Time and Reflexivity

In Margaret Archer’s work on Reflexivity, this faculty is seen as mediating between structure and agency. Our capacity to ‘bend back’ upon ourselves, considering our circumstances in light of our commitments and vice versa, constitutes the point at which structural powers operate upon individual lives. On this view, structures don’t operate automatically, they only exercise causal power vis-a-vis the attempting doings of agents, even if the implications of the former for the latter are utterly opaque for the people concerned. In contrast Harmut Rosa sees time structures as the mediating factor, providing “action with normatively binding force, largely stable expectations, and an orientating frame this is experienced as if it were a natural fact” (pg. 225). His argument is basically a functionalist one, with the structuring of time horizons constituting the process through which “systemic requirements” are ‘translated” into “individual action orientations”:

our sense of who we are (hence of our identity) is virtually a function of our relationship to space, time, fellow human beings, and the objects of our environment (or to our action and experience). (pg. 224)

The phrase ‘virtually a function’ is rather ambiguous to say the least*. Clearly, he wishes to recognise some independent variability to identity in relation to what may otherwise be convergent circumstances. However he also dismisses this variability, describing it as ‘virtually a function’, such that this variability comes to be seen as peripheral to the subject matter of our investigation. In essence Rosa treats this as if it were not variable, continually describing uniform responses to social change. He occasionally acknowledges that these claims are empirically questionable but this is seen as something secondary to the theoretical inquiry, as opposed to an important matter that should be incorporated into its terms of reference. Unfortunately this variability matters because if we believe action has (any) efficacy vis-a-vis structure then variable individual responses feed back into the social changes that are reshaping time horizons. If we don’t recognise this variable component of feedback then acceleration comes to seem entirely systemic, revolutionising social life but unfolding by its own logic independent of the actions of individuals or groups.

It’s for this reason that I feel the need to very cautious when engaging with Rosa. The critical theory he espouses is close enough to my own theoretical position (probably because of the legacy of Marxism feeding into both critical realism and critical theory) that much of what he says immediately resonates with me. But there are also these massive points of disagreement that can seem rather small until I stop and think about them. However he does have rather a lot to say about time which fascinates me. What’s particularly relevant for my own work is his account of structural changes to biography:

the predominance of individualization in the transformation of relationships to self and world in classical modernity leads to a temporalization of life, i.e., to a perspective on one’s own life as a project to be given shape in time, while the same process of dynamization in the late modern phase of its development effects a “detemporalized,” situational definition of identity. (pg. 226)

His point concerns the temporal dimension to “socially dominant forms of self-relation” (pg. 224). Though she’s retreated slightly on this point, Archer’s early work on reflexivity was concerned with the spatial dimension of dominant forms of self-relation. In Making Our Way Through The World in particular, there was a focus on the way in which patterns of mobility in early life have implications for the forms of self-relation upon which individuals can come to rely as they go through adolescence. Rosa’s quasi-functionalism notwithstanding, I don’t see any reason why we can’t sustain an interest in both: the spatial and temporal  dimensions to socially dominant forms of self-relation, as well as therelational dimension to personally dominant forms of self-relation (with the macro operation of the former being mediated through the micro operation of the latter).

Rosa sees a mode of biography as “the directed movement of life along alternative development paths” operating in modernity, dependent upon “the liquefaction of forms of life and community, which reached epoch-making levels during the industrial revolution” being “steered onto relatively fixed, institutional rails in the increasingly ‘organized modernity’ of the welfare state” (pg. 228) He cites Martin Kohli’s work here, who argues that

a life course divided into temporal sequences has a double function: on the one hand, it undergirds the institutional order of the welfare state (the educational system, the social insurance system, the pension system, etc.) and conversely becomes a socially obligatory standard through this system of institutions; but, on the other hand, it establishes an identity-guiding, orientating schema in the concept of the ‘normal biography,” which allows of respective three-stage ‘schedules’ in professional life (education, gainful employment, retirement) and the familial structuring of life (childhood in the ancestral family, own family with kids, older phase after the kids move out) (pg. 228)

The transition from tradition to modernity is seen as one from a static and situational identity to one that is dynamic and trans-situational. In late modernity this in turn becomes dynamic and situational. This renewed status of being situationally bound is not a function of spatio-temporal immobility as in traditional society but rather a consequence of the breakdown of stable temporal horizons. Identity implies evaluative and action orientations towards our circumstances. Rosa’s claim is that social acceleration creates a tendency to compress those orientations ever further into the boundaries of situations because the context in relation to which we evaluative and act increasingly changes with such speed that our orientations towards it have no trans-situational durability.

He contrast this to the tempo of modernity in which “the horizons of expectations remains stable enough to allow long-run, time-resistant life perspectives to develop, the gratification of needs to be systematically postponed, and the completion of the biographical pattern to be patiently awaited.” (pg 230). On his view, the identity-constituting task facing adults in modernity was to “find your own place in the world”: “choose a career, start a family, decide on a religious community, and find a political orientation.” (pg 229). While people did revise these choices, these revisions were relatively marginal and incorporated into a life narrative in terms of progress towards authenticity i.e. my previous choice was wrong, I realised and thus I revised it. In the absence of these stable time horizons, Rosa argues that this orientation towards biography becomes untenable and thus far we are left with a situational identity. This means that chronological phases of life are losing their internal coherence and external interrelatedness: the ‘building blocks’ out of which biographies are built become less clearly distinguishable and the sequential relationships between them become less linear

Key to Rosa’s analysis is the notion that we’ve moved from an intergenerational to an intra-generational rate of social change. This entails an “escalation of contingency and instability” which serves to render identities relative to situations: “it is not one is a baker, rather one works as one (for two years now); not that one is the husband of X, rather one lives with X; not that one is a New Yorker and conservative, rather one lives in New York (for the next few years) and votes for Conservatives (pg. 147).  His argument rests on the sense in which “self-relations have an insolubly temporal structure in which the past, present, and future of a subject are connected”: “Who one is always also defined by how one became it, what one was and could have been, and what one will be and wants to be” (pg. 146). It is through this situatedness vis-a-vis temporality that social change exercises causal power in relation to individual lives. While Rosa systematically underemphasises the role of reflexivity in mediating this process, making universal claims about the consequences for individuals while ignoring the variability of responses by individuals, he is surely correct that intra-generational social change “will have far-ranging consequences for the possibilities and forms of social integration and cultural reproduction” (pg. 114).

Another important aspect of Rosa’s analysis is his account of how “the temporal regulation and deinstitutionalization of numerous fields of activity in late modernity society has massively heightened the cost of planning and thus the time required to coordinate and synchronise everyday sequences of action” (pg 126). As the rapidity of social change leads to the progressive dissolution of collective time structures, as well as a recognition of how fleeting those that remain must be, cultural synchronisation devices that could once be taken for granted instead “have to be repeatedly planned, negotiated , and agreed upon with cooperation partners all over again” (pg.  126). We can’t take for granted when others will do things or the order in which they will do them and hence there’s an additional cognitive burden involved in day-to-day social life. This also leads to a situation in which we come to be expected to justify our temporal decision making, as socially accepted standards of temporal rationality break down and the consequence for each individual of other’s temporal decisions become more pronounced: the range of ways in which my, say, failing to send an e-mail in time may impact upon a colleague increase because the significance of that e-mail vis-a-vis their own sequence of work commitments has become less standardised. Standards and expectations diverge when collaborative work is no longer embedded within shared horizons and converging circumstances.

This is partly a consequence of the diversification of system environments, “Since, from the internal perspective of a given system or interaction context, all other activities represent only disruptive delays and eliminable empty times” (pg. 191). This leaves conflicts over time occurring between people when operating across system boundaries (e.g. when I am preparing for teaching, the demands of a research commitment made by a collaborator seem secondary and vice versa) but also within the context of an individual’s life as they’re forced to negotiate the competing demands of divergent contexts. Rosa identifies a trend towards time management as “microtemporal oscillation between the demands of distinct functional spheres that are all running as ‘non-stop’ enterprise” (pg. 192) (which incidentally is a fantastic description of how and why Omnifocus works so effectively once you get the hang of it) – the disjuncture between spheres becomes too rigid for time managements, sometimes leaving too little time for ‘home’ commitments when at ‘work’ (and vice versa) but also sometimes leaving too much time, confining one to working commitments in absence of impending deadlines or anything approaching real urgency.

These circumstances pose a profound challenge to our capacity to direct our “energy towards a fixed, constant, subjectively worthwhile goal and to express it in action” (pg. 249). In other words, commitment becomes difficult when the things to which we might commit ourselves change so rapidly. This is the part of Rosa’ s argument that really fascinates me and I think he gets more directly to the heart of this issue then any of the other authors who address it. I’m interested in empirical detail about the life strategy through which people negotiate the moral logic of this situation. Where Rosa’s account fails dramatically, surprisingly so given his deep conversance with the thought of Charles Taylor, stems from his lack of appreciation for how ultimate concerns can function as meta-commitments: fleeting things in our lives take on mean relative to higher commitments which can transcend situational change. Certainly, this is not true of all commitments and I agree that sustaining commitments becomes much harder when social change reaches an intra-generational tempo. But I nonetheless think Rosa’s point is a dramatic overstatement and that the reasons for this hyperbole stem directly from his inadequate concept of reflexivity.

*It’s possible this may be an issue with the otherwise excellent translation, as Rosa is a wordy but precise author.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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