The Great Accelerator

November 8, 2012

Author: Paul Virilio

Edition: First

Publisher: Polity

Pages: 100

Price: £35.00 and £9.99

ISBN: 9780745653884 and 3891

Building on his earlier work on dromology, Paul Virilio's latest book is an exciting yet terrifying account of how contemporary society is shaped by an ever-increasing demand for speed. The Great Accelerator anticipates the inevitable catastrophe that awaits us in a not-so-distant future. The terror, according to Virilio, has already begun to unfold in the form of market crashes and environmental disasters brought about by rapid climate change.

The Great Accelerator comprises three short essays, offering different but interrelated takes on the notion of "the instant". Chapter 1, "The insecurity of history", considers how the instant has led to a loss of collective and cultural memory and the paranoia and fear that accompany such loss. Chapter 2, "Too late for private life", explores how the intimacy and rhythms of everyday life give way to arrhythmia and the "over-exposure" of private life. This is brought about by intensified modes of surveillance and instantaneous media reporting. The final chapter, "The great accelerator", juxtaposes the nanotechnologies of market trading with the Large Hadron Collider and the fastest man on Earth, Usain Bolt. All are symptomatic of our quest for ever-smaller units of time, despite the inevitable disasters and alienation produced by a "nanochronology" that increasingly eludes our lived experience of time.

Polemical and rhetorical as opposed to offering any sustained analysis of the examples and concepts he employs, Virilio's stylistic approach is the book's greatest strength and also its major weakness. The concepts and terms he introduces often lack any real definition, leaving it up to the reader to judge their usefulness. Similarly, readers may find it difficult to grasp the meaning of terms such as "anamorphosis" without cross-referencing Virilio's earlier work. Consequently, the book is more suitable for final-year undergraduates and master's students capable of recognising the text as a springboard for their own critical engagement with the issues raised. First- and second-year undergraduates may find his terminology off-putting and some references confusing.

However, the frenetic pace at which Virilio lays out his argument both wittily embodies the processes of acceleration he is lamenting and attests to the urgency with which our relationship to time needs to be rethought and radical action taken. While Virilio doesn't go as far as to suggest what this might involve, The Great Accelerator does provide the starting point for discussions about how contemporary experience is framed by conflicting conceptions of time as both linear and circular. Locating time at the centre of all forms of knowledge, Virilio shows how speed and its measurement is a question belonging to the realm of politics, economics and religion as much as to physics and quantum physics.

Who is it for? Final-year cultural and media studies undergraduates and postgraduates, and specifically those studying cultural theory and new and interactive media.

Presentation: Energetically and argumentatively written with a range of examples and references, but the concepts and terminology would benefit from further definition.

Would you recommend it? An engaging, interdisciplinary exposition of the accelerated time of 21st-century culture and society.

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