Monday, September 27, 2010

Time and Unemployment

Time is today's leitmotif. The existential situation that is unemployment will be briefly interrogated through particular conceptions of time.

To begin: Augustine said (echoing several ancients) that time is merely a record of change. It is ontologically secondary to space, the context for events, which would in this case actually be the condition of the possibility of time.
Much later, Husserl insightfully penned a phenomenological description of time that he called the "internal time consciousness." His explorations revealed that absence is partially constitutive of our experience of time (and therefore, of life): the present only makes any sort of meaningful sense in the context of what has preceded it, and what is still expected to come.
Music is a great example. Melodies, in the moment of listening, can be beautiful (shoot, can be intelligible at all) only for having in mind notes not being played: the comet-trail of the last note before the present one, and an anticipation (fore-projection) of the next note in the series.
For another example, when we are with someone we know well, we are not primarily aware of their sheer factual presence. The meaning of their being with us has to do with what they are not, currently. It's what they have been (and done) in the past (all complex questions of what constitutes identity aside), and what they love and desire (also present aspects of them partially constituted by absence). One might say, with Sartre, that it's their transcendence, as opposed to their facticity, that is important.

And so.

When you're unemployed, time can flow like this: nothing for most of the day, a lot of aimless putzing, and suddenly, apologies to several people for having (again) triple-booked yourself. You feel as though you have all the time in the world - not much at all is changing - so why not say 'YES plz' to every invitation to a 'thing' or suggestion of a rendezvous?

I understand better now how little things can come to have significant personal meaning. Unemployment un-structures your life; you feel like you could lose your grip without having something to give your time the heartbeat cadence of normal hours and anticipation, like meaningful involvement in something that matters to you. Small things - reading or writing projects, creative work of some kind, volunteering - can become staples that reattach your consciousness to regulative structures like goals and desires that involve delaying gratification (one way to put down the more unreflective animal nature, in favor of a more distinctively-human kind of self-regulation).
Plus these small, personally significant activities can act as a balm for a particular wound inflicted by empty time. Internal consciousness of the present is supposed to contain content, as opposed the innate absence of the past and future. With a dearth of content in the present, one's past and future seem to converge in absence, and the result is a feeling of a-temporality. The present becomes another nowhere, like the suburbs a lot of us live in.

But still, for all the projects, when you're unemployed it feels like there aren't really weekends, just a pair of extra days identical to the ones you were given during the week. Time becomes like consciousness, an empty set demanding something to fill it. And it inevitably fills because it never stops, even for those who themselves have stopped. Nothing may appear to change, but all matter vibrates, even if only imperceptibly. This is problematic for those of us who would rather have the world wait for us than have to run to catch up with it.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the unemployed person has recourse to the internet, in order to stave off the perils of a-temporality and stasis. Here, s/he is able to apprehend present content. The only problem is that the internet is another peculiar nowhere, like the supermarket at which s/he can't afford groceries.

Time is a complicated problematic for the unemployed person with open eyes; perhaps, therefore, it is better to live through unemployment with eyes half open, in order to avoid the vicious feedback loop of unproductive introspection and inwardness. There are, after all, better ways to use one's downtime.

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