Notes on Sarah Sharma’s In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (2014)

Sharma’s argument builds from the observation that the way people experience time is inflected by power relations. So it is obfuscating to assume that capitalism is accelerating the experience of time for everyone, unilaterally; instead acceleration is unevenly distributed. It is, Sharma argues, an ideological illusion for the privileged that’s sustained by a panoply of workers (cabdrivers, hospitality workers, etc.) who help the privileged traveler experience their time as valuable, and more important, more valuable than others’.

“Business travelers need to believe in speed as a defining characteristic of the contemporary moment because it justifies their existence and extremely tiring days,” Sharma notes. Because these “high value” employees have such supposedly specialized knowledge and because they have mutually deemed one another “irreplaceable” and essential for business to transpire, their work can’t be supplanted by hiring more workers. Instead, their working hours must be extended by an infrastructure of support labor that accelerates their days, extracts more work time from them. The infrastructure mirrors their sense of self-importance back to them, while the corporations that elites work for translate that self-importance into endless work days. Sharma explains this with Foucauldian language: “as subjects of value within global capital, the time of the frequent business traveler is an important object of biopolitical regulation.” Their coddling, which emphasizes the significance of their time (as opposed to the interchangeable workers who support their on-the-go lifestyle), is everywhere performed publicly, but especially in airports.

The generalized idea that “life is speeding up” reinforces the impression across society that certain people bear more human capital than others. The supposed inevitability of the speed-up corresponds with the supposed inevitability of inequality (derived from supposed differences in individual capability and effort). The elites’ experience of time is validated as “real”; everyone else must expend effort and devalue their own experience in order to put themselves in sync with “real time.”  

“Slowness” as a reaction against capitalist acceleration, as a form of resistance, doesn’t address these power relations. It adopts the neoliberal tenet of individual responsibility and ethical autonomy, imagining one can see one’s own actions as disentangled form the social contexts that make them possible. Advocates of the slow life tend to be myopic about the privilege the choice requires, much in the same way those who advocate “disconnection” as a solution to the exploitation of social media users. “The cultural turn to slowness,” Sharma claims, “is a depoliticization of time, one that demands the containment and pacification of time.” Likewise, “individualistic orientations toward time and its management have normalized the exploitation of others’ time.”

In the conclusion, Sharma dwells on what I found most useful, her reclassification of “speedup” as a matter of “recalibration.” We don’t experience stress because we are sped up in relation to some abstract notion of how fast or slow time should pass. We experience stress because we are being forced to adjust ourselves to accommodate someone else’s experience of time; the gap between their speed and ours generates the stress, and power relations govern who must work to make up the difference, to close that gap, and for what compensation.

In other words, technology doesn’t make speedup inevitable. “It is not technological speed that determines one’s temporality; instead it results from where one fits within the biopolitical economy of time.” Technology may serve as an alibi that masks how power inflects the experience of time. The logic of technology doesn’t require everyone to live faster; it is just used to reinforce existing power asymmetries and allow for their reproduction. Technology helps the powerful maintain their temporal dominance, and demand that others sync to their pace when necessary. Technology helps ensure that people’s time is managed; sometimes it even lets people believe that they themselves manage it. 

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