Coronavirus crisis has disrupted life’s cadences, leaving life habits and perspectives askew, professor argues

During this pandemic’s lockdown, my “where” and “when” have changed meaning. My “how” and “why” are shifted out of position too. And now I’m asking myself: “Who even am I?”

I’m like the figure on the right in Diagram A. And I’m so out of joint I don’t even know what kept me in balance before. I need to find the line that held it all together like the left figure. What is my life’s Archimedean line? And why didn’t I know what it was before all of this happened?

Lefebvre’s diagnosis: Arrhythmia

I’m like many of us lucky enough to work in-home, but I work all the time and I somehow have little to show for my effort. For instance, I’ve spent weeks reading a 100-page book I normally would read in a day. It’s called “Rythmanalysis,” by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (which I have been pronouncing “Le-FEVer”… not hay fever but ‘lay fever’). It’s an attempt to establish a new science of knowing. This book ironically accounts for my failure to finish it. His diagnosis? “Arrhythmia.”

Arrhythmia is a hypothesis for explaining disruptions in the meaning of personal time and the fragmentation of people who are out of phase. Those like me with arrhythmic hearts know this is also a medical term for when your heart beats too quickly, too slowly or with an irregular pattern. My COVID-19 pandemic rhythm is irregular. Thankfully and luckily, both kinds of arrhythmia are harmless for many. But they provide pause enough for us lucky ones to understand what it is that gives us a rhythm in the first place.

Normally (or what defines “normal”), the meaning of our personal spatial and temporal lives are habituated by our practices. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “what has happened happens again.” This is not the cliché “history repeats itself,” but rather that history has a familiar beat. And though our practices change, they do so in an orderly way:

Everyday life remains shot through and traversed by great cosmic and vital rhythms: day and night, the months and the seasons, and still more precisely biological rhythms. (Lefebvre, 1992, Page 73).

My take: I’ve got a certain beat in life that I live by. It changes season to season, day to day, hour to hour. But I’ve become habituated to these different beats at different times in a way where I don’t even pay attention to them until they are disrupted. They are part of my hourly, daily, yearly “songs.”

But this disaster, this pandemic, has deregulated all of my habits. I’ve never had a pandemic “season” to habituate to. I’m spending all of my energy rehabituating myself — my energy is consumed learning a new “pandemic” song.

This is not true for everyone. For those living in areas where epidemic diseases persist — who lived in the midst of SARS (2002), H1N9 (2010) and now COVID-19 — there now exists an almost decadal beat. And for those attentive to the history of pandemics there’s almost a century-timed beat: the cholera outbreak (1817), the Spanish flu (1918-19) and now COVID-19 (2019-20).

Symptoms of arrhythmia

Dr. Brian Glenney

Here’s my worry: there is no “during-the-pandemic” rhythm. Why? Because disasters themselves are arrhythmic. Vermonters can learn a “snowstorm season” rhythm. And I suppose Kansans can learn a “tornado season” rhythm like Californians can learn an “earthquake region” rhythm. But when the big one hits, it’s disaster!

But this pandemic is different because it doesn’t exactly feel different. In life “normal,” I get up, go to work, work, come home, socialize, go to sleep. In life “COVID-19,” I get up, stay to work, work, stay to socialize, go to sleep. The only “disruption” would seem to be having no commute, which I do not miss. So, I should be good, right?

What would Lefebvre think? That I’m a fool of course! If I could really feel, things would not feel normal. Why? The meaning of time, he writes, cannot be separated from the meaning of place:

Concrete times have rhythms, or rather are rhythms — and all rhythms imply the relation of a time to a space, a localised time, or, if one prefers, a temporalised space. Rhythm is always linked to such and such a place, to its place, be that the heart, the fluttering of the eyelids, the movement of a street or the tempo of a waltz. (Lefebvre, 1992, Page 89).

On this view, if my habituated place of work shifts so too does my habituated “time I’m working.” And if this spatial shift is something irregular, then the meaningful rhythm or beat has also become irregular, perhaps accounting for my inefficiency at work and my existential questionings in life.

And it’s not just that I’m currently “stay to work” but also “stay to play,” “stay to eat,” and “stay to fitness.” My time is arrhythmic, “a discordance of rhythms (Page 16).” The spaces of production: work, play, eating, and fitness were cemented to the park, the café, and the gym. Now at home, everything about them is askew. If there are more like me, then we may all be suffering an existential pandemic of arrhythmia.

There is, of course, more than an existential threat during an arrhythmic pandemic, just as an arrhythmic heart also predisposes one to physical disease and death: an arrhythmic supply chain predisposes it to overproduction: both supply waste and empty shelves. An arrhythmic economy predisposes it to massive job losses: 16 million in three weeks, and a stock market crash (down 28%), and also some of the largest gains since 1938. No doubt an arrhythmic existence does the same for our sense of meaning and purpose as so many people suffer and die while we shelter with our families and make new beats for our long-suffering threat.

Lefebvre’s cure: Know thyself

Lefebvre’s spatial and temporal theories help us understand the shifts in spatial and temporal meanings that occur to socialized humans in disaster. His prescription? Attend to the disruption to learn about yourself. He’s right, I think. It seems that I’m more aware of my past rhythms now that they are unavailable. If I’ve learned anything, it’s how little I knew, or as Lefebvre puts it: “rhythm enters into the lived; though that does not mean it enters into the known (Page 77).” Now is our time, as Socrates wrote so long ago, to “know thyself.”

Dr. Brian Glenney is an assistant professor of philosophy at Norwich University.

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