Last week I went to hear journalist and self-help guru Carl Honoré answer questions about his TED talk “In Praise of Slow” (which is a short version of his book of the same title). It happened to be the day before I taught Foucault’s “Docile Bodies” chapter, from Discipline and Punish, in which he describes how the organization of time was transformed in the late 18th century.
Honoré talked compellingly about the need to slow down our lives, to enjoy the moments rather than rushing toward a future. We are obsessed with speed, he said, with doing ever-more in ever-less time. But this pervasive attitude only distracts us from important connections with others, or prevents us enjoying the fruits of our labours. He peppered both the TED talk and his response to the audience with personal anecdotes: reading a story to his son at the child’s own pace, giving up speeding (literally), accepting fewer invitations to speak so that he can spend more time at home. He represented all of these decisions as choices–made against social pressure, engrained habit, self-image, or even financial gain, to be sure, but choices nonetheless.
Several people in the audience asked him why it was so hard to slow down, or how we had come to a situation where a father might think that a children’s book should be read aloud in three minutes rather than five. His answers were interestingly individualistic: we get a thrill from speed, we feel lazy or peer-pressured if we don’t cultivate busyness, we are stuck in fear or inertia, or even, we feel guilty or ashamed if we refuse a culture of manic work.
All his examples of work were also of professions in which individuals exert considerable autonomy over their work lives, and where failures of attention or overwork might negatively effect performance: academics, journalists, investment bankers. A number of times he commented that in his presentations to business he always emphasized that slowing down can actually increase productivity. (This seemed to be a big selling point of his analysis.)
During the discussion I reflected on how hard it is for most people to hold any kind of historical picture in mind. Because I had just reread Foucault, I recalled his treatment of how, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, schools, armies, hospitals enclose people into structured spaces in part to impose a kind of structured time. I’ve also been working with E.P. Thompson’s famous argument about the imposition of clock-time onto industrial management, which makes a more Marxist argument about how important it is to extract the maximum surplus value from workers by maximizing their use of time. Both Foucault and Thompson are pretty scathing about the still-pervasive idea that time can be treated as a commodity that can be infinitely subdivided, Zeno-like, to enable ever-greater productivity. The politics of time look a bit different under more recent regimes of time, where many of us are expected to be constantly available for work, to multi-task, to make our time maximally flexible for the employer, and to work, simply, more and more hours for less and less financial security. All of these management practices contribute to the culture of speed, which is now a key part (I’d argue) of the economic formation we call “neoliberalism.”
So I wondered how to situate a self-help analysis like Honoré’s in a more radical political context. The recent sudden death of investment banking intern Moritz Erhardt in the City of London (which he cited) may be a tragic death from overwork that merits some changes in business practice. But consider the hotel cleaners in the UK who are paid so little per room that they cannot make the minimum wage, or who are subject to harassment and threats if they don’t work hard enough or long enough. If you have some autonomy in your work situation (maybe, like Honoré, you’re self-employed, or, like me, you have tenure) then maybe overcoming the stigma of slowing down is a viable choice. It may even be that for very highly trained or experienced workers a certain element of longevity is desirable for the employer. (A lot of mid-career professors seem to end up on stress-related medical leave at my university, which is awfully expensive and inefficient.) But hotel cleaning is relatively unskilled, and if there’s a large pool of labour to draw on, employers are likely to think that they can burn out their employees at will. We know that class is a social determinant of health; the statistics on who dies of heart attacks or cancer include thousands of overwork-related deaths. This is evidence of the power “to foster life or disallow it to the point of death,” as Foucault later puts it. But those deaths will likely never be pegged in the way that Erhardt’s death was. These are people understood as disposable workers. They are hardly going to struggle with the shame of slowing down, so much as ardently wish for the possibility. Paying them minimum wage (or, better, a living wage) might increase productivity, I suppose, but probably not. That’s not really the point, is it?
My wish for the Slow movement, then, is that it develops more of a historical consciousness, and gets politically more savvy. I don’t think that all slowing down is the property of the intellectual classes, and some Slow politics is genuinely inclusive. But I do suspect that the popularization of Slow as a voluntaristic gesture made by individuals who want to get out of the rat-race but who aren’t faced with actually starving or becoming homeless as a result risks missing a lot about how time is managed.
At the end of the session, Honoré remarked that “there’s good slow and bad slow.” “Bad slow” is something like slackerdom, or giving up all ambition. “Good slow” seemed to be something more mindful, attentive. The depletion of dreadful, exhausting work, I think, makes bad slow attractive if you can get it. Good slow is a complicated thing, but a real one. In order to make it viable, we need good work.