Chronic Present

Lukas Ley

Center for Asian and Transcultural Studies, Institute of Anthropology, Heidelberg University


September 2020

This reading list covers studies within anthropology and cognate disciplines that deal with situations where people are stuck in the present. This is not some warped time loop or hole in the matrix out of a sci-fi flick, though conjuring up such images might be of use to some. As a social scientific concept, the chronic present rather attempts to account for the fact that certain individuals or communities entertain unproductive relationships to time and have little to no say in the making of the future. Assuming an unchanging present allows us to examine the cultural and social configurations that tie people to a certain position in time. The chronic present further reckons with the emotional and bodily effects of an advanced encapsulation by the present by framing the perception and experience of stagnation and repetition.

While some studies have related the experience of chronic time to (urban) governance in the era of full-blown capitalism, others have traced it to degraded environments or dysfunctional infrastructural assemblages. In each scenario, the constant breakdown of vital infrastructures and environmental equilibria forces people to repair or reinstate a status quo to survive. This continuous caring deprives people of opportunities and exhausts their energy. Other scholars also point to root causes for chronicity in conceptions of citizenship and racialized difference, which often lead to lasting spatial and/or temporal confinement in border facilities or immigrant situations. In sum, the concept chronic time grapples with the reproduction of social inequality, interrogating both the superstructural conditions of chronicity, but also the infititesmal acts of repair and salvation that lead to repetition.

I have found an instantiation of chronic time in urban Java, Indonesia. In the coastal city Semarang, floodplain residents deal with the constantly looming possibility of infrastructural breakdown and actual events of technological failure when flooding hits. This experience of catastrophe repeating itself shapes people’s relationships with the future in specific ways: It socializes floodplain populations into lives governed by the futurity of breakdown and recurrent flooding. Most residents respond to this by fixing and adapting their homes and public infrastructure. While flooding itself as well as and other water-related problems are, then, essential features of this chronic present, this relation to time is not just an effect of the inherently moist environment that people live in. That is, it is also a product of a series of political exclusions that can be traced back to colonial times, and which created a spatialized moral hierarchy of populations, placing the residents of Semarang’s coastal area at its bottom. Today, flood victims are stuck in a world concerned with present-ness because long-term fixes never materialize, changing little in the way of providing people with practical future plans.

This reading list complements Felix Ringel and Sonja Moghaddari’s list on Anthropologies of the Future. The chronic present is intimately linked to representations, knowledges, and technologies of time. The chronic present presumes, however, that some people’s time-related acts don’t succeed in “fully ‘orientating’ [the] present, but they sure leave their traces.”

Cazdyn, Eric M. 2012. The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Eric Cazdyn, cultural philosopher, proposes an autoethnographic portrait of the chronic present in this visionary book. He traces the effects of standard cancer treatment on our perception of time which becomes determined by medication, risk of relapse, and fear of death. The cultural configuration of medicine, however, denies the actual possibility of death and dispels alternative perceptions of the End. In Cazdyn’s systemic critique of this new “chronic,” the figure of “the already dead” represents a metaphysical and phenomenological condition in which the subject has been killed but has yet to die. This chronic condition critically hinges on the ways in which death is brought into life, namely as the uncertain consequence of a series of breakdowns that require constant management. He extends this chronic mode to governance and capitalism, reflecting on the ways in which environmental and financial risk are managed to merely postpone catastrophe.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham N.C.: Duke Univ Pr.

In this book, anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli puts forward the notion of quasi-events to analyze the minor or elusive effects of individual efforts on dominant constellations in late liberalism. She elucidates the tricky relationship between the present and the future by rethinking eventfulness and how it is articulated within the economies of late liberalism. Povinelli points to naturalized distributions of risk that posit certain crises as quasi-events: a type of crisis that puts a repeated strain on the lives of subjects without completely disrupting them. Povinelli (2011, 4) frames the suffering of marginalized subjects in late liberal economies as a series of quasi-events through which their lives digress into a “form of death that can be certified as due to the vagary of ‘natural causes’.” Suffering is then an accountable predicament that arises from specific arrangements of time. She argues that suffering is dispersed and therefore cannot be registered as from the perspective of causality.

Lainez, Nicolas. 2019. “Treading Water: Street Sex Workers Negotiating Frantic Presents and Speculative Futures in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.” Time & Society 28 (2): 804–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/0961463X18778473.

In my own book, Building on Borrowed Time (forthcoming, University of Minnesota Press 2021), I consider flooding as a temporal regime that forces residents in North Semarang to engage in something that Nicolas Lainez has fittingly called “treading water.” Lainez (2019:806) uses this phrase to describe how precarious Vietnamese sex workers anxiously “put effort into keeping themselves afloat but never furthering their status and lives or catching up with the currents of development and progress.” For this surplus population excluded from formal education and stable jobs, staying afloat requires risking their health and lives in highly precarious and dangerous work settings. Importantly, Lainez shows that “desynchronized” sex workers enjoy relative autonomy from the exigencies of clock time labour while engaging in present-oriented practices, such as gambling, that “distorts and shrinks the past and the future towards a saturated and speculative present” (id.:814). Similar to Lainez, I hold that the poor population of Semarang’s North is literally “submerged” in a present-ness, a state of being reproduced by the environmental fluctuations of the intertidal zone in which they live and entrenched by the systematic infrastructural neglect and desynchronization of the city’s North.

Roitman, Janet L. 2014. Anti-Crisis. Durham: Duke University Press.

Janet Roitman approaches chronic time through the cultural construct of crisis. Crisis is often considered a breakthrough moment in history, namely when existing patterns turn out outdated, impractical, or dangerous. This diagnosis allows new rhythms to emerge. But as Roitman shows, crisis is rarely such a revolutionary moment because, as an experience, it is always mediated and pre-textured by existing patterns of interpretation. Today, crisis is mediated by experts speaking on television and government procedures. Crisis to Roitman is a second-order assessment and displays a culturally specific and always biased framing of time. On a political level, crisis can be harnessed and used to push specific measures. She uses the example of the 2008 financial meltdown to show how US president Barrack Obama strategically deploys a crisis narrative to justify measures that left the disastrous economic system effectively in place. “Anti-crisis,” then, too explains the grip that dominant framings of history  have on our relationship to time.

Sharma, Sarah. 2014. In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Being a bit of an outlier, Sarah Sharma’s 2014 book In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics considers the effects of dominant time in everyday life. Sharma’s key notion of being “out of time” deserves to be mentioned here. Her study takes its cue from popular theories that consider time as progressively accelerating, thus eclipsing geographical distance and, ultimately, space. Sharma provides empirical material from various social and cultural contexts that contests such assumptions. Instead of acceleration of time and the disappearance of space, capitalism produces dominant temporalities that are firmly rooted in space. She describes individuals who see themselves forced to calibrate their lives to these dominant architectures of time. She demonstrates that certain populations must position themselves flexibly and with varying degrees of success to the dominant time of capitalist economies, expressed in urban development plans, infrastructural modernization, and budgeting cycles. While In the Meantime lacks a “barefoot”-anthropological approach, which would have allowed a sensorial exploration of temporal mismatches and domination, it usefully shows how people have to constantly grapple to remain “in time” by resynchronizing with the present of powerful others. “Being out of time” is a permanently looming danger, a shadow that hovers over people.