Not So Fast!

02 Apr 2008

In the March number of the US design magazine Metropolis, the article ‘Revenge of the Slow’ by Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk novelist, professor of ‘Media and Design’ at the European Graduate School and collaborator on the Torino World Design project, argues that, ‘In the ultimate irony the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini has created a global movement to combat globalism’.

To read the full article

www.metropolismag.com/cda/story.php?artid=3190

Here we publish a critical review of Sterling’s piece by an eminent American sociologist

Bruce Sterling’s recent critique of Slow Food (‘Revenge of the Slow’) is a rather pathetic effort by an elitist to savage Slow Food for its elitism. The essay is littered with derogatory terms used by the author to denigrate Slow Food (‘snobs’, ‘piranhas’ etc.) in the course of a rather forced attempt to dismiss the organization and its efforts to support an alternative to the industrial food (and other products) purveyed by global capitalist corporations.

Sterling appears to believe that the only things that are worthwhile are those that can be distributed to ‘mass consumers’ by ‘multinationals’ through ‘industrial economies of scale’. While there is certainly a place — indeed a very large place — for such products, why is Slow Food and its support for the ‘non-globalized’, the ‘artisanally-made’, that which is of ‘high quality’ and that which is ‘sustainably produced’ so threatening to the multinationals, and their flaks, who dominate so much of the world market … for everything? It appears that the continued existence of anything that does not emanate from the maw of the industrial machinery of capitalist enterprises is dangerous because it can serve to remind people that there are alternatives to those products and that, once reminded, many people might flock to these alternatives.

Indeed, given the poor quality of almost all industrial food (and other products), they are in a precarious position and could be discarded easily by a population that gets a taste, or even a whiff, of the kinds of alternatives supported by Slow Food.

Thus, Sterling seeks to damn Slow Food with the hoary charge of elitism so that the vast majority of people in the world who do not think of themselves as elites are not drawn to it, and more importantly, the products for which it stands.

Tellingly, Sterling seeks to align himself with the masses, and against the supposedly elite Slow Food movement, by writing in highly elitist fashion, using terms like ‘myrmidons’, ‘ganglion’ and ‘paladin’. Sterling’s real audience seems to be other elitists who he seems deathly afraid might be attracted to the Slow Food cause.

But what is wrong with the criteria that Sterling associates with Slow Food and the foodstuffs (and other products) it supports? It seems to me that there is, and must be, a place for that which is non-globalized, artisanally-made, of high quality and sustainably produced. Logically, if one does not support such things — as Sterling does not — then one supports that which is globalized, industrially produced, of poor quality, and produced unsustainably. To support the latter is to support that which already dominates the world and is rapidly destroying not only good taste but literally the world itself.

In my terms, what Sterling supports is ‘nothing’ —that which is centrally conceived, controlled and lacking in distinctive content. In contrast, Slow Food supports ‘something’ — that which is locally conceived, controlled and rich in distinctive content (see George Ritzer, The Globalization of Nothing 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2007). Readers have a clear choice — the nothingness supported by Sterling or the somethingness that is the hallmark of Slow Food.

Sterling closes his diatribe with an interesting phrase to describe Slow Food — ‘a networked swarm of piranhas’. Well, it’s a comparatively pretty small swarm (83,000 members by Sterling’s count) that, on the surface, shouldn’t worry the industrial producers for that which is consumed by billions of people every day. Further, why ‘piranhas’? Slow Food members are described earlier in Sterling’s piece as ‘jolly’ ‘global gourmets’, who would seem to be too busy living the good life to be devouring ‘aging sharks’ like McDonald’s. Jolly gourmets, even piranhas, would seem to stand little chance against a shark, even one that is aging.

One can only conclude that the global industrial system for food (and other) production is more vulnerable, and Slow Food is more threatening to it, than even Carlo Petrini ever realized. That industrial system is global and it does require a global ‘cultural network’ to keep it (semi-)honest, support alternatives to its products, and just maybe pose an alternative to it. It is alternatives, and an alternative, that the global industrial system finds worrisome, even dangerous.

George Ritzer, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, is the author of seminal works on consumption and globalization, such as The McDonaldization of Society (1993) and The Globalization of Nothing (2004).

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