The Slow Movement and Modernity

I keep turning over in my head ideas for a contribution to North Dakota Quarterly’s issue dedicated to the slow movement that I’m co-editing this fall (go here for the call for papers!). While I suspect I’ll write something on slow archaeology, I spent some time this weekend with Paul Halstead’s new book Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean (2014) and it got me thinking about our current fascination with slow in the context of the preindustrial world.

Halstead’s book looks, in part, on the rhythms of pre mechanized farming in Greece through several decades of ethnographic and archaeological research. One thing that comes through in his work is that very little about the process of farming in the preindustrial world was properly slow. In fact, during crucial times of the year – like when harvesting and threshing overlap or when multiple fields require plowing – there is constant pressure on the farmer to move from one task to the next. Halstead’s informant on Amorgos harvested in the morning, transported around mid-day, and threshed in the afternoon. Time pressure also accompanied sowing and plowing routines in the fall when delaying by even a day risks the loss of seed to birds or miserable situation of having to plow waterlogged fields. Constant communication with members of the community as well as strategic collaboration ensured that farmers kept abreast of situations present in distant or dispersed fields. 

At the same time I was reading this, I was reading over some of the buzz about the unplugging movement and the National Day of Unplugging (March 7-8). The idea behind unplugging relates somehow to an ancient practice of taking a day of rest where you disengage from the rest of the world. Whether the organizers have understood these “ancient” ideas correctly or not is less a concern than the general indulgence in anachronistic notions among unpluggers and slow advocates. They seems to hang onto this romantic notion that somehow life was slower, less rushed, less dominated by the press of time in the past. Advocates of the infamous “work-life balance” likewise harken back to a mythical day when work and life were sufficiently well defined to be set in balance against one another.

The irony, of course, is that questioning the value of a hectic pace of life is a luxury available only in modern, industrialized societies. In other words, it is a profoundly modern indulgence that we can slow down without fear of crops being ruined and we can disengage from our social networks without losing information vital to our survival as individuals or a family. 

Does this irony undermine the basic idea that a slower, less distracted pace of life is better? I don’t think it does. Certainly, the intense pace of life experienced by farmers in a preindustrial economy was not conducive to long, healthy lives. In fact, Halstead points out that the toil of harvesting alone was something that 20 or 30 years olds could endure best, but older folks – you know, in their 40s! – avoided, reminds us that the physical exertions of premodern life were intense and, by modern standards, debilitating. Maybe remembering this will help us keep our rhetoric in check a bit. Slowing down and unplugging are modern indulgences available to a very small number of individuals in the wealthy, western world. We should celebrate these opportunities, but always realize that they very tools that we blame for the robbing us of work/life balance are the the same tools that have allowed us to define work and life as separate entities.

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