… in the time of corona

  • Posted on: 8 May 2020
  • By: Govert

Published earlier in the not-so-formal weekly of my department.

When I read John Steinbeck’s Of mice and man about 25 years ago, it made an impression on me. It tells the story of two workmen, wandering around California in pursuit of work as well as their bigger dream: starting a farm of their own. It all does not work out, one of them dies (I will not tell how, to keep the plot somewhat concealed if you still want to read it), and the other gives up on the dream. He settles as a day wager, and decides that it is good enough to earn a bit of money and spend it every week in the local tavern on booze and women.

The lesson I learned from it then is that it is at times ok to give up. Not that giving up really ended up in my standard repertoire of life choices (I would not have remained an academic if it had, though fairness demands to add that there is also some evidence that no one outside would want to have me – but that is not today’s story). Also, it was not quite that I had not earlier realised that dreams do not always come true, or that sometimes fate seems to have decided that you are simply not the one. But the possibility at this deeper level of revising the overall outlook of your life and what is of value in it, must somehow have been new. Or at least, it was the lasting impression the book made.

Some years later – it must have been well after I got infected with this virus called philosophy, and institutionalised for that – I came to realise that the book is also about the distinction, and transition, between linear time and circular time. Linear time is the time of development: of life plans, of societies moving towards modernity and beyond, of humankind developing towards its perfection. It is the time of change. Circular time, in contrast, is the time of structure and stability: the seasons perpetuating natural life, successions of generations where grandparents treat their grandchildren the way they were treated by their grandparents, and celestial bodies that move in strictly regular and recurring orbits. Or of binging and getting laid on a weekly basis, if that is the best option appearing to a failed farmer.

It was for entirely unrelated reasons that earlier this week, I read an essay that my Doktorvater Hans Achterhuis wrote in 2003, called Worlds of Time. I am pretty sure I had not read the essay before, which is of course a bit of a shame. In it, he engages with the same distinction between linear and circular time, and identifies linear time as a distinctly Western phenomenon, and colonial at that. The linearity of time is connected to the very Christian notion of the end-time to which a good human life should be directed. The teleological character of notion reappears in utopian (and parallel dystopian) literatures. Linear time is also one of the central building blocks of discipline as elaborated by Foucault. And it is colonial in that the colonial wars were importantly about imposing this Western time-regime on colonized nations so as to make them manageable. Also, the time-based organisation of the colonizing powers seems a necessary part of the explanation of their success: China and India were certainly not the lesser of Europe in crafts like artillery, navigation and science and mathematics. Yet, their mobilization of armed forces was far less efficient than the strict, time-based discipline that the European colonizers had at their disposal.

Yet, another point Achterhuis makes in the essay is more pertinent to the current period marked by Corona. He argues that in modern life, experiences are marketed to fill our spare time in the most efficient way. While he elaborates on this as today’s modus operandi in the never-ending pursuit by the economic system of control over our time – the labourer who can fill their free time more efficiently, is also more available as work force – I think another point is interesting here. The marketization of our free time sits paradoxically on the circular-linear divide. On the one hand, the instant gratification of the ‘experience economy’ takes away the longer-term perspective and defies any connection to a teleological perspective on life and time. On the other hand, they are what provide us memories, and so contribute to our identity, built as a life-history. A linear thing, thus.

And this is where Corona kicks in. Under the lockdown, life has become utterly circular, as all days are the same. You get up every day at the same time, hoping to keep a good circadian rhythm even though this is nowhere externally imposed on you. You have breakfast, do your usual chores, and start working. You may or may not have a teleconference, but even if they differ, they are still the same. You have lunch, which is not so different from breakfast. And certainly not so different form yesterday and the day before. As the few hobbies you can still practice now take place in the same space as your work, you start noticing that the air turns bad if you spend 14 hours per day in your home office. Especially at this latitude, where daylight is nearing infinity again, it is only the daily news that punctuates your daily cycle. That is how ‘eventful’ your life gets.

This eventlessness of life in the time of corona has remarkable consequences. Looking back, lock-down time seems to have passed at the speed of lightning. As David Bowie sings in Girl loves me –from the Blackstar album that was released more or less the day he died – “Where the fuck did Monday go?”, I constantly ask: where the fuck did April go… Eventlessness prevents us from building memories, and hence from building a history and any sense of linear time.

At the same time (pun not intended), life is still very linear. Only in a very slow way. We all have this teleological dot on the time horizon when life will be normal again. It seems to take forever to get there, which makes this dot more akin to utopia and the eschatological end-times than we wish to admit: it will actually never come. Even if society opens up again, it will be imperfect, in its opening-up and otherwise, and we will remain the sinners that are not entirely absolved. We will be necessitated to continue living in a broken world. That is, until the vaccine messiah comes to earth. Then we can binge and get laid again and live happy circular lives – or maybe I am missing my own point now, never mind.

The title of this piece is obviously a play on Garcia Marquez’ Love in the time of cholera, which today appears in its coronal incarnation in the tweets and memes of everybody and his mother. I have never read the book, so I would not be able to tell whether it has any more substantive perspective on time, such as for example his Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which I happen to have read, does. Anyway, again, never mind. I guess what I want to say is: I have noticed that I start craving linearity.

One of the most linear things in my life is the noble art of running. I guess it appears circular to many, as an infinite reprise of one and the same step. But it is not: you need a finish line, a goal, or else there will be no running. Running is fundamentally teleological. Apart from teleological, running is also essentially social. Again, it may appear differently, if you see those lonely travellers doing their workouts on the outskirt cycle paths at dusk. But when running a competition, it is vital to have other runners around you. Marathons get heavy exactly the moment you find yourself alone on the track, because you had to let the faster runners go and want to stay ahead of the slower ones. Running establishes alterity, both to others and to your own physicality. This alterity helps you break out of the cyclicity of pacing and keep your mind’s eye on the linear goals in the future.

And then the opportunity came to me to run a virtual half-marathon. This means: you run the distance of a half marathon, you track your performance, and you upload your achievements to the organization. After the contest period, the results are published and you end up in a rank order between people you have never met. This virtual half-marathon had been initiated by the organizers of the upcoming Trondheim Maraton, as a reach-out to all runners who are now confined to their homes, and, indeed, solitary running.

It was interesting. Instead of an organized track with timers, pacers, nutrition posts and cheering people alongside the road, I now only had my GPS watch and a small supply of sports drink. I sensed that the linear, teleological part of the experience was largely in place. True enough, you need the GPS to establish the alterity of your physical boundaries, but the goal and purpose were never lost out of view. The social part was different. The other runners existed at best as an imaginary in my head, but not quite successfully so. They had no means of supporting and challenging me. I think I have imagined overtaking others, which in reality gives a boost to your energy, but not so much if it is only in your imagination. The teleology was real, the social context was not.

Now that the editors are waiting for this piece to be delivered, I am no longer sure what exactly I wanted to tell. But I think it is this. The solitude of the lockdown does things to our experience of time. In running I notice things today that I hadn’t noticed before, or at least not to the current intensity: how sociality matters to our perception of time, how we shift between circular and linear perceptions of time and how the relative importance of those perceptions changes. How punctuations of time become more articulate, or less so: the weekend seems to become more important to me now in these stimulus-ridden times than it was during normal working regimes. The 25 minutes cycle commute uphill to Dragvoll used to be wasted time (though well-spent as a low-key muscular exercise for marathon runners), and I now start to reappreciate it as a very cyclical (again no pun intended) and meaningful part of my life-as-it-was. Perhaps it is also something about the cyclical nature of the seasons that makes the prospect of opening up the faculty only after summer particularly daunting: somehow the summer standing between us and normal life seems to make the trajectory harder rather than easier.

The sarcastic wish of “may you live in interesting times” (in Orientalist vein mis-attributed to ancient China) merits revision. I do hope that we will soon return to living in interesting and vibrant times. But more important than vibrance is my wish for restoring a certain balance between cyclical and linear aspects of those times.