Last week I attended a workshop at Birkbeck called The Chronic: Temporality, Care and Health. It was organised by Dr. Shaul Bar-Haim and Dr. Gill Partington as part of the larger Waiting Times research project. In the blurb for the event they describe chronic time as:
complex and contradictory: For the sufferer it may entail states of on-going crisis and emergency, but simultaneously a stilled, arrested and even recursive time. There may be cycles of remission and relapse, uncertain prognosis, waiting for treatment, and simply waiting to see. ‘Time hangs heavy, yet there is so little of it’ as the dying cancer patient in Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, states. Chronic time may be simultaneously urgent and slow, both terminal and interminable.
I presented on a panel with Victoria Browne and Martin O'Brien where we suggested what the broader political implications of the chronic might be. I thought I'd share my own contribution, which links the chronic to environmental discourses that talk about climate health. Any feedback on these preliminary ideas would be very welcome.
Climate Change as Chronic Condition?
In thinking about this presentation, I wanted to try and get a better sense of what it was to live the time of a chronic condition. And so my partner graciously shared his experiences of having Type 1 Diabetes since he was 11 years old. He first talked about the rigidity of time when he was growing up. Having to eat and inject at the same times every day. But he also talked about the experience of being diagnosed itself. He said that in those first few hours of being told there was already a sense of things ending. Often when you are ill you are told how you are going to get better, you enter the temporality of recovery, which can also be very hard, but it has a different kind of arc to it, the diagnosis is a beginning of getting better and eventually getting back to normal. For my partner, though, the diagnosis of diabetes meant that there wasn’t this trajectory in front of him. He couldn’t reverse it, he couldn’t fix it, he couldn’t do anything about it. This was what he was going to be until he died. It even felt, at age 11, that he could already read the last page of his book. He knew he’d have diabetes when he died, he’d still be doing injections on his death bed.
So I was thinking what I might offer today about this sense of 'the chronic', what suggestion I might make about how it might travel in different ways or what it might offer to other domains. And what I want to suggest is that it might be helpful when thought in relation to climate change and environmental crisis.
Within environmental thought, the health metaphor has been a persistent one, even while it has also been strongly critiqued. There is the classic phrase from Rowe, for example, that “the Earth is running a fever, and we are the virus.” James Lovelock, in his work on the Gaia theory has talked about the need to develop a “planetary medicine”, while Aldo Leopard talked about "land health" and "land doctoring".
Critiques of the use of the metaphor include those of ecologists who argue that it is an “invalid analogy with human health requiring acceptance of an optimum condition and homeostatic processes” (Wicklum & Davies 1995). Basically it misunderstands how ecosystems work and idealises states of equilibrium. Even so, others within ecosystem services have persisted in talking about the health of ecosystems (eg Rappaport et al. 1998) and some environmental philosophers have argued that the metaphor focuses attention on the intrinsic values of environments since health is generally valued in and of itself (eg Callicott 1992).
But in all the talk of land doctoring and planetary medicine the kinds of conditions that are pressed into use as metaphor seem to be acute ones rather than chronic conditions. Fevers, viruses, parasitic infections, are all seemingly amenable to action. The aim is to cure, to recover, to repair. Of course some viruses and infections can be chronic, but from my initial look into the area, this is not how the problem is conceptualised.
Here I’m interested in how the time of recovery and the time of the chronic are linked to ideas of agency in different ways. As some of you will probably know, I’ve long been fascinated by anthropologist Carol Greenhouse’s contention that concepts of time can also be read as theories of agency. That is, our ideas of time carry with them assumptions about how change happens, what counts as a change and who can make changes. In the time of recovery for example, there is a sense of being able to transform the patient from the sick to the well. This is done in part by the knowledge of the doctor and the efforts of the patient. There is an arc of moving from pain and suffering towards health and recovery.
In many discussions around the health of the planet and ecosystem health, this sense of agency - of the possibility of recovery if there is the right diagnosis from the experts and the right efforts from everyone else - is dominant. Many are hoping that the condition is an acute one.
But what if the changes in the environmental are chronic rather than acute. What if, we receive a diagnosis which tells us that things can’t be reversed and can’t simply be fixed. What if we are facing a future where a significantly altered environment would be with us from now on and through the passing of many future generations. We’d never have an end to managing the condition, never be able to have a time when we 'went back to normal.'
Here I’m thinking, for example, of recent research on the West Antarctic ice shelves, which suggests that we are now locked into a 1.2 meter sea level rise. The warmer sea waters are cutting up under the ice and quickly advancing back up on land because the land the ice is resting on is below sea level. This is thought to be a process that now cannot be reversed.
So, I suppose what I want to suggest is that developing thinking around the way chronic time works and how it is experienced seems to me at least to, potentially, be incredibly useful for understanding the relationships between time, agency and environmental change. It might, for example, encourage us to see the significance of what is going on in very different terms and to adopt a different set of coping mechanisms.
What is common to all of them the assumption that it’s ok to ask someone to squeeze something more in. We ignore the illnesses, the anxiety, the overwork and ask for ‘just a little bit more.’ I have the feeling that this is something that many people will be familiar with. It’s something that happens to us and something many of us do to other people.
Perhaps one reason we do this is that we get so caught up in our own deadlines and worries that we can’t accept that what we had planned just isn’t going to happen. The report you really hoped to have in the newsletter won’t be getting written. The attendees at your event won’t be synchronised with each other. Once, when a speaker had to cancel their attendance at a meeting I’d organised, I didn’t get back to them for a week because I was too busy worrying about what I was going to do without them.
In my own work I’ve come to think about time as a form of relationality. Our stories about time tell us what is it to be with others, or to not be with them. They also tell us what kinds of forms this ‘withness’ can take. This means that time can also be seen as a form of ethical encounter. If that’s so, what are we doing when we ignore other people’s claims that they don’t have the time?
It seems that in order to treat the other ethically, you have to come to terms with your disappointment, let go of the anticipated future you had been working with, and then still have the generosity to be able to say to the person who has somehow let you down “Of course, no problems, hope things get better for you soon”.
I had a lovely lesson in this when I witnessed a colleague deal with a keynote having to drop out of an event only a couple of weeks before the start date. The speaker had obviously wrestled with the guilt of doing this and was extremely apologetic. Almost immediately the reply came back that they would be missed, but it is far more important for them to take care of themselves, everyone would manage, and there was no need to feel bad. Even though it wasn’t directed to me, the kindness and compassion of it brought me to tears.
I had this in mind when I was sitting in that network coordination meeting, listening to stressed people being asked to take on even more. I realised that sending them the email passwords ‘just in case’ would still add another thing to the pile of things they felt like they should be doing. So I objected and suggested that they should in fact be deliberately not sent the password so they wouldn’t have it at the backs of their minds.
It was only a tiny little gesture, but it’s an event that stays with me because it reminds me that there are these kinds of ethical decisions to be made, and I hope I can learn to be more like my colleague, who focused on care rather than guilt.
Proposals due 18th January 2016.
Unexpected Encounters with Deep Time: Violence
Read more over at the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities site.
Unexpected Encounters with Deep Time: Enchantment
Thursday, 26th November 2015
Andrew Grant Lecture Theatre, Evolution House, West Port, Edinburgh College of Art
Organised by the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network
Earlier this year the discovery of homo naledi propelled enchantment into a framework of deep time. The speculation is that early human ancestors, perhaps from as much as 4 million years ago, may have ritually buried their dead in the dark Rising Star caves. The questions of when, where and for whom the world first appeared as enchanted have abruptly shifted from the 200,000 or so years of homo sapiens into a much longer past. Elsewhere, the deep future of enchantment can be gleaned from discussions around the future of nuclear waste. Will future descendants still be enchanted by this ‘new immortal’? If so how do present humans protect them from their own curiosity when conventions of communication are so closely embedded within shallow time? Looking closely at the implications of these questions reveal cracks in the shell of human exceptionalism. After all the questions around nuclear waste are often accompanied by the caveat that these descendants we seek to protect may no longer be human. Yet enchantment is a concept tied to the core of the humanities. Stories of the loss of disenchantment remain central to definitions of modernity and the rise of secularism, and enchantment’s return, via claims of the rise of religious fundamentalism, is central to contemporary geopolitics. Within environmental literatures enchantment has been seen as a way of mobilising ethical responses on an increasingly damaged planet (e.g. Abram; Bennet) and critiqued for contributing to the forgetting of countless ‘unloved others’ (Rose & van Dooren).
Our series focus on ‘unexpected encounters with deep time’ emphasises the way that deep time is encountered in materiality of the everyday. Likewise Jane Bennet has stressed that enchantment arises, unanticipated, in the moment, in the “active engagement with objects of sensuous experience” (5).
The aim of this workshop is to explore what enchantment might become within a framework of deep time. We hope to explore questions such as:
Michelle Bastian (firstname.lastname@example.org) and David Farrier (David.Farrier@ed.ac.uk)
I'm pleased to announce a second event in the Temporal Design series that we’ve been developing here in Edinburgh. This will be a small workshop format, but all welcome. Further information and the link to register is below.
Temporal Design: Surfacing Everyday Tactics of Time
The second in the series of Temporal Design events hosted by Design Informatics (ECA) will focus on the tactics used to negotiate time in everyday life. We are particularly interested in asking how design might support or hinder what we are calling ‘vernacular temporalities’. That is, the idiosyncratic modes of dealing with and understanding time that are locally constructed in response to specific contexts and which may not fit the more regulatory infrastructures that dominate thinking about time.
Vernacular temporalities are those that are produced through day-to-day negotiation with the people, places, objects we encounter. They involve practices that shape how we perceive and manage time. We act and react, we organise and negotiate, stretch and compact time, but we also predict, reminisce, and fantasise about other times. Although these
practices play an important role in shaping temporality, they are often enacted in an unreflective way, rarely noted or discussed. Indeed in our first workshop, many participants suggested that it had been the first time they had even articulated the daily practices they had developed to deal with temporal demands. The aim of this workshop, then, is to surface the role of these temporal practices and their effect on broader social contexts, discussing how artefacts and systems may work as triggers, projections, facilitators or obstructions to these practices.
The workshop will feature four speakers from design and design theory, whose work touches on different aspects of temporality. They will each highlight a specific artefact, and there will be the opportunities for attendees to participate in reflecting on these talks and/or selected objects throughout the event.
The workshop is free and open to all disciplines.
When: 28th September 2015, 11am - 4pm
Where: Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh, Old College, South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH8 9YL
To register for the workshop go to:
For more information contact:
Organised by Larissa Pschetz, Jane Macdonald, Chris Speed and Michelle Bastian, Design Informatics, University of Edinburgh.
16th June 2015
12:00 – 17:00
Andrew Grant lecture Theatre, 2.13 Evolution House, West Port, Edinburgh
The final event in a series of workshops run by the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network and sponsored by IAD and ECA.
The interdisciplinary nature of the Environmental Humanities calls for multiple kinds of collaboration, including teams from multiple research areas, researchers working with practitioners and humans working with non-humans. At the same time, however, the research area has arisen within a context where 'collaboration' is often experienced as an imperative imposed by funders, universities and governments. In this workshop then we will seek to explore the fraught nature of collaboration and what benefits or drawbacks it might have for those engaged in environmental research from an arts and humanities perspective.
The event will include a series of reflections from collaborative pairs who will explore the why, how and how well, of their various projects.
In the spirit of the workshop we'll start with a potluck lunch before moving into the discussions. So please bring a dish to share.
To book a place please email Michelle.Bastian@ed.ac.uk
Two further interviews in the Temporal Belongings Series are available. In the first I talk with Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy at the new economics foundation. We focus particularly on her involvement in the 21 hours project and the accompanying edited collection Time on Our Side: Why we all need a shorter working week. In the second interview I talk with Katherine Gibson, an economic geographer and member of the Community Economies Collective about her most recent book Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming our Communities as J.K. Gibson-Graham and with Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy. Both are part of the Sustaining Time project, looking at the role of time in building more sustainable economies.
The Edinburgh Time Network was set up following last year's Temporal Design workshop and aims to bring together researchers from across Edinburgh who are working on issues to do with time. We periodically host meetings that explore how time is being looked at in particular schools or disciplines, and this Friday we will be visiting the School of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies. If you'd like to join our mailing list, just send me an email.
Thanks to Miguel Garcia-Sancho for organising the event and Larissa Pschetz for the poster design.