Lockdown Retreat, Day 91: Time is Broken

The science fiction I read as a kid often used the idea of time being ‘broken’, with action heroes like Jerry Cornelius and the ABC Warriors fighting to set things right. I find myself recalling the strangeness of these stories when I think of the way time has changed during the pandemic.

This idea of broken time has turned up a lot. There was a meme about how “2020 is a unique Leap Year. It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March, and five years in April“. And then there was a fantastic Youtube sketch by Julie Nolke, where her January self is visited by her future self, from April. It’s disconcerting how history has lurched forwards.

This feeling of broken time is brilliantly captured in the essay, Pandemic Time: A Distributed Doomsday Clock by Venkatesh Rao, a writer who regularly gives good concept. Rao begins by talking about “the sudden dimming of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse”. This star is about 700 light years away, meaning this dimming “actually occurred somewhere around the time the Black Death was making its way around the world”.

This is the starting point for an essay on the “distorted temporality shaped by the progress of COVID-19 across the globe. Like the distorted time around a supergiant star going supernova and collapsing into a black hole, “pandemic time” is anything but normal.

Rao describes the experience well. “Even within a different apartment block, neighbours experience different temporalities“, with some working from home, others home-schooling, some with families separated from loved ones overseas. Rao also talks about how “Older outbreak hotspots are serving as time machines for newer ones.” I have a friend in Italy, and he warned me of the logistical and emotional challenges I was about to face, based on being two weeks ahead in lockdown.

It’s an effort not to just precis the whole essay. One of the most striking sections is the comparison of Chronos, the Greek god of linear measured time, to Kairos, the god of subjective time, or time as opportunity. Roa talks about how Chronos has lost his grip on our world, placing us in “a new epoch ruled by Kairos“. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read on the pandemic.

We’re now past 12 weeks into lockdown, and the government is desperately trying to get the economy moving again. Permanent lockdown is not an option, as horrifying as the alternative might be. But this goes very much against the advice first received, and the government messaging is confused. Opening up again is a risk, but it is a managed one, and they should be discussing that in a clear, adult manner.

Meanwhile, as a single-adult household, I have finally been allowed to create a ‘social bubble’. I’ve seen my friend Rosy for distanced walks, but being allowed to sit down and share food with her and her daughter is a massive improvement in my quality of life. But we are still a long way from normality and a world ruled again by Chronos.

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