Co-Written by Shruti Sharma & Bikash Sarma
The horrendous outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, and the sequence of ‘phantasmagoric’ events for the last few months, paved the way for strands of thinking and genres of debates on modernity, the networks of nature/culture, on quarantine–physical and social isolation, palliative measures, a virulent nature of bio-politics, the state of exception – and ways of reconfiguring the relationship between humans and disease/epidemics.
The anxious modern human today is compelled to create a space of despair and hope as the unfamiliar non-human mutant replicates inside the human host. With this subjection of the modern human by the non-human mutant, the claim over transcendence of nature has become uncannier than ever. At a time when physical and social borders are epidemiologically fixated, the border crossing between history of pathology and social history has intensified. We are frantically turning the pages of these histories to conquer and conquest this strange and dystopic emissary. However, it is not just the non-human mutant that is being subjected to multiple modalities of conquer and conquest but also the changes that the mutant has unleashed in the everyday monotony of human life – specifically the state of quarantine.In this temporary loss of monotony, the hope of rejuvenating the modern, rational, consumerist self is directed towards (re)conquering the exceptional/ordinary and the public/private. The romanticism of the self today is only meaningful to itself when mediated through a pre-and-post consumerist time and space – in all probability – being conscious of the quasi-permanent nature of the (self) quarantine. Ironically, as the pre-corona fatigued self recedes into home, there is a growing urge to reclaim to alleviate itself from the ‘boredom’ that the quarantined space of home is, perceptibly producing..While apprehensions of the self becoming pathological and transmitting the mutant in the space of presumed rejuvenation are ripe, so is the ‘relief’ of transmitting the romanticised self in the private/home for the urban upper middle class savarna; unlike the figure of the migrant worker who is bereft of the lockdown ‘leisure’, dwelling in cramped spaces – and worse – being in spaces of constant movement, in their long walk home (for some from life to death).
The individuated urban upper middle class savarna self being the subject of power to these real and fictitious relations – now operating under the lockdown – has been ‘forced’ to entangle the home, and quarantine it from the chaos outside. Ironically, a new sense of the normal is devised by underlining ‘conscientiousness’, ‘family time’, and ‘work from home’ to ward off the “great war” like crisis. As Bruno Latour recently commented:
…by remaining trapped at home while outside there is an extension of police powers and the din of ambulances, we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of Michel Foucault lectures.
To enable the social isolation and to let them continue to live and extend the care of the self, some precarious lives have to be lost. The selves that would be let to live and those if not let to die; be abandoned or be unleashed with the brute power of the state (and by those let to live) upon their body.Controlling of the itineraries of the migrant workers and ‘sanitizing’ them with chemicals like Sodium Hypochlorite is not just a testimony to their precarious existence by rendering them mere biological bodies, but also by trapping the same body into a racial, casteist, classist, and epidemiological discourse. The biopolitical and biocultural production of the bodies– now – are vindicated by the discourse on contagionism and social isolationism. These bodies are not deprived of politics and culture through suspension, but rather their reworking through medico-technical-social fallacies. The invocation of the metaphor for diseased and dangerous human bodies in the garb of exception is a familiar experience, as far as the history of epidemics is concerned.
Even inside the urban upper middle-class savarna’s romanticized private, the 21 days lockdown has openly manifested certain issues that were themselves normalised and locked down under the monotony of everydayness. This stratum of people who have been caught in the fragment of time – fast paced – wrenched of its continuity, have now found themselves slowed down. It is in this very slowness that the manifestations of the structures (part of the monotony as well) of class and patriarchy become pronounced in the most trivial of actions and inactions. Individuals are now confined to one closed space – the home. This new spatiality of quarantine – physical and social – is one that initially seems endearing under the idea(l) of ‘family time’ to develop a ‘family bond’. But this endearment soon recedes to boredom, however only for a certain category of people – the menfolk. “I am getting bored”, “There is nothing to do”, “Time isn’t passing by” are statements that are uttered every now and then. All of a sudden, men seem to have found a lot of ‘spare time’ which they barely did in their 9 to 5-6-7-8 existence. Even though home has now turned into a temporary workspace – work from home – for those whose jobs are device and internet driven, there is still a lot of spare time that men have comparatively(as they have descended into the lockdown) to their normal routine and to the womenfolk in the household in both normalised and exceptional states.
Spare time either signifies the time in the modern temporal matrix outside of paid and prioritised (productive)work, or the time that one does not have ‘anything’ do,or both. However, this temporal matrix is arbitrary as it is based on (de)valuation of work itself – often equating unpaid work and the work unintelligible to men, with spare time. This simple definition opens up a few threads for further enquiry – Who defines what work is? What are the structures that delineate who must do what and who must not? In the answers to these basic questions regarding spare time a related yet seemingly unrelated element emerges, that of ‘time to spare’. Although, it appears as if time to spare is relevant only in the context of ‘busy time’, in the state of quarantine where spare time leads to boredom, one’s (non)decision about time to spare for work for home becomes crucial.How is it that one has spare time yet no time to spare? This question becomes all the more relevant in the context of women who may be working from home and most definitely working for home. Having time to spare appears to be a question of choice; however, once unpacked in the context of work like cooking, cleaning, caringwe realise that it is deeply embedded in the hetero-patriarchal gender order.Since cooking, cleaning and caringare not considered work at all, the time spent on doing them is popularly (read patriarchally) considered as spare time.
In choosing (not) to carve out ‘time to spare’ from the ‘spare time’ the device and internet driven man has further gendered spare time and time to spare to complete the romanticized picture of the private, though only temporarily. To compensate for the public self now quarantined, men have begun imposing the burden of their boredom through demanding efficient utilisation of their women’s spare time – assumed to be plenty –and their time to spare (both becoming indistinguishable), to alleviate their trivialised existence. The consumerism now curtailed or limited by the closure of the public, has been reshaped within the home in its primitive form by demanding ‘extraordinary creativity’ from the kitchen and continuous entertainment (read care) of the young, old and equal in the household. The evidence of this reshaping lies in the classical hoarding tendencies of the classist and patriarchal household that was intensified soon after the declaration of the lockdown became public.
Although all were compelled to hoard essentials, the urban self found an opportunity (and could afford) to hoard and reconstitute the ‘private’ as well. Most celebrated the new quarantine melancholy that the mutant ‘unleashed’, as also the opening up of a space to ‘get back to normal sexual life’. This has led to an increase in demand (virtual and real) for emotional and sexual intimacy from the women (girlfriends or wives), in the lives of these men. Insulated and isolated from the ‘busy time’, spare time has become an analogous space for a renewed intimacy that had been concealed under the fatigued and self-driven aspiration of men in the pre-corona phase, now tied to revamped patriarchal power relations. As sexuality has been mediated by this new form of quarantined space of patriarchy, it in fact supplements and feeds into the one-sided imposition of the temporal and spatial demands. The de-prioritised economy of (unpaid) work of the women often equated with spare time and hence time to spare is being called for as a “standing reserve”according to the dry will of men, mired in the comprehensibility of its incomprehensiveness, within the epidemiological space of social isolation.
Is the space of quarantine/social isolation at home – that SARS-Cov-2 enacted – and we suddenly find ourselves cocooned in today a reworking of the psyche of the patriarchal and classist one-dimensional spare time? The assumed certainties of the new romantic discourse on intimacy, and the homologous existence of spare time and self-imposed quarantine, reveals an old problematic of space/time,that masculine cubicle existence always sought to materialise.
We are being told that, it’s time for scare – of course – of a rejuvenating experience as well, a time to de-alienate the public ‘rational’ being into a private emotional being. We are also being cautioned as Giorgio Agamben did, of a regime of social suspicion when we see ourselves “as potential contaminators to be avoided at all costs…” But what is frightening is the universal discourse on spare time that the masculine cubicle body is now forcing in the private with the same intensity as it once did in enacting the discourse on busy time. In this process of scare, panic and questions upon existence, same old gendered questions are revived and are seeking an answer from the victims of the old and new universal times. The new spatiality of quarantine now is manifested in the unprecedented phallic desire for spare time and time to spare, that the same public ‘rational’ being devalued and strangled from inside the doors of the cubical, euphemistically, for the honour of the domestic – we were told – accumulated by hard working, selfless man. If the time/space of the social isolation has been reworked to colonise and denigrate certain bodies ever again, it also is time to reclaim and redefine the modern temporal matrix of spare time and time to spare. Apparently, the militarised epidemic has created a collective amnesia and ‘erasure’ by a disjuncture between the normal/then and exceptional/now; where the public and the politics have been suspended – temporarily, but with a long term impact – masked under an epidemiological exceptionalism. However, the entrenchment of the trivialising tendencies of power relations into the privateitinerates unfettered with the invocation of the new intimate family time and space.
If social isolation is assumed as a collective response to the mutant, reclamation of the memory of the ‘pre-corona’ politics and patriarchal relations – undoubtedly – is pertinent to de-normalise and create a space for politics by the oppressed. Maybe now is the time, as men cannot escape into the public, for women to bring their always already isolated struggles – from their kitchens and bedrooms – to the streets (figuratively) to create a dent in the malleability of the structure of patriarchy.
Bikash Sarma recently submitted his Doctoral Thesis from Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is currently teaching at Salesian College, Siliguri.
Shruti Sharma completed her MPhil from Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta(CSSSC).