteracy follows from an unmitigated accumulation of drivel and a panicked scramble into the academy, both of which the second half of the industrial revolution has made mandatory with its desire for the fast thinker and faster writer.
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