An Introduction to Slow

I have a few days this week to get work done before the holidays and decided to start work on my part of the introduction to our volume of North Dakota Quarterly dedicated to the Slow Movement. While we’re still putting the final touches on the contributions, the volume obviously requires a few words introducing the topic.

In particular, I was struck by how most of our contributors fell short of considering the global context for the Slow Movement, and its role in the peculiar narrative of Western progress.  A call for society to slow down and resist the pressures of fast capitalism and late modernity works best for communities who have the political, economic, and social power and freedom to question the dominant narrative. As my introduction suggests, communities who remain enmeshed in the colonial rhetoric of development, progress, and efficiency.

So, here’s the first draft: 

Slow: An Introduction

The Slow Movement began in Italy in 1986 led by Carlo Petrini’s efforts to block the opening of a McDonalds in near the famed Spanish Steps in Rome. He argued that McDonalds’ global brand of fast food was inferior both in terms of taste, but also owing to the social and economic relationships necessary to bring this inferior product to market. In place of fast food, Petrini began a movement that celebrated the intentional pace of a traditional Mediterranean meal as the antithesis to the transnational hurry embodied by processed meals. Simultaneously evoking the twin evils of globalization and the accelerated pace of capitalism, the Slow Food movement that developed around Petrini’s writing championed local cuisine, local ingredients, and the ethical obligations to enjoy the conscientious preparation and consumption of food. Since that time, Slow Foods movement has become a global phenomena and embraced a range of causes centered on local foods, seasonal delicacies, deliberate preparation, and the understanding of meals as places for social interaction.

The impact of the Slow Foods movement spread far beyond its Italian origins and focus on food. Looking back over its first two decades, Carl Honoré summarized the diverse takes on the idea of “slow” and the benefits of this deliberate approach to life by writing in Praise of Slowness (2004). Honoré saw technology, our increasing fixation on efficiency, and even the rapid pace of our modern “culture” as eroding our ability to savor life and be happy. He urged his readers to slow down, disconnect, and declutter their lives in an effort to regain control over their own experiences.

The Slow Movement intersects with academic critiques of late-20th century capitalism. For example, Ben Agger’s critique of “fast capitalism” (Agger 1989; 2004) and David Harvey’s “time-space compression” both locate the increased pace of daily life in the dynamics of late capitalism with its endless drive toward efficiency in the movement and production of global capital (Harvey 1989). Contemporary capitalism privileges the ability to adapt, grow, and produce quickly, and this has contributed to a fascination with speed in our society today. In this context, uniformity becomes the norm and locates human experience against a banal reality of non-places (Augé 1995).

This celebration of slowness, of course, has not provided an escape from capitalism, but has been incorporated into that totalizing system. Today, calls to embrace the slow lifestyle are as likely to come from a luxury car maker as a global coffee company, restaurant chain, or footwear manufacture. By coopting the rhetoric of slow, companies have recognized the appeal of a superficial and popular approach to “slow consumption.” In this context, slow often becomes little more than deliberately driving a Subaru to a Whole Foods store in a suburban strip mall or cruising the Pacific Coast Highway in a Mercedes SUV. The lavishly prepared meal prepared with local foods and filled with animated conversation reflects a distant social reality from the working class who feast on fast food between shifts or survive on the meager, prepackaged offerings at urban, discount grocery stores. It is hardly necessary to observe that subsistence farmers in the global south have different attitudes toward “local” food and the pressures of constant connection has a different meaning to poor and isolated communities that are using mobile devices to access the world of micro-finance, to participate in local and national politics, and to engage with the wider world. In short, the Slow Movement represents an opportunity for affluent Westerners to escape a trap of their own making while still enjoying the fruits of a world that cannot afford to slow down.

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