I’ve just finished reading Mrs Dalloway, which has me thinking a lot about time. (It was originally called The Hours, after all.) It’s such a wonderful book: Woolf effortlessly changes tempo, switches between the inner dialogue of different characters, moves from describing a fleeting present moment in great detail to remembering events long since passed.
It was particularly interesting to read this in our current context of lockdown. There seems to be a general consensus that time is very weird right now. March was endless while April and May have passed by incredibly quickly. There are ongoing jokes on Twitter about people struggling to remember what day it is, and questioning why we have days of the week at all.
There are a number of different explanations for this: our rhythms and routines are messed up, our days are more monotonous, we aren’t going to the events or spaces that we usually use to demarcate our time. At the same time, we’re incredibly anxious, seismic shifts are happening on a global level, and there’s no end in sight.
I’m curious how people in different types of jobs are experiencing this time period, from key workers, who are still working and who even before the crisis were more likely to be working irregular shifts, to those who have been furloughed.
In Mrs Dalloway, time is both linear and circular: the day progresses steadily, yet the present, past and future are happening all at once. Clocks are an ever-present motif throughout the novel:
Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced… that it was half-past one.
Without these clocks, which serve to bring the characters back to the present moment and also reminding them of their mortality, time is completely personal, subjective, irregular.
As we struggle to keep track and make sense of quarantine, it’s not clocks that are reminding us of “objective” time but political events instead. In the essay Plot Economics, Venkatesh Rao suggests that during a global narrative collapse like these, we collectively revert to log level time:
Temporality (your constructed sense of subjective time) collapses to what I call the log level. As in, you’re down to monitoring the equivalent of computer event logs; the tick-tock stream of raw events being recorded, prior to being evaluated and filtered for significance.
This pandemic has highlighted that while our perception of time is subjective and personal, we also have a shared understanding of time that is cultural and political:
Whatever time is, calendars and clocks measure, control, and constitute it. […] These logistical media—so fundamental that they sometimes are not seen as media at all—negotiate heaven and earth, nature and culture, cosmic and social organisation, and define our basic orientation to time and also to space. In doing so, they also relieve us of the burden of thinking about what time is and does.
— from The Marvellous Clouds by John Durham Peters
Time during Quarantine channel