Engaged Lingering

Urban Contingency in the Pandemic Present with COVID-19 in Denmark

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
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Mikkel BilleUniversity of Copenhagen, Denmark mbille@hum.ku.dk

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Mikkel ThelleNational Museum of Denmark, Denmark MIT@natmus.dk

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Abstract

This article explores the intensification of contingency in an urban setting during the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Denmark. Based on interviews with fifty-one residents in the two largest cities in Denmark from the very first day of lockdown, it explores how the respondents expressed a friction between adapting to isolation, powerlessness and feelings of being out of time on the one hand, while simultaneously also being confronted with urgency through media and the immediacy of urban encounters on the other. Drawing on the works of François Hartog on presentism and Ben Anderson on terror preparedness, the central argument in this article is that with COVID-19 we see parallel negotiations of unknown futures near and far, in which urban contingency intensifies an already presentist sense of time. As one way of coping with the situation, people are actively lingering in a present without clear connections to past or future, fostering a form of stasis and hesitancy. In what we call an engaged lingering, urgency unfolds in seemingly contradictory ways to become simultaneously an everyday of frantic motion and paralysis.

Cet article explore l'intensification de la contingence dans un cadre urbain pendant la propagation rapide du COVID-19 au Danemark. Basé sur des entretiens avec trente-trois résidents de Copenhague dès le premier jour du confinement au Danemark, il explore comment les répondants ont exprimé une friction entre l'adaptation à l'isolement, l'impuissance et le sentiment d’être hors du temps d'une part, tout en étant simultanément confronté à l'urgence à travers les médias et l'immédiateté des rencontres urbaines d'autre part. S'inspirant des travaux de François Hartog sur le présentisme et de Ben Anderson sur la préparation à la terreur, où “l'ici et maintenant est suspendu entre le présent et un futur ‘comme si’ (2010), l'argument central de cet article est qu'avec COVID-19, nous assistons à des négociations parallèles de futurs inconnus proches et lointains, dans lesquelles la contingence urbaine intensifie un sens déjà présentiste du temps. Pour faire face à cette situation, les gens s'attardent activement dans un présent sans liens clairs avec le passé ou le futur, favorisant une forme de stase et d'hésitation. Dans ce que nous appelons un “attardation engagé, l'urgence se déploie de manière apparemment contradictoire pour devenir simultanément un quotidien de mouvement frénétique et de paralysie.

The COVID-19 response in Denmark has been characterised by the ‘precautionary principle’: acting promptly rather than too late, even if acting is based on incomplete data. On 11 March 2020, as the number of infected quickly escalated, the Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen went on national television announcing a full-scale lockdown in effect formally from 16 March. As she said, ‘We stand on untrodden land. We are in a situation that does not look like anything we have tried before. Are we going to make mistakes? Yes. Am I going to make a mistake? Yes. I need your patience’. Simultaneously, urgent actions and suspension of time through patience were required. The initial timeframe for the lockdown was two weeks, but with no promise for what would come.

In that sense, the future was not only impossible to know but also to anticipate at this point. Predominantly, the future became articulated as sliced into ‘phases’ depending on the number of deaths, number contaminated or the ‘contact number’ (how many become contaminated for every contaminated person), projecting a temporal figure of recurring waves. Phase two, for instance, starting 18 May, meant that schools, churches and restaurants reopened. Phase three included cultural institutions, phase four universities, public swimming pools, etc. Even as a second wave of increased contamination began at the end of September, it was at this point seen within a framework of phases, as a slicing up of the future. The situation was intensifying further into the autumn, with congregation numbers lowering again from fifty to ten at the time of writing in October 2020. The ‘precautionary principle’ highlights that a crisis shapes the present as a threshold decisive for both past and future (cf. Bryant 2016). The hope of COVID-19 only being a short-term crisis had suspended time into an expanded present, where the future could be promising, if only patience, trust and complacency to lockdown regulations were upheld. As a crisis strategy, the principle is intriguing: it implies the slowness of hesitation, but paradoxically allows for more urgent pre-emptive action in light of a potentially threatening future.

Our initial outline of the prime minister's hope for patience in a context of urgent need for precautionary actions illustrates how temporality, urgency in particular, had the capacity to reshuffle the political, the social and to a high degree the way the everyday is understood and handled. While ‘urgency’ is an imperative for action, the related term ‘immediacy’ manifests as the experience of intensity. While different on this account, both urgency and immediacy suspend the relations between past, present and future. It is in moments of crisis, Daniel Knight and Charles Stewart write, that ‘time becomes elastic’ (2016: 3). While ruptures of the everyday may be framed through crisis as a lens, they may also be opened for ethnographic scrutiny (cf. Kapferer et al 2019), to explore how phenomena like urgency and immediacy are consolidated through the experience of a normality shaped by media representations on the one hand and private everyday practices on the other.

This article deals with how the suspension of time that COVID-19 engenders affects the experience of everyday urban life. Here, unlike the common focus on continuity in anthropology (for critique see Kapferer et al 2019; Robbins 2007), ruptures may not foster new political or religious subjectivities but rather a form of stasis and hesitancy. We argue that as one way of ordering lives through the lockdown situation in the metropolitan urban centres of Denmark, people became engaged in practices of waiting; not in passivity, but rather working with the materiality and affectivity of the city corporeally infringing on people's sense of self and others. Second, with the lockdown there was a rupture in time, which created a present secluded from past and future – what we call an ‘expanded present’ drawing on François Hartog (2015) and Ben Anderson (2016), where media representations on the one hand showed an accelerated world but the everyday experience was of not being able to access the future. As geographer Ben Anderson put it, ‘the here and now is suspended between an “as if” future and the present’ (2010: 227). Among many of our respondents it is as if the humdrum temporalities of mundane life collapsed into a spatially and temporally volatile mode, where urgency in a seemingly contradictory way became simultaneously an everyday of frantic motion and paralysis, respectively. This raises the third central point that with COVID-19 we see how the intensifying contingency of urban life made people engage with the experienced crisis, spanning from its apparent incommensurability for some to recognition for others.

First, we briefly reflect on methods in a pandemic context. Then we outline how contingency and temporal shifts have been theorised, particularly in the works of Ben Anderson, François Hartog, Zoltan Simon, and Sébastien Nobert and Mark Pelling. This leads us to the everyday experience of contingency in an urban setting through the notion of engaged lingering. Thereafter follows two subsequent discussions, first of a split in experienced time between acceleration and stasis, and second of efforts to cope through comparison to previous experiences – or lack of such.

Brief Reflections on Methods

The study is based on fieldwork conducted from the first day of formal lockdown in Denmark, 16 March 2020. In the first two months of the lockdown from March to May, we interviewed (face-to-face, virtually, by telephone or walking interviews) fifty-one residents of the two largest cities, Copenhagen and Aarhus, to explore their experiences of being in a city where the impact of the pandemic is palpable through the absences and presences of people and things – what we term ‘the pandemic city’. To gain insights into reflections on the city over time, this was followed up by three rounds of interviews between May and November 2020 with thirty-three respondents of different age (16–89), gender (19 female and 14 male), ethnicity (Danish, Estonian, Portuguese, Greenlanders, Faroese, South Sudanese, Syrian), income levels and property ownership in Copenhagen, most of whom were also interviewed in the first round. In total, there were 140 interviews lasting mostly one hour. The interviewers were three female anthropology master's students in their twenties, and one male anthropology PhD student. The interviews were discussed in team meetings, and mostly transcribed. Participants were found through social networks, Facebook posts and snowballing. Fieldwork was conducted in compliance with formal regulations of social distance and hand sanitation, and was approved by the university. Nonetheless, particularly in the first few weeks of lockdown, some of the face-to-face interviews were influenced by the concern of transmission of contamination even if no physical contact was established (informed consent either handled via email or recorded), and sanitation of equipment and hands were routine. In a few cases, what could be seen as violations of regulations, such as picking up a fallen item too close to the interviewee, would lead to productive conversations on vulnerability and guilt of returning to old habits. In addition, extensive archival work on official reports, social and mainstream media material, and governmental policies was undertaken, of which only a fraction is used in this article but which informed the analyses. Some reservations on method are thus of use here: our work was done among urban residents, and we also acknowledge a certain leaning towards groups of urbanites within what one could term educated middle class, among the interview respondents, although by no means exclusively. Also, while we did perform interviews while walking or outside in urban spaces, we did not engage systematically in observations or participant observations of urban spaces, although we recognise the respondents’ description of bodily ways of (non-)engaging urban spaces from our own movement through town and media coverage of such practices. Further, as the pandemic is not yet over, the material illustrates an ethnographic present prior to October 2020, alluding to a certain degree to its unfinished character. Finally, we notice a lesser degree of anxiety among our respondents, for example concerning future loss of job or income than one might expect in the interviews. This might relate to a bias in the group (relatively few business owners), or to the broader Danish situation of higher compliance, substantial governmental financial support and general security than many other locations in the pandemic. Finally, we recognise the delay in research production, where relevant research is published while the present work is in press, and thus not included in the analysis (cf. Damsholt 2020).

Experiencing Unprecedented Urgency

Phenomena such as urgency, immediacy and emergency can be comprehended as instances of ‘contingency’, understood as different ways of foreseeing, experiencing and dealing with an unforeseeable rupture in and of the everyday. In this case it means the experience of contingency reflected by urban dwellers’ comprehension of their surroundings, rather than a particular ‘urban’ form of contingency. As such, the common approach to this overarching notion of contingency is to understand it as the counterpoint to the everyday. Geographer Ben Anderson (2016), however, argues for an analytical ‘osmosis’ between emergency and the everyday, since both categories essentially deal with uncertainty, or at least something unfinished. Actually, Anderson says, it is the exception of emergency that makes the everyday felt, marking the qualities that stay undefined in its continuity. Central to Anderson are two temporal figures, the ‘omnipresent present’ and the ‘interval’ (2016: 180). Experiencing emergency implies that the ‘now’, the immediate present, becomes an intensified (omnipresent) condition, excluding the past and future by inserting itself as the window of opportunity (e.g. an interval of two weeks) to provide a redemption from the emergency. Both the sovereign (or the governing authority) and the ordinary citizen are disembedded from the sticky processes of common action.

Theorising urgency within a broader historical frame, it can be argued that the experienced urgency of COVID-19 differs categorically from other urgencies of the past. François Hartog (2015) argues that constructions of historical time can change, identifying three ‘regimes of historicity’, where the present one emerged from the dual world order collapse in 1989. Here, the sense of an identifiable future became less clear, and the focus of history gradually became the lived lifetime, or ‘presentism’ as Hartog (2015) coined the term. Norwegian historians Helge Jordheim and Einer Wigen connects Hartog's presentism to sociologist Hartmuth Rosa's notion of social acceleration in arguing for a shift in western temporal experience from ‘progress’ to ‘crisis’ as the notion to handle order and anxiety (2018: 436). The presentist temporality, the acceleration and the sense of crisis time all reflects Anderson's omnipresent, or what we call ‘expanded present’, if only on other scales of space and social life.

The case of an unprecedented situation, as noted by the prime minister, is further emphasised by the general atmosphere of a hitherto unknown transformation coming about by the sense of climate change. Historian Zoltan Simon emphasises ‘the unprecedented’ as a call for altogether rethinking the notion of history and historical time. As Hartog, Simon notes the departure from a future-oriented modernity, but rather than the Cold War, he identifies the shift in the climate crisis and the epoch of the Anthropocene (2019, 2020). While we have been used to experiencing temporal events as versions of the well-known and directed towards a future anticipated as a version of our present in progress, the Anthropocene invokes a new approach – that is, the avoidance of a threatening future. While Simon's main aim is to propose an intellectual reorientation, the seminal meaning of an unprecedented future also sheds light on the subjective experience of the pandemic city in temporal terms.

Facing a situation like COVID-19 thus opens up questions about how it is possible to act, to connect to the future, when everyday life is broken up either into intervals or into a phase where the very nature of future everyday life is fundamentally unknown. Investigating London's heatwave of 2013, Nobert and Pelling interviewed an elderly man who would watch the weather forecast maybe ten times a day and yet described how it went ‘over his head’, seeming to him insignificant. With twenty minutes of news, the forecast took seven or eight minutes, and in that time he would make himself a cup of tea, observing the forecast casually, like a TV series (Nobert and Pelling 2017: 127). Nobert and Pelling emphasise the weather forecast as neglected by interviewees, assuming here a temporal relation set off by the contingency of the heatwave. They evoke the notion of ‘lingering’ – of being in an unavoidable present – and from there observe the future as a representation of this present rather than a basis for action in response to an expected future, illustrating the elasticity of time during crisis (Knight and Stewart 2016). Facing the future (through the mediated forecast) becomes an everyday practice, but from the position of an observer, lingering without any causal relation to this future. This idea of lingering relates to the temporal practice of waiting, but, as we will show, this does not necessarily entail passivity. This temporal state of waiting can also be engaging, and subjects can be ‘active participants in the arduous process of waiting’ (Appadurai 2013, in Janeja and Bandak 2018: 9). Waiting in this sense does not mean powerlessness, but rather the active choice, enmeshed in ethical and moral questions of altruism or individual survival through hoarding, for instance. Or as Petra Andits notes, ‘waiting signifies agency and advancement; it is a politically and ethically loaded disposition that involves a shift in perspective from the immediate to the long-term’ (2020: 220). Another point is made by historian Hannu Salmi, quoting Judith Butler, that in the case of emergencies, such as a city fire, people also wait for a position of authority to ascend, and through the waiting itself, provide certain positions with that same authority (Salmi 2017: 133). Thus, the temporal phenomenon of lingering points to the experience of being in-between the intense emergency and the endless everyday, as well as to a broader ‘disembedding’ of this experience from other comparable experiences beyond the individual lifespan. Such lingering is not a case of passivity, but rather entails an active process – an engaged lingering.

Urban Contingency and COVID-19

During the prime minister's decisive press meeting on 11 March, Tonny was supposed to watch a football game with his family. The 25-year-old historian felt the wings of history as they instead spent the evening watching the prime minister's talk. To him, it felt like when he was a boy and watched the media coverage of the 9/11 attacks. ‘One will always be able to recollect “where were you on 9/11?”, and I kind of feel the same here, “Where were you when Denmark locked down?”’, he said. It was a historical moment, and because he was a historian, it would of course interest him that ‘we are entering an unknown time, that will leave a mark in future history books. I could feel that now we are writing history books. This is the first time Denmark shuts down without a war’. Following Hartog and Simon, the present event, in a presentist or epochal regime, becomes of twofold importance in the absence of comparable events and in its direct impact on the ever-important ‘now’.

Tonny had felt that something extraordinary was ‘in the air’ when he returned from work by train that day. Signs and loudspeaker-calls on the station warned that you should not use public transport if ill and to keep a distance, and Tonny had been standing next to a person coughing quite hard and seen people move away from him and being ‘on edge’ – alert. The very materiality and bodily actions of others would be an immediate sign that something was on its way and just few days later the impact of the lockdown would be clear: from signs of social distancing, stickers marking out queuing distance, and the very sensation of the city highlighting the coming of new times. As discussed in media and Facebook groups, each material surface has, according to respondents, a period of active virus on surfaces – copper has four hours and cardboard twenty-four hours, while for plastic it is seventy-two hours. Images are being shared and people warned to use gloves for what they saw as the especially contagious-durable objects, such as packaging in supermarkets. At this point in time, contagion was a matter of surfaces rather than air, as masks were still not mandatory or seen as efficient.

Fiona, a 28-year-old female student in the risk group due to health issues, noticed that the city ‘felt much emptier and one is also much more observant of the people who have been distancing themselves, in such a strange way. It's weird to be intimidated by other people’. This emptiness has been striking to most of our respondents, and across the globe has been the object of visual representations. The city became a zombie-like scenery where the facades are present, but all the shops are closed. This sense of something empty and artificial also relates to a timeless city, a scenery in the sense of a ‘still life’.

In the first week of lockdown we interviewed seventeen people. Among the very first interviewed was Martin, a 28-year-old freelance journalist and bartender, who already on the second day of the lockdown vividly described the new sensation of the pandemic city. The lack of sound and people, combined with his extensive use of material and bodily techniques to avoid touching things, rapidly instigated a heightened sense of being present in time when handling oneself:

Ohhh, it is that constant inner struggle that is so tremendously inhibiting. It weighs you down and you get so tired. It's the tiredness of having it in the back of your mind all the time, which makes it difficult to be, that is, to exist . . . The best thing I think is to just isolate yourself outside the city and then come back. I just need a breathing space . . . The city becomes claustrophobic. It is both dead and alive.

Thus, while ‘crisis’ and ‘urgency’ under most circumstances demand action, COVID-19 also demands inaction – stay at home and stand by. The impact of contingency – understood as different ways of foreseeing, experiencing and dealing with an unforeseeable rupture in and of the everyday – is so urgent that all you are required to do is wait and be patient. In this case ‘waiting’ and ‘patience’ must, however, be seen as an active practice and fulcrum of everyday life – an ‘engaged lingering’ (drawing on Janeja and Bandak 2018; Löfgren and Ehn 2010). Everything was, particularly in the first weeks of lockdown, at a standstill, establishing a new order of everyday life with inhibited social life. For respondents such as pensioners, the change in everyday rhythm was perhaps less profound, aside from less social interaction. For others, this was indeed an extraordinary intervention in their everyday lives. Building on this reflection on active waiting in an expanded present now, we will go on to consider how it actually plays out as experiences of temporal intensities in everyday life among our respondents and on social media.

Speeding Up and Standing Still

Respondents’ experiences of the press conference on the lockdown are tightly knitted with precise intervals of time, and already from the start imbued with an immediate future: the next press conference once again making flow-tv a dominant medium. Looking back at our material, it is striking how fast people responded to the change: for example, Martin, who felt the city inhibiting on day two compared to the normalisation that was established after a month. In these first two weeks, anxiety, but also the fascination of emergency, is significant among the respondents. From being split between the anxious and the sceptic – ‘joking with it’ – after this period, there was a strong community ready to adapt to the emergency, to take on the engaged lingering. The ‘interval’ of opportunity, or responsibility, was experienced intensely in this phase. It introduced a sense of acceleration in the surrounding world, carried by ‘Breaking News’ media attention, paired with a step-by-step regulation and restriction of both public and intimate personal space. This involved not doing what one normally does, and in many cases being faced with the home becoming a workspace, where the family was constantly around. In line with Anderson, the two forms of temporal production are continuing alongside each other, rather than as oppositions. On social media, discussions were referring to changes in regulations and conditions by the hour, and comments such as ‘this is old news, it was two days ago’ are common. As Rachel, a 27-year-old medical student staying temporarily in Tanzania and eventually returning back to Denmark, put it during an interview:

Well then, I do not think it's really rational. It was just that feeling that all of a sudden things went very fast and that you were not in control and could make decisions based on what you wanted but all of a sudden there was something else that was bigger than you . . . so as soon as you turn on your phone, everything is just full of yellow bars and wild news and stuff like that.

The compression and stretching of time involved something like a media addiction at first, where news just kept pouring out on the screen, amplified by yellow ‘breaking news’ bars and warnings. In that sense, it reinforces Brian Massumi's (2005) point about insecurity being the new normal. Like the terror alert system that Massumi discusses, colour codes are also used in COVID-19 to designate travel restrictions. Yet unlike the threat against terror, where the colour schemes act as ‘signals without signification’ (2005: 32), the colours and media attention focused on concrete numbers of contaminated and dead patients. Every day, new numbers would tick in and work as the source of activating emotions such as anxiety, stress, fear and isolation – although how those numbers are calculated may be up for discussion (did people die of, or with, COVID-19, for instance). There is an aura of importance, anxiety and fascination, and new information creates an urge for more. In a second interview, Rachel recalls this:

I really had that urge to be updated all the time because there were so many important things happening that could affect us every day. Or all the time, almost every hour . . . I think the days went really fast. So, these days where you do not do anything or where you may try to do something but do not necessarily get so much done. I really think the days go by really fast.

So, the immediate future is included into the expanded present, but in the form of flowing representations from a flickering screen. Another respondent, 26-year-old Nicole, working as a paediatric nurse, was intensely following the numbers of infected and dead every day: ‘There was such an atmosphere of excitement over this new epidemic, which then turned into a pandemic. And it was insanely interesting because you've never had this before’. But at some point, she just stopped looking:

I got too stressed by looking at them all the time, and the numbers just kept rising or just did not change. In the end, I could not really relate to it, this crisis thinking constantly, I think. [. . .] And now we're really many months in, where it might not be as interesting to keep up with the new numbers all the time.

This is in line with Massumi's insight that ‘Television had become the event medium’ (2005: 33, emphasis in original). Acceleration, fascination, anxiety. Yet, after the radical novelty of the situation had cooled down, some of our respondents felt the still life was limiting. A respondent observed how ‘days are blurring together; workdays and weekends are alike. I think the most visible difference is the lack of pastime where monotony sets in’. Others work well with isolation, such as a couple quickly adapting to their everyday life with a walk every morning and a stroll after lunch. However, work life also becomes more monotonous, and the same respondent observes how meetings over Skype are much more efficient but ‘without the chit chat’ that makes up the collegial coherent everyday. In that sense, to these respondents, things would have looked different had it been a curfew. In Denmark, it is communicated more as a voluntary respect for ‘standing together, at a distance’, as a government slogan had it, by staying at home, rather than a forced isolation or restriction of distance of travel. The respondent noticed how ‘I think I was a bit more in a bubble in the beginning. I was a bit more self-absorbed for a couple of days, where I felt I needed to comprehend this situation “data-wise”’. This introspection enabled him to tell himself that ‘now I think I understand how this will develop, and then I can be at ease in my body’. This emerging inaction is also an incident of the multiple temporalities intersecting people's lives with an accelerated mediated world. The possibility of planning everyday life that has become central for late modern urbanites’ approach to the mundane was affected (cf. Löfgren and Ehn 2010). Martin, the bartender, also mentions this: ‘So I always look two weeks ahead at a time. And I am pretty set on not being able to plan a month ahead. After all, it's just accepting one day at a time’. A teacher at a business school similarly reflects on time:

four gaping days where I just sat in front of the News basically and did nothing else and could do nothing but follow what was happening around. Now life goes on in some pretty weird way. So, some kind of ‘corona everyday life’ has been established, so to speak.

The intensity, in other words, had to shift into a ‘corona everyday life’. Here the home became a centre of detaching oneself from the sense of accelerated time, as pointed out elsewhere (Shirani and Henwood 2011). To the couple above, the many walks and talks allowed them to put words on concerns and thoughts and enabled ‘a new normal to emerge with very few fluctuations’, as the male commented. The sense of pressure came from the uncertainty, ‘never knowing whether you actually did enough’. He almost felt sick, without being it. The fact that he was always updating the news left a bodily mark, so they had learned to structure the number of times he would allow himself to watch the news per day, and just focus on his studies. Somehow, the everyday returned in all its disturbing detail and forced itself on him. COVID-19 thus caused a type of contingency that spurred a disconnection to the future through a disconnection to the time of the outside world.

Among the older respondents we were often met by a sense of relief in the situation, as 89-year-old Greta stated:

I have lots of things I can do at home. I also have a small garden. So, I make sure to get some fresh air, go out and do a little bit there. Then you have some windows to clean and try to take care of my daily chores. And I talk so much on the phone, with all my grandchildren and my children. More than ever, actually.

Like others, however, she also gets quite tired of listening to the news, so she would just turn on some music. That is, coping through not doing something she otherwise would. Some respondents even speak of existential experiences of ‘how we ought to live without the stress of work-life’. This sense of getting time to slow down, avoiding the sense of urgency by avoiding the news, becomes an active coping strategy of engaged lingering, in a time where the adjustment to home work or schooling may have put enormous stress on families. For some it is to avoid the anxiety it creates; for others it is to get into the ‘waiting position’ – the sought-for patience of the prime minister, since people accept that they cannot predict what will happen in the near future anyway. That is, shaping the expanded present by actively getting rhythms – as also advised by many consultants, psychologists and leaders, in the media. As one respondent notes, the future becomes sliced up in phases, ‘It's a bit like when you've had a medical examination and go around waiting for the answer. Then, you only look ahead until the answer, and really not any longer into the future’. This is a striking instance of the decoupling of the anticipated future and the embedding of the immediate future into the expanded present.

As the present is stretched by way of its elastic qualities during crisis (Anderson 2010, 2016; Knight and Stewart 2016), how can we understand that experience? Rebecca Bryant's (2016) research on ‘crisis time’ presents a notion of an ‘uncanny present’, reflecting the position of experiencing a familiar present returning in a slightly altered version, imposing itself on the subject, making itself known in all painful details that were earlier invisible. As Bryant argues, this stems from an inability to anticipate the future, making the subjects of crisis left with a present both familiar and unfamiliar. But unpredictability creates a sense of being left in the face of a future temporarily suspended. In this suspension we argue that a dual temporality emerges between the urgency for action and the everyday life where the present becomes expanded. In the pandemic situation, people are left to linger, both between the accelerated (mediated) world and what for most of our respondents was a decelerated and still everyday life. But at the same time, it could also slide back and forth between the practices of temporal production attached to these (Anderson 2010: 184). It seems the interviewees are faced with a contradictory experience, juxtaposing an intruding, present everyday with a future out of reach, that is, engaged lingering.

The Multiplicity of Crisis

As we saw above, respondents often declare the present pandemic to be a ‘second to none’ event. Simultaneously, we see frequent expressions of comparison back in time: the financial crisis of 2008, swine flu 2009, the Second World War or even the Spanish Flu. But respondents or social media posts regularly express that this crisis is unprecedented; that we are in a situation never experienced before, as noted by the prime minister, at least in recent times. These statements imply an assessment of the crisis, its quality and range, but also the very designation of it as a crisis (Roitman 2013). This calls for framing the experiences of COVID-19 within a broader context. Following Hartog, one could propose a distinction between three different sensations of crisis, even if the scales may differ: as an experience repeating previous events among the elders, something resembling other crises such as the swine flu or economic crisis, or something unprecedented among the younger generations.

In the pandemic process, it becomes clear for people that the end of the urgent situation is undetermined, and they have to navigate in the now expanded present. Some look in vain to comparable experiences. For example, a 17-year-old respondent had been looking for crises in his life that are similar, in order to have something to stick to, but noted that he does not even remember the SARS epidemic. On the other hand, in an interesting comparison, an elder respondent turns the tables and recalls the liberation of Copenhagen in 1945, when people all took to the streets: ‘the atmosphere around the celebration and the relief made everyone very intimate, as if we were all old friends’. We see how the comparison, like other similar ones from elderly respondents, seeks to defuse the drama of the situation that appears unprecedented to the young respondent.

While the prime minister had presented the situation as unprecedented in recent times, some people nonetheless felt a recognition of it in other recent events. Harold, a middle-aged man in the postal service, felt a panic emerging as he watched the press conference about the lockdown but as he then recollected, ‘then oxygen returned to the brain and I thought “argh, let's take it easy now” and we did’. He had also experienced the swine flu in 2009, which had an estimated death toll of around 300,000. He and his children had actually caught it, and back then he had been nervous also because his children were smaller and more at risk. But he had felt that it ‘was nothing, it was almost a disease that lasted for 8 hours and then it was, like, over’. So, based on this experience he felt that the resemblance made him think COVID-19 less urgent, perhaps not even a crisis. At least not yet. There may come an economic crisis later, however, he noted. Lurking in the background, Harold had the feeling that ‘we have only seen the beginning of this’.

Another elder respondent in his late 60s felt that he had experienced crises before, and noted how it is just going to be another of the crises that there have been through time. The IT bubble in 1999, the financial crisis in 2008, swine flu, etc. But in a sense illustrating Roitman's (2013) point, he reasoned how ‘before that, there were also some, they were just called something else, such as the economic “potato cure” in 1988. But it usually only hurts society when the housing market crashes. There is, like, no sign of that yet’. Here, he is referring back to the Danish economic campaign of the 1980s, reducing private spending and the like. Instead, he looked at the situation in terms of a sequence of crises, in the abstract, where at the time of this interview it was a disease crisis that eventually will turn into an economic crisis.

What we see with these two respondents is how coping with urgency partly relies on one's previous experiences, but also on the scope of ‘cultural proximity’ as Michel Serres and Bruno Latour (2011) term the contraction of incidents in history as close or even overlapping in experienced time. Daniel Knight (2012) has observed exactly this in the coupling of recent economic problems in Greece with the country's famine in the 1940s. Choosing comparative proximity to the swine flu or the IT bubble thus frames urgency as a rather temporary, non-political, neutral setting that calls for complacency, as when a respondent noted that she ‘follows what the authorities say, rather than making my own position on what I should’. Comparison in both a lateral sense (to other contemporary places in the world) and a vertical (to other events in the past) shows, as Matei Candea notes, that ‘good comparisons tend to give us more than what we aimed for’ (2018: 353). With COVID-19, the comparison is always enveloped by the impossibility of finding a comparable personal experience.

Of course, there are the personal crises as well. Aside from the psychological pressure of being at home, either alone or with the family, when respondents have been in potential contact with a contaminated person, they feel anxious about what to do, and what they have done in the meantime. As one stated,

. . . it is all that uncertainty. You have to meet all people as if they are infected. And keep distance really high. So, it's hard, but it still seems a bit unreal all together. As if it's a movie you see. [. . .] We have never experienced such a catastrophe before.

Another respondent noted how in other crises such as wars, homes and production apparatuses are destroyed and the return to normality may be more difficult. That is not the case with COVID-19 ‘everything can just start again when we're allowed to [. . .] so I think everything's going back to normal [. . .] I see everything continue just as it was, I'm sure’. On the one hand people recognise that there is a crisis, whether it is connected to health or the economy. But in recognising the urgency with which action must be taken, respondents also invariably make lateral comparisons with other countries, and in that sense downscale both the urgency and the crisis in Denmark, while adopting engaged lingering.

The very articulation of crisis is spiking at certain points, it appears. After the first weeks where people were in crisis mode, we see how ‘the everyday’ not only occurs but is also sought out by avoiding the media. And then the notion of crisis resurrects again at a certain point, or one is reminded of it through the signs, media or ever-present talk about COVID-19 in social interaction. These spikes, seemingly, also show how subjects slide in and out of the two production modes suggested by Anderson (2016).

Engaged Lingering in the Present, Awaiting the Future

In all the urgency that the prime minister had to deal with through the precautionary principle, the experience of immediacy may not follow in people's everyday life. When facing a prolonged pandemic, people moved from participating in the affective intensity provided by the mediascape in the early days, to a sense of not being able to transcend into a future. It is as if the ‘actual’ (here and now) and the ‘virtual’ would entangle.

After a few weeks of lockdown, and as a sunny spring came upon the city, young people seemingly felt a strong need for socialising and getting out after the lockdown. They were flowing into public parks and waterfronts, posing a risk of contagion, and keeping other citizens awake through music on loudspeakers, eventually leading to no-stay zones. The complaints about urban youth and the attempts at regulating them by restricting assembly at public hotspots intensified in the weeks after the lockdown with incidents of conflict.

What we have highlighted in this article is that becoming complacent with regulations and being patient is also a suspension of one's own temporal agency. In the beginning of the pandemic, the radical authority of ‘authorities’ was somewhat implicitly rooted in the argument of the crisis being so temporary that the state of exception would be forgotten almost before it was implemented. Yet as the temporality of the pandemic itself changes, this logic changes. The responsibility for passing on from the present to the future, in the sense of a new situation, is still unclear. People are lingering in the face of a future uncertain, but where uncertainty also counts for their own ability to make a future happen. Through following the everyday practices of urban contingency, we argue that lingering is an active engagement with the present as expanded. It is one where temporal scales between everyday and media may collide or run parallel, and where the very reflection on the nature of crisis, and this one in particular, questions the temporality of experiencing urban contingency.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the respondents who gave us their time and trust, the reviewers and special issue editors for their insightful comments, and most importantly the fieldwork assistants Kasper Mølbak Jacobsen, Emma Barnhøj Jeppesen, Ida Lerche Klaaborg, Mie Skou Larsen, Malthe Lehrmann, Maria Slæggerup and Josephine Trojahn for their great enthusiasm and work. Funding was provided by the Velux Foundation [#36693].

References

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Contributor Notes

MIKKEL BILLE, mbille@hum.ku.dk, is Professor of ethnology at University of Copenhagen and holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from University College London. His work centres around sensory ethnography and uses of technologies. In particular, he has worked on lighting and atmospheres. Together with Mikkel Thelle, he led the project ‘The Pandemic City’, which documented the governing and experience of the city during the early part of the pandemic in Denmark. He is the author of Living with Light (2019, Bloomsbury) and Being Bedouin around Petra (2019, Berghahn). ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4558-2473.

MIKKEL THELLE, MIT@natmus.dk, is a cultural historian working with urban practice and public space, more recently combined with an interest in biosocial and environmental perspectives. He has been exploring how qualitative methods work together with new quantitative possibilities within digital humanities, researching for example relations between mobility and social topography. Recently, experiences and practices of welfare society has been more prevalent in his research, tracing biosocial becomings of modern citizenship. Mikkel is a senior researcher at the National Museum of Denmark. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1646-8057.

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  • Anderson, B. 2010. ‘Security and the future: anticipating the event of terror’, Geoforum 41: 227235.

  • Anderson, B. 2016. Emergency/everyday, in J. Burges and A. J. Elias (eds.), Time. A vocabulary of the present book, 177191. New York: NYU Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Andits, P. 2020. ‘Waiting during the time of COVID-19’, Social Anthropology 28: 220221.

  • Appadurai, A. 2013. The future as cultural fact: essays on the global condition. London: Verso.

  • Bryant, R. 2016. ‘On critical times: return, repetition, and the uncanny present’, History and Anthropology 27: 1931.

  • Candea, M. 2018, Comparison in anthropology: The impossible methods. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

  • Damsholt, T. 2020, Times of Corona. Investigating the temporalities of everyday life during lockdown. Ethnologia Europaea 50: 137155

  • Hartog, F. 2015. Regimes of historicity: presentism and experiences of time. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Janeja, M. K. and A. Bandak (eds.) 2018. Ethnographies of waiting: doubt, hope and uncertainty. London: Bloomsbury.

  • Jordheim, H. and E. Wigen 2018. ‘Conceptual synchronisation: from progress to crisis’, Millennium 46: 421439.

  • Kapferer, B., M. Holbraad and J. F. Sauma (eds.) 2019. Ruptures: anthropologies of discontinuity in times of turmoil. London: UCL Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knight, D. M. 2012. ‘Cultural proximity: crisis, time and social memory in Central Greece’, History and Anthropology 23: 349374.

  • Knight, D. M. and C. Stewart 2016. ‘Ethnographies of austerity: temporality, crisis and affect in Southern Europe’, History and Anthropology 27: 118.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Löfgren, O. and B. Ehn 2010. The secret world of doing nothing. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Massumi, B. 2005. ‘Fear (the spectrum said)’, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 13: 3148.

  • Nobert, S. and M. Pelling 2017. ‘What can adaptation to climate-related hazards tell us about the politics of time-making? Exploring durations and temporal disjunctures through the 2013 London heat wave’, Geoforum 85: 122130.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robbins, J. 2007. ‘Continuity thinking and the problem of Christian culture: belief, time, and the anthropology of Christianity’, Current Anthropology 48: 538.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roitman, J. 2013. Anti-crisis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Salmi, H. 2017. Catastrophe, emotions and guilt: the Great Fire of Turku, 1827, in D. Simonton and H. Salmi (eds.), Catastrophe, gender and urban experience, 137154. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Serres, M. and B. Latour 2011. Conversations on science, culture, and time. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

  • Shirani, F. and K. Henwood 2011. ‘Taking one day at a time: temporal experiences in the context of unexpected life course transitions’, Time & Society 20: 4968.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Simon, Z. B. 2019. History in times of unprecedented change: a theory for the 21st century. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

  • Simon, Z. B. 2020. The epochal event: transformations in the entangled human, technological, and natural worlds. Cham: Springer.

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