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  • Lex van der steen

Beyond space and time: against the acceleration of life

Before starting off, I would like to say that I am simply interested in how seemingly unrelated discourses and experiences overlap in individuals’ daily lives, and how exposing these relations, however arbitrary, might open up new possibilities for individual or collective action and thinking, and thereby of freedom.

In this text I make connections between the acceleration of the pace of life, the distinction between space and time, and one’s experience of climate change, where the latter might help to offer an alternative to the former two.

In Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, Hartmut Rosa signals three types of acceleration. First, the acceleration of goal-directed processes, mainly brought about by technical improvement like the increased speed of transportation and communication. Second, the acceleration of social change, which involves an acceleration of changeovers in the elements of life that are not goal-directed, like relationships and jobs. And lastly, the acceleration of the pace of life, which involves realizing more actions and experiences per unit of time. Rosa ultimately observes that these three types of acceleration form a self-propelling process, a “circle of acceleration” (Rosa, 2013, p. 156). New technology brings about social changes, as, for example, physical distances can be overcome more quickly and more easily. These social changes result in an increase of expectations and the number of actions to be done within the same time frame. As the increased demands increase more than the increase in speed of goal-directed processes, individuals need to do more within a certain timespan. As such, the acceleration of social changes results in the acceleration of the pace of life. The acceleration of the pace of life stimulates the acceleration of goal-directed processes which in turn induces the acceleration of social change that is responsible for the further acceleration of the pace of life.

Here I focus on a specific element of this overall acceleration, namely the fundamental transformation of humanity’s relation to space and time, which further increases the subjective effects of the acceleration of the pace of life. Rosa’s historical reading of the development of the category of time can be chronologically divided into three parts: 1) time as something directly derived from space, 2) time as independent from space and 3) ‘timeless time’. The first phase concerns the majority of human history, when the perception of time was dependent on the perception of space: “a feeling for time develops because spatial qualities in our vicinity change, it becomes light as day and dark as night, warm as summer and cold as winter” (Rosa, 2013, p. 98). Time was dependent on the changes of one’s spatial surroundings.

The second chronological phase that Rosa’s reading designates concerns the advancing disconnection of temporal perception from space (Rosa, 2013, p. 98). By means of technological developments, time got established as an independent dimension of reality that no longer relies on spatial and natural changes. This is a “placeless definition of time” (Rosa, 2013, p. 99). Progressively time becomes more important while space loses its significance. As such, the orienting function of space is taken over by time: the distance one needs to overcome is primarily measured by the time it requires to do so. Once material transportation can be replaced by digital transmission, space completely loses its orienting function and many things can be done anywhere at any moment. The corona pandemic has underlined how jobs and education can be attended from home, regardless of one’s place of residence.

The third chronological phase starts when “time is beginning to lose its unilinear, orientation-giving character because the connection of sequences and chronologies appears to be progressively dissolving” (Rosa, 2013, p. 102). As the acceleration of goal-directed processes keeps on providing new and more capable technologies and the possibility to do, see and place anything, anywhere at any given moment, even time starts losing its function of orientation. When sequences and chronologies dissolve, time no longer connects a certain moment to a certain activity, and hence no longer offers orientation. One can, for example, decide to work from home in the evening instead of working from nine to five at the office. Groceries can be done at any moment of the day and, if one prefers to rest on Wednesday instead of Sunday, this has increasingly become a possibility. Within this context Rosa refers to Manuel Castells concept of ‘timeless time’.

The three phases of Rosa’s reading of time and space can thus also be summarized as follows: 1) space has a function of orientation, 2) time has a function of orientation, and 3) nothing has a function of orientation.


Now, let me interpret the three phases of time and space through Agamben’s philosophical method. Throughout the largest part of his oeuvre, Agamben persistently uses the same method and structure of reasoning within different conceptual contexts. According to Agamben, humanity is constantly caught in apparatuses: collective activities and ways of thinking that shape reality and thereby, often unnoticed, generate a self-sustaining, ordering principle of human reality. These apparatuses appear as unescapable necessities and thereby limit human thought and activity. Agamben aims to unveil the contingency of these apparatuses by revealing how they rely on humanity’s potentiality to either manifest or not manifest these structures.

In his work, Agamben traces the categories that uphold and impel these apparatuses. These categories always entail a distinction. Categories require division, they need to be differentiated from their outside, their ‘background’. In order to be able to designate x, one needs to differentiate it from not-x.

While at first these distinctions function clearly as distinctions, the apparatuses that determine the present have, according to Agamben, today reached a point of indistinction, where the distinction has seemingly broken down. However, for Agamben, this indistinction entails a continuation of the distinction, only less apparent. For example, Derrida’s poststructuralism entails, according to Agamben, the moment when the distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic is seemingly overcome: if signifiers can no longer designate the non-linguistic world, but rather always refer to other signifiers, any expression about the non-linguistic would actually always refer to more language. In other words, all the non-linguistic would always already be mediated through language, and as such no clear distinction could be drawn. Yet, according to Agamben, the result of this is an image of humanity inevitably caught in a system of language. In other words, only one element of the distinction appears to be present, while actually the other element also remains present by determining the other through its supposed absence. Humanity, as being supposedly ‘caught’ in language, remains determined by the non-linguistic insofar it lacks access to the non-linguistic.

Similar to Rosa’s reading of time, Agamben’s readings of apparatuses can also be divided in three phases. At first, there is not yet a clear distinction: time relies on spatial changes and does not exist separate from space. Second, a clear and strict distinction is established, in this case between time and space. Then, lastly, the distinction breaks down as one of the two categories has become dominant, in this case time. Space is namely increasingly understood in terms of time. Rosa gives the example of the modern traveller that uses the plane to move around: “whoever flies completely breaks loose from the topographical space of life and the surface of the earth. For him, space is only an abstract, empty distance measured by the duration of the flight” (Rosa, 2013, p. 100). As such, time has lost its outside. Furthermore, as a result of the desire for everything to be possible any-time, space has become increasingly more mouldable. What remains present is not a solid spatial background, but the time to do anything regardless of location. Similar to the poststructuralist conception of language, where words always just refer to more words, time has lost its orientating function because it can only refer to itself, since space has lost all necessity and is always already understood in terms of time. Rosa cites Manuel Castells who writes that the “Elimination of sequencing creates undifferentiated time, which is tantamount to eternity” (Rosa, 2013, p. 104). The importance of this citation cannot be overstated: timeless time is tantamount to eternity. What underpins the subjective experience of having too little time is the fact that one has un-limited time, time that is not limited (by space).

The problem then is that human beings are seemingly caught in time, insofar time would have no outside. Time no longer refers, or orients, to something outside of time, like a task or a goal, something that needs to be done in relation to one’s physical reality. Time only refers to more time. Instead of guiding daily activities that need to be done, the categories of time always determine reality, but now without a guiding function. The ‘summer’ is no longer the time in which one takes a break from work, or the time in which certain crops need to be taken care of, but rather an abstract and omnipresent potential that needs to be actualized into something, whatever that something is. One constantly needs to do things, because there always is time.

Now is the moment.

In his work, Agamben offers alternatives to the distinctions he traces. These alternatives are always defined by humanity’s essential ‘inoperativity’: the idea that human beings do not coincide with any particular destiny or identity, but with their inherent potentiality to manifest this or that fate.

Within the realization of every identity something inevitably remains unactualized. Inoperativity can therefore not be expressed, since any expression is a certain actualization, a particular identity. It rather always embodies an unexpressed remainder. For this reason, Agamben wants to suspend the seeming necessity of all the apparatuses that limit humanity to a certain identity or fate.

In the different contexts of his works, Agamben offers different figures that represent inoperativity. In the case of time, Agamben has formulated a certain definition of ‘messianic time’. In developing his definition of messianic time, Agamben refers to the notion of ‘operational time’, which he takes from the philosophical linguist Gustave Guillaume. Although the mind experiences time, it must in order to represent it, according to Guillaume, make use of spatial constructions (like a line, for example). Such a ‘time-image’, however, represents time as if it were always already constructed. Yet, for Guillaume, understanding something cannot just entail its constructed form, but is only sufficient once it also incorporates the process of construction. Operational time, then, is the time that the mind takes to construct a representation of time. And, although this process might be very quick, it always takes some time, and can therefore never be represented. There always remains a delay. Operational time thus concerns the moment of construction that lies between a state of pure potentiality and its actualization. Agamben then distinguishes messianic time from operational time insofar it does not only concern the construction of a representation of time, but also the realm of its suspension or destruction.

Agamben furthermore emphasizes how, if thought and the subject take place by means of language, and every linguistic representation requires operational time, thought can never fully coincide with itself. Differently put, the thought of time, like any other thought, establishes a delay within the subject that separates it from itself. This delay is the inoperativity that remains unactualized in any identity. As such, Agamben can write that,

Whereas our representation of chronological time, as the time in which we are, separates us from ourselves and transforms us into impotent spectators of ourselves - spectators who look at the time that flies without any time left, continually missing themselves - messianic time, an operational time in which we take hold of and achieve our representations of time, is the time that we ourselves are, and for this very reason, is the only real time, the only time we have. (Agamben, 2005, p. 68)

At this point I would like to apply Agamben’s notion of messianic time to the distinction between time and space. Therefore, I take recourse to the Latin term spatium. This Latin term is the etymological origin of the term ‘space’. However, before Lucretius’ use of the term in his De Rerum Natura, the term had, specifically in Roman theatre and poetry, more often a temporal meaning than a spatial meaning, although the term was used in both ways (Lévy, 2014, p. 129). It is because of the simultaneous occurrence of spatial and temporal meaning that this term used to indicate at a certain moment in time that I would like to use this term for the ‘space-time variant’ of Agamben’s understanding of messianic time. I do not in any way wish to suggest that the term was ever meant in this way. I am simply recycling the term and using it in a new way.

As such, I define spatium as the ‘space-time’ needed to construct the representations of space and time – and thereby their distinction. It represents the inexpressible realm of singularity within which human activity takes place, and neither represents a pure realm of potentiality, nor the realm of fully actualized representations, but rather singular existence insofar it constructs and/or deconstructs these representations. In other words, spatium refers to the human activity of drawing spatial and temporal categories from its changing, material environment, like the changing of the seasons, that remains inevitably unexpressed in these categories.


The figures of inoperativity that Agamben traces within apparatuses, function as ‘paradigms.’ For Agamben, paradigms are singular cases that expose and render intelligible the group of which they are part by means of their inoperativity. By naturally failing to coincide with representations and expressions, and therefore being neither fully represented nor unrepresented, paradigms show the contingent and imperfect nature of the categories through which they are normally interpreted. It is in this particular way that messianic time, and therefore my formulation of spatium, cannot be directly represented but can, however, be shown.  

For that reason, I would here like to draw attention to Timothy Morton’s reading of the ‘end of the world’, which has, according to them, already happened. The term ‘world’, according to Morton, refers to the objectification of certain relatively gigantic ‘objects’, like the earth, the climate, capitalism or the biosphere, as a background. Morton points out that the notion of world has started to crumble since climate change has exposed the climate as an object capable of change, revealing its mere appearance as a steady background. The changes in the weather and the shifting of the seasons, manifesting itself as days in March that are way warmer than days in March used to be, reveal, according to Morton, that the notion of ‘world’ was only a contingent and constructed category.

The change of the weather in Morton’s reading of the end of the world functions in a way that fits Agamben’s understanding of the paradigm. Also, climate change does not only reveal the contingent character of the notion ‘world’, but also of the temporal category ‘season’. Therefore, I argue that climate change functions as a paradigm in relation to spatium, and reveals inoperativity. Climate change shows the unexpressed world in its capacity for the distinction between time and space (spatium) because it more and more regularly fails to coincide with the categories ‘spring’, ‘summer’, ‘autumn’ and ‘winter’. Winter days often look more like spring or autumn days, and spring days often feel more like summer days, and often several seasons even seem to appear in one single day. In the failing of these temporal categories to fully actualize, spatium, as the operational ‘space-time’ that is needed for these representations to be constructed, can, if one pays attention to it, be spotted.


Rosa writes that the lost orienting function makes “the formation of new modes of sensory orientation indispensable in late modern circumstances of action” (Rosa, 2013, p. 104). Spatium and inoperativity do not represent one solid sensory orientation, but rather expresses humanity’s capacity to constantly recreate and suspend the categories that offer orientation, which might be useful in a constantly and increasingly fast changing world. To remind oneself of this capacity, and to fight the incessant forgetting that accompanies the construction of categories, requires the constantly new designation of moments when these categories fail to actualize. The experience in which ‘winter’ does not actualize where it normally used to, shows that ‘time’ can also not-be. In the sensation of the too-warm sunlight on a day in February, time, represented as ‘winter’, is not there. Eternity stops being there. Spatium is revealed and offers an addition for the space-time distinction insofar time is no longer understood as something that is ‘always there’, but as something that can either be made or not-made in order to guide and orient one’s actions.


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