Corona and Climate: Virus Time

As lockdowns and a desperately uncertain future keep us oscillating between the poles of urgency and stasis, Killian Quigley considers how crisis impels our relationship to language and temporality to evolve.

Image by Benjamín Gremler, via Unsplash

Along the paths of the pandemic, life-worlds have undergone—and are undergoing—dramatic, diverse, unequal, and asynchronous change. Language furnishes some vivid examples. Earlier this month, Bernadette Paton, Executive Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, described the ways COVID-19 has created and repurposed a vocabulary of its own. Learning the histories of terms like “self-isolating”—an epithet, originally, for nations practising political and economic isolationism—has me asking how my lexical practices have been shifting. Furthermore, I’m wondering what their shifting has been doing to my sense of self, my relationship to work, my experience of community, and my ability to imagine what lies ahead.

When we talk about the coronavirus, we talk about time—about how long it’s been since we saw a good friend, perhaps, or for how many weeks we’ve been attempting to simultaneously home-school children and “work from home”. Official discourses talk time too, such as when they forecast the moment the disease is due to “peak” in a particular spot, or when they speculate about reductions and extensions in social distancing restrictions. And just as it matters how I describe and understand how I’m doing in the context of this crisis, it matters how public speech—especially the authoritative kind—selects and conveys the words, images, and narratives that frame conversation, and even frame thought.

Take, for example, “pause,” “hibernation,” and “cryogenic suspension,” three very different metaphors all in pursuit of something like the same goal. Their respective utterers—Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg—have chosen bits of language that (are supposed to) render policy response, and the pandemic writ large, comprehensible for their constituencies and broader audiences. More specifically, these metaphors express faith in the state’s ability to fix the boundaries of the emergency in time. So doing, they seek to produce that faith in the persons who hear and read them, and who may go on to incorporate them, consciously or otherwise, into their own sense of what is going on.

These are basic functions, and they’re critical ones: as the linguist Wolfgang Klein has written, in order for “well-coordinated collective action”—such as the operations of human society—to take place, it’s necessary that the members of a community have reliable practices of sharing and co-creating “temporal information” when they communicate with one another.1 In the present instance, the better and worse functioning of such practices have enabled individuals and societies to inhabit the period of the pandemic more and less effectively. Just yesterday, my friend and I video-chatted about what we were looking forward to doing, and where we were looking forward to going, after the pandemic. By writing our stories into the future, past the time of the virus, we enjoyed an interval of welcome emotional and psychological relief.

Still, more needs knowing about the temporal metaphorics of this pandemic, particularly as they issue from administrative and political discourses. The words I mentioned earlier do more than characterise life under the coronavirus and seize its past, present, and future bounds. They imply a capacity to put time itself on some kind of hold—or to momentarily dislocate whole societies from one mode of temporality to another. And they suggest that something like normal time exists; that we are now taking an enforced (but elegantly managed) time out; and that normal time will recommence at an interval of authority’s organising, if not exactly choosing.

What relationships—to the past, the present, and the future—does this framing encourage or enable? What relationships does it obscure or disallow? “Pause,” “hibernation,” and “cryogenic suspension,” and metaphors like them, describe states of atemporality, of being removed from time, or of time having been arrested in its flow. But of course we know that while certain times are instructed to play dead, other times surge on in the progressive tense: in the United States, the Trump administration is crippling fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles. Off the coast of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching along the entirety of its length. Yes, the pandemic’s impact on industrial activity has afforded earth’s atmosphere a short-term diminishment in air pollution. But global warming is not quarantining, and neither are the political, economic, and cultural structures that bear outsized responsibility for it.

“The pandemic’s impact on industrial activity has afforded earth’s atmosphere a short-term diminishment in air pollution. But global warming is not quarantining, and neither are the political, economic, and cultural structures that bear outsized responsibility for it.”

For that matter, to what sort of—and to whose—normality is life directed to return? As the futurology2 of coronavirus response weaves tales of a resurgent status quo, it is incumbent upon us all to contemplate what persons, communities, and systems would be well-served by such resumption, and which would be “going back” to suffering as bad, or worse, than “before.” In a recent article on temporality, embodiment, and racialisation, Helen Ngo makes the pertinent argument that different bodies are afforded different abilities to orient themselves in mainstream time—and that “white embodiment is not only futurally oriented, but also free to take up the present and past as it wishes, and in the manner of its own choosing”.3 Thinking with Ngo’s work, I want to know what oppressive legacies are inscribed within the temporal metaphorics of the coronavirus, and of other official futurologies besides.

This is not a pause. There will be no “going back”. So writes Arundhati Roy, for whom the pandemic is an historical “rupture,” not a temporary break from business as usual. It is, moreover, “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. To say as much is to acknowledge that together, we share the strange fact of being with the virus in our places and times, footings that might afford unanticipated poetic and political horizons. Taking rigorous heed of language heard, made, and shared is part of the ongoingness of ethical care within the several emergencies that unevenly house us. This has been true, will be, and is now.

1. Wolfgang Klein, Time in Language (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 1.
2. I borrow the term from Catherine Brace and Hilary Geoghegan, “Human geographies of climate change: Landscape, temporality, and lay knowledges,” Progress in Human Geography 35.3 (2010), p. 292.
3. Helen Ngo, “‘Get Over It?’ Racialised Temporalities and Bodily Orientations in Time,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 40.2 (2019), p. 247.

This article is part of our Corona and Climate Series, an ongoing collection of opinion pieces from leading experts in the SEI community. In a time of intersecting planetary crises, this series analyses the parallels between ecological and epidemiological crisis, focussing on questions of resilience, adaptation and justice on local and global scales.

Killian Quigley is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. He is co-editor of The Aesthetics of the Undersea, author of articles on plastic, marine pastoral, and other subjects, and was researcher in residence, recently, with Works on Water/Underwater New York.