02 October 2008


Eamonn’s comment on my last entry got me thinking about speed. Far from allowing us to take the time to do things properly, much of modern life (even the academic life) is conducted at breakneck speed dictated by others. You know you’re not in control when someone hands you a tight deadline; or that hospital appointment you’ve been waiting for turns up and forces you to rearrange your week; or you are forced to queue for hours to go through passport control or speak to a bureaucrat; or someone cancels your train/plane.

In our society, the ones with the power are the ones who can force you to slow down or speed up. More generally, power belongs to those who control the speed at which things happen.

By a happy coincidence, an article I was editing this morning contained the following quotation from Paul Virilio:

‘Every society is founded on a relation of speed. Every society is dromocratic. If you take Athenian society, you’ll notice that at the top there’s the hierarch, in other words the one who can charter a trireme. Then there’s the horseman—the one who can charter a horse, to use naval language. After that, there’s the hoplite, who can get ready for war, “arm himself”—in the odd sense that the word armament has both a naval and a martial connotation—with his spears and his shield as a vector of combat. And finally, there’s the free man and the slave who only have the possibilities of hiring themselves out or being enlisted as energy in the war-machine—the rowers. In this system (which also existed in Rome with the cavalry), he who has the speed has the power. And he has the power because he is able to acquire the means, the money. The Roman horsemen were the bankers of Roman society. The one who goes the fastest possesses the ability to collect taxes, the ability to conquer, and through that to inherit the right of exploiting society.’ (Virilio and Lotringer, Pure War. Translated by M. Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e). 1997, pp. 49-50)

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