Keeping pandemic Seattle in phantom time...
Keeping pandemic Seattle in phantom time... Charles Mudede

For every tragedy, there is an Eden. It's the place where all the trouble began. The paradise from which the storm was blown.

The US's pandemic experience has its Eden in the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington. It's here where, in late February, the US reported the first COVID-death of a man, and, soon after, the first COVID-death of a woman.

We now know that our Adam and Eve were not the originals. Others in California were undone by the virus earlier in the month. But the ursprĂĽnglich Eden was not perfect. It had a talking snake.

Marion Kruger, our Eve, was doing fine in old age until she fell and damaged her hip on the last day of 2019. She went through surgery in early January of 2020 and entered Life Care Center for rehab. In late February, her life was, much to the shock of her family, taken by the mysterious virus. Kruger entered the side of the shades at age 85. Twenty days after her passing, Washington state began its lockdown proper.

Three days before the lockdown, on March 13, in a state of panic and confusion The Stranger conducted its first brutal job cuts. I had never seen anything like it in my 19 years of full employment with the paper. The tough times I witnessed during this period, which began in 2001, were certainly bad but never blistering. The shockwaves sent through our economic system by the dot-com crash of 2001; the implosion of the housing market in 2008; the crushing spike in tariffs that for a large chunk of 2018 made paper from Canada terribly expensive for an industry (print media) that had experienced nothing but decline and headwinds for two decades—all of these shocks were met by The Stranger without bleeding jobs. But the lockdown that abruptly and indefinitely closed music venues and indoor dining—this was a completely different economic beast.

The dot-com crash? A consequence of cultural factors that inflated the shares of companies that had little-to-no realistic path to the heaven of capitalism: profits. The housing crash? A consequence of cultural factors (in the form of political policies) that removed the checks on banks and investment institutions that had been in place since the New Deal period. The tariffs? We will leave the political explanation for that bizarre turn of events to those unlucky enough to be the historians of the Trump years.

But the lockdown of 2020, which quickly followed an equity market crash in February, and which was proceeded by the worst job report for April in US history, was triggered by a force of nature: the novel coronavirus.

And this is what made the time surrounding Governor Jay Inslee's March 16 "emergency proclamation" so unique, so radical, so in-the-dark. The very idea of an economy-wide lockdown triggered by a protein-covered speck of DNA in the zone between the living and dead was way out of our minds.

At the time the thought was the lockdown might last only a couple weeks. But a year after the first one, we find the virus is still with us, and over 500,000 Americans are not. We've also seen the benefits in a huge economic stimulus package passed by Democrats desperately needed by millions, and a job market that has not recovered 10 million of the estimated total of 29 million jobs destroyed by the pandemic.

But what happened between March 16, 2020 and March 15, 2021? Lots, of course. There was the murder of George Floyd, the death of the King of Wakanda, the establishment of an autonomous zone in Seattle, the rise of Antifa in Portland, and the national deification of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

One could go along these lines, connected by headline-making events, and give the period what the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges would have called its "local color." This is how the lockdown will be accessed by feelings in the future. Similarly, something like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" provides us (in the tune's far future) emotional access to the anti-war movement of the 1960s. The most defining feature of the lockdown period, however, is not described by one or many of its historical or color-making events, but rather by the nature of time itself.

We will remember March 16 as the day time really happened to many of us for the first time.

Downtown, September, 2020.
Downtown, September, 2020. Charles Mudede

But you might say: What's the big deal about COVID-era time? Time always happens, no matter what. It was there before the pandemic, and it will be there after it's done and gone. How on earth can time be something that happened "for real, for real" during the lockdown?

And I would answer: Time, under normalized circumstances, is merely a matter of clocks. It is our culture's way of organizing the day around the imposed social necessity of money: the alarm, getting out of the bed, taking a shower, coding your appearance with clothes, going to the office/business/what have you, performing tasks for hourly wages, returning home at the end of the business day, and finding some distractions before sleep/restoration resumes. This is what time totally means for most of us. And this kind of time also has its negative aspect for those who cannot pay for it with the time of an income.

What all of this means is made clear by what the early 20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson called the "phantom self" in his book Time and Free Will, which, unfortunately, is not a direct translation of the book's French title, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience.

In this early work, Bergson attempts to free time from the prison of space. Space is what can be counted on; it is what's out there in the world of objects. Time, on the other hand, is internal and uncountable. In fact, Bergson doesn't call it time (which is measurable) but duration. Space has distinct multiplicities; duration has confused multiplicities. The former is quantitative and the latter is qualitative. And what happens to us in a clock-organized culture is we throw the inside—non-quantifiable duration that is internal and mixed beyond distinctions—outside, onto the world of numbers.

As a consequence, we confuse this externalized and countable self, the subject of socially necessary labor time (or, as I call it, culturally necessary labor time), with our actual selves, which I call "time-being," as opposed to "being-in-time," because one (a being) is not in time but is time (or duration).

The superb commentator of Bergson's early works, Suzanne Guerlac, describes this structure of ordinary experience in this way:

[With the metaphor of the “phantom self,”] Bergson defines it here as a projection in space of the free self. This projection in space also presents the social representation of the free self, the conscious automaton. Whereas the free self can be approached only through intuition, the social representation of this self is known scientifically. These two selves (or the self and its social representation, the sign of itself) let themselves be known in two distinct ways, the one by intuition and the other by scientific knowledge.


The conventional concept of time, Bergson suggests, is a “bastard concept” which results from an intrusion of an idea of space into the domain of pure consciousness (EDI 73 [98]), which reduces time to space. As soon as we begin to think and to speak, we unconsciously fall back into a spatial framework. “Time, in the form of an indefinite and homogeneous milieu, is but the phantom of that space which obsesses reflexive consciousness” (EDI 74 [99]). Space is the great unconscious presupposition of Western thought. This is the leitmotif of the Essai.

So, what happened during the lockdown? A large number of workers gradually lost track of the self projected onto what Tears for Fears called "The Working Hour." Sure, we still had to work—if we were lucky enough to be in that position during the economic slump—but time in the usual sense became increasingly distorted, or became like a yard that's only partially mowed and is all around growing wilder by the day.

And what became more and more apparent to us was duration, the uncountable self. More than anything else, those who manage and direct and benefit the most from quantifiable culturally necessary labor time, the class-structuring mechanism of our globally absolute (as in the Newtonian space/time absolute) society, were worried about the return of time to this unmeasured, feral, Bergsonian tempo of the soul. This is the self of my time-being. (They were more worried about this shift than they were about the open embrace of necro-economics, the idea that life is valued less than the economy, which was first articulated by Texas's Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on March 23, just days after the social distancing and quarantine measures were implemented nation-wide.)

To get a sense of this rupturing of clock time, here is a slice of a recent poem by Gabriel Bogart, a local writer and former bartender at the College Inn Pub—the famous basement business that closed in July of 2020 but that will be reopened under new management:

[American] Quarantime

nine am to one pm
lasts forever, and
2 in the afternoon, until 6 in the evening
are gone in a gust and a blank
roll of film.
the hour between one and 2
in the afternoon does not exist.
mountains have risen
from the ocean floor
and crumbled under their own
volcanic tantrums
somewhere between lunch...
The rupture described in these words is the one between the "phantom self" of employment and the durational self that is exposed by what Bogart calls "quarantime."

Also, there is this revealing tweet by the producer and musician Erik Blood:

The concept of time-being (or duration) as a threat to clock-ordered time has considerable explanatory power in all matters concerning the resistance to and efforts to rush out of the socially restricted and locked-down economy. One only has to consider Governor Inslee's recent determination to force schools to partially reopen by April.

In Inslee's words: "...we need to do this for the mental health of our children." But what is he really getting at here? Why the sense of urgency? Opening schools next year just makes more sense at this late point in the game. But no, this is not about about economics or public health. The pressing issue is squarely horological.

In E. P. Thompson's 1967 paper "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism" (PDF), three institutions played a key roles in the development and consolidation of what Bergson identified as the phantom self: the factory, the church, and the school.

Here's what Thompson wrote about the last institution:

One other non-industrial institution lay to hand which might be used to inculcate "time-thrift": the school. [Rev. J. Clayton's, author of the 1755 pamphlet "Friendly Advice to the Poor Clayton,"] complained that the streets of Manchester were full of "idle ragged children; who are not only losing their Time, but learning habits of gaming", etc. He praised charity schools as teaching Industry, Frugality, Order and Regularity: "the Scholars here are obliged to rise betimes and to observe Hours with great Punctuality." Powell, in 1772, also saw education as a training in the "habit of industry"; by the time the child reached six or seven it should become "habituated, not to say naturalized to Labour and Fatigue". The Rev. William Turner, writing from Newcastle in 1786, recommended Raikes' schools as "a spectacle of order and regularity", and quoted a manufacturer of hemp and flax in Gloucester as affirming that the schools had effected an extraordinary change: "they are.. . become more tractable and obedient, and less quarrelsome and revengeful." Exhortations to punctuality and regularity are written into the rules of all the early schools...

If one connects this line of thought by the great Marxist historian with Pink Floyd's 1979 pop funk opera "Another Brick in the Wall," you get a sense of the real function of schools and the source of Inslee's eruptions about the mental health of children, who, by the way, are culturally malleable, culturally unsettled, and therefore culturally open to other directions that their society might take in the way of language, schooling, and the organization of wealth-generating tasks.

What Inslee's panic exposes is that instructions in math and writing and so on are merely the by-products of what really matters, which is the inculcation of the phantom self in subjects of a culture ordered by culturally necessary labor time. If we remove this phantom self, as Bogart's quarantine-time is doing presently, then the future will find it difficult to lock college graduates into repayment schedules for their student loans.