Prof. Thomas Hylland ERIKSEN: How has the pandemic changed our experience of time?

How has the pandemic changed our experience of time?

Photo of Prof. Thomas Hylland ERIKSEN

Prof. Thomas Hylland ERIKSEN

Social anthropologist based at the University of Oslo. He conducts research on ethnicity, nationalism and globalization. Author of numerous books, including Ethnicity and Nationalism, A History of Anthropology, Small Places, Large Issues, Tyranny of the Moment and Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change.

Ryc. Fabien Clairefond

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It was only with the COVID-19 pandemic that many of us became aware of this. It came as a shock to us that borders and free movement across borders in Europe could be restricted. Norwegians could no longer buy alcohol in Sweden or visit their relatives with such ease – writes prof. Thomas Hylland ERIKSEN

.Some of us are well acquainted with the realities of modern, fairly comfortable living, especially in terms of mobility. We like to visit various new countries and then return to our homes and share our stories on Instagram and other social media. More often than not, however, our good stories are bad news for the climate and a part of life known only to some. It is hard to say how many. For example, we don’t know how many people travel by plane. We only have some estimates of the number of tickets purchased. These show that around 10-15 per cent of the world’s population travelled by air. So, it is not difficult to guess that access to air travel is unevenly distributed.

It was only with the COVID-19 pandemic that many of us became aware of this. It came as a shock to us that borders and free movement across borders in Europe could be restricted. Norwegians could no longer buy alcohol in Sweden or visit their relatives with such ease. Suddenly even the privileged middle or upper class realised that their lives could be restricted. So, what are migrants from the Global South and refugees to say? 

Space is thus being restricted and unequally distributed. We do not all have access to the same means of locomotion as enjoying the privileges of open borders. Much of migration studies deals precisely with this imbalance in the distribution of freedom of movement. This leads us to an important conclusion about time. For if space is restricted for those of us with the least resources, what situation does this put them in? Their lives become a constant process of waiting.

How do we experience time?

.There is a growing body of literature on time, while there is still a lack of research on the consequences of waiting. These consequences can be described in several ways. Firstly, waiting as being with the world. This is a capitalist concept that assumes that in a capitalist society, time is something we can measure, standardise and consequently turn into profit. It is therefore a concept closely related to the famous maxim: time is money. This, by the way, is a saying dating back to the American Revolution in the 18th century, uttered by a Dutch philosopher who described punctuality as a virtue. Some experts attribute a historical framework to this phenomenon, when for the first time a non-religious value was presented as a universal virtue. Actually, what does it mean? It is essentially a socialisation imperative: you should be on time! You should not waste time! After all, wasting time is a bad thing, especially wasting other people’s time.

There is, however, a certain counterculture to this dimension of time, which means that time cannot be quantified, measured, which opposes the perception of time as a phenomenon occurring outside the subject. The most famous and ground-breaking author of this approach was the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose 1880 doctoral dissertation dealt with just such a dimension of time.

Bergson distinguished between the mechanistic conception of time, according to which time can be measured and counted, and the psychological experience of time. Of course, we are familiar with the feeling of experiencing happiness, meeting friends and spending time with them without much regard for time. Often in such moments, hours pass like seconds. We also know the experience of the dentist’s chair, when sometimes a simple five minutes can drag on forever. Bergson therefore noted that time can also be flexible. It can be stretched, lengthened, and accelerated. Bergson, however, was concerned that the mechanical experience of time might overshadow the mental one. He feared that we would become almost like robots, regulated by time rather than by our inner feelings and motivation.

A few decades later, American civilisation theorist and author of Technics and Civilisation Lewis Mumford said in 1930 that man’s most powerful invention was not the cannon, not the steam engine but the clock; a clock that organises us, synchronises our actions, limits them, tells us when and what to do. This can be CET time, which can be quickly and easily converted to the time that is in Algeria and Chile, as well as New Zealand. Time became universal with the invention of the clock. But why do I mention this? The reason I say this is because I want to highlight the time that many people experience, especially marginalised groups like refugees, whether waiting to be able to leave their country, waiting for their asylum application to be processed, waiting to be transferred to a new place where they would rather be, waiting to start life all over again because the start of life has been put on hold. For them, there is a gap between the time experienced in this liminal situation and the time that prevails in the communities they are trying to access.

And it is stressful. But for other civilisations, time also causes a different kind of stress, concerning the lack of it. The stress caused by being overworked, having a full calendar, being in the flow of things; you act that you know you’re a successful person, there’s nothing as difficult as an empty calendar so when people call you and email, you remember to reply. “I’ll see if I can add another thing to my calendar.” – you say.

This kind of thinking about time is fairly new. Until now, it only concerned the Protestant part of the Anglo-Saxons, who organised their lives around time, its regulations and rules, because time is money. Now, instead, we must turn our attention to its opposite, to waiting, not to chasing. On the waiting of refugees who are waiting for an asylum decision, a visa decision, a residence permit, but only temporal permit! It is a big contrast to this new but also dominant order.

Waiting for… 

Another aspect of time that we should look at is time as a certain potentiality. When you have a full calendar, when you are a loyal and correct worker, you participate in this new neoliberal economy of doing, working and consuming as much as you can. But then you have very little flexibility. Twentieth-century thinker Gregory Bateson defined flexibility as the uncommitted potential for change. But when there is still something going on in this neoliberal economy, very little actually changes. It is only when nothing special is happening that anything can happen. This is a necessary recipe for creativity to occur. Everyone knows this. These gaps that are part of our lives: boredom, lack of new ideas, sitting in a chair and looking at the ceiling is the only way we can become creative when we have this empty time that we can fill with almost anything.

There is therefore a certain potentiality in time that we should pay attention to and should appreciate. Waiting should not just be equated with something negative. Although something negative in fact it is. For refugees and migrants, waiting is a loophole, because migrants do not spend most of their time on the move. It is only a short period of time. Definitely more time they spend waiting. And they see life passing them by in a certain way. So, they have to make up new stories to tell their relatives back home, reassuring them that they are fine and heading (probably) in the right direction. For them, the wait can go on forever. Of course, there is some hope. But most of the time, there is no telling when that hope will be realised. It could be tomorrow or in a few years. Over time, people watch their bodies age, but time stands still.

Time and power

.Another dimension of waiting which has been explored in a different context in studies of bureaucracy by sociologists is to do with power. Can I have the power to make other people wait? 

The ability to make people wait transit subjectivity of waiting into commitment to wait for everything to come from others. Waiting expresses a domination by others. Through the very act of acquiescence of waiting you show that you accepted the loss of your control over your time. Waiting generates vulnerability and humiliation and its distribution society is a precise index of power discrepancy. The powerless have to wait. The powerful can make others wait. This is particularly true for marginalised groups who are forced to wait, which is an accountable expression of their dependence and lack of personal autonomy. Refugees, the elderly, the unemployed – you can make them wait and when you take your time they will be broken and agree to anything.

When people continue to accept waiting, they may express hope in orientation towards the future. “Something good might happen”. The problem is that no one knows when. It could be tomorrow, or it could be next week. It places you in the state of limbo.

Waiting is a congested crossroads; it is crossroads, the traffic jam clogging the route leading from the present to the future. But it’s also a slight insult of itchy unpleasant chasm between certainty and uncertainty. Lengthy waiting drives you into a rut. It is psychologically debilitating. Many people who are working with refugees or documented or undocumented migrants can confirm this effect. Waiting makes manifest in your life a state of what Australian-Lebanese anthropologist Ghassan Hage has called 'stuckness’. You would like to move but you can’t. Almost like you would be glued to the ground.

This limbo state leads to very serious psychological consequences, not only in the way we look at time, but consequently in the way we experience life. The German philosopher-phenomenologist Alfred Schütz distinguished between two types of motivation prompting action that have to do with time. The first is 'because’. „I do it because…”; „Because it happened in the past, I do it”. „I have a family to support and no prospects in my country of origin, so I risk my life crossing the Mediterranean to give them a better life”. The second dimension of the relationship between time and action is 'in order to’. This is a future-oriented motivation. „I am doing it to achieve something in the future”. However, both of these time dimensions are of no use if you are in the realm of 'stuckness’ without any prospect of action, either towards the past or the future.

Transformation of waiting

.It is worth noting at this point what has happened in the context of experiencing time with us over the past two years. For this experience of waiting, of living in limbo, is obviously not the same as that experienced by refugees or migrants, but it can still provide us with a great deal of valuable information about the life of other societies.

We can easily distinguish today the groups within the world, society and even within a specific social group that have been most affected by extraordinary events. In some ways, the experience of recent pandemic years has been very serious for the youngest. Two years in the life of a teenager is, after all, much more than two years out of the life of a much older person.

Let us remember what I wrote at the beginning. For 40 years we have been told that life should be organised Benjamin Franklin-style, time on amphetamines, filled with constant consumption and work.  Meanwhile, 40 years after Regan and Tchatcher, who started it in the 1980s, the message coming from the political elite is how to do the opposite. They said we need to stop working. Stay at home. Cancel our commitments. Prepare for alternative times because you never know what might happen. We have arrived at a time of uncertainty where all we can do is wait and stay at home. Suddenly 'stuckness’ has become the experience of all civilisations. And please, don’t come to work! Stay at home!

At the time, researchers, including myself, participated in a small study on people’s perceptions about the pandemic in Norway. We followed 90 homes for more than two and a half years. It turned out that for the first months they lived in the belief that it would be a temporary experience. This is very similar to the experience of refugees who have just arrived at a refugee camp and have just applied for international protection. Present in them then is the conviction that this condition cannot last forever. “Maybe I will be relocated in a week?” – they ask. But with time, this conviction ends, as does the hope that resettlement will ever happen. 

During the first months of the pandemic people thought it would be over by the summer and they would still manage to go on holiday to Greece or Spain. But this did not happen. Then it became apparent that it might be over. But again, the pandemic attacked us with redoubled force. During the last Omicron wave, people showed clear signs of discouragement and resignation. They have had enough; they will not wait any longer. Then they break the pandemic rules, and refugees, as was the case with the Moria refugee camp in Greece, even decide to set fire to the camp. They will not wait any longer. 

.Waiting has become the air we breathe. The work we hated, the friends we were tired of, the friendly handshakes to get it all back and snap us out of this state of waiting. In a way, it made us better able to understand the experiences of other groups. Universal time, in its mechanical dimension, gave way to a psychic one, in which the experience of waiting and uncertainty proved consistent for people born under different latitudes. Well, it is fair to say that only time will tell whether the experience of everyday life for so many marginalised groups can make our mechanical dimension of time, and its power dimension, into a transformative structure for us and our communities, when time transforms into actual empathy.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

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