Time, Corona and the Internet
The way different factors (social, technological, natural) interact to produce an experience of time fascinates me. Time remains one of philosophy’s greatest aporias, one of the most fruitful focuses for literature—as we can see in a personal favourite, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but also in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (which are taken as a tripartite exploration of literature’s exploration of time in the second volume of Paul Ricœur’s great Time and Narrative). Time is also at the core of utopianism, which I explore in my upcoming ebook on—in part—writing utopia.
Like many great philosophers before him (Aristotle, St. Augustine…), Marx was very interested in the problematics of time (work Marxists such as Andrea Malm and Stavros Tombazos have continued). In his customary way, Marx linked time to the material basis of society—its productive forces. Free time, the freeing of time for all, was at the core of his Hegelian derived New Humanism. Time should interest us at every level: as humanists or writers, as workers, philosophers, readers, as human beings.
When the corona pandemic erupted into Britain and quickly reconfigured society and politics, I wrote a tightly clustered group of articles that focussed on it and more than passingly mentioned time. I then drifted from the subject in part because I wanted to diversify and in part because Covid-19 became so much a background assumption to everything else. I found in my journaling, too, that I rarely mentioned the virus directly. This was not out of some indolent boredom with the still deadly affliction and its horrifying consequences, because in truth it remains constantly in the subtext of a lot of my writing.
That was the key: subtext. I have long been impressed by the essentially human—and, I suspect, transhistorical—capacity to make of any new variable a timeless constancy. One reason for our natural and shared conservative biases is that our cognition is just not particularly good at noticing change. Anything can become dully normal, and at the heart of normality is the appearance of something-having-always-been (to speak in an all too Heideggerian way). It is now, indeed, quite hard to imagine that in 2019 there was no real suggestion of Covid. My memories of 2019, because they took place against so many altered background assumptions, appear almost fictional and irreal.
When I wrote before of Covid-19 I wrote of how it shifts the experience of time in another way (at least, for those of us who are not pushed into increasingly dangerous workplace environments, where circumstances are significantly constituted otherwise). That is, how ‘routines calcify, days seamlessly flow; the abandonment of modern calendar time does not mean a return to some premodern cyclical time, but merely the death of any coherent orientation to the endless sequence of events.’ This dreamlike quality to living in even relative lockdown, the mediated half-lockdown of cautious social distancing, compounds that aforementioned new normality; it creates a hermetic life, sealed from many previous markers of social existence, as its background assumptions are at such a vast remove from those previously held as timeless.
In this context, the already ubiquitous and already dreamlike online world looms large as a means by which we still continue to connect. There is much I would like to still write on the internet, which from a socialist perspective I maintain is grievously under-theorised. A wonderous communications technology that has been shaped in many disastrous ways by the needs and influences of capitalism into a space that links people, but cultivates addiction; that is a vast repository of knowledge, but the architecture of which directs many to consume and create shallow reactionary propaganda; that enables the collaborative growth of ideas and movements as nothing else, but often leaves its users profoundly atomised.
In a piece I am currently working on, I describe, as well, the two-sidedness of time on the internet, which I call a fast fixity. It is a flighty world of instantly outdated and redundant memes, and a stable one where everything is preserved and always recoverable. I would argue, phenomenologically, that this is how the internet feels too: both outside of time and overabundant with it. To look away is to lose track of what’s going on, to be within its virtual space is to be locked in a world where time stops. Already a realm of fantasy, this temporal quality makes it that much more fantastical.
And in the new normal hermeticism of Covid-19, perhaps soon ending (*knock loudly on wood*), the internet has—for many—further distorted time. It has shaped how thatnormality feels. A pandemic quarantine in a pre-internet age, or for those who today eschew it, cannot be like an internet quarantine. The bombardment of video call requests, the allure of social media and its prominence in daily existence. An uneasy space to dwell too much within, but one hard to abandon completely in the circumstances.
It has made me at once more in awe and more cautious of being online. I employ stricter internet blockers, but value the links this medium seamlessly (so quickly invisibly) enables. Against that, I have begun again to cultivate the slow, measured, calm time of voluntary solitude. I fell in love with that type of time in my late adolescence, when I spent a week alone reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Mabinogi. The time of books is complementary to it. And the time of writing.
Time is hard to grasp. It is so at the foundation of our being, so primordial to what it is to be per se, that it is easily discounted, and the ways it is filtered easily confused for its essential features. Covid-19 is so disruptive to our time, however, that it has presented an opportunity to shine a light onto time, especially to the ways we navigate it socially (and, in this respect, unevenly across society). If the experience of time can change, then it can be changed; it can be something we take possession of, as much as something that takes possession of us. (As it has, in so many strange and different ways, during the time of corona.)
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