Time is, of course, socially constructed, appearing as both a benevolent necessity in terms of proffering “a certain measure of control over the uncontrollable temporality of existence” as Barbara Adam states and as a profoundly disciplinary practice. As I have argued elsewhere, we all live with time, but we also all live (and die) through or by time, however much Byung-Chul Han would have it that “one perishes in non-time … mak(ing) dying more difficult than ever”.
The “time of COVID” has a beginning although not yet an end, dividing time into “before COVID”, “during COVID”, itself sub-divided temporally and spatially in terms of degrees of “lockdown” and “openness”, and with the hope, whether through global availability of a vaccine, the establishment of so-called “herd immunity”, or less specific ways of the virus “burning itself out”, to a “post-COVID” time. I share John Clarke”s view that the co-existence of multiple temporalities creates a sense of confusion and disorientation. Literally, time in lockdown is “locked down”, it loses its shape, as normalized routines of everyday life, be it work and non-work, the rhythm of sports events, choice of
vacation time and place, and the like, are disrupted and replaced, to an extent, by “phases in the life of the epidemic, rates of spread, mutation times, quarantine periods, the time it takes to make a vaccine, incubation time, etc.”.
A kind of slippery comparative temporal slope is produced, with pronouncements from experts and politicians such as “we are where Italy was two weeks ago” (ibid.) or “if we continue with the current measures, we should see rates of infection beginning to fall within the next two weeks”. A viral calculus consisting of seven- or fourteen-day rolling averages, rates of infections per 100,000 population, hospitalisations, numbers on ventilators and/or in intensive care (as a percentage of some finite resource), where such facilities exist, death rates, and the like, all imprecise and offering a poor evidence base for international comparison, (sometimes, as in Croatia, within the same country), becomes the underlying rationale for policy choices. Politics and policy-making becomes coterminous with what Badiou has called “the control of time” or, at least, its loose and blurred governance, through which control slips as sand through hands.
A separate paper would be needed to address the complexities of social control in the time of COVID and its complex linkages with forms of governance, more often a hybridized mixture of authoritarianism, as in the extended curfew or policijski sat (literally “police hour” or, figuratively, “police time”, in Serbo-Croatian), exceptional regulation for times of exception, and more libertarian or laissez-faire practices (“along the lines of the Swedish model”), rather than a clear-cut continuum. There is also a discursive juxtaposition between “saving people’s health” and “saving the economy”, expressed in terms of disagreements as to whether the two are in a relationship of ‘trade-off’ or ‘compatability’.
Here, I want to concentrate on the restructuring of temporal hierarchies: whilst all of us face what Jarvis terms “temporal reckonings”, these are felt, experienced, lived and structured in complex, and complexly different, ways. We have witnessed the strengthening of, already strong, national modes of governance, at its most nationalistic in Trump”s labelling of COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus”, and the attempts of his administration to secure vaccines for Americans at the expense of the rest of the world (so-called “vaccine nationalism”), but taking more mundane forms in statistical comparators, in ideas of the virus having been “brought in by those travelling from overseas”.
Although never an unproblematic concept, “globalization” can be said to have been forced to take a “time-out”, again demonstrated most stubbornly in Trump”s impending withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization as well as in a dramatic, and unprecedented, fall in air passenger travel. Even if it were true when he wrote it, “COVID time” has rendered deeply problematic Bauman”s suggestion that “nowadays we are all on the move” even as it has amplified his sense that much of this involves us “staying put” in front of a computer screen. The pandemic has restructured but not eliminated the distinction between two kinds of “nomadism”, that of cosmopolitan, transnational, elites on the one hand, and the dispossessed migrants, “global vagabonds” in Bauman”s terms, on the other, as well as between both of these and the stay at homes, the settler and settled population. The continued need for migrant workers in Western Europe denied labour rights and placed at risk of infection, further complicated this.
For many, of course, as Clarke reminds us, time was “stolen”, with lives cut short as “life expectancy” at given ages was brushed aside as age and specific conditions began to be treated as “co-morbidities”. To those who died should be added “those enclosed, isolated, shielded and left to wait for who knows what” as, for so many, “work time”, “school time”, even “play time” was suspended, reduced or radically restructured. There was little thought for those without a home to go to or not allowed to go home, including the homeless, those in refugee camps, institutional care, prisons, nor for those at greater risk of violence through their inability to leave their homes. Those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, or had their work interrupted whilst their employers received government subsidies, termed “furloughed workers” after a century-old
term for those on home leave from the military, experienced “a surfeit of unwanted time”, finding themselves literally having “more time on their hands than they ever expected”.
“The gift” of “time” turned out, for many, to be something of a “poisoned chalice”. Indeed, “time on your hands” turned, for many, into “time on the body”, a kind of “corporeal temporality” as “working from home” involved new pressures including juggling work with home-schooling and childcare. Channeling Foucault, Preciado has suggested that “an epidemic radicalizes and shifts biopolitical techniques by incorporating them at the level of the individual body” becoming “the occasion for the large-scale reconfiguration of body procedures and technologies of power”. At one extreme, this involves the multiplication of extra-corporeal temporality, Preciado terms it “radical un-dividualisation” as masks hide faces, and physical bodies become “hidden behind an indefinite series of semio-technical mediations, an array of cybernetic prostheses that work like digital masks: email addresses, Facebook, Instagram, Zoom, and Skype accounts”. Conversely, this out-of-body time often co-exists alongside moments of tactile physicality with partners, children, and pets, and interactions, notably with delivery drivers, where tactile physicality is avoided. It should be clear that, in the words of Joe Strummer, “the future is unwritten” and writing it will depend upon political action.