Do you remember when we watched Bicycle Thieves? When the last frame – of a man walking away, his back turned, a second ago surrounded by an angry crowd, now alone in a deserted street – faded to black, we turned to look at each other as if to say, ‘what just happened?’ There was nothing to say but whatever it was we both recognised it. A distinct feeling in our stomachs, something a little worse than butterflies. We sat in the dark with only the blue of a laptop screen to show the outlines of the room.
It’s not that we were as poor as Antonio Ricci, who, having sold his wife’s meagre valuables to get his bike out of the pawn shop, is overjoyed when he gets work as a bill poster, then destroyed when his means of work and transport are stolen, and finally humiliated when he tries to steal someone else’s bike. We were obviously not in quite such a bad way.
In fact our stories seem more comic than tragic – although of course there’s a point where the first turns into the second. I remember only last month your bike’s inner tube had punctured for the very last time. Another repair would surely have made a continuous circular patchwork. But you resigned yourself to sinking further into the overdraft to pay for more robust tyres. And you got through this by saying, next month I will work harder to make it all up, my plans can wait, what are four weeks anyway?
Maybe this is how it works: a minor catastrophe knocks life out of sync, so that the present becomes a kind of non-time, dislocated from any sense of a time’s organic unfolding, whether natural, personal or historical. We get good at fixing things on the fly; we repair and repair, until there is nothing left but a patchwork of improvised solutions, each one a little reminder of the final collapse that never comes.
We are living on a multiple countdown – one clock counting down till rent day, another keeping time until pay day, this one ticking over the accrued interest on a loan, still another counting the days left on a Visa. Some countdowns seem close to measures of primitive survival: hot water, electricity, food. But even these are relative: heat in winter can be traded for another unit, maybe food and light; a place to live can be traded for anything.
Was that the feeling?
Not quite. But we know where to find it – borders, walls, fences, are made of this feeling.
I imagine you approaching Qalandia checkpoint, the main barrier between the West Bank and Jerusalem. You are crammed into one of the hundreds of minibuses that travel back and forth across the wall. Out the window there are fires in barrels. The flames flank the spray painted images of Yasir Arafat and Marwan Barghouti – a permanent vigil. You get out and enter the corrugated steel shed that acts as foyer. Choosing which door to enter is tricky. There are three, and in front of each one a mass of people waiting for the turnstiles to come alive and swallow them up to the next phase of entry. In line there are three brothers with beautiful eyelashes who try to sell you chewing gum. They look like they are on the verge of crying all the time. Maybe they are, or maybe it’s just their eyelashes. Sometimes they can be aggressive, angry in a childish way if you don’t buy their gum. Other times they just slink away with crying faces to the next person. Over the year they grow up in the turnstiles. They grow taller, longer, never crossing over completely.
But you pass through all turnstiles eventually; with the gift of foreign passports and Visas. Maybe they tell you that in three days this Visa will expire, like you didn’t know already, like you hadn’t been planning for months how to get another one. And anyway, three days somehow feels like an eternity in Visa time.
Visas offer us a different kind of countdown – lives lived in intervals of three months. Between coming and going. Eventually, perhaps for some lucky ones, Visa-time gives way to indefinite-leave-to-remain time, leading to permanent-resident time, which leads finally to a citizenship of endless time. But what about when there is no possibility of any of this time, when the Countdown itself is unknown? Once you told me about your Palestinian friend in Jerusalem who lost his ID after living in Belgium for four years. Why, I asked? Where did his citizenship disappear to? Time, you told me, time is where it went. Four years away and suddenly at the border they tell him he can no longer stay. Now he lives in Jerusalem, stuck in this indefinite time-frame. This story still doesn’t make sense to me, but then again sense is not what this form of bureaucracy was made for.
Do you remember, only a few months ago you were in the bank trying to explain why the name on your account was different to the name on your new passport. The woman behind the desk, in a preprogrammed nonsensical battle, wouldn’t listen to the reason for the mis-match. I remember when you were granted Italian citizenship it was such a joy and at the same time a relief – like unwrapping a gift and opening the results of a medical examination all rolled into one. Now it was like the cashier had discovered a secret clause to deny you the benefits. She kept saying that if you change your name you have to tell them. But you hadn’t changed your name. But you have to tell them. But you hadn’t changed your name, and so on.
You were trying to locate a money transfer that you so desperately needed. All you wanted to know was how and where it could have gone. Was it somewhere in the Atlantic, condemned to endless laps of fibre optic cabling? Eventually you discovered that a mis-read sort code had sent the money to an account in Birmingham.
And then the same night I was out flyposting when suddenly a car pulled over and two men jumped out. They wore hoods and jeans and flashed badges I couldn’t make out in the dark. They positioned their bodies so that although they didn’t lay a hand on me, I was hustled up against the wall. I had done this route several times before and not had any trouble. Even if the police stopped you they just moved you on, or ‘seized your equipment’. But these ones were different. They looked like mercenaries. Presumably the local council had decided to hire in some private security.
In the end I thought it better to pay the fine than risk running and getting charged for something that really would have made life difficult. It was only on the train home that the feeling caught up with me. Do you know what did it? Walter Benjamin. ‘How well he would have integrated his talents with those of the other Institut members can only be conjectured… What can be said with certainty is that the Institut was sorely disappointed and upset by his premature death.’† The way the book on my lap carried on in the same academic tone may have had something to do with it. Do you know how he died? It was 1940 and he was fleeing from France. He died on the border, not on the French side but on the Spanish side. He made it over one border, and if he had arrived a day earlier he would have had no problems leaving Portbou, his Catalan stopover, which had just received orders to detain refugees. He swallowed some morphine pills that night. The next day, when the police learned of his suicide, they let the rest of his party go. He lost his life to bureaucracy and bad timing.
When Benjamin said that the state of emergency is not the exception but the norm, he meant, I think, that only in moments of crisis, like the profound crisis he was living through in the 1930s, does capitalism lay its cards on the table. His philosophy of history was cataclysmic, and his philosophy of time was also all about shock; about how everyday life in the 20th century was both chopped up and blurred together – like the frames of a film.
The bicycle thief is one figure from this era, and when we watched that film it really got to us, but there’s another one who’s actually much more famous. I’m thinking of Chaplin. Perhaps he’s the missing link between these two philosophies, between cataclysmic history and distracted experience. He’s an every-body of the twentieth century (at least the first half of it), similar in this way to the bicycle thief. Like everyone else he has to go through the shocks of modern experience and his own life looks like a series of minor cataclysms. He’s a cog in a clock, but a kind of hypersensitivity means that he’s constantly thrown off course. He is an irritable component, a cog that spins too fast, a cam that snaps back too sharply; his actions, or reactions, very quickly spiral out of control (Chaplin is suddenly at the head of a demonstration, Buster Keaton is suddenly giving chase to the Confederate army). And that’s how he goes beyond the bicycle thief. The storm clouds of history gather overhead because everybody down below remains passive, mechanical, one of a million executors in a terrifying, unfathomable machine. The Chaplin-esque offers a glimpse of how this same everybody might scupper his own mechanism and begin to actively shape history. At this point he’s no longer just a bicycle thief, a figure of pathos; he becomes a figure of comic genius, standing for the virtues of improvisation, creativity, overcoming.
But today it’s as if the experience of crisis has been normalised a second time over. The improvisatory spirit of the Chaplin-esque has been put to work. Mastering distraction (learning to ride it like a wave), being attentive to a constantly shifting network of limited opportunities – isn’t this the basic condition of 21st century capitalism?
On one side this condition descends towards cynicism: rapid and self-conscious calculation based on arbitrary sets of variables. But if distraction today is less like an irradiating blast and more like a persistent shower of mad little particles, and if the multiplicity of opportunities exhausts their purpose, then we have already, to some degree, cast off our faith in this condition. Doubting the validity of the status quo becomes a precondition for participating in it; and the other way round, our participation always implies an element of skepticism.
If I had to come up with a contemporary philosophy of time, and history – I mean if I had to put it into words – I’d say it should recognise this fundamental ambivalence. I mean recognise that life in our world consists of pockets of suspended time. The temporary now is permanent, we are all per-temps. And it is not just jobs but houses, cities, bureaucracies, everything which makes up a life precarious. We live in these situations without fully belonging to them, like uniforms that don’t fit. We live our lives in the conditional tense. The present tense meanwhile is saved for a future constantly delayed (Where do you see yourself in 5 years time? I am here, I do this, I have that).
I don’t want to give the impression of a system so total it can’t be resisted; or on the other hand, a slide towards final, inevitable collapse. This world is full of holes, sometimes it looks like nothing but holes; but it’s made of holes, which is the whole point. People are constantly slipping through the gaps, out of one and into another.
But what about the feeling, and why don’t we have a name for it yet? Perhaps because the causes are so varied. They fill the everyday, while the feeling itself has become a functioning part of the system. In moments of misplaced bank transfers, pending visas and punctured tyres – as we think of how difficult this will make things, of how foolish this all was, and of course, of how much it will cost – the old feeling makes its appearance. It’s hard to define because it’s both generic and unique; it’s made of many feelings: anxiety, hope, fear, excitement, all moving through your body in waves, crossing paths in a meeting both electric and nauseating. Whereas singular emotions are immersive – they look inwards – this one stares outwards. An animal chased through a forest sees the shape of each tree, branch, shrub and the gaps between them with immaculate clarity. Cut loose from the flow of things a similar kind of vision opens up. Yet we also know these moments are transitory, and soon we’ll be back to normal, each time returning with the feeling of having got away with something. There are times when we could all just fall off the map but many of us don’t. Instead we learn to relativise: next month I will work harder to make up the cost. We fall out of sync but never completely over the edge. In these moments of minor catastrophe we see the frame form around a pocket of time, and so we always look into the next one, beyond the troubles of now. For a brief moment we see time working its magic, a little piece of time in its pure state; but in the same moment the future is recalibrated, and the present becomes again a kind of non-time.
And what’s left? The memory of a feeling of being too close to the edge. But also the memory of seeing every nut and bolt in a machine whose synchronisation with our own speed normally renders the whole arrangement imperceptible. As our stomachs ebb from sick to still, something else appears, rarer than all the other feelings but mixed up with them: the thought that things could be different. We tread lithely, carrying this sighting with us like a secret. And now and then you see in someone else’s eyes that they’ve seen it too.