Since the start of the year, as countries under lockdown due to Covid-19 have spread from Asia to Europe to reach the United States, millions of people are facing the anxiety of self-isolation. How do we cope with this seemingly endless time? Benjamin Simmenauer, a philosopher and lecturer in brand strategy at Institut Français de la Mode, gives his point of view.
I’d say we’re all experiencing how space and time are connected. Being confined in space has an impact on our experience of time. We feel locked into a sort of perpetual present which never changes and with no diversity in quality. This repetitiveness isn’t something we’re used to, and can be difficult to accept. As individuals who live in a society in constant change, or at least feel the world is in a state of permanent agitation, being forced to go from one day to another almost identical day deprives us of the notion of movement, hence time. If we hang on to our previous perceptions, once the crisis is over, we’ll look back on this as a period of social recession. Which is a paradox really. Over and over, we’ve been urged to think of self-isolation as a fabulous opportunity to “get back to what really matters” and reconsider how we live. Suffice it to say this is far from the case and these grand declarations, telling us we should be taking time for ourselves, have a hollow ring for so many people who see their horizon receding rather than expanding. We are simply not prepared to become monks or ascetics. How we relate to time is a collective construct; the individual is just a cog in the system. It’s clearly difficult for us to self-adapt our personal relationship with time. Hence our refusal to believe the pacifying messages that would have us see this pandemic as an “opportunity” for humankind.
The philosopher tries to consider the meaning of concepts or the language we use to describe what’s happening. Now, the interesting thing about time is that it isn’t something we directly perceive. We perceive things, events that take place in time. But not time itself. In fact the debate is ongoing as to what time is and how we relate to it. Certain philosophers, such as McTaggart, go as far as to argue the unreality of time, which they see as a flawed human representation of the nature of things. What we can say is that time, whatever its “true” nature, is not directly perceivable. Rather, it’s something we sense, something we perceive by surprise, accidentally, when the relationship between things is altered because of a change in rhythm, or when something unexpected upsets our routine and our perception of the everyday. When the way we organise our activity is disturbed, that’s when we start to think about time. Right now, for example, we feel time is dragging on because our experience has become more repetitive and therefore appears to go on for ever whereas those in the frontline, healthcare workers in particular, have the opposite experience. They feel their rhythm has suddenly accelerated.
The return to normality can be something we look forward to, for all the good reasons you can imagine, but also something we apprehend, given that the crisis and our response as a society or a group came about because of our previous ways of life. The fact we have never experienced a comparable situation makes it hard to come up with some kind of model that would enable us to make credible forecasts. We can imagine that, once we come out of lockdown, we’ll have to shake off habits acquired during self-isolation in the same way we were obliged to break old habits when we were physically confined. At the same time, certain of the fundamental parameters of our societies are being called into question, by which I mean how politics and the economy interact. The tension we’re experiencing between protecting life and staying safe on the one hand, and freedom of movement on the other perhaps wasn’t so obvious in ordinary circumstances, when the interests of the State and the interests of mercantile society were presented as “naturally converging”. It appears a lot of people are becoming mindful of tension between the values of economic liberalism and other basic commodities such as health, and are starting to think about a more effective, fairer and, ultimately, more desirable system. Whether or not these thoughts result in actual decisions remains to be seen.
Already, a lot of companies are being judged on their social values and how they’ve responded to the crisis. For example, luxury and fashion brands were quick to grasp the situation and show their generosity by switching production to hand sanitizer or face masks. This hasn’t been true of everyone and it could be a case of mud sticks. Bad examples are named and shamed: hugely profitable multinationals that take advantage of government measures to not pay rent or wages when they have the cash to do so; restaurant chains that keep staff on to make takeaway sales; a retail giant that puts profit above employees’ safety. These attitudes can cause considerable damage to image, even sales, if they become too much for consumers to stomach. The most important thing at present isn’t so much to promote products as to be seen as socially responsible by offering to help fight this pandemic. The luxury industry was quick to respond through early and universal initiatives. This is, of course, an opportunity to remain visible when buying luxury goods is the last thing on people’s minds, but it’s also proof that luxury culture, which is a culture of excellence, can have a moral transposition. More, perhaps, than mass market culture.