In one of his apocalyptic essays, “Une anthropologie du presentiment”, Paul Virilio (a writer whose lightning stroke provocations are bodyguarded by a certain dark mumbo-jumbo, a logic of the worst case scenario, like a man who had been up all night reading, alternatively, Michel Foucault and St. John of Patmos) quotes a line of Octavio Paz:
“the instant is an uninhabitable as the future”.
For Virilio, we have been forced to inhabit that inhabitability – this is the crazy-making effect of the acceleration and massive accumulative power of our system of telecommunications:
“In fact, can we still speak of a contemporary world? Shouldn’t we, rather, speak of the anthropology of a world that is not “intemporal”, but in-temporary, intemporal, if this is even possible? Is an anthropology of the instance conceivable, and can it be llogical without denying, in the same gesture, its fully historical dimension?”
If there ever was a time that a certain apocalyptic strain in French philosophy seems to have found the object it was looking for, it is this plague pause, this breaking apart of the con-temporary, this pandemic that came to us on the wings of globalization. Acceleration, the rat race, the routine of tasks that must be done, has suddenly come to a screeching halt, or perhaps a non-screeching one, as the great metropoles suddenly went quiet. And now, just as suddenly, the halt is lifting. What have we seen in this desert of the real, o Lord? A reed shaken in the wind?
Myself, I am fortunately a family man. Inhabiting an apartment in the Marais, of all places (such is the vagary of my never very consistent life, a three Stooge’s adventure), and looking out at a world of close calls without any one of those calls landing too close – though my hypochondria is always on low in the background – I have an odd sense that, for all the irreality that has rushed in on every front, this pandemic is somehow normal, somehow expected.
I ventured out on un-lockdown weekend a couple of times, and took a gander at the neighborhood streets. I stood outside in line (so called – the French still, charmingly, object to the American submission to the “line” as a linear thing, preferring to cluster about) outside a bagel shop. I walked the boundaries. I saw many masked people, but this was no Mardi Gras – there were many, many unmasked, as pretty as you please, standing or sitting less than a good sneeze’s distance one from the other. Were these people crazy? Or was I?
A little of both, perhaps. I will get real here: it warmed my heart to see Paris limping back to life. I miss the cafes, the uber-expensive dress shops, the galleries, the life, by God, that flows over the streets every day. Yet I am all informed, too, about second waves, about the way the Spanish Influenza’s second coming, when it got serious, killed ten times more people than its rehearsal wave.
What is time? What is our time? What is personal time? Questions that have lept out of philosophy class and into our laps, be we working class or bougie, this Corona-period. Let’s end on the gothic observation of Virilio, who might be right:
“Duration (durée), all true duration, may have become by the fact of the acceleration of realism an everyday illusion, an absence of duration or more exactly, the duration of the absence which no longer allows us to grasp what is there, no those things that are still there to the advantage of the intempestive characer of what happens ex abrupto, of the Accident that from now on out replaces all events.”
Virilio wrote this at the beginning of the great economic crack-up of 2008. Seems less heated now – seems like pretty much a standard description of the impression we all have of our “time”. Put the 666 on my forehead and test and trace: I'm in!