… We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods. … ”
(From the Manifesto marking the foundation of the Slow Food Movement, Paris 1989)
A number of influential commentators rashly declared that the first decade of the twenty-first century would be marked by speed, both in business and in socio-cultural change. But, except for the dramatic succession of violent events taking place in the world and the worrying acceleration of deplorable global conflicts, the desire for an ‘accelerated world’ would not seem to be people’s top priority. On the contrary, as a sociologist has observed, “It is curious to note that the twentieth century opened with effervescent energy and a worship of dynamism, only to finish as though in a tango, yearning to rediscover a slower pace”. That is not all, there are increasing numbers of people and movements recognizing the drawbacks of an existence based on grab and run or, even worse, an unthinking acceptance of “constantly living in the fast lane” with all its stressful consequences for health. The world seems to race by, too fast for us to keep up, our days are overwhelmed with meetings, commitments and deadlines. It is no coincidence that a movement like Slow Food—which has made the word ‘slowness’ into a mark of its identity—is expanding significantly in societies dedicated to speed and frenzied activity, such as the USA or Japan. Or—just as significant for our case—that when writers, economists, urban planners, designers, sociologists or philosophers address the issue of slowness, it indicates how important it has become and that we need to discuss it. So, whatever the proponents of speed may tell us, they too have become victims of the same ‘adrenaline rush’, dependent on a cult of efficiency which risks overstressing the whole planet.
Everyone complains they don’t have time and modern Western Civilization is increasingly characterized by a needless emphasis on efficiency, accompanied by a utilitarian attitude to time. All this in spite of people wanting to slow down, worried about losing control of their lives and loved ones. Even in the United States there are clear indications and, according to various economists, large numbers of Americans would like a different life, willing to sacrifice financial rewards in order to have more free time. In 2000, Hans Magnus Enzensberger speculated that it will no longer be a case of ‘killing time’ but of cultivating it, enjoying it in order to secure a better quality of life, discovering the pleasure of living and promoting our being. “Civilization is not created by work”, presciently observed the philosopher Alexandre Koyré, “it is created by free time and play.” Of course, this means a new type of free time, the result of a more intelligent and civilized organization of work and space. The city can be seen as a place for social fulfillment where the words idleness and happiness are not seen as negative. As a Zen saying states: “The person who is master of the art of living makes little distinction between work and free time, between mind and body, education and recreation, love and religion”. If anything, the risk is that we are no longer able to balance our views of life and work and the former is infected with the virus of speed. We confuse frantic activity for efficiency—free time and even holidays involve hard work. It is true that ‘speed kills old economic activities, old companies and old rules’, it contributes to global modernization, the rise of syncopated and chronological thought. But what then? Incredibly this model, as a result of virtual business and digital communication, is already fading and on the way out. Neurotically pursuing modernity, seeking to become part of it in every possible way, is today an indication of confusion, strategic backwardness and a lack of far-sighted planning. The future challenges facing us demand new and far-reaching revolutions, such as becoming our own boss, being able to constantly reinvent ourselves based on new wisdom, aiming to promote our well-being and that of others.
Slowing down, then, or a paradoxical ‘running slowly’, so as to once again think and reflect. Seeking a profound philosophy in the ‘Slow Life’, of life lived taking one’s time, ‘taming the hectic rush to modernity’, where slowness can become a sort of homeopathic medicine healing existential schizophrenia, a wonderful new passion that can be pleasantly nurtured. Being seduced by calm, comforting rhythms, minuscule daily gestures, without the frenetic need to shoot ahead, re/discovering those small-great pleasures which are the best defense against stress. Slowness needs nurturing and defending with a flexible strategy consistent with one’s life and, as Claudio Magris wrote in one of his articles, ‘without challenging the world’s frenzied activity head-on, but rather escaping its clutches like a Chinese wrestler, reporting sick—whenever one can—when called up for general mobilization”. Beginning—and why not?—at the table and with food, which as many now agree, is an expression and metaphor for a large part of what we assimilate from the external environment and, more specifically, from our ‘cultural ecosystem’.
Every day we can be planning and promoting our progress to the future against the sensory standardization of the fast-food system, once again experiencing the riches of forgotten cuisines and defending the biodiversity of large numbers of products created by the slow work of nature and man. A reassessment of food, moving towards an ecology of food habits, sustainable lifestyles, a new sense of place, space and time. These are symbolic indications of how modern man is changing. Free time, the management of one’s own future, but particularly creative leisure, leading to peace of mind and calmness—these are becoming the hallmarks of coming decades. Not money, not success for the sake of success, certainly not working one’s way up the career ladder. As one could say ‘time isn’t money’. Maybe the much reviled idleness, ‘the father of all vices’, risks becoming the savior of humanity.
First published in the catalogue to the exhibition Quotidiano sostenibile: scenari di vita urbana, edited by Ezio Manzini, François Jégou, at the Milan Triennial until December 21
Giacomo Mojoli, a lecturer at Milan Polytechnic and journalist, is the Slow Food International vice-president
Adaptation by Ronnie Richards