A Double Absence: Feeling Time in the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Erica Baffelli and Frederik Schröer
These days our access to space (be it workplaces, parks, shops, let alone travel) is strictly regulated and restricted. Our experience of time, also, seems to have changed in a radical way, a way that most of us have never felt before. Many of us feel acutely disconnected from our communities, while at the same time new forms of solidarity and belonging are emerging. Although the impact and consequences of the pandemic are not the same for all of us, there is no denying that we are all affected.
In our writings about exile and diaspora and about members of minority religious groups, we explore the role of time and emotions in the formation of communities. These communities are characterised by absence. For almost a year before the onset of the #Coronacene, many of our conversations were on how to explain an absence that is present and has presence; an absence that is concrete and material, such as a lost homeland or a dismantled commune, and also emotional and felt. Such absence is not limited by feelings of missing, desire, loss, or longing, but its presence itself produces belonging. This is further articulated through specific temporal relations—socially specific ways in which individuals and groups emotionally connect to imagined pasts, uncertain futures, and radically different presents. Very similarly today, as we will argue here, our lives are dominated by the palpable presence of an absence that cannot simply be reversed.
Between February and March 2020, when countries across the world started locking down their populations, our discussions about absence, time, and emotions therefore started to feel very timely. And autobiographical, given that we were both suddenly trapped in our homes in Berlin and Manchester, moving our collaboration online. Here, we would like to add to reflections already articulated by other scholars who have considered perceptions and disruptions of time, temporalities and the order of time during COVID-19. We do so by focusing on time as relational. That is, by looking at time as a category of experience, and uncovering the feelings thus connected to time(s).
Emotions, Temporal Relations, and Double Absence
In our research, we focus on emotions that are often described as “negative”, such as pain, suffering, and fear. In our work on contemporary Japan and the Tibetan diaspora, we investigate the role that such emotions play in how belonging is produced in religious communities. What we have found is that absence can constitute community. Such absence, it turns out, is often double; it is both spatial and temporal. And it is this double absence that constitutes belonging. This means not just the absence of a presence, as in an inaccessible homeland, or the inability to perform religious rituals and practices. Instead, belonging is produced by the presence of absence, by a shared experience of being in an overwhelming situation of absence. It is not that the restrictions and their consequences pertain only to limited areas of our lives. They encompass everything and all our relationships.
These restrictions include not just spatial and social relations, but also temporal ones, meaning the relationships individuals maintain with different pasts, presents, and futures. Today, temporalised language is constantly used in the news (“lockdown is bending time out of shape”) and across social media discussions and memes (“Did March feel like the longest month of your life?”). Thinking about absence brings into focus time’s emotional dynamics and the rhythms of the experience of time.
Times of Absence
We can see this dynamic through a metaphor of movement—something that is, alas, relatively absent at the moment. It proceeds generally in three steps: entering, living in, and leaving; or returning. We entered absence from January 2020, when early news started to emerge from China about a new virus. We began living in absence in mid-March, when the WHO declared the pandemic and one country after another started introducing restrictions.
As we live under current restrictions, how does the presence of absence shape our experience? In our present moment, though the experiences manifest in myriad ways depending on geographical and social contexts, we find ourselves in situations of double absence. We experience spatial inaccessibilities and temporal irreversibility. We are denied our spaces: we cannot go and meet friends and family, we might not be allowed to visit our workplace, we cannot travel as we used to, and even the most quotidian of interactions, such as running into a friend on the street, are regulated by invisible barriers of distance. Now, more than ever, we experience the irreversibility of time. There is no time machine that can lead us back to
pre-COVID-19 times. Our viral present stretches over an unknown temporal horizon, since we do not know how or for how long the disease will continue. We have been thrown out of our lives before the pandemic, and very often this leaves us feeling stranded, adrift, and disconnected temporally to the great before. All we can do now is arrange ourselves within this new situation by finding strategies of coping and enduring the profound absence that has settled into our lives. We do so with the help of others—family, friends, loved ones, colleagues, or virtual strangers who offer solace. New feelings of community and belonging are created precisely under conditions of absence. But what of the after?
The future, at the moment, is very difficult to imagine. We are presented with future scenarios that will probably follow different rhythms of periodical openings and closings. Medical language and its own temporalities (thinking the pandemic in the rhythm of “phases”) has broken into the physical and temporal experience of the everyday in unanticipated ways.
Back to the Future? A New Normal
We ask (and are asked) to go back to “normal”, but are simultaneously invited to consider that “we can’t go back to normality, because normality is the problem”. Despite some attempts at optimistic scenarios of a kinder world, what seems to be clear is that the future doesn’t look good. Absence is here to stay, in one way or another. Perhaps it will be only through absence itself, through facing up to this condition instead of denying it, that we will be able to move forward.