Out of nothing narration makes world.
–Byung Chul Han, The Scent of Time
What is human time? Is it the way we experience reality, our embodied experience? How do we account for its ebbs and flows, the rushing of time before a deadline, its slow passing when we await an encounter with a loved one long kept away? There are many categories and philosophical divisions of time, but simply put, there is chronological time, historical time, and psychological time. The latter accounts for our differing perceptions of it and also for my own further divisions of time: city time, suburban time, and nature time. Locality often dictates felt time- coming from the global south, our time has always felt more languorous, time as something to be taken at any opportunity. But no matter your surroundings, time expects and demands of you. Even experienced time cannot free you from the subjugation of chronological time.
There are hours in a day, obligations, and ambitions; sometimes we are simply spending and collecting time for survival. As artists, gigs and side jobs are also paid by the hour, according to time spent, which is always time spent away from the studio or from our usual labor, which also takes time and often offers little in return from which to survive from. We all live as serfs of our own time. These labor relations to time are part of what I wish to address while proposing a new category of time to think through Illness time.
I learned early on about this other felt temporal structure. It’s time that forces itself upon you, time which you cannot control and must learn to accept. It’s time that refuses to be planned, divided, and organized. Illness time is neither entirely psychological nor chronological; it is slave to the flesh and too often unaccounted for cellular battles within us. Illness time begets a new category entirely: body time. Body time can be experienced in very disparate ways. In Illness, it is as if the world were on a fast-speed train zooming by, as you are on your best days on a bicycle ride. You look at those on the train with envy at all the things they can see and do with their time, all the ways their bodies maximize what can be done and achieved in the hours and minutes, their body time seemingly in sync with our agreed upon chronology.
Perhaps those dealing with permanent illness adapt to their body time better, with no hope of crossing over to function within accepted chronological time. My illness came in tides, yet these were tides neither the doctors nor I could calculate and predict- sometimes the fear of the flood was more overwhelming than the disease itself. It never cared for my plans, aspirations, friendships, or to-do lists. I came to find it almost always came when least desired or expected, in the moments when some form of standard time seemed attainable. When it reached the threshold of awareness, it would come rushing back, begging me not to forget its place within me.
I am far from alone in experiencing illness time, and there are many variations within it. Although there is a commonality to survival- eventually, we must accept this as our only possible temporal structure. To attempt to exist within chronological and capital time is eternal attrition. While many have experienced this time, those who have not can’t relate or even seem to understand, especially when the ailments might not be entirely visible. Indeed you can feel better if you find the right doctor, take more pills, do more treatments, or often I heard if you just will yourself to think as a healthy person. Perhaps it was due to their fears of being unable to operate or be productive within our existing time structures, and my inability to do so is then simply viewed as lazy. Attempts at ‘health’ are often more tiring, triggering, and deflating than the ailment itself.
Health has been moved into a stratospheric benchmark of progress. Endless self-quantification and optimization as a sport. Even the most vigorous of people would have difficulty achieving optimal state of sleeping, eating, exercising, meditating, taking shots of B12, fasting to renew cells etc. For all these improvements upon an already abled body also require time and capital. So as obsessions around the optimized body push people in the silicon valley and beyond to achieve some version of perfection, the gap between the body time of those dealing with illness and those searching for optimization continues to widen. Or at least that was true until ‘the event’ unexpectedly shifted our collective perception of time entirely.
We have experienced a collective illness time– even in very different contexts. There is no denying that to some, this period of time shattered more than just their bodies, it shattered even possibilities to exist, and for others, it was akin to a retreat away from the office. But it has been perhaps the only time we have experienced illness time together and on this scale. The pandemic proved to be a singular time in which our own narrations tied us together as a people across geographical and bodily borders.
The collective experience of illness, either felt within our own bodies or through the loss of loved ones, subjected us to restrictions in movements very similar to those imposed by bodies with ailments. Indeed these limitations weren’t always inwards, as the asymptotic disease was common, but testing positive forced one to isolate. This isolation and barriers to movement, commonly experienced by those with illness, were shared among all. How can we use this collective experience of illness time as a lesson so that we may move towards a more empathetic rather than sympathetic kinship? How to reconstruct after the unpausing of time?
Sometimes I think that only the sick are truly healthy
-Olga Tokarczuk, Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
I write not to narrate my subjective experience of time and illness but because there are lessons to be learned in its temporal structure. When thinking about Recovery Through Kinship, what stronger kinship is there than that of illness time. This temporal structure doesn’t necessarily require an ailment- I will broaden it to include periods of isolation, loss, and grief. States in which our ability or desire to exist in chronological and productive time are affected. In these states, we might forge a bond amongst ourselves to rethink time, mold it, twist it and reconfigure it so that within it, there is room for care and for the temporalities of illness and beyond.
What kind of embodied experiences are possible in this new time? What new worlds and possibilities can we imagine once we go beyond our obsession with productive time? What happens when we get off the train and take a walk instead? When we let go of our compulsion to optimize our bodies to ultimate health to produce ad infinitum, can we then occupy a collective and individual narrative time in which lingering in a moment is favored against the speed of reaching an outcome? What potentiality can lie within illness time to think beyond our existing structures and paradigms, within and outside of time itself?
In Scent of Time, Byung-Chul Han offers us a philosophy on time. In particular, he discusses this acceleration of time we have all felt as a symptom, not a cause, of our current paradigm. To him, “time rushes off … to compensate for lack of being”1. He ties our psychological experience of time as due to a lack of “vita contemplativa”1 and attachment to “vita activa”1. The latter is the state where we find ourselves both due to technological advancements and, in many ways, self-imposed optimizations of the body and time at all costs. Time rushes off and is empty precisely because we have lost the ability to linger in the present- this is the source of the crisis in our felt time.
Before ‘the event,’ I, too, searched for Han’s lingering to address our temporal crisis. I incorporated sonic strategies within installations to slow viewers down, providing a state of rest. In my own small way, wanting to create spaces for contemplation. The work and research themselves seek to question these obsessions with productive time and enhancing the body to optimize all its functions, always questioning what we all lost in these compulsive patterns. And then came ‘the event.’ It shifted time. Nothing has been, and will potentially ever be, as profoundly time-altering as the global pandemic and lockdowns.
This new collective narrative time, which also tapped into historical time, allowed for a deceleration. It brought about a state of unknown uncertainty and the potential to rethink within what felt like a pause in time. I propose illness time, under the category of body time, as a space within the “vita contemplativa”1- one which demands and imposes the sort of lingering Han describes and where new meanings and thoughts can emerge from. We saw this happen as people shifted and rethought how they lived when forced into this new temporal structure. If one is constantly moving, there is little time to think about where or why.
So why does it matter? This collective experience and stint in illness time. What have we learned? What can we still learn? What meanings can be made? It was a time tied to our bodies and a heightened awareness of what they could or couldn’t do -their limitations both in health and mobility. Sympathy for others always connoted a difference between circumstances and feelings, but while circumstances were vast during the pandemic, we accessed the sort of rare affective empathy via loss and grief. Through this affect and kinship forged in illness time, we can push towards a temporality that demands less of our bodies and minds. A temporality that is more inclusive to those who have never glimpsed at productive and capital time many have lived in servitude of.
Maybe the sick are truly healthy, for we have a different relationship to time through forced deceleration. What knowledge lies at the edge of action? Limitation forces awareness to our embodied experience- draws attention to body time. What lessons does our body hold? For answers, we need time to explore, but that can only happen if we let go of the attachment of self-worth to optimization and productivity. As capital structures use chronological time to subjugate us to labor, illness time has the potential to set us free.
Illness time has its roots in body-time, the potentiality of “vita-contemplativa”1 and is, therefore, a suitable temporal structure for the future- or at the very least a starting point to think from. It is congruent with care-taking time, grieving time, and loss time. Illness time can hold space not only for those unable to move at the speed of productive time but also give those able-bodied an ability to contemplate within this new temporality. To recover from this pandemic event in historical time and the trauma which it incorporated can only happen through generosity of time; its reaccelerating becomes unbearable. We need a time that lingers and demands less of us. A time that allows for empathy and new possibilities we have not yet had a moment to imagine.
- Byung Chul Han, The Scent of Time, trans by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge/UK: Polity Press, 2017
In his philosophical book on time, Han uses two key terminologies to address the types of time we now experience. He sees us as living within “vita ativa”- a place where production and hyperactivity dictate the way we live and, therefore, how we experience time. This is felt as an acceleration of time which he also sees as a loss of meaning, for there is no pause between activities from which to reflect. He suggests that we have lost our ability to contemplate and linger or live in “vita contemplativa”. He argues for a return to “vita contemplativa, as the way to move beyond simple laboring animal or machine-like processes and back into a place of restored meaning to life and time.
Pauline Batista (b.1988 Rio de Janeiro, BR) is a multimedia artist based in London. Her practice questions the impulse to render information and bodies transparent in the quest for ’the quantified self’. Examining the space between technology, intimacy, and the medical, she creates networks that the viewers are invited to decode through installations encompassing elements of photography, sculpture, and sound frequencies.
She graduated from USC with a degree in International Relations in 2010 and completed her MFA at Goldsmith University in London in 2017. Among recent solo and group shows, she exhibited at: Kupfer (London, UK), Museo Civico G. Fattori (Livorno, IT), GALLLERIAPIÙ (Bologna, IT), Houston Center for Photography (Houston, USA), ATP Gallery (London, UK), CADAF Digital Art Fair (New York, USA) and ARCO E-XHIBITIONS. She is also the recipient of Arts Council England Developing Your Creative Practice Grant for 2021, which has allowed for expanding her practice in new directions and mediums.