Tim Ballingall reviews
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In our current era of global capitalism and digital technologies, its easy to think that time is getting faster. But is it? Sarah Sharma’s In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics contests that this question obscures the complex differential nature of time. Instead of asking whether time is getting unilaterally faster, we are better off asking for whom is time getting faster. Whose time is impacted by the time of others, in what ways, and under what conditions? And, how do individuals adjust, or “recalibrate,” to the time of others?
In the introduction, Sharma writes that the goal of the book is to “[offer] an approach to time that is about the micropolitics of temporal coordination and social control between multiple temporalities” (7). “Temporalities,” she writes, “do not experience a uniform time but rather a time particular to the labor that produces them” (8). Moreover, “temporalities … exist in a grid of temporal power relations” there is an “uneven multiplicity of temporalities,” and this multiplicity “is complicated by the labor arrangements, cultural practices, technological environments, and social spaces that respond to this so-called globalized, speedy world” (9). This thesis is a corrective to much of the work in “speed theory,” space studies, and public sphere theory.
Sharma is making a Foucauldian move, moving us from a model of sped-up time that is repressive and spatial to one that is differential within a biopolitical economy. Rather than thinking of time as something one can step in to or out of, similar to the way we think of, for example, stepping in to or out of the public spheres, Sharma argues that time, much like power for Foucault, is everywhere. Time is differential, contingent upon labor and social conditions, and, most importantly, it moves according to the management of life and living bodies.
Using a “mixed methodological approach that includes political economic analysis, attention to technological environments, thick descriptions, discourse analysis, and ethnographic interviews” (15), Sharma explores the ways in which individuals’ relationships to time are structured by the labor they perform, the value the global market attributes to that labor, and the ways in which an individual’s time affects and is affected by the time of others. Although the difference between blue-collar and white-collar labor is a theme throughout the book, Sharma maintains that biopolitics possess better explanatory power than the Marxist distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
In Chapter 1, “Jet-Lag Luxury: The Architecture of Time Maintenance,” Sharma examines the frequent business traveler. These individuals experience an abnormal relation to time, evidenced by the health risks associated with jet lag, but they also benefit from an exterior temporal infrastructure. This infrastructure comprises places and products that facilitate adequate rest and relaxation for these privileged travelers. An additional element of this temporal infrastructure is, of course, the time of others—these include drivers, receptionists, security guards, maids, janitors, and remote assistants (46-51).
Individuals working in the service industry experience an abnormal relation to time much like the jet-lagged business traveler; however they lack an exterior temporal infrastructure. Few service professions exemplify this abnormal, unsupported temporality like that of taxi drivers. Chapter 2, “Temporal Labor and the Taxicab: Maintaining the Time of Others,” contains interviews with three taxi drivers in Toronto. The time of these drivers is always structured around the temporal needs of others. This alienating relation to time is the result of the state’s biopolitical divestment in “blue collar” labor.
Without an exterior temporal infrastructure, the taxi drivers in this chapter rely on “[temporal] strategies of survival and technologies of the self” (74). In addition, they suffer from what Sharma calls “cab lag,” a term that “evokes the materially impoverished relationship to time that is exacerbated by the sped-up lives that others choose … [and it] refers to a condition of labor where people exist in a differential and inequitable temporal relation with another group with whom they are expected to synch up” (79).
Unlike the previous two groups, the office worker experiences a very normal relation to time and benefits from external temporal infrastructures. The office worker gets up in the morning, goes to work between 9 and 5, eats meals at regular times, watches TV during the prime time hours in the evening, and goes to bed at a decent hour. However, office work can take its toll.
Chapter 3, “Dharma at the Desk: Recalibrating the Sedentary Worker,” argues that the emerging popularity of one-hour yoga instruction in the workplace facilitates the workers’ recalibration of time. One hour of yoga during which the individual is told “listen to your body” and “this is your life, accept it” does foster “better mind-body awareness, but it is not a critical awareness of the structure that ties the worker to the desk in the first place. Instead, it is an intervention that is intended to lead individuals to accept structural conditions and make themselves responsible for their own well-being” (103). This is consistent with the fact that manual laborers like taxi drivers are not asked to “listen to their bodies” because they know they are in pain (103).
The workplace yoga instructor seeking to temporarily slow down time pales in comparison to the efforts of organizations and communities across the globe that have attempted to construct a slow lifestyle. In the past few years, slowness has emerged in the popular imaginary associated with environmental sustainability, local eating, animal rights, wellness, and anti-technology sentiments. In Chapter 4, “Slow Space: Another Pace and Time,” Sharma examines Bowen Island, British Columbia; The Caretta Shiodome in Tokyo; Slow Food Nation in San Francisco, and the notion of the “staycation.” In all of these examples, the counter-cultural construction of a slow lifestyle represents “a depoliticization of time” (111), one that is “fraught with the neoliberal contradiction of demanding individual responsibility for how one spends one’s time … while advocating for slowness as an attainable public good” (128). Not surprisingly, the impoverished temporality of the service workers in and around slow-lifestyle spaces and places remains an invisible contradiction.
Sharma concludes that the attempt to slow down time promotes Cartesian individualism and ignores structural socio-economic disparities. Sharma writes: “The temporal public is an understanding of the public orientated around a nonautonomous time. A sufficiently critical temporal politics does not recognize free time in a public space but rather a relational time, one that is tangled and layered, bound to the time of others” (147). She continues: “A temporal perspective … reimagines time, not as being singularly yours or mine for the taking, but as uncompromisingly tethered and collective” (150).
In the Meantime persuasively argues a provocative thesis about temporality in society. The thesis is bold, compelling, and would be widely interesting to scholars in cultural studies and media studies. The chapters are logically organized around the theme of value or lack thereof associated with certain forms of labor, and they are ordered such that Sharma gradually builds the case against the sentiment that “time is getting faster.” As expected, Chapter 4 (“Slow Space”) presents the most poignant critique of speed theory’s model of time and power.
This book would also be interesting to scholars of rhetoric. Kairos, the concept commonly used to designate the opportune moment for fitting rhetorical activity, has been repeatedly re-theorized over the years, most recently by rhetoricians working with Heideggerian notions of materiality as well as other theories of pre-symbolic, pre-persuasion rhetoricity. But rhetoric as a discipline is not exempt from what Sharma calls the “spatial bias.” This refers to the fact that, while scholars in the humanities and social sciences have increasingly turned their attention to the cultural politics of spaces and places, these scholars have paid little attention to time, the other half of the material field.
As we continue to theorize rhetoric in light of the “spatial” or “material turn,” Sharma would urge us to consider the ways in which agency can be found in not only human rhetors and things and objects around them, but also temporality, one’s relation to time and the time of others. Moreover, a recent article in Theory, Culture, & Society argues that the work of Foucault and other postmodernists is often dismissed by proponents of new materialism, overlooking important, albeit underdeveloped, insights in Foucault’s work into the relation between matter and meaning (Lemke). In the Meantime can therefore be read as a contribution to the ongoing, unresolved discussion of Foucault’s relevance for new materialism, especially as the latter is incorporated more and more into contemporary rhetorical theory.
In general, Sharma achieves a sophisticated balance of cultural theory, ethnographic research, and personal prose. She often provides the reader context for how her research or personal life led to a specific part of her argument or a specific type of labor to be analyzed. This makes the book accessible and pleasurable in addition to challenging and rewarding. In the acknowledgments, playing with the theme of temporality, Sharma admits that the book took a long time to write. I would say back to her that, not merely because the text is 150 pages but because of its theoretical insights and engaging style, the book took a short time to read.
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Timothy Ballingall is a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University. His research interests include rhetorical theory, cultural studies, emotion, and social awkwardness. His teaching interests include multimodal and digital composition. His work has appeared in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal. He also holds an M.A. in English from West Chester University and a B.A. in Professional Writing from Kutztown University.