As we all know, ‘urgent’ is a frequent subject heading used for emails and documents. It is also ubiquitous in calls to action against climate change and ongoing wars. In many ways, the word draws our attention to imminent crises, such as humanitarian disasters or the outbreak of diseases. Yet, the ethnographic contours of said urgency and imminence are far from self-evident. As this special issue's guest editors Andreas Bandak and Paul Anderson put it, urgency is always a claim of urgency. What is at stake in such claims, they submit, are not just the necessary resources, rights, expertise and power to ‘act now before it is too late’, but also a specific temporality. By separating the ‘now’ or ‘imminent’ from ‘before’ or ‘always’, time gets measured differently: it turns from being a quantitative entity to a qualitative and even incommensurable process. Indeed, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic marked the year 2020 as the dawn of a ‘new era’ in human biology and biopolitical governance (Bermant and Ssorin-Chaikov 2020). In a similar vein, other events turned out watershed moments in history: the 2008 financial crisis inaugurated the ‘age of austerity’, while 9/11 claimed the new ‘normalcy’ of living with terrorist threats and permanent war on terror – even if in many places around the world living with terrorist threats was rather normal for a long time before 9/11. If modernity can be viewed as a stretched-out present producing ‘newtime’ (Neuzeit, see Koselleck 2002), including irregular crises, it is no surprise that new eras keep appearing and supplanting each other all the time. What makes the temporality of urgency distinct from ‘modernity as time’ (Ssorin-Chaikov 2017) and particularly from its twentieth-century teleological futurism of capitalism, state socialism or neoliberalism, argue Bandak and Anderson, is its ‘presentism’ in the sense of François Hartog (2015).
Bandak and Anderson identify presentism in secular instruments of humanitarian aid, management theory or social media technologies that enable instant sharing of equally instant affective responses to crises. In addition, they highlight religious underpinnings of presentism in the claims of urgency – the variously conceived immanence in imminence. Cases in point presented in this special issue are imperatives of Evangelical salvation and conversion in the Faroe Islands, detailed by Jan Jensen's article, and notions of revolutionary time and Islamic destiny in Charlotte Al-Khalili's piece on martyrdom during the 2011 Syrian uprising. Jensen argues that there is a confluence of two temporalities: while the urgency of Gospel is fuelled by the concept of Hell, patience is also required as part of a strategic institutional temporality for the Faroe Pentecostal Church. Similarly, Al-Khalili highlights the limits of secular underpinnings of revolutionary time in Syria during the Arab Spring by showing how the historical temporal scale (revolution oriented towards the end of the Syrian regime) and the cosmological scale (the Judgment Day) overlap. In their introduction, Bandak and Anderson take this observation further to suggest, after Koselleck (2004), that the secular emphasis on urgency of human action in the present materialised at a time when work on one's own salvation between Christ's first and second coming in early modernity became relevant.
Drawing on Hartog as well as Roitman's (2013) conceptualisation of crisis, Bandak and Anderson also suggest that the concept of presentism helps us, on the one hand, to ‘explore the varieties of urgency in order to understand what is so to speak urgent about urgency’ and, on the other, to ‘examine our relations to time historically’ (Hartog 2015: 16). As Roitman stresses in her afterword to this special issue, this reading stems from Hartog's regime of historicity as ‘a heuristic device’ that ‘is devoid of content and enables comparative analysis of the experience of time’. The double focus on the specifics of urgency and the broader temporalities that they articulate and constitute runs through the articles by Jensen and Al-Khalili as well as other contributions. Mikkel Bille and Mikkel Thelle focus on the irreducible ‘in-betweenness’ of the present for Copenhagen inhabitants during the first days of enduring the COVID-19 lockdown. Bille and Thelle contrast the high-speed developments presented in the news with the slowness of the lives of their research participants at the time. Furthermore, they trace the effects of the language of urgency used in the media on their emotions, revealing anxieties and feelings of powerlessness among quarantined city dwellers who endured stillness, dislocation and uncertain personal and societal futures. Daniel Knight's chronology reaches further as he charts the temporalities of the debt crisis in Greece that ‘burst onto the scene in 2009/10 and has since become endemic, spurring a topology of messy, disorientating temporal trajectories’. The regime of financial interference was supposed to solve the crisis but turned into a chronic state of austerity. The crisis and attempts to solve it comprise for Knight a series of ruptures that all have continuing and nauseating effects of ‘teetering on the cliff-edge’, as Knight's research participants put it. In his contribution, Joseph Webster captures the relationship between ‘urgent political crises and chronic religious conflicts’ among the membership of the ‘ultra-Protestant and ultra-British fraternity’ of the Scottish Orange Order. Urgent political crises are the imminent Scottish independence and the collapse of the union of the UK while chronic religious conflicts are immanent in the centuries-old Roman Catholic ‘menace’ to which the Orangists see the pro-independence Scottish National Party capitulating.
Two pieces, the first by Limor Samimian-Darash and the second by Laurence McFalls and Mariella Pandolfi, focus on the temporalities implied by classic theories of sovereignty, such as pre-emption and the state of exception. Both take their cue from the experience of COVID-19 and various responses to the pandemic. Samimian-Darash focuses on ‘scenario technologies’ that emerged in the wake of the Cold War in the context of civil defence planning in the US and became prominent in exercises aimed at preparing for epidemics. One of her examples is the October 2019 ‘Event 201’, a pandemic exercise that took place at Johns Hopkins University's Centre for Health Security with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The simulation exercise turned out to be a correct prediction of the COVID-19 outbreak that was already starting in China. She argues that these exercises fail both when they actually fail and when they succeed in predicting an event, namely by creating a new set of problems, such as spreading consistent global rumours on conspiratorial plots. Samimian-Darash suggests that such failures highlight a shift from a temporality of (future) preparedness to a temporal orientation of (immediate) urgency. Laurence McFalls and Mariella Pandolfi historicise what they call the emergent ‘therapeutic domination’ of homo pandemicus, a ‘completely exposed and completely therapeutised bare life’. They are concerned with one of its multiple genealogies: a NATO-led international military intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s that was eclipsed in literature by 9/11 as the foundational moment of the post-Cold War state of exception. Drawing on over 25 years of ethnography of the former Yugoslavia and Albania, and other global humanitarian interventions, they argue that cutting off social ties as a form of hopeful and docile acceptance of subalternity appears as a temporary affect of the state of emergency that becomes permanent.
The present special issue provides important ethnographic perspectives on situations in which urgency hails and forms us as social and affective beings. This urgency shapes the experience and (perhaps diluted) meaning of imminence. In our times of interlocking crises that fail to prompt radical change, the present collection of articles not only underlines the importance of anthropological critique for understanding the presentism that we experience. If speaking of urgency is an act of exercising politics and rights, it urges us to gauge the urgency in our own calls, as well as their legitimacy and ferocity.
Bermant, L. S. and N. Ssorin-Chaikov 2020. ‘Introduction: Urgent anthropological COVID-19 forum’, Social Anthropology 28: 218–220.
Koselleck, R. 2002. The practice of conceptual history: timing history, spacing concepts. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Ssorin-Chaikov, N. 2017. Two Lenins: a brief anthropology of time. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press and HAU Malinowski Monographs.