Healthy slowness

Slowness is not a lack of speed, but rather the highest degree of resistance to a world that is racing ahead and seeking to enlist men in an endless race towards acceleration.

Rain, Steam and Speed ​​– Turner, 1844

Table Rain, steam and speed painted by Turner in 1844 well illustrates the subject of the last essay by Laurent Vidal, historian specializing in Atlantic circulations and Brazilian cities. The scene is familiar. On a bridge spanning a river, a powerful locomotive pierces the blur of the background to impose its movement on the viewer. Relegated to the sides, as if pushed aside by the speed of the machine, characters stand out painfully, sitting on a boat, dancing or leading animals to the shore. The author then notes the contrast: “on the railway bridge, dominating and superb, the new era already triumphs, ignorant of those who cannot enter into the rhythm it imposes” (p. 109).

These people left behind by the modern rhythm are the slow men whose genealogy Laurent Vidal offers here is original and usefully illustrated. Using paintings, philosophical works and poems, he leads us to see how slowness has become a discriminating social quality, attributed to various figures from the Middle Ages to the present day: the “lazy Indian” and the “indolent” Black, the “slacker”, “lazy” or “inattentive” worker, the contemporary exile, etc. The author then carefully dissects the semantic evolutions of these numerous adjectives gravitating around the central term of slow. Attention to words is also found in the writing itself, clear, careful without being pretentious, but whose literary use of analogies can sometimes pose a problem of interpretation, we will come back to this. Finally, let us emphasize that the essay has an obvious political dimension (“facing up to a discourse that we constantly receive, which is the discourse of efficiency, of promptness”). It thus prolongs the action of these slow men who knew how to subvert modern times through changes of rhythm, by slowing down the pace at the factory, experimenting with new music, or occupying the dead times in these “territories of waiting” (p. 198) that are the quays of the port cities of the Atlantic.

A genealogy of slow discrimination

In the introduction to this essay, Laurent Vidal draws inspiration from the Brazilian geographer Milton Santos and the poet Aimé Césaire to challenge “thea priori of a fundamental maladjustment of the slow to the modern world” (p. 12). And he devotes his first chapter to the genealogy of this maladaptation, starting with the etymology of the Latin term lentus : originally designating a soft, flexible form, in the plant world, its meaning is restricted to XVIe century to designate a temporal value. Theologians like the Dominican Guillaume Peyraud thus associate from the XIIIe century the sin of acedia to idleness and slowness (p. 37). Added to this religious struggle against guilty laziness is a commercial concern for promptness in the economic domain (p. 43).

A first social figure of theslow man which ideally embodies, for Europeans at the end of the XVe and from the beginning of the XVIe century, the “lazy Indian” of the New World (p. 49). But theslow man can also be European and white, like these “ slow men of london » (p. 63), unfortunate protagonists of a popular English ballad that mocks the inadequacy of new arrivals in the capital to urban codes. In any case, from the XVIIIe century, the conditions are met for “slowness in all its forms (to be) perceived as an obstacle to the proper functioning of society” (p. 72).

The unprecedented speed of steam and its industrial applications fuels a “war on the slow”, the subject of the second chapter. Machinery and the multiplication of watches and clocks impose a new temporal discipline on the bodies of workers (p. 107). The terms “lambin” and “lambiner” thus stigmatize, from the end of the XVIIIe century, workers too slow (p. 99). A century later, it was the “inattentive man” who designated those unsuited to industrial work (p. 113). Colonized, Native Americans and Blacks are also accused of “indolence” (p. 120), relegated to the bottom of a social and racial hierarchy based in particular on the speed celebrated by Georges Simmel, Filippo Marinetti and Marcel Proust. In a bold hypothesis but which deserves to be better demonstrated, Laurent Vidal even suggests seeing in the “camping” of a certain number of socially undesirable people by the Nazi regime “the culmination of the metaphorical confinement in discriminatory categories of those whose actions at work and lifestyle do not seem adapted to the new rhythmic norms of society” (p. 141).

Speed ​​– Robert Demachy, 1904

The subversive power of changes of rhythm

The third chapter is aptly named “Impromptu”. Its brevity directly echoes the breaks in rhythm of the slow men that it serves to introduce, ruptures “whose unexpected and unexpected use can become a means of contesting their sidelining” (p. 147). These ruptures, at the heart of the fourth chapter, take various forms. Slaves slow down, for example, from XVIIIe century, plantation work in the United States and Brazil. Scottish workers did the same at the end of the XIXe century to obtain an increase in their salary. They thus launched a movement called Go Canny (“go slowly”) (p. 156-157). The meaning of certain derogatory terms is sometimes distorted, as in the Right to laziness by Paul Lafargue (1880) or theApology for the idle (1877) by Robert Louis Stevenson.

But it is above all the port cities of the Atlantic, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans in the lead, and their population of low-skilled workers, the roustabouts, which interest Laurent Vidal. Made up of displaced Blacks and Europeans, former slaves and immigrants, this population alternates frenetic activity and downtime. She also frequents “honky tonks” (musical bars) where they invent ragtime, crioleus And stink musicso many cultural, corporeal and sensitive forms, which consider “the hypothesis of another relationship to time – no longer a time which dominates, but a time which liberates” (p. 191).

Roustabouts unloading cotton from steamboat ca. – 1900

While the author had previously tried to distinguish different figures in history, slow menhe asks, as he approaches his conclusion, a fundamental question: “and if the category of slow men was part of the very structures of human societies, instead of emerging and developing in a specific conjuncture? (p. 199). The numerous examples of social classification between fast and slow, notably among the Australian aboriginal tribes studied by the anthropologist Carl Georg von Braudenstein, suggest this. Laurent Vidal, however, is quick to move beyond the clash between the conjunctural and the structural: “(i)f the habit of characterizing certain individuals by slowness seems immutable (attested in different cultures and at different times), it ends up (at least in the Western world) by transforming itself to become in the course of its temporal development (…) a form of social discrimination” (p. 202).

What about slow women?

In conclusion, Laurent Vidal sketches the contours of what the contemporary figures of slow menexiles (p. 207) and Yellow Vests (p. 212), men And women. Why didn’t we talk about these before? For the author, “it was men who were primarily addressed by the speeches about getting to work” (p. 209). The assertion is surprising. Women have never been absent from paid work, even industrial work. And by focusing on urban wage labor, the author neglects all the nuances of work in the modern era, in which women occupy a central place, in the fields or in domestic workshops. Although excluded from most corporations, they freely exercise certain professions, particularly in small and large commerce, and sometimes even own businesses. We therefore do not see why they would have escaped the injunctions to speed and the discrimination by slowness which affects men. Furthermore, the accusation of idleness, whose place in social and racial hierarchies Laurent Vidal clearly shows, also nourishes gender hierarchies in public and domestic spaces. In 1531, a man who killed his wife obtained a royal pardon by denouncing her inactivity at home! In short, there was a whole discriminating imagination there around the slow womensoft, lazy or corrupting, which would have had its place in this essay.

An Evening at Madame Geoffrin’s – Gabriel Lemonnier, 1812

Literary analogy or causal relationship?

Finally, let us note a problem raised by the use of analogy in writing, of which we do not always know whether it is a matter of literary evocation or scientific demonstration. Laurent Vidal believes, for example, that musical syncopation, defined as the transformation of weak beats into strong beats, partly characterizes the music invented in the ” honky tonks » Atlantic port cities:

The analogy with the situation of slow men in the society of New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro is therefore clear: excluded, on the margins, they grant themselves, through the subtle use of syncopation, a power which allows them to thwart the new temporality which claims to dominate them, body and soul (p. 190-191).

What should we make of this analogy between the musical process of syncopation and the attitudes of roustabouts with regard to dominant temporalities, particularly port work? To conclude that the temporal characteristics of these musics must be interpreted as signs of resistance to these temporalities? The hypothesis is stimulating, but the demonstration insufficient. We are probably here within the limits inherent in the exercise of the essay in history, where writing, less formalized than in the scientific article, also leaves more room for interpretation.

But this reservation in no way makes us doubt the scientific interest of the book. It usefully complements the works which have focused on acceleration or speed, shifts our gaze from Europe to the Atlantic area, and manages to convincingly mobilize the long term in just two hundred pages. And, beyond the limits previously highlighted, it is indeed the writing of Laurent Vidal which transports us with ease and kindness into the ingenuity that the slow men to subvert the temporal discriminations of modernity.