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In real time

May 4, 2020

Listen: Dr Badenoch has become stuck in time.

Brushing the rust off of this site as an actual blog, lord help us.  My ambition is to do a short series of posts here, some of which will reflect on my past research. You know, in lieu of doing actual research and writing, which is on hold now due to lack of time, due to closed institutions, due to a kind of deer-in-headlights wondering what would be the most relevant work to do.   The ambition even of the blog posts will be challenged by the external factors of juggling working from home with caring for a young child who is out of school, but also internal apprehensions, my own discipline and attention span, plus the fact that my contact lenses tend to gum up by the end of the day during allergy season and I can no longer see the screen very well as I type this.

What I love about my academic discipline is that we try to hold all such disparate factors in the same frame.  To quote from one of my favourite essays by one of my favourite scholars, which feels all the more urgent now:

If we wish to better support the critical work performed by the world’s maintainers, we must recognize that maintenance encompasses a world of standards, tools, practices, and wisdom. Sometimes it deploys machine learning; other times, a mop.  (Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care”)

Maintenance and care have moved more obviously to the forefront of teaching work, and we find ourselves grasping and groping for the necessary standards, tools, practices and wisdom to do that work.  Balancing the need to help keep our students healthy while also keeping ourselves going as sustainably as possible; trying to figure out what it is we absolutely need to salvage from our institutions, our work, and our daily lives takes precedence over any actual course content.  Selective acceptance of crapness is all at once a pedagogical gold standard, a core skill, a desired learning outcome, and a tender mercy.

I am teaching a first-year introduction to media research, and it is now two weeks since the panicked scramble of preparation for the teaching term ended with the digital whimper of zoom meetings.  To keep myself from panicking (I know what it feels like to lose it.  I can tell you with some authority that I nearly lost it) while trying to adapt the syllabus into a digital format, I ended up writing a mission statement of the kind that feels important while you write it, and that most students will probably skip.   Here is the key part (translated from its original Dutch):

One of the biggest challenges in doing media research consists of not seeing our normal familiar media world, media use, and media texts as natural or self-explanatory, but as historically contingent phenomena: how did they come to be?  What are the values behind them?  One of the core questions of our discipline is, indeed: how do the media forms we take as normal become ‘normal’?  Good media research often begins with learning not to see things as normal.  In German it’s called Verfremdung, in English seeing the familiar strange.

The current covid-19 crisis suddenly demands this kind of knowledge about our (media) world from us.  With the disruption of our daily routines sometimes nothing seems normal anymore.  We are suddenly confronted with the specific properties of the media we use, with the meanings and trustworthiness of texts, with our own values and expectations from media, and with the communities we maintain via media [I should have added: or not]

We will explore both the world of now, and the world we knew until very recently, and we will do so with the eyes and ears, the hopes and fears [this does not rhyme in Dutch!], the special attention and increasing distractions of now.  We will do this together, in real-time with the crisis, with the media and the means we have, and do the best we can. We will definitely learn something!  Please be patient with yourself, with each other, and with your teachers.

I sincerely hope I managed to find the right balance between stimulating curiosity and, ummm…. requesting selective acceptance of crapness.

The bit about being “in real time with the crisis” was perhaps one of the most throw-away phrases of the whole thing – a sort of TV news ticker-theme tune to give some sense of urgency and purpose to the ‘make-do-and-mend’ sentiment of the rest of the sentence.  Ironically, being in real time has been both one of my most overwhelming sensations of this crisis – and it has little to do with either being purposeful or urgent.

In the last five years, I have become a father, lost a parent, and in between stopped working due to burn-out.   As such, I’d grown used to time contracting and expanding like the accordion in a Piazzolla tango: sometimes vividly reliving parts of my own childhood, sometimes living in a kind of future perfect tense, telling my future self or my future daughter about this time, and sometimes sitting in a deep, aspic-y Now while the rest of the world rushed around getting on with it.   Waiting for a child to be born and for a parent in hospice to die had a lot more in common than I would have expected: it is a life in anticipation of change, the nature of which is not yet clear.

This crisis has changed that.  For one, the temporal fluctuations I had been experiencing were, in part, based on a disconnection between my time and everyone else’s time.  Major personal events unmoor one from social time; they haunt routine interactions and colour everyday experiences.  Such a global crisis seems to have much the opposite effect. If anything, we seem to have become more strongly tied to collective time by losing our grip on social space.  Time isn’t really marked by place: work, school, leisure are all at home – in my case much of it in front of the computer.  Our plans, as it’s turned out, are cancelled.  In that sense, as an article I saw a few weeks ago and lost again points out, we understand at least one aspect of life as refugees.  Our horizons of expectation are simply shorter; we cannot plan beyond the next day or week.  On top of that, I, for one, find myself constantly doing synchronization work: checking in more often on social media, linking up digitally with other cocoons for work, family, friends.  Every evening 9pm my time/2pm Chicago time, I tune into Shelter Radio, where podcaster and theologian David Dault –  one of my oldest and closest friends –  plays songs on his guitar  He draws heavily on a lot of the music we’ve shared, and form his time playing coffee shops and bars in Atlanta when we both lived there.  But while there is a lot of remembering bound up in this for me, it’s not reliving: it’s really, truly, deeply about being now.  In real time.

Similarly, my memory, too, has become much more egalitarian.  I noted on fb a few weeks ago that I’m suddenly homesick for almost every place I’ve lived besides here.  Even the places I didn’t like that much.  A lot of those around me were having similar sensations.  A friend of mine made the tie more strongly to time generally, talking about having ‘life flashing before you’ moments, where other times and places of apparently little significance suddenly show up.  The flyover country of my life-narrative looms up and I’m re-discovering all sorts of private Idahoes.  So it goes, as it were.

This works, of course, only as long as none of your nearest and dearest have the virus.

And so we go back into the teaching week, selectively accepting the crapness, adjusting as we go.  Having watched enough online ‘live’ concerts where folks who are used to performing on stages suddenly get very nervous when lacking a physical audience (NB at least one notorious public orator had similar issues with radio studios in the 1930s.  This is not new), I was at least a bit prepared for my first lecture’s sickening feeling of speaking into a digital void of students I could silence or even disappear with a click.

The students were patient.

The students were kind.

I ended the lecture with a group scream. Unmuted.  In real time.

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