On slowness as method

EDITION: 5th Birthday.

Does ‘left media’ have to reproduce the attitudes and practices of the ‘mainstream’? How might we imagine something different?

A vignette: it’s a morning in late July, the mid-90s, some rural anywhere corner of Britain. The sun is high, the is air thick with pollen. Outside the school, where the school buses park, a crowd has formed: a tight knot of adults, from which camcorders and boom mics and dictaphones jut out at strange angles, so that the whole thing looks like some alien creature, in perpetual motion—and hungry. Against this solid mass, a wave of children is flung. They step down from their buses and make their way towards the doors of the school. The alien creature advances, pushing its camera-limbs towards the faces of the children; it cries out, and its cries are questions: how do you feel? Did you know her? Will they catch the man who did it? Something terrible has happened, and everybody feels the weight of it; the task now is only to make it to the school doors, to the strange comfort of their desks, intact. When it’s over, when they’ve made it, they sit in silence, trying to comprehend this new form of the world. One of them is 13, not quite 14. She’d always wanted to be a journalist, but now, she thinks, she’s changed her mind.

A second vignette: reports emerge on Twitter that an online comrade has died. Everybody is bereft, distraught. Grief is always difficult, and the contradictions of online relationships (which are at once very unreal and the most real thing imaginable) make it feel even more bewildering. Nobody really knows why or how it happened, but everybody is speculating, trying to piece things together from fragments. This is the way of grief: we try to make sense of the senseless. Somehow, in the midst of all this, a big account spies a rich seam of Content, ripe for exploitation. They tweet a #journorequest: has this also happened to you? The child from the first vignette—much older now, but no more certain of her place in the world—starts to wonder: what does it mean for whole complex precious lives, and complex tragic deaths, to be reduced to mere resources? Is an ethical media possible? And, if not, what is ‘left media’ even for? What, to be precise, is she doing with her life, if this is the dominant form of political writing?

Two scenes from my own life, with decades (and seismic shifts in media form) between them. And yet, what connects both incidents is the urgency at the heart of journalistic practice. It’s an urgency that rides roughshod over any ethical or humane concern—or, worse, assumes that to ‘break the story’ is the ethical or humane act, and that the ends therefore justify the violence of the means. To be the first with the ‘scoop’, to generate the most clicks, the most clout, the most advertising revenue; to get sufficient pageviews for lucrative ‘brand partnerships’ to become possible; to have the hottest take, the pithiest dunk, the widest recognition as a ‘thought leader’ and ‘a key voice for a generation’… in these ways, the work of a ‘left media’ journalist is precisely that of a ‘mainstream media’ journalist, in that it is, first and foremost, about promotion, market share, and treating everything that exists as a lucrative resource that will—hopefully!—set the journalist up comfortably for life.

Is an ethical media possible? And, if not, what is ‘left media’ even for? What am I doing with my life, if this is the dominant form of political writing?

But there are also subtle distinctions to be made. The journalists who jostled us outside our school were desperate to get an exclusive, and to make the deadline for the following day’s edition. It was disgusting behaviour, and horrifying to experience; they saw us as nothing but resources, and that was not nice. But they were honest about that. They had travelled down from London to find a story, and beyond that, they had no relation to us, and did not pretend otherwise.

The journalists who mine our movement(s) for content, on the other hand, practice something that feels, to me, far more insidious. These people are not just random reporters with whom you’re never likely to interact outside of the specific incident that brings your life into contact with their work. They’re our peers, our mutuals, maybe even our friends. I’d argue that this is a relationship of mutual responsibility: an ethical relation, if you will. I’d argue that to enter into such an ethical relation with the aim of exploiting it for your own gain—that is, to refuse the call to ethics which emerges from the relational space—can only reinforce a culture of individualism and domination. And even when one enters into this relation without the explicit aim of exploitation—or even with the aim of doing good, or ‘raising awareness’— these cultures of domination and individualism are nevertheless reproduced.

As the vignettes above suggest, journalism has long been constituted by a tension between the person and the story. The growth of so-called ‘left media’ adds another element. When left media holds too closely to the customary practices of journalism, we end up with a system that asks the writer to look at their friends and comrades, and see only potential ‘case studies’. A system in which writers are encouraged to repackage real suffering as ‘content’, to be consumed as entertainment—and are often rewarded for doing so by a helping hand up the ladder and onto the better-remunerated planes of the so-called ‘mainstream media’. It can all feel a bit voyeuristic. It can all feel a bit extractive.

We end up with a system in which writers are encouraged to repackage real suffering as ‘content’, and are often rewarded for doing so.

The dangers of the hot take.

Let’s take a third vignette. The year is 1989. Liverpool, the city in which I was born and raised, is limping to the end of an exhausting decade spent struggling to survive under the then-Government’s unspoken policy of “managed decline” (an approach which, according to Simon Parker, had its roots in the ‘containment’ strategies of the British state in occupied Ireland). The 1980s had opened in Liverpool with mass redundancies and intensified racist policing, and had only got worse from there. By the middle of the decade, things, to put it bluntly, were fucking shit. Scousers were the object of a thousand crappy media punchlines, in much the same way that supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are today. Indeed, the only thing that seemed to be going well was football: in 1985, Everton won the league and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and Liverpool (who had finished the season in second place) headed off to the crumbling Heysel stadium in Brussels, where they would defend their European Championship title against Juventus.

What happened next is the stuff of history: briefly, a group of Liverpool fans decided to charge one of the Juventus stands. Juve supporters who didn’t want to fight backed away against the wall of their section—which promptly collapsed, killing 39. It was a tragedy, and all of the blame was laid at the feet of that small group of Liverpool fans whose actions had certainly precipitated the event. The question of how a stadium on the verge of collapse had been considered fit for purpose that day was never fully addressed. As well as being whiny, workshy, and poor, Scousers were now murderously violent, too. Another trope to add to the pile.

So when, on 15th April 1989, a series of decisions taken by South Yorkshire Police (SYP) led to the deaths of 94 Scouse football fans (a toll that has continued to rise, currently standing at 97), the physical injury of 766 others, and the traumatisation of thousands more, the press knew exactly how to respond. “As early as 3.40pm, as the disaster was unfolding,” the Hillsborough Justice Campaign reminds us, BBC Radio 2 was broadcasting “unconfirmed reports that a door was broken down at the end that was holding Liverpool supporters.” The police and the FA were already working in tandem to embed their version of events in the public’s consciousness.

In the immediate aftermath, commentators and journalists rushed their takes to press. And what they printed was, (to the best of my knowledge) without exception, so wrong, so profoundly wrong, that it perpetuated an injustice that had already destroyed far too many lives. Rooted in the false assumption that this was ‘another Heysel’—that working class football fans in general, and Scousers in particular, were a trans-historical, undifferentiated mass of pure atavistic violence—article after article declaimed exactly what this horrific event ‘meant’, and exactly where the fault lay. Scousers were described as “tribal” and “violent” (Evening Standard), as an “army” (Manchester Evening News), as “yobs” who were “drunken and ticketless” (Sheffield Star—which published the unfounded allegations of violence a whole day before the Sun). The head of UEFA was quoted as referring to the fans as “beasts”. Even in Liverpool, some initial reporting agreed with the growing media consensus: a Daily Post journalist offered a handwringing lament on an event where, so he said, “Scouse [had] killed Scouse for no better reason than 22 men kicking a ball”.1

All of this meant that, by the time the Sun (helmed by Kelvin McKenzie) came to publish its hateful and infamous front page on 19th April, the scene had already been set. The wider public, having had four days of media comment insisting that the fault lay with Scousers, and only Scousers, were highly receptive to the narrative cooked up by SYP and the Sun.2 This journalistic frenzy actively hindered the families’ and survivors’ campaign for justice, and left Scousers open to harassment and prejudice.3

Hillsborough reporting teaches us the dangers of the hot take. It reminds us of what’s at stake when we rush to construct an easy narrative; when we stand before a scene and ask, without pause for reflection, “what does this MEAN?” So often, when we ask this of events, what they “mean” turns out to affirm and reinforce the beliefs we already possessed. Four days of media blame, plus at least a decade of vilification, added to a more general contempt for working class people and football fans, meant that people could only ever see their own assumptions reflected back at then. Oh, comrades, if I call for nuance, it’s only because I’ve seen first hand what happens when we jump to swift conclusions.

Hillsborough reporting teaches us the dangers of the hot take. It reminds us of what’s at stake when we rush to construct an easy narrative; when we stand before a scene and ask, without pause for reflection, “what does this MEAN?”

Slowness as method.

I am not a journalist or a commentator, but I inhabit a position that can have some overlap with those roles. I try to do so critically: to avoid the logic of the hot take, to avoid treating politics as a ‘story’ and people as, at best, incidental characters; at worst, nothing but a resource. To remember Édouard Glissant’s caution that the ‘traditional’ approaches are not only ethically unsound, but also add very little to our understanding:

We must not accept the media effects of the audiovisual and the written press. These effects use techniques—news flash, script, scenario, short report—that claim to represent reality in an abbreviated form that is almost always oversimplified.4

I’ve come to think of this as ‘slowness as method’: an insistence on thinking about things, a resistance to the easy answer, to the idea that anything can really be reduced to a few neat phrases. There’s a lot to be said for uncertainty, for deliberation, for waiting to see how things pan out before drawing a conclusion, or perhaps not even drawing a conclusion at all.

The problem—is it really even a problem?—is that taking space to reflect and to consider often reveals that a given situation is more complex than one’s initial reaction might suggest. This might make it more difficult to boil down in a few pithy phrases or cute Insta-friendly graphics. Moreover, the situation might call for us to go beyond cliché; to think in new, and perhaps difficult ways. To do justice to a particular moment (or coalescing of moments) might demand what Nicos Poulantzas called “a language that breaks with the customary descriptive discourse”. To put it bluntly: sometimes we use complicated words because the things we’re trying to say are complicated! Or, as Hortense Spillers once put it: “those are the words that mean what I am trying to say.”

When our customary discourse is shaped and determined by the distribution of power and access to knowledge throughout society, the idea that any attempt to break out of it is ‘elitist’ is utterly laughable.

Of course, there are different registers for different contexts, and it’s always good practice to consider the reader as an equal participant in whatever one is writing. But when our “customary discourse” is itself shaped and determined by the distribution of power and access to knowledge throughout society, I find the idea that any attempt to break out of it is ‘elitist’ utterly laughable.

Likewise, the implicit notion that there can be no left theory but only left reflex is something that I find to be quite reactionary in and of itself—quite apart from its role in reifying and reinforcing classed (and raced, and gendered) distinctions around who can speak, and when, and how. A culture of rapid response, against thought and slowness, which demands that everything be reduced, simplified, and watered-down is a culture which insists that oppressed peoples are capable of digesting only the thinnest of gruels: save the rich and nourishing food for those with more discerning palates.

It also creates and upholds the supposition that everything and anything worth saying can be said in 280 characters or fewer (and preferably in words of a single syllable). This is a view that’s long been common on the reactionary right, but its increasing visibility on the left is, I think, cause for concern. In what follows, I want to consider this a bit more.


In late December 2019, a strange fellow named ‘Antoine Tinnion’5 burst unbidden into my Twitter mentions with the following salvo:

Deleuzean critique of human rights? No wonder Labour lost Blyth Valley 🤣 🤣 🤣

What a gem of a tweet! It’s got everything, from the petty anti-intellectualism to the extremely Yer Dad emoji deployment; not to mention the dubious—at best—grasp of causation. It’s like a distillation of a certain kind of middle class white bloke, desperately ‘bantering’, like a drowning man doggy-paddling against the tide, in hopes that their brittle veneer won’t crack and reveal what lies beneath. “I’m not mad,” their every gesture seems to say. “Please don’t put in the newspaper that I got mad.” To be revealed to be ‘mad’ would be to be revealed as feeling something: and feelings are vulnerabilities, and that will never do. Better the endless banter, the reaction, the ‘dunk’. An endless stream of 🤣 🤣 🤣, ROFL-ing off this mortal coil.

Pathetic, right? A tragic figure. We all had a good laugh, and then closed the browser tab and got on with the processes of mourning and rebuilding, and that was that. Or so I thought.

But recently, I’ve noticed something unnerving. People, ostensibly on the left—the sort of people who would have joined in laughing at the sheer smallness of Antoine and his ilk—have been pulling the same thing. There was even a short-lived attempt at turning it into a meme. It went: “[Ridiculous Statement]: My 20k Essay for NS”; or versions of this with words like ‘nuance’ and ‘necropolitics’ mixed in for good measure.

As with Antoine, the aim was to demonstrate how laughable and out-of-touch New Socialist is, because… something something long words? As with Antoine, there was an undercurrent of something like petty rage, barely concealed by a sort of forced, faintly unpleasant jocularity. (Unicode, if you’re reading, we need a rage-ROFL emoji to help us describe this energy.) And, as with Antoine, anti-intellectualism was the primary form that these critiques of New Socialist took. This fascinated me.

Now, I’m deliberately not linking to any of these people, because this is just contextualisation, background, a jumping-off point; people have every right to criticise us and they generally do not deserve to be publicly hauled over the coals for doing so! And I’m not about to start taking a handful of bad tweets as representing ~the Problem with the Left~ or any of that nonsense. But I always try to reflect on any criticisms that come my way, and it’s true that I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on these tweets.

It’s also true that New Socialist has published—and will likely continue to publish—lengthy essays. To take one example: Red Apes by Justin Davis is, in fact, almost precisely 20,000 words long. It was also one of our most-read pieces in 2021, and that isn’t counting those subscribers who chose to read it in e-book format. When, in summer 2019, we took the decision to move over to an edition-based model of publishing, we built the e-book form into our plans, precisely because we recognise that longer pieces can be pretty daunting to read online.

Nevertheless, we continue to publish those longer pieces online, because we also recognise that many people—ourselves among them!—simply cannot afford to subscribe to a publication. To paywall the work we do entirely would be to police the borders of who is able to access theoretical and intellectual work, which could only ever be detrimental. We’re not academics, we’re not part of the Perry Anderson Industrial Complex; we produce and publish work that is by, for, and of the movements, struggles, and people among which we’re proud to number. Online publishing might not be the set of conditions we’d choose, all things being equal—but they’re the conditions we’ve got, for better and for worse; and, as the Big Fella reminds us, relatively few of us ever get to act in circumstances of our own choosing.

Similarly, the disintegration, post-Corbyn, of the mo(ve)ment that produced New Socialist has necessitated a move away from the blog form and towards what I think of as mole work: the sort of slow, subterranean (occasionally amphi-terranean, in the way that a mole might briefly emerge above-ground) work called for by periods of retreat, recovery, and renewal. I think that this work is important: a revolution cannot flourish on vibes and Instagram graphics alone. But I can also see how it might feel jarring or out-of-touch, in a context increasingly governed by the evaporating attention span, the hot take: the time, in short, of capital. I’m just not at all convinced that these conditions should be accepted without challenge, or without resistance.

But the sorts of tweets I referred to above—the Tinnionisms, let’s call them—weren’t just wry observations on our alleged theoretical loftiness. They also specifically took aim at a perceived ‘cleverness’, with their pejorative deployment of words like ‘nuance’, along with the apparently hilarious concept of necropolitics—which let’s remember, was coined by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe as a means of theorising the experiences of the colonised. It’s all pretty suggestive not only of the sort of ‘don’t get above yourself, love’ attitudes I’ve encountered throughout my life, but also of a profound suspicion of thinking itself.

A revolution cannot flourish on vibes and Instagram graphics alone.

Even if we were to bracket the troubling fascist lineages of anti-intellectualism, many of the remarks were an almost exact echo of the kind of nonsense that was once spouted by ‘Change UK The Independent Group’ (RIP forever in our hearts), or the strange little men of the Labour Right.

I’ve been wondering what might have led people ostensibly on the left to adopt and reproduce such a reactionary position. There are many possibilities, and one doesn’t want to fall into the trap of conducting armchair psychoanalysis of people one only encounters on the internet—their lives and selves are deeper, fuller, richer, more complicated than any tweet could ever suggest, and the notion that I can somehow have access to all of that by sitting in my chair and ruminating is Cartesian nonsense. I can’t and won’t speak to individuals and their personal experiences. But what I can speak to are those collective tendencies which make themselves apparent through discourse: what do people say (and profess to believe) when others are listening, and where might that come from? What’s brought about this wave of anti-intellectualism on the British left?

For an ethic of attentiveness.

Of course, I don’t have any concrete answers—but I wonder if it can be traced back to the 2019 election. Or rather, to the common sense that began to emerge in its aftermath. From notional ‘twenty-something chefs’ in Worksop to an equally notional ‘Male’ in Bishop Auckland; from the General Secretary of the Fabian Society to Len McCluskey and Andrew Fisher, a narrative has taken root. Wherever one goes, one can find some focus group or left talking head crashing through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man, proclaiming the single, unassailable truth: Labour had Too Many Policies.

Too much detail, too many ideas. I ain’t reading all that; I’m happy for you tho, or I’m sorry that happened. Much like the American who insists that football matches should be pre-emptively shortened just in case some putative ‘young people’ stop watching,6 the champions of the Too Many Policies argument have no interest in interrogating why a political party setting out ideas for social and economic transformation is, in fact, bad. These people operate within a simplistic causal logic where input leads directly to outcome; they disregard what Tom Gann has called “the aleatory, chaotic aspects” of politics in favour of a broadly PR/comms-based approach.

To this way of thinking, if the Tories won the 2019 election with little more than an inane three-word slogan and even more inane footage of the PM driving a digger through a wall of polystyrene ‘bricks’, then the Tories won the election precisely because of that inanity. It’s a syllogism: all victors have the correct strategy. The Tories are the victors. Therefore, the Tories had the correct strategy. And, like all syllogisms, it is at best question-begging, and at worst extremely—perhaps dangerously—reductive.

Attempts by the left to imitate this can only ever impoverish our thinking, our doing, and our ways of being together. In reducing everything to a comms slogan, a shorthand, a cute graphic or a pithy one-liner, I think we literally reduce it, diminish it. And we reduce ourselves, too; our capacities to listen, to understand, to relate to one another.

In reducing everything to a cute graphic or a pithy one-liner, I think we literally reduce it. And we reduce ourselves, too; our capacities to listen, to understand, to relate to one another.

What would it mean to take the increasingly rapid and shallow nature of digital publishing not as ontological truth, but as morbid symptom? What would it mean, instead, to offer our attention with intention? The practice of attention can also be a commitment to listening, to understanding, to refusing to draw glib assumptions for the sake of space, or the affirmation of our own biases. What might we see, if we really looked at something?

Slowness as method; an ethic of attentiveness.

  1. All quotations are taken from chapter 12 of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report

  2. There have been attempts—notably in Peter Chippendale & Chris Horrie’s Stick It Up Your Punter!: The Rise and Fall of the Sun—to pin all the blame for the paper’s handling of the disaster on McKenzie. Unless Kelvin McKenzie himself personally wrote, designed, laid out, typeset, and printed that edition of the paper, this strikes me as just another incidence of the tired old ‘we were only following orders’ argument. This isn’t to let McKenzie off the hook, but rather to suggest that maybe Sun workers could and should have done more to stop him. 

  3. When my family moved south a few years later, in search of a way out of generational poverty, the kids at my new school heard my accent and began a campaign of following me around making Hillsborough ‘jokes’ and accusing me of petty theft. I never told my parents about this; I just quietly started training myself out of my accent—the loss of which I now experience as a loss of connection with my roots. 

  4. Édouard Glissant. [1997] 2020. Treatise on the Whole-World. Translated by Celia Britton. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, p.67. 

  5. Until recently, I’d assumed that Antoine was a Tory voter all hopped up on victory, but it turns out that he is, in fact a former Labour councillor and hapless purveyor of failed dirty tricks. Sadly, his Twitter account is currently locked, so I can’t screenshot his delightful remarks for posterity, but given his (former?) institutional role, I feel no compunction about naming him. 

  6. “Younger audiences… raised on a diet of video games and short YouTube videos are increasingly becoming disinterested in sports as attention spans continue to shrink… Many sports, most notably baseball, have struggled to attract younger fans. Overall, soccer has not, but could find itself in a similar position in the coming years. Why watch a live game when you can play FIFA on your PlayStation? Why attend a match when you can catch the highlights on your phone later?” Weirdly, the author acknowledges later in the piece that his proposed recalibration of football matches would actually lead to them being longer, which adds another level of incoherence to the whole thing.