Saturday, November 28, 2009

Against 'slow'

It's not slow-food. It's slow-everything. I'm suspicious every time anyone asks us, as a society, to slow down. It is my suspicion that those who ask for 'slow' are simply out to get New York - perhaps Jews specifically, perhaps gays specifically, but at any rate, something along the lines of the first quote on this page. So am I surprised that Mike Huckabee has not only written a book on Christmas but one that apparently asks us to slow down its observance? No, not so much.

(Are there non-bigots who simply fantasize about living in a cobblestoned past? Sure, but if they don't specifically acknowledge the parts of that past that were not charmingly dedicated to finding new uses for kale, then they're part of the problem. Or, what Travis Boyer says.)


Anonymous said...

I lived in the NE for years. I now live in a very large city in Texas. There is a demonstrable difference in the pace of life. The latter is infinitely preferable, IMO. It's not my place to tell anyone to slow down, and I certainly am not out to get "New York" or anyone from there.

But the pace of life in that city is not a good fit for everyone. For some, it can be downright unhealthy. So while I certainly wouldn't tell anyone from NYC they ought to slow down, the mere idea that a marginally slower pace of life can be better for some people and some ways of living hardly strikes me as a conspiracy against New York, Jews, gays, or any other marginalized group one might think of.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"But the pace of life in that city is not a good fit for everyone. For some, it can be downright unhealthy."

Unhealthy how? Because modernity is inherently dirty? I'm genuinely curious what you mean by this, because it's not self-evident. Also, what do you mean by the pace of life? How quickly people with office jobs must get tasks done? How quickly one gets one's latte at Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, etc.? The complaint that 'things move too fast these days/in certain cities/regions' rarely gets substantiated with actual examples of what moves quickly, other than fast food, which is hardly a city-specific phenomenon. So, examples, please.

Anonymous said...


There is an enormous body of literature documenting the epidemiologic sequelae of chronic stress. Extremely robust connections exist between longterm chronic stress and virtually every serious chronic illness you can imagine. It is, of course, easy to trivialize ("getting a latte quickly enough in Dunkin Donuts), but seeing as how disproportionate burdens of chronic illness are borne by those whose social and economic conditions almost certainly cause the highest levels of chronic stress, nonchalance seems inadvisable.

Of course, none of this is meant to imply that NYC is less healthy than other places which have relatively slower paces of life. But chronic stress has powerful effects on health. For some people, the pace of life in the NE may contribute to that stress (the cost of living certainly does).

As for examples, law firm culture is one I am somewhat familiar with. The billable hours, the face time requirements, the general expectations on associates in large firms is, to the best of my understanding, quite different in NYC than it is in Houston. That is, in fact, one of the ways Houston law firms compete for associates -- with surprising success -- with large law firms in the NE. The pace of life is saner.

Although I know many who do and would prefer to work as an attorney in NYC than Texas, I find it difficult to believe even most of those with said preference would deny the pace of life is slower is the latter, and that this fact could be both more attractive and actually better for some people.

Anonymous said...

Upon rereading, I apologize for the snarkyness in the first paragraph. The social determinants of health is kind of the center of my work, and I admit to taking it extremely seriously. Obviously, you meant no offense by asking what I intended by reference to "health," and I should have stuck with a straightforward answer.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"There is an enormous body of literature documenting the epidemiologic sequelae of chronic stress."

OK, this sounds fancy but gets us nowhere, and only serves to make me look unfeeling without identifying a) what "pace" refers to, and b) why it (allegedly) causes/exacerbates stress. I'm not being "nonchalant," I just genuinely do not know what differences people are referring to 99% of the time I hear variants of 'things today just move so fast.' I don't doubt that stress impacts health, just that something so ill-defined as 'pace of life' is relevant.

As for law firms, this is indeed a concrete example, so much appreciated. What I'd say to this, though, is that while it's true that one finds the most competitive in many arenas in a city like New York, this does not in any way force all to participate. I'm sure there are lawyers with more and less reasonable schedules within the city - do the big-firm lawyers make the same in Houston as in NY? If not, why is the Houston big firm preferable to the less-hectic, perhaps smaller (I don't really know what adjectives one uses to denote different types of law firms) NY one? And does this 'pace' issue affect people with jobs that are not similar to being corporate lawyers, a job bound to attract competitive, potentially-stressed-out types in any locale? As in, would a supermarket cashier or a psychiatrist or a teacher relax more outside New York? Having been a student in both Hyde Park, Chicago, and lower Manhattan, I'm assuming (although 'slow' is still ill-defined) the former is more 'slow', I have not found one setting more stressful than the other. The plusses and minuses are more about convenience versus distraction.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"Obviously, you meant no offense by asking what I intended by reference to "health," and I should have stuck with a straightforward answer."

Thanks. And yes, I'd like to know what you meant by both 'pace' and 'health' - see the comment I wrote before receiving this one.

Anonymous said...


Pace of life is indeed ill-defined, but I am totally prepared to say for the purposes of a blog comment that there is no "essence" to pace of life in the sense of necessary and sufficient criteria. If you like, it it might be analogized to a Wittgensteinian form of life. Phenomenologically, large numbers of people seem to believe that life simply feels more hectic, more rushed, more pressured in the NE than in other parts of the country.

Why they feel this way is certainly interesting and relevant, and I don't have much wisdom to proffer on the subject, other than a fairly firm conviction that the lack of criteria and specificity does not token a lack of sense on the issue. That many persons report this perception is in and of itself significant.

Re the law firm issue, most of your points seem to me simply to show that not everyone involved in the culture might have a particular position on the pace of life in NYC vs. Houston (or many other places, I tend to think). This seems to me to be somewhat besides the point, as you asked for an example in which participants in a given community seem to indicate the pace of life is qualitatively different in the NE than in another place, and that this pace might conceivably influence some people to choose to live in one or the other place.

(Of course, nothing about this requires the existence of no other factors that might influence the decision, which is some of what you asked about).

Regardless of what any given person does or does not choose, the example seems to me to go to that point. No?

Britta said...

I once read somewhere that the rate of heart attacks in NYC is statistically significantly higher than the rest of the US, and that the average heart rate in NYC is also across the board higher. Moreover, that when the same person leaves NYC, their heart rate slows down, regardless of activity. That would indicate that a faster pace of life does have a negative effect on health.

Phoebe, I agree with you in part about slow food/whatever movements to a certain point, but I don't think that people pointing out the crazy pace of life modernity/large cities have produced are inherently out to get marginalized group X. There are appreciable quality of life issues (e.g, amount of sleep, ideas of productivity, etc) that have developed relatively recently and for which the human body is not necessarily designed to do. As a corollary, there's a body of anthropological and historical literature on "drug foods," basically pointing out that the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without coffee, sugar, and black tea, as people cannot sustain productivity for 8-12 hours without some sort of artificial stimulus.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I wonder what causes the change in heart rate. Does it go down even if the next stop is another big city? Is leaving the Northeast entirely even better? I also wonder how the greater part of the day New Yorkers spend walking enters into this - shouldn't that make heart rates lower? I wouldn't be surprised if this all comes down to the frustration that is riding the MTA...

"I don't think that people pointing out the crazy pace of life modernity/large cities have produced are inherently out to get marginalized group X"

You could be right. In fact, I agree, because "inherently out to get" is a bit extreme. I'm not sure, actually, how best to word what I'm trying to get at, which is that when, without making reference to any particular difference between New York and elsewhere, people make reference to 'pace', I think there's often more to it than some implicit understanding that law firm workers are particularly stressed-out in New York. 'Slow' in this context means 'less competitive', and can indicate a healthy approach to life, on the one hand, or, on the other, a fear of meritocracy and a desire to live in a world of inherited privilege.

Similarly, 'slow' in other contexts (food; fashion, apparently) is either an innocuous appreciation of the finer things in life, or an excuse to reject modernity. Certain groups that have particularly benefited from modernity (that is, a number of marginalized groups) don't really have access to that kind of nostalgia - a 'return to village life' suggests nothing particularly positive, even if the vegetables at each meal had just been picked. So nostalgia for a world where everything was small-scale and local, where shoes came from the cobbler who knew us all by name, is (unless caveats are attached explicitly) at best indifferent to the improvement society has undergone since then. Basically, what "Mr. Boyer" says in the article I link to.

It's certainly possible to critique aspects of modernity or city life without even unintentionally insulting anyone - this is done by pointing to specifics, such as the things you mention (lack of sleep, the need for coffee, sugar, and black tea, which I'd be the last to deny relying on). But when these critiques are extremely vague - which they nearly always are - I do doubt that all that's being referred to, in all cases, is relative heart rates in various locales.

Britta said...

I do to a point agree with you, and I think one of the problems with a lot of these "back to the soil" type movements that makes you uneasy is their grounding in German Romanticism. While that movement has done many positive and influential things, it also has a very dark underside, which is not always separable from its more reputable side. The idea that people are united by a common culture, language, and tied to a specific geography has underlied modern anti-colonialist movements worldwide, and also been the basis for multicultural and anti-racist movements in the US, but it is also predicated on a particularly anti-Semitic corollary: that those without a geographical homeland, and (before the reconstruction of, say, Hebrew) a language, are not a "real" people and therefore do not have a "real" culture deserving of protection. This explains much of the paradox of German social thought (from the Modern Anglo-Saxon perspective), how an intellectual tradition so cognizant of racist and colonial injustice against those outside of Europe could also be the place that eventually perpetrated one of the greatest acts of hatred against people within Europe. Obviously, to blame German Romanticism for Hitler is incredibly insulting to its more principled practitioners: Hitler was a thug, not a scholar or intellectual, but one cannot deny that German Romanticism lay the roots for modern anti-racism AND Nazism, and to unpack the relationship between the two can be difficult. Of course, the Enlightenment and the rise of Western "modernity" (e.g. modern civil society, the Industrial Revolution, etc.) is also a two-edged sword, and critiquing anti-modern elements of German Romanticism by championing modernity is also problematic.

So... this is just a bit of rambling (and obviously an oversimplification of large heterogeneous movements), and obviously I'm not making a huge conclusive point, but I think these issues are interesting to think through.