Enduring Time, an essay
A difficult day one of week two during the Coronavirus lock-down with my young family.
Today, in my Inbox, a newsletter from Berlin’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry. Like so many other organisations, the ICI informs me of the continued suspension of its programme and encourages to explore its online archive instead. Upon reading its suggestion that Lisa Baraitsers talk on ‘Time, Care and Not Moving On’ might be a good place to start in light of our current predicament I could not agree more. Yet despite or because of the considered timeliness of the proposition, the invitation to spend more time with an online archive that adds itself to the many other generous but irritating offers clogging up my cultural to do list ever since schools have closed, childminders stopped working and ominous looking ques of masked-clad shoppers started to form outside the local supermarket, is tinged with a degree of irony.
Baraitser’s ICI talk and accompanying book, Enduring Time, which I have recently read in preparation of a reading group organized by the Manchester-based movement artist collective Accumulations, felt relevant for a number of reasons long before the arrival of Coronavirus. But its resonance has perhaps never felt more pertinent since finding myself thrown so completely into the endless accumulation of hours and days on end within the nuclear family, forced to structuring and facilitating a vastly grown amount of family-time within the shrunken limits of our world. In her fleeting and tired answer to the reluctantly self-posed question of what a hypothetical starting point of an artistic response to her present predicament might look like, my partner, without having read Baraitser’s book, produces three words that closely circulate its orbit: time, slowness and care.
With the onset of family self-isolation, our experience of time has changed. Both in the sense of our task-bound bearing of each minute of each hour of our days, as well as the sensation of being abruptly cut off from our existing projections of future horizons. The futurity of our ongoing projects interrupted and rendered uncertain, we find ourselves thrust upon the immanence of a present predominantly filled with tending to the ongoing physical, emotional and intellectual needs of our two children, aged two and six, and its associated labour of maintaining a family household. Mourning the loss of past investments as well experiencing acute difficulties in projecting an immediate and longer-term future, let alone working towards it, our experience of time and of the time that we are has begun to stall, thicken and slow down – becoming palpable in a way that the nighttime sky has become more visible, birdsong more audible and herds of goats, mobs of deer, labours of moles, boogles of weasels begun to loiter the deserted streets of our interrupted civilization. This overriding sense of a relative suspension of time and the necessity of installing oneself in its interval, has allowed for what Baraitser calls a ‘seeping of the materiality of time into consciousness’.
Although this shift in temporal experience is sometimes felt as radical as the empty blue sky above our abandoned metropolitan streets and a world without the calendrical regularity of professional sporting events, it nevertheless constitutes a change in degree rather than in kind. Its predominant features – the repetitive stalling of the flow of time in prolonged periods of childcare and household maintenance, the becoming weak of individual and collective powers to project ourselves into possible futures, and the encroaching sense of living in the end of times – were already at work in the world as we knew it, both in the structural fabric of our personal life and the more or less collectively shared burden of the turbulences of our times. Turbulences that have begun to weigh on our ability, resources and enthusiasm to imagine the continued trajectory of an improved life for ourselves and our children. With an increasing sense of foreboding, this blackening horizon of a coming darkness ‘brought about by the ravages of global capitalism and the realities of climate disaster’ has served for some time now as an ideal backdrop to our quotidian skirmishes with depression, anxiety, bitterness and rage.
Yet it would be misleading to portray the effects of lock-down on our experience of the time that we are as a mere inflation of an existing eco-socio-existential unease. Within the complicated mixture of emotions and practical challenges that this unprecedented situation continues to provoke there lies perhaps a sense of calm, focus and potentiality, as well as a number of resources for the careful re-construction of a weaker, more sustainable ethos within the very interval of suspended time. Once an initial disappointment over the loss of past investments and the infinite postponement of existing projects has been more or less overcome, as well as the difficulty to project ourselves into a foreseeable future more readily accepted, we find ourselves (almost) at ease in the immanence of a present tasked with daily routines of maintenance and care. Routines, to be sure, which relentlessly drain us of our limited physical resources, repeatedly drive us to the cusp of mental collapse and put a strain on our household economy of mugs, yet are saturated with periodic experiences of lightness, play, tenderness and love. But beyond an involvement with emotional extremes, what most distinguishes these laborious routines from the stultifying time of indifferent labour they often approximate, is an accompanying ‘failure to be indifferent to the specificity of [their] labour’. Following Baraitser, their repeated return to a scene that matters begins to constitute ‘a kind of repetition that might, after all, have something to do with generativity’. ‘[..N]ot a kind of flowing time’, as she puts it, ‘(anyone who has spent time with small children will know this), […] not the stultifying time of indifferent labour, but living in a suspended time, which is the time it takes for mattering to take place’.
From within this ineluctable commitment to the returning of a scene that matters and its associated rhythms of repetition, suspension and duration, there arises an indefatigable desire to continue to project a future, if only by holding on to the faint possibility of a project – that inconsolable faith in a ‘fateful openness, full of the libidinal possibility of what is “to come”’. Embarking on such a project and keeping it alive under present circumstances calls for the (re-)invention of disciplinary regimes and methodological experiments that seek to arrange themselves with a slower pace of development and the stuttering rhythms of intermittence. Following a clandestine practice of stealing the early morning hours to painstakingly accumulate words into sentences into paragraphs each day, I find myself committed to a mode of decelerated production at the limit of (non)productivity. Reading small passages from books strewn across the house whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, the toast to pop, and some temporary moment of respite to pass, I weave their inter-text into the temporal fabric of my everyday over long periods of time. Out of these fleeting, flirtatious encounters with more or less diverse fragments emerges the thickening matrix of my slow-cooked desire – enabling me to continue to think, work and write, if on a low flame. Thrown into immanence, we are thus forced to experiment in small ways with the acquisition of a nascent know-how of ‘how to continue when time has stopped’, not by the overzealous rush to a hyper-responsive productivity heroically mounted against the odds, but in a manner that demands us ‘to stay close to the experience of going on, with, and in time that will not unfold’. Such an engagement with ‘time that is lived as radically immovable’, as Baraitser suggests, ‘may turn out to be a question of ethics, inserted within a question of ontology – the arduous temporal practice of maintaining ongoing relations with others and the world’ that she comes to name as care.
Still Life with Googly Eyes, 2020.
Still Life with Chopped Lemon and Googly Eyes
The slowly shifting ensemble of books rescued from their untouched existence in the façades of bookshelves that play an intermittent part in the choreography of my everyday life and the dramaturgy of a secret ‘essayism’ [sic], are frequently left abandoned to the materiality of their objecthood in various household settings. Left to their own devices, they form part of a number of temporary domestic Still Lifes – idiosyncratic assemblages of diverse objects momentarily suspended from use. The tattered old paperback of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’, the fresh thin white copy of Stanly Crawford’s ‘Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine’, the brown buckram hardcover edition of Martin Heidegger’s ‘Sein und Zeit’, the green and white patterned paperback of Stephen Mulhall’s ‘The Routledge Guidebook to Heidegger’s Being and Time’, Roland Barthes’ ‘The Rustle of Language’, with its large and dizzying front cover fond on a white and purple background, as well as the shiny, thin, lime-green and black paperback of ‘Empire of Signs’, and an ever growing number of Fitzcarraldo Editions, in all their elegant simplicity in either blue or white, of various degrees of thickness – become elements in compositions of colour, shape, texture, volume and depth. On the day of writing, they can be found in the peculiar company of a green John Deer mash hat, a small cactus in a painted homemade clay pot, a red walky-talky with black antenna, a large stretchy purple caterpillar with googly eyes, a small sunflower seedling in a brown plastic flower pot poking out of a blue shallow ceramic dish, a blue pen with a silver top and KLIER written on its side, a blue pencil and blue bottle of sun-cream with an orange top, a small black USB cable, a yellow piece of Lego Duplo, sliced lemons in a small plastic container, a little green empty bottle of beer, keys, a chrome saucepan lid, baby wipes, a board game, surface cleaner, a long thin shopping list. Exposed to the risks of domestic disarray and pandemonium, as well as marked by the touch of water, coffee, tea, grease, mud, flower, milk and jam in various patterns of stains – these books patiently lie in wait for my animating hands and eyes and the abrasions of graphite leaving a palpable residue of the history of my slow reading. Yet in the meantime of my involvement, they glance at me from the distance that separates us, tempting with the potential of encounter, pleasure, pain and transformation.
Led to embrace certain opportunities afforded by the interruption of my ongoing projects, I find myself picking up not for the first time Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, which, for whatever reasons, I had never previously been able to read beyond the first few pages during more than a decade of my ownership of a used black and brown paperback edition. The second chapter of Woolf’s novel tells of a continued passage of time from the perspective of an abandoned summer house on the Isle of Skye. Placed between two larger parts of an interrupted narrative detailing a web of human inter- and intra-relations that form in and around the island home, the intermittent chapter with the felicitous title ‘Time Passes’ arrives like an interval in the theatre, folding over the last activity of the actors under the fading lights of an approaching black-out.
Yet instead of being asked to leave the auditorium, perhaps for a drink and a smoke, we are invited to stay put, smoke if we want to (not really!) and linger under the low dim of the houselights, becoming spectral witnesses to a scene without actual human testament, tactfully looking onto the remains of a setting emptied of human actors and observers – that mainstay of the dramatic plot and the apparatus of theatre – bar the sporadic and fragile attempts at maintenance of a sole housekeeper.
Not until a late, hasty effort of restoration in time for the coming re-occupation of the house in chapter three, four years and fourteen pages onwards, is our attention drawn to much else than the secret life of an unoccupied habitat. The ensemble of objects, materials and landscaped flora that make up the ramshackle house and its garden quickly becoming suspended from the web of human relations of use and significance that have animated and maintained it thus far. Left to their own devices, things are tested for their endurance by the unchallenged elements. A candle serving as a lone late reading light is the last object encountered in relation to human contexts of use and concern. The enclosing darkness creeps through keyholes and crevices, steals round window blinds, comes into bedrooms, swallows up a jug and a basin, a bowl of red and yellow dahlias. Miniscule airs toy with the flap of hanging wall paper (printed with red and yellow roses), brushing walls and torn letters in the wastepaper basket, flowers, and books, blanching the apples on the dining-room table, fumbling the petals of roses, brushing the mat and blowing a little sand along the floor.
Night interrupts day – in that most cyclical, routinely manner of a break from physical and mental exhaustion that puts momentarily to rest our desire, anxiety and grief, offering time to convalesce and to dream, whilst leaving the world abandoned for the time of sleep – before extending into a durational interim of several years. While elsewhere war rages, precisely disturbing men’s capacity to sleep and to dream, it is the abandoned materiality of a habitat deprived of its anthropo-centre that takes respite, yielding to wind and weather, the reigning of the elements, animals and vegetation.
Eventually though, the interval – crack in an otherwise seamless flow of time, breathing spot, transitory breach in the core of collective existence – has not so much come to an end as somewhat petered out, lost some of its original force and returned us (at the moment of writing) to life (almost) as we know it, repopulating our abandoned roads, schools and office buildings, as well as tentatively refilling the calendars of our projected futures. Swept up in a collective rush towards the (new) normal, I ask myself, what are the chances to hold on to the temporal vagueness of our experiences of the interval, the slowing down of life to the repetitive, non-progressive rhythms of maintenance and care in the radical immanence of a time lived as immovable?
Stephen Wright has fittingly described the interval as the temporal equivalent of ‘vague terrains’, those ‘strange in-between spatial zones in and around cities – derelict sites, empty parking lots, … bedraggled non-spaces before the city peters out’. Far from the generic, prescriptive, soulless and soul-destroying spaces of a pervasive corporate interest, vague terrains are spaces saturated with a poetics of potential and participation, full of a dignified precarity and the promise of play, as well as an openness to the endless possibilities of a shared reconstruction and 'Einrichtung' (to make oneself a home from home). Translated into time, the vagueness of an unqualified interval perhaps harbours similar participatory potentials as the uncertain duration of a shared trajectory. In light of this association between the interval and the democracy to come, it is unsurprising to have seen our experiences of lockdown accompanied by a sense of opportunity for a restructuring of the commons, as in the momentarily invigorated appeal for a Universal Basic Income and a four-day working week. Moreover, in reaching beyond exclusively human concerns, the experience of lockdown has provided us with a model ethics of a slower, more hesitant and above all vaguer return to economic and public life. Carving gaps into the spaces and times of our habitat, an ethics of the interval begins to model the chance for a more emphatic sharing of spatio-temporal resources, including with non-human dwellers.
As the long summer of 2020 fades into autumn, the propriety of shoes and trousers replaces the casualness of bare feet and shorts, the school run once again subjecting us to its relentless daily drill, and chapter II is followed by chapter III, which after all these months and years finally makes good on the promise of the title of Woolf’s 1927 novel, I find myself somewhat torn between a poetics of abandonment and housekeeping, vacillating between an attitude of passivity and enterprise.
To occupy with gentleness
In Jeremy Cooper’s book Ash before Oak the conflicting movements of passive retreat and active occupation, of careless abandonment and intervening maintenance, of presence and invisibility in the attitude of dwelling are most tactfully held in the balance. Beyond the concrete setting of the life of its narrator in an old farm house in Somerset, the novel might be said to offer a suitable ethos for our times: to install ourselves with lightness and care in the liminal space of an interval of suspended time.
‘Today I did a beautiful thing,’ begins the first entry of Cooper’s novel written in the form of a diary, printed next to a small, low resolution reproduction of a brooding, black and white photograph of an old farm house, half hidden behind the bushy mass of a tall tree: ‘built a rose arch from timber I had first felled and trimmed. My work is not in itself beautiful, but the act of doing it was, the replacement of a fallen frame, an old rose set to prosper.’ Failing somewhat to take charge, unable but also unwilling to fully assert himself over territory, time and the forces of intrusion, decay and destruction, its narrator takes pleasure and care in lightly facilitating the possibilities of a coming prosperity. Lamenting the damage gardeners do to natural life with their ‘fetish for tidiness’, his is an attitude of tactful retreat, the fine subtlety of an intervention at the limit of a preference not to.
‘This summer I’ve done almost no work on the land, sat and watched nature take its way, (…). It was only with the greatest reluctance that yesterday I mowed the lawn, wishing to prolong the parade of buttercups, daisies, plantain and clover’.
A fragile state of mind makes for a heightened sensibility for the gentle, soft, and tender, like that ‘softest of openings to the day’ in November, ‘the mist low, rolling East to West …, thick enough to look like rain, yet lacking the weight to mark the puddles in the lane’. Balancing acts and limit states of weighted weightlessness, exposed invisibility and still life inform a modality of dwelling that wants to tread lightly. Replacing the broken windows and doors of the old stables, he leaves open a single round window for the return of migrating swallows with some atavistic knowledge that these buildings are available for use, unwilling – at least for now – to enforce their violent eviction. ‘They’ll not be homeless.’
Fantasies of invisibility through blending into the habitat grow out of a cultivated unwillingness to take up centralized positions of power and a willed weakening of ego that approximates the relative stillness, silence and passivity of the inanimate, vacillating between what at times is a death wish and at others a strategy for learning how to live at the limit of (in)stability, radically open to the coming of the time of non-human others.
And so with dignity through the birdsong…
Manchester, April – September, 2020
Lisa Baraitser, Enduring Time, London: Bloomsbury, 2019.
Simon Bayly, THE END OF THE PROJECT: futurity in the culture of catastrophe, Angelaki, 18:2, 2013, 161-177.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, London: Granada, 1977.
Jeremy Cooper, Ash Before Oak, London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019.