How has our experience of time under the COVID-19 lockdown changed? Fernando Sdrigotti explores the temptations to do nothing to this period of slowed-down experience, or to find an alternative vital measure of living in the moment.
“Alienation never takes such firm root as when it passes itself off as an inalienable good. Transformed into positivity, the consciousness of isolation is none other than the private consciousness, that potential of individualism which respectable people drag around like their most sacred birthright, unprofitable but cherished.”
— Raoul Vaneigem — The Revolution of Everyday Life
It is as if time had stopped.
Only that time hasn’t stopped because it never does. Yet it can certainly change, or at least be felt differently, when all of a sudden we start to measure it in unexpected ways. Time as a notion measured after alarm clocks, flash showers, insipid breakfasts, crammed commutes to the soundtrack of audiobooks and podcasts, dull journeys to the end of the spreadsheet, unnecessary meetings with unnecessary agendas and pointless and repetitive minutes — hours that turn into days punctuated by cigarette break. And days that turn into a working week punctuated by a favourite Netflix show, a healthy chunk of eight hours sleep, for the eternity and beyond of an average working life (36.2 years, according to the latest figures). Time measured by the frame the daily grind provides, plus the dietetic emancipation of weekends in which to get plastered (but not too plastered because tomorrow things start again). And the occasional escape to the continent, or to some sunny spot in the Global South. Normal time.
A stultifying but normal time, measured by the number of times we refresh the live blog of our favourite Covid-19 news provider. While we get plastered every day, at home, because work might be slow or not there anymore, depends how lucky or unlucky we are — this is a matter of perspective. And if work is not slow or not there anymore, at least it has become inseparable from domestic time and space. The commutes are not there to frame the start and end of the day, to provide a marker of when it is morally acceptable to crack open a can. And the cigarette and tea breaks have shifted towards Pornhub breaks — slots of a variable number of minutes stolen from the Rat Race and consecrated to Onan. Yes, of course, freelancers were already there, the enlightened masturbatory avant garde — but now it is ourselves plus everyone we know, hogging the bandwidth at the same time, involved in these bouts of revolutionary self-pleasuring, plus the occasional group call to discuss the strategy for a project that won’t exist any longer in two or three weeks, but the show must go on.
This new time is an elastic time. But it is also a time measured by the latest death count. Death counts that become normalised: nine hundred anonymous obits from one day to the next is a proposition no longer unthinkable nor shocking. Nor is unthinkable nor shocking for the British government to congratulate themselves on their heroics after reading the daily figures. Nor for the welfare of a Prime Minister who took it in the chin like a champ to take precedence over those nine hundred deaths.
Nor is it unthinkable that we have got used to all this. You can get used to everything, or almost everything. You can get used to everything that happens more or less regularly. Everything becomes a rhythm. Death can become a rhythm too. As long as we are talking about the death of others, about deaths that happen far from us.
“Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly skeptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure is the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonism: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering.”
— Milan Kundera, Slowness
It is as if time had stopped or slowed down and the temptation is to give up and do nothing.
Slack it off and just sit down and wait for things to go back to normal. Because there is a normal waiting for us. A happy ending of going back to the world we gave up a month ago, where all the conditions for a lethal pandemic were already there but we didn’t notice them, nor did the British government, not even after Exercise Cygnus.
So do like everyone else and embrace the stasis, this one-in-a-lifetime stasis. We will pay for it as soon as it is politically feasible to be excreted back to work. We will pay through more austerity, or higher taxes, unless you pull a non-dom. The time will come when time will cease being elastic, when time will be measured once again by the signs and symbols of wage-bondage.
Because there is always a happy ending (for some). The elastic times of crises always revert to some form of normality — it is only a matter of time. I remember the collapse of 2001 (I was in Argentina then), the five presidents in two weeks, the total vanishment of work, the disappearance of the banks and the involuntary quasi-abolition of cash. Then the bartering clubs, the popular assemblies, the demo as an everyday pastime, all the radical possibilities. And then it was all over, and everything went back to normal and everyone lived happily ever after, until the next crisis. OK, it wasn’t a global pandemic — unless you are willing to concede that neoliberalism can be one, and probably more deadly than COVID-19 at that.
The time will come when the political cost of openly letting (many, some?) die becomes less expensive than pretending to save as many as possible while tanking the economy. Hints of this time to come are already here, voiced on the pages of liberal newspapers and reactionary pseudo-libertarian magazines — those places where rent-a-gob contrarians exercise their right to murderous infantilism from behind the cover of free speech — lockdown “sceptics” whose favourite intellectual activity is debating society S&M.
Normal time will come because it is, and it will be, a matter of numbers. Numbers that get smaller or numbers that we get used to. This is the logic of the game and we all play by this logic — unless you want to fall through the cracks or join an anarchist commune, grow dreadlocks, eat from the allotment, failing to upgrade your mobile phone once a year. And yet, the temptation to do nothing is there, beyond these terrifying prospects. To just bring a chair to the window and watch everything collapse. Wait for the acrid smell of the burning and the lilting sounds of the looting. Hope for the towering scaffolding of a guillotine to be erected in the corner, to get a good look when the heads start to roll.
And then wait for whatever is next.
“In the past 4 weeks I’ve: Lost 11lbs, 2,5% body fat / increased revenue 23% / Home gym build-out / Office renovation / Installed blinds/flooring / Read 6 books / Completed my new book outline / Secured 7 killer podcast guests / Appeared on 12 podcasts / Hit 100,000 YouTube subscribers / You?”
— some guy on Twitter
The temptation is to do nothing.
Luckily the preachers of the Gospel of Productivity are around to remind us that we need to make something out of this — don’t let a global tragedy hamper our career plans — use this to better yourself. Shakespeare wrote this or that play under quarantine. Mozart might or might not have written this or that symphony and he was only six months of age when he did it or he was dying of TB or something this or other. Why not learn a new language? Or just acquire a new skill? Or read a chunky novel — we have the privilege of time now — there are so many urgent novels to choose from. Or even write a novel yourself. Yes, why not write a novel yourself — it might help to get distracted while being productive at the same time. Something must be done, anything. We must make every minute count. Use this global pandemic to be fitter, happier, more productive, not drinking too much, regular exercise at home, getting on better with your associate, employee, contemporaries over Zoom or Google Hangouts. Take care of your time; your time is yours. It is the only thing you can be sure of right now. At least there’s that.
We need to use the time wisely until we refresh the blog or while we wait for the next Amazon/Deliveroo/Ocado delivery. Until that other highlight of the day, with that man knocking at the door, unable to commit to social distancing, this pesky man standing too close, getting too close, parcel in hand, not clocking the danger he’s putting us in. This man in a van all day, delivering that bottle of extra virgin olive oil or 12 of craft beers or a book by some minor author (purchased from an indie bookshop, OK), or a Lebanese meal delivered straight from the café Jeremy Corbyn patronises in Finsbury Park, wearing gloves and a face mask — the delivery guy, not Jezza.
Luckily not everyone is on a stand still. Luckily not everyone owns their time. Luckily for us and luckily for them, as they don’t need to worry about using their time wisely on top of trying to stay alive.
“Today, we’re excited to announce that you can now enjoy Online Experiences. Try something new together with small groups from around the world. Join tango classes, tarot card readings, farm visits, and more.”
— AirBnB Experiences
It is as if time had stopped but it hasn’t.
It is as if money-making had stopped but it hasn’t stopped either. Unable to trade with space and things you can actually touch the salespeople adapt and offer remote experiences, immaterial commodities. The losers (some of the losers): WeWork et al, AirBnB super hosts, anyone who’s income until three weeks ago was guaranteed by the fictitiously bulletproof business of hogging space. The winners of this round: the Wizards of Experience. That is anyone with something to offer for money, and a good internet connection. From The Production of Space to The Practice of Everyday Life, the Market welcomes everyone.
Take your experience. Experience as time tamed, reframed, made useful, paid for (as anything with any use). Experience still as time owned, as your private property. It has taken just a couple of weeks for the shift to be finalised. And perhaps it has only taken that time because it was already in the making. The social media industry was there, making sure our irl experiences were quantified, qualified, commodified, streamlined, uploaded, and validated. The channels were there; the behaviours were being learned. Now everything — everything that matters — will happen online.
At least until we go back to normal — that happy ending. #WhenThisIsAllOver, in Twitter parlance. When this is all over, and it will, we shall trade experiences, those things we learned about ourselves during the lockdown. We shall exchange them as business cards, or postcards we brought from a long journey to the faraway land of Ourselves. So make sure you do have those experiences, should you find yourself with no souvenirs #WhenThisIsAllOver. Stop wasting your time and go do something useful. Until the time to refresh the COVID-19 live blog comes again. Eight hundred sixty one deaths reported today, and none of them is you. Does it feel normal yet?
Fernando Sdrigotti is a London-based Argentine writer and cultural critic. He is the founding editor of the journal Minor Literature[s]. His latest book is Jolts, a collection of short stories published by Influx Press.