This has been one of the strangest weeks of my life. Last Sunday, five days ago, I was sitting here, recovering from my son’s 13th birthday party, anticipating the challenges of a very busy week with evening commitments almost every night while adjusting to the dreaded daylight savings time. We knew we might go to online teaching the week after spring break, but it all felt very preventative and not imminent. There was no way to imagine life not following its linear progression.
Late Monday, my university announced they would go online on Thursday, two days before Spring break. On Tuesday, my son’s choir announced an unprecedented “spring break” making the week’s calendar a good deal less complicated. My husband and I went to see a play that night. I wondered vaguely whether that was a good idea, suddenly starting to see space differently than I had before. It felt odd to be in public and yet normal. On Wednesday I said goodbye to my students. I said, “See you… I’m not sure when.” On Thursday, the governor mandated all schools, places of entertainment and gyms closed in Montgomery county, where I work and where the kids go to school. Thursday night we had a pre-scheduled meeting with the parents of my son’s class. It was an emotional meeting, the kind where we all would have hugged afterwards. Instead effusively bumped elbows and sort of gazed at each other deeply, conveying, or hoping to convey, love.
What is our new normal? Space and time have been radically altered in the space of a few days. Things are changing rapidly, giving the appearance of time moving fast. But time is also elongating—it lacks an endpoint. I said goodbye to my students, who I meet at regular intervals each week until the semester ends, not knowing when I will see them again. The punctuation that marks time, and particularly the period that ends our temporal sentences, has been erased. Time seems to have simultaneously stopped moving and moves rapidly, but outside our control.
Similar things are happening to space. Our space has contracted. We are contained in cities, states, neighborhoods, counties and houses. Containment becomes a feature and an ordering logic of life. The space beyond our containment is uncertain and confusing. To get on an airplane or cross a state line, something that was routine a week ago, now requires crossing a threshold. It is somehow taboo, and if you wish to undergo the risk, you are required to perform rituals of isolation and purification.
This is seemingly bizarre contraction-expansion of space and time is not new for many people around the world. I am in the end stages of writing a book about temporality and containment among Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia along with my colleague and friend, Amanda Poole. The parallels between time and space among refugees and our current condition are striking.
One aspect of temporality for refugees is that time is fractured into multiple co-existing ways of relating to time. Building on the work of many brilliant scholars (who I would cite if this were academic work- I can share sources! ) and drawing on the thoughts and stories of many insightful and generous refugees who talked us, Amanda and I point out the ways that refugee containment (whether it is in camps or countries) leads to an urgency coupled with a helpless waiting, which is similar to the temporal effects of the coronavirus pandemic. At one level time is experienced through passivity. Refugees, perhaps like many of us, have a lot of time. In the space of a few days we have shifted from hurtling through our busy lives, struggling to make time, to suddenly having more time than we know what to do with.
But having time is an odd condition. When you have time, time sort of happens to you. You wait. And in waiting, the waitee is stripped of power. Refugees wait for rations, for all forms of paperwork that allow them to perform basic functions in their life. We wait for information, for announcements, for next steps we are supposed to take. Refugees wait for resettlement. We wait for a vaccine. In a period of waiting, time stops moving.
If we think of time as a sentence, when you are waiting, there is no period on the sentence and no predictable punctuation. The grammar of our being is upended. We are no longer authoring our own sentences. Someone and something else is in control. Life is one big run-on sentence right now. This is deeply unsettling. And scary.
Amanda and I are write a lot about what happens when time loses its telos. Telos can be defined as the “ultimate object or aim.” We might think of it as the period at the end of the temporal sentence. Without even being aware of it, our lives are organized teleologically. In other words, we are constantly working towards an outcome or aim; we order everything we do towards this ultimate outcome or aim. For example, capitalism is oriented towards the ultimate outcome of economic growth and orders our lives in accordance to this outcome. Education, our career paths, buying a house, the loans we take out, our investments, having children are all ordered and oriented towards working towards an ultimate outcome. They are linear processes. Think about the everyday language we so commonly use: I am trying to get ahead. Or I am behind. These are teleological markers that assume a linear progression and delineate our place on the timeline towards progress. And our own personal progress (or lack thereof) fits into, and fuels, the broader systems that, in turn, give shape to the ways we order our life. We have faith in this system. Indeed, we don’t know how to believe in anything else.
With the onset of the coronavirus, we have all been forced to begin to abandon our teleogical orientations in the face of uncertainty. We cannot plan for what we do not know is coming. We are literally unmoored, untethered, not spatially, but temporally. At the same time, it is almost impossible for us to imagine time without telos. It orders everything in our society. It organizes our day. It organizes our dreams, aspirations and fears. It delineates the risks we are willing, and not willing, to take.
When time stops moving, telos often no longer makes sense. This can lead to people being reckless and risk taking becoming logical. Many Eritrean refugees take incredible risks to migrate northward towards Europe (they could die of hunger or thirst, be kidnapped, tortured and enslaved, they could be stuck in detention anywhere along the way). There are many reasons why this risk-taking comes to seem logical to them. One of the reasons is the desperate need to make time move again. The pressure of waiting, of not having control, of not being the author of your own sentence, is too much.
Living in teleological time, is a privilege, not a norm. For refugees teleological time is an illusion and that illusion is extremely cruel. Refugees are not unique, but rather their circumstances reflect those of many precarious people around the world. We have moved closer to their temporalities in the last week.
Right now, nothing is certain. This is more than uncertainty and disruption—those suggest a return to normal, a blip in the timeline, a rambling, non-sensical phrase in an otherwise coherent sentence. But this is an existential shift, a paradigm shift of the greatest proportions. Of course, we are not ready to abandon our teleological privileges just yet. And yet we know that things will never be the same.
So how does one live on the border of the time-space of coronaland? A former student of mine wrote a facebook post entitled: “dispatches from coronaland” which I stole for this post. Where is coronaland I wondered? Italy? California? The county next to mine, the one that the governor shut down? Really these are not different lands at all. They are not places with discrete borders and boundaries. Coronaland is as much here as it is there. But ironically we know that the pandemic requires acts of radical containment, of contracting and enclosing space. For now, I live in one land and work ten minutes away across an invisible border into Coronaland. Would it be taboo to cross that boundary if I need to pick something up from my office? How do we navigate the boundaries around coronaland when we are all, inevitably, constantly straddling its borders?
Contraction and enclosure, in turn, contracts time and attacks its teleologies—its march forward to and through progress. The economy is the biggest victim. We all feel is avalanche in the teleologies of our individual lives. We worry about our employees, our jobs, our enrollments, our revenue, our bills, our investments, the balance on our retirement accounts. It is scary. It is tempting to draw inwards and protect our future, alone, much as we are mandated to contain and protect against the coronavirus, but doing so for many of us will be futile. Indeed, many of us have never had the privilege of teleology and have already been living an incoherent, run-on sentence without a period for a long time.
As we closed our parents’ meeting last night, we said goodbye with our strangely effusive and affectionate elbow tappings. I commented that this new way of greeting, and social distancing more broadly, might become woven into the new tapestry of our sociability. Perhaps also, the teleologies that have ordered our everyday lives will be permanently altered. We have been privileged to be able to live teleologically, to plan for this long. There is no guarantee of that privilege moving forward. In this way, we are joining a very large club who have not had the luxury of planning for a very long time.
Perhaps this is the time for a temporal paradigm shift, for abandoning our individual planning towards those higher goals and our rigid march towards them. Perhaps this is a time for embracing the endless sentence and the creativity it brings. Perhaps this is a time for demanding a social safety net that makes doing so less deadly for all humans.