by Diletta De Cristofaro
We’ve all seen a number of quarantine reading lists recommending post-pandemic novels for their resonance with the present moment and uncanny foreshadowing of the coronavirus. And yet, despite having access to a vast repertoire of these narratives – I’ve spent the last ten years researching and writing about post-apocalyptic fiction – the post-apocalyptic image I keep returning to is less about eerie parallels between a fictional pandemic and COVID-19 and more about capturing the lived experience of the crisis, specifically, the lived experience of time in lockdown.
In Douglas Coupland’s post-apocalyptic novel Girlfriend in a Coma (1998), a pandemic of deadly sleep kills everyone except for a group of friends. Their life becomes so monotonous that time blurs into a perpetual Sunday, an image that Coupland draws from Morrissey’s ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’, a song about walking on a beach after a nuclear war. As a character explains,
Every day is like Sunday. Nothing ever happens. We watch videos. Read a few books. Cook food that comes out of boxes or cans. No fresh food. The phone never rings. Nothing ever happens. No mail. The sky stinks – when everybody died, they left the reactors and the factories running. It’s amazing we’re still even here.
Feeling stuck in an undifferentiated time that doesn’t seem to flow, the boredom and restlessness produced by the endless repetition of mundane routines, an ominous threat encroaching – these elements capture the essence of how time feels in lockdown. Coupland himself, commenting on life in lockdown in March, has gone back to this image, posting a tweet in the style of his ‘Slogans for the Twenty-First Century’ that reads ‘Every day of the week is now Sunday.’
As is the case with all resources under capitalism, time is, of course, unevenly distributed. Some might have more ‘free’ time in lockdown. Others, especially those juggling a full-time remote job with full-time childcare, might experience intense time pressure. And yet, there is a widespread feeling of the lockdown as a time that is not only undifferentiated but stagnating, a waiting time between the pre- and the post-pandemic world (whatever shape this might take) that stretches indefinitely and slows down, almost unbearably. Capturing this feeling, a popular tweet speaks of March – the month in which COVID-19 brought about lockdowns in most countries – in geological terms: ‘Experts say we may be as little as two days away from finally leaving the March Age. The next epoch is provisionally being called “April,” and is also expected to last 5-10 million years’.
Time in lockdown feels stuck, as, to go back to Coupland’s image, nothing of note ever seems to happen inside our homes (and indeed, we hope that some things will carry on not happening, like being infected, losing loved ones, or our job). Filled as we are with mounting dread and grief over the virus and its consequences, the time of the lockdown is a time that we can only attempt to kill, more or less successfully, through activities that resemble those carried out by the characters in Girlfriend in a Coma. They ‘watch videos. Read a few books. Cook food’, just as we do yoga with Adriene, read the classics, or bake sourdough bread.
This feeling of the lockdown as an amorphous and stagnating stretch of time is the product of a traumatic duration with no clear end in sight. As Frank Kermode discussed in The Sense of an Ending, we use endings to give structure and meaning to time but, at present, endings are hard to fathom. Nobody knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last and, even if lockdowns were to be relaxed in the near future, as indeed it’s beginning to happen in some countries, they might have to be reinstated further down the line because of new waves of infection. In this indeterminate duration, the only certain thing is that many will die and suffer, and not only from the virus itself, but from conditions it produces or exacerbates, such as domestic violence, mental health difficulties, unemployment, and the many ramifications of the economic downturn. ‘We are in the middle and the end is not in sight. We are waiting, which is among most people’s least favorite thing to do, when it means noticing that you have taken residence in not knowing’, Rebecca Solnit has recently observed.
But what Coupland’s ‘Every day is like Sunday’ image also offers is a prompt to reflect on how we structure and value time under late capitalism and, in turn, on how the structures and values we attach to time in contemporary everyday life may help us understand our unease with time in lockdown.
Coupland returns to the uncomfortable feeling of time blurring into a perpetual Sunday in the glossary that closes another of his post-apocalyptic novels, Player One (2010). Originally delivered as Massey Lectures, Player One is a novel in five hours that takes place as a peak oil apocalypse unfolds and that is inherently concerned, as much of Coupland’s oeuvre is, with exploring the contemporary condition. In the entry ‘Dimanchophobia’ (from ‘dimanche’, French for Sunday), Coupland discusses our society’s ‘Fear of Sundays, not in a religious sense but, rather, a condition that reflects fear of unstructured time’. Dimanchophobia is sometimes referred to as Sunday neurosis by psychologists like Viktor Frankl who, in Man’s Search for Meaning, writes of ‘that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest’. Coupland maintains that dimanchophobia is a ‘mental condition created by modernism and industrialism’. Thus, we can infer that the ‘unstructured time’ at the core of the condition diagnosed by Coupland is the time not geared towards work and capitalist productivity.
Sundays, and by extension weekends, are, after all, typically supposed to be time for rest, for recreation, free from the structures – and strictures – of labor. As Craig Harline writes in Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl, ‘after 1800 or so, when industrialization introduced its long and rigid hours, its fixed workplace, and its discipline of the clock, the line between work time and free time became more distinct, and it was basically drawn around Sunday’.
But in contemporary society, which celebrates productivity as its core value and worships hustle culture, the line between work time and free time is becoming increasingly blurred, courtesy also of digital devices that allow us to take work with us everywhere we go and be always available. Sunday time, understood as a stand-in for free time, is exactly the type of time that we are encouraged to see, at worst, as meaningless or even a hindrance and, at best, as valuable only insofar as it is allows us to recharge and prepare for the busy week ahead through leisure activities (the more these are aimed towards self-improvement the better), as well as activities of maintenance (e.g. cleaning the house, batch cooking) and care (e.g. family time). Maintenance and care are of course work too but, by virtue of being often unpaid, racialized, and gendered activities (the second shift discussed by Arlie Russell Hochschild), they are more easily relegated into the less meaningful and valuable sphere of ‘free’ time. Coupland’s dimanchophobia thus speaks to an entrenched sense that only productive time – time as organized by, and for, paid labor, or at least labor that carries with it the promise of future profit – is valuable and meaningful.
Despite seemingly paving the way for capital’s dream of labor taking over every aspect of our lives, since we now do all of our work and non-work activities in the same few rooms and, with spatial boundaries collapsing, temporal boundaries between work and leisure should be more easily eroded too, the lockdown is a time that resists being organized primarily by, and for, labor. This is a time of widespread sickness, furlough, redundancy, and unemployment, where many are prevented from working, and even those who are working remotely face different rhythms. Full-time jobs clash with full-time childcare for some. Others are forced to live 24/7 in cramped spaces that are simply not conducive to work at all. Not to mention the psychological toll the pandemic is taking on all of us, which is inevitably affecting our ability to focus on work.
Coupland’s ‘Every day is like Sunday’ image captures how the lockdown confronts us with a time that is less structured by labor and populated by activities that typically characterize our ‘free’ time, but also helps us frame our ambiguous feelings, dimanchophobic as it were, towards this time. We feel stuck in an unending Sunday-esque time that we have been conditioned to ‘fear’ and consider less meaningful and valuable than work time.
We might even feel guilty about our lack of focus and productivity during the lockdown. Hardly surprisingly, a society that seeks to condition us to ‘fear’ Sundays and value time only when productive and judiciously invested in making us better late-capitalist subjects is now keen to instill in us the fear of the lockdown as potentially wasted time. Tips on how to work from home more effectively and lists of productive things to do with our newly-found ‘free’ time abound. All the while, supposedly inspiring social media posts remind us that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Newton invented calculus under quarantine, and that ‘If you don’t come out of this quarantine with: (1) a new skill, (2) your new side hustle started, (3) more knowledge – You never lacked time, you lacked discipline!’.
Resisting these calls for productivity and the dimanchophobia they reinstate is important. Dimanchophobia is instrumental in bringing about what Coupland terms ‘jeudism’ (from jeudi, French for Thursday) in The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present (2015), written with Shumon Basar and Hans Ulrich Obrist. ‘In the future every day will be Thursday’, Coupland posits, ‘We’re all working to the grave, and life will be one perpetual fast-food job of the soul. The weekend? Gone. And we all pretty much know it in our bones’. Jeudism evokes the terrifying prospect of a future of perpetual work as the logical culmination of late capitalism’s pervasive precarity and erosion of the boundaries between work and leisure time, an erosion that dimanchophobia only facilitates.
For a while now, I’ve had as my laptop’s background one of Coupland’s ‘Slogans for the Twenty-First Century’ recently exhibited at Somerset House’s ‘24/7: A Wake-Up Call for Our Non-Stop World’. Against our non-stop world’s imperatives for incessant productivity, the slogan uncompromisingly demands ‘I want my time back’. I first came across this slogan as I was preparing to take part in UK Higher Education’s 2019-20 industrial action. ‘I want my time back’ encapsulated my main reason for joining the strike: excessive workloads, made only worse by the pressures placed on those who, like me, are part of the sector’s increasingly precarious workforce, make it very hard to have time for anything other than work. The final few days of the 2020 wave of industrial action took place just as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, with pickets and rallies being called off. Yet, if we are to transform our world for the better after COVID-19, it will be important to continue this fight beyond Higher Education and demand free, non-commodified, and unproductive time back against capital’s imperatives and dimanchophobia.
Diletta De Cristofaro is an academic based in the UK and the author of The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel: Critical Temporalities and the End Times (Bloomsbury). You can find out more about her work on her website.