From a politics of speed to a political sociology of speed

In the last few years, I’ve become a little obsessed with speed. It seems this often leaves me coming across like an accelerationist. I occasionally flirt with the idea that I’m a slightly peculiar form of left-accelerationist, but it’s more for rhetorical amusement than genuine conviction. In fact I find much of what’s written about the politics of speed inadequate, with my interest instead being in a political sociology of speed. By the former, I mean a valorisation or condemnation of speed, exploring the emancipatory potential in speed or seeking salvation through slowdown. By the latter, I mean an analysis of how speed is a vector through which power operates in social life. The concerns of the former often obstruct the analytical imperatives of the latter, though of course accelerationists inevitably address these questions as well.

What made me reflect on this was an interesting example I stumbled across in The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. On pg 127-128 he describes the enforced slowness which results from data-driven policing inspired by a ‘broken windows’ philosophy of crime:

If you’re charged with a crime, and you get notice of a court appearance, you have to show up to a packed room at an appointed time that in reality is only an approximate time. If it says 10: 30 a.m. on the notice, you may end up waiting three, four hours for your case to come before the judge. During that time you are permitted to do exactly one thing: sit in court and watch the action. There is no talking, sleeping, eating, or reading in any of the courtrooms like the one on Schermerhorn Street. You must pay attention to the judge at all times. Some of the judges are insanely touchy about these rules, too. Judge Charles Troia, a glowering dark-haired man who runs a courtroom on the eighth floor, has a particular mania for talkers and readers. He has his court officer bark out instructions on the matter repeatedly throughout the morning. “In case you missed the sign,” the officer yells out, “there’s no reading, eating, or sleeping. Listen up! It’s going to be a long night.” The ban on reading is particularly odd, given that some of the judges have literary ambitions. Judge John Wilson, who by the time this book is published will have moved from the Brooklyn courts to the Bronx, is notorious in this courtroom for having authored a children’s book called Hot House Flowers.

This looks like hyperactive activity when considered at the level of the police, with 22,000 people arrested for loitering in a typical year in New York City. But from the perspective of those regularly subject to such nuisance arrests, it’s profoundly decelerative, with one interviewee describing how “you come to court and you’ll sit there all day waiting for your name to be called” and how he had “probably sat ten hours in the three times” he had come to court (pg 125). This is an example of the chronopolitics of speed, something which manifests itself relationally within an institutional context. It’s hard to theorise if we remain on the level of treating speed as what Filip Vostal calls a ‘mega force’. For this reason our starting point needs to be the political sociology of speed rather than the politics of speed.

Later in the book he recounts the analogous experience of a welfare office. From pg 333-334:

On the morning of October 15, 2011, she shows up at the Seventy-Third Street office at 8: 30 a.m. It’s a giant hall with linoleum floors and plastic chairs—exactly what you’d expect, like a DMV, only even more depressing. There’s already a huge line of people. “People were standing up against the walls, there was people everywhere, all over, it was crazy,” she says. The drill is, you show up, take a number, and wait—and wait. Markisha takes her number and sits down. An hour passes, two hours. She has no idea when anyone is going to see her, and all the people in the packed room are in the same boat. Mothers with children are in the office, and by late morning the children are starting to get antsy because they haven’t eaten, but you can’t leave the place or you lose your spot in line. 

A chill goes through the room in the middle of the day when a woman steps outside the building to get a smoke and returns to find that her number has been called. She has to leave and come back another day. More hours pass. Markisha is squirming in her seat. By the late afternoon the crowd, which not only hasn’t subsided over the course of the day but has just gotten bigger, is turning hostile. At around three in the afternoon there’s a screaming match somewhere in the recesses of the office. Markisha can hear a man yelling at a welfare worker because a glitch in the system has cost him his benefits; something about a wrong address, which they’re telling him they can’t fix. He storms out of the office to oohs and aahs. 

By then the place is a zoo. “The kids is running around, because they hungry,” she says. “They’re running around, snatching stuff off the walls, drinking water, screaming.” The scene gets so intense, Markisha ends up pulling out her cell phone and taking a video panorama of the chaos. Nobody even blinks when they see her standing up filming the nightmare. You see all kinds of stuff in here: Who cares about some girl filming something? More hours pass. It’s after five now. A young Latin man just ahead of Markisha goes in and just as quickly is dragged out by security when he explodes at a worker after finding out he can’t get his food stamp card—Markisha doesn’t know why. “I’ve been here since eight o’clock in the morning and I’m still here after five o’clock!” he shouts. “I’m just coming for my EBT card! I need my EBT card!” Security drags him past Markisha, chucks him out the door. “I was like, dang,” she says. “I didn’t know what to think.” Finally, at 5: 30, after nine hours, Markisha is shown into an office where a bored-looking older black woman stares blankly at her from behind a mass of papers.

From pg 335:

But the kicker is, if you get all the way through the process, and actually get your meeting, and you get approved, they then tell you to go home and sit tight for your P100 search. And they don’t tell you when that will be, except to say that it’s generally within a week and a half. You then have to be at home at all times until they show up—it’s like sitting shivah, except you have to do it for more than a week. “If the investigator shows up and no one’s there,” says Halpern, “they shove a card under your door that says, ‘We could not verify your eligibility,’ and you don’t get your benefits.”

From pg 344:

Two is that there’s an explosion of errors that are infinitely more difficult and more expensive to sort out than they would be if someone with personal knowledge of the case was involved from the jump. Now there’s an endless parade of Annas and Diegos and Markishas filing formal appeals with the state, explaining their whole life stories from the start in each meeting, instead of just calling a caseworker on the phone, reminding them of a fact or two, and having them change a number on a screen. The system therefore clearly doesn’t really work for the state, either. It’s like opening a hospital where no doctor could ever see the same patient twice—the bureaucratic version of Memento, where the characters have to go back in time to re-create a whole universe of facts from the beginning in each new scene.

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