Space-Time Discontinuum

Author 1:  Varsha Gopal (Corresponding author), M.A. Student, Indian Institute of Technology Madras 
Author 2: Baladitya B, M.A. Student, Indian Institute of Technology Madras
Author 3: Surya Narayana Panicker, M.A. Student, Indian Institute of Technology Madras

Spaces hold intricate ties to the conception of time. This, probably an obvious observation, came to the vicinity of our thoughts only during this lockdown imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We used to lead pretty well defined and healthy lives back on our campus, where we would be done with classes by six (eight, rarely) and then would move on to our individual extracurricular interests or just hang out with friends and have fun, only to end the day along with eateries, well into the night. Cut to today, and you find us leading amoebic and unhealthy lives, where we are never done with classes, where there are no extracurriculars and where we are always supposed to be at our laptops and phones, prepared for the next call of duty even in the dead of the night. 

Staying at home has taught us how the ecosystem of the institute and hostel life played a crucial role in our day-to-day activities. There was a rhythm of attending classes, studying for them, socializing and participating in other activities that were disrupted when we were asked to go home on March 17th, as lockdown was instituted in India. We encountered at home the loss of a sort of Lefebvrian cyclical rhythm, where repetition and fixation of time and slots conditioned us into stability.[1] Within a few weeks of going home, online classes began and we were expected to follow our earlier routine and reach similar levels of productivity. However, the house and its related ecosystem are drastically different from the college ecosystem. One of the things that differentiates the institute from home is the patchy internet connection at home.[2] Thanks to this and to power cuts, we often have to rely on the recorded videos. This extends the class-attending hours into the night, previously secured from this encroachment. In addition, certain professors think of our evenings, nights and weekends as open slots now that we are home (I mean, you’re home and locked in, what work do you have?). One of the stranger encroachments has been owing to the positions of responsibility we have taken up. Some of us have received calls at 8 AM on holidays, and 1 AM on working days for absolutely non-urgent reasons. This sits well with the general mood of endless and encroaching time these days. It is as if activities leak into each other and out of their designated time slots. Aided to great measures by messed-up sleep cycles, this porosity creeps into our daily schedules, making time look endless, monotonous and empty; a theme we take on later in greater detail in this blogpost.

Harking back to the question of never-ending work calls/mails, interestingly enough, we find ourselves acquiescing, adjusting and responding to these calls of duty. Not only students, but faculty and administrative staff also respond to these claims on their time during holidays and weekends. This mobilisation of the self can be seen as a part and parcel of the Foucauldian disciplining of bodies and time, which we use a lens to think through this experience of learning from home. In ‘Discipline and Punish’, Foucault describes how the efficient use of time is linked with self-disciplinary processes. He says that discipline is the “principle of a theoretically ever-growing use of time” (Foucault 1977) which means that one must intensify the use of the slightest moment, and strive to do so till one reaches the point of maximum speed and efficiency, thereby unequivocally defining effective time-usage as a virtue. In addition to efficiency, he also notes the importance of time schedules. He argues that influence over the social organising of time entails having power over social actions and subjective experiences. Through effective use of time, bodies are disciplined and kept in control to produce certain subjectivities.

Foucault details three other primary techniques of control in the modern disciplinary society – hierarchical observation, normalizing judgement and the examination. He argues that merely observing people, or even having the power to observe people at will any time, is a way of exercising control over people. This has been a feature of the modern school system, even before the pandemic. In our case, Moodle (a web-based platform to store course materials) further intensifies this hierarchical observation, as professors are able to track the activities of the students. This is especially relevant now as teachers have lost the possibility to observe students in classrooms. Moodle makes up for this and gives the teacher and the institute the power to constantly observe the various activities and study patterns of students. This, in turn, leads the way for the second technique of normalizing judgement. Some professors expect all students to have good access to electricity and the internet and if not, some even ask students’ parents to confirm that they do not have good access to internet/electricity. This kind of judgement is increasingly important now as students are subjected to different household settings and varying claims on their time and energy.

 As many professors fail to acknowledge the additional responsibilities of students by virtue of working from home, we are tempted to think in two directions, aided by Walter Benjamin and his conception of homogenous empty time. In his conception, every moment of time is equivalent and empty, and can be occupied with content as is required by the current profession of the individual. First, maybe we are being overworked, as work done in domestic spaces can be argued to be valued less often; perhaps, the association of home with leisure factors into this. Second, we notice that in such situations, professors continue to load us with work on the assumption that everyone has equal access to time- a sort of playing out of Benjamin’s idea. Where this myth of homogenous time comes apart is when other social identities show how ideologically laden one’s claim to one’s own time is. These unreasonable demands seem to be based on the assumption that we are free as we are at home. Historically, domestic chores and work in the domestic space have been undervalued, especially along gender lines. This associated practice of undervaluing domestic work also reflects in our daily schedules when such work is thought to be not very time consuming and at worst, even innately suited to one of the genders. These bounded places give rise to reordering of timetables of regular members as well, in certain cases. This is also contingent on the social positions occupied, especially with respect to class. In middle to high-income households, where househelps are hired, the pandemic has posed a question of the allocation of time. As househelps are unavailable during the lockdown, the family members are forced to take these tasks upon themselves. This results in a gendering of the division of labour – a phenomenon probably already present in households with no maids – and the women of the house, more often than not, find themselves in a crossfire of duties and competing claims to their time. For instance, when one of our classmates suggested that we have multiple classes in a row and have food in the five-minute break between the classes, another responded that they do not live in a hotel and are expected to take part in the dining and serving process. A situation, which would have been experienced equally in the campus, now holds multiple connotations for different people, depending on the different environments and contexts experienced by each student.

Attached below is a light-hearted take on working from home – a practice which has become so entrenched that a visit to a nearby branded clothing store will lead you to a new section of apparels advertised exclusively for working from home. The meme-like figure calls attention to expected exponential increase in productivity and a diminishing sense of self-worth associated with the inability to meet these demands. 

Having presented our thoughts about time, we now turn to space and spatiality. We interrogate how certain identities have been reconfigured, and how the emergence of virtual spaces could pose the possibility of a new norm. COVID-19 was the ‘rupture’, as Stavros Stavrides calls it, in the norm. In the old norm, especially as students of IIT Madras, what we can observe is the separation between the institute and our homes (For most students this is another town/city), and within the institute a difference between hostels and departments. Within the institute, we could observe three interdependent zones – hostel (residential area for the students), academic and residential (residences for professors and support staff); which were mostly meant for the acts of leisure, productivity and leisure respectively. However, in our daily acts this division was not so rigid with both leisure and productivity existed and flowed between the zones albeit to different degrees. The three zones also indicated a social order within the institute, with the hostel zone associated with the student community, the residential zone with faculties and the academic zone acting as the space for interaction between the two with the administration’s oversight. From the perspective of a student in IIT Madras, the spatial identities varied based on these zones.  For example, in the hostel zone and academic zone, the students’ interaction with the security guards is on a friendly note. But in the residential zone, especially at night, the security is hostile to the students as it is seen as a location restricted for students. So, crossing the threshold of the academic zone into the residential zone changes the administration’s perception and the student’s identity. Outside the campus, our spatially derived identity as a student from the student community of IIT Madras takes a backseat. This is especially true when students return home for vacations. Their identity is further subverted in favour of the domestic identity assigned by the social order in the house. When we take online classes at home, it is harder to identify with another classmate because of the difference in the identities that we derive from our spaces. 

In Foucauldian terms, COVID-19 can be identified as a moment where what is considered normal (work-home dichotomy) is perforated and a new space where two seemingly incompatible conceptions of space co-exist is formed. This new space blurs the spatial boundary of institute and home, and the social boundary of student and domestic role. However, within the house, new spatial identities emerge based on our location within the house, although they are much more permeable than the earlier identities. For example, the use of a laptop or a mobile phone in one room might be different from its use in another based on the social relations that shape the place. Aside from a mixing and changing of identities within the house, there is also the loss of the identity that was derived from being a part of the student community in the institute. We are further distanced from enacting and deriving a non-domestic identity as the boundary between home and outside is strengthened by the threat of the pandemic. The reduced use of public urban spaces reshapes our social identity to a smaller, more concrete identity. Before COVID-19, we differentiated between our work and personal lives based on the physical spaces that we occupied (home and office respectively). This has changed now. We might even have to assume different identities while occupying the same spaces within the confines of our house due to the inherent limitations of working from home.  

Another interesting spatial identity emerges within the digital space. The digital space is characterised by boundaries, between leisure and work, as porous as a mouse click and by micro-work and micro-leisure moments facilitated in and by the digital space. The digital space although more porous than physical space cannot be assumed to be objectively better. The lockdown orders and use of digital space has made immobility also a capital. People who do not have access to digital spaces are excluded and people whose jobs depend on physical spaces cannot afford to be immobile or work from home during the pandemic. Changing valuations of mobility, a widened digital divide, and juggling with spatial identities might just pave the way for a new and sustained norm.

In this essay, we have attempted to take a critical look at how the pandemic and concomitant changes have impacted the notions of time and space in our daily lives. We engage with works of Foucault, Benjamin, Lefebvre, and Stavrides in this attempt. This essay draws attention to the relations between space and time, and how these relations affect our identities. We explore how pandemic time is employed in the scheme of discipline in a modern society, and how such a usage of time helps shape our identities when combined with the use of space. We investigate how impacts are not homogenous, and how some sections of the society have been rendered more vulnerable to being overworked than others. We also concern ourselves with the question of changing spaces, spatial identities and how this plays the role of the final trigger or ‘rupture’ (in Stavrides’ terms) in the shift from old norms to new norms, and a new normal. 

References 

  1. Benjamin, W. (1940). “On the concept of history”.  
  2. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.
  3. Lefebvre, H. (1992). Rhythmanalysis space, time and everyday life. London: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  4. Stavrides, S. (2007). “Heterotopias and the Experience of Porous Urban Space”. In K.A.Franck and Q. Stevens (Ed.) Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life (pp. 174–192). Great Britain: Routledge. 

[1]In this post, we look at Lefebvre and Benjamin, both of whom have different approaches towards time. Lefebvre saw this cyclical repetition as a form of capitalist imprisonment whereas Benjamin’s homogenous empty time derives its conception from a precapitalist period in its attempt to redeem life spaces. 

[2]The online academic system which seeks to discipline us (explored later on in this post) to turn our home space into a ‘productive’ one faces a crisis of sorts with this breakdown of infrastructure, which often ends up in under/overcompensation. 

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