TIME, or: After the crisis is before the crisis

Dossier "Epidemics. Perspectives from cultural studies"

© Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Public Domain CC0 1.0), Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf, Oto Godfrey und Justin Morton (CC BY-SA 4.0), Ulrich Thon, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Roger Howard (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The coronavirus has confused our relationship to time. Before, everything ran like clockwork – only a little too fast perhaps, so we had the constant feeling that we had to run simply to keep up. The lockdown has relieved our schedules somewhat, but has not necessarily given us more time. Digital learning, home schooling, following protective guidelines – all this ‘costs’ time. As Marie Schmidt wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 16 April 2020, the pandemic has “both glaringly decelerated and accelerated time”. Nothing will be quite the same, some say; or, as the ever pessimistic writer Michel Houellebecq told us in the Frankfurter Allgemeine on 10 May 2020, everything will remain exactly the same, only become worse. The following articles, written from the perspective of cultural studies, provide further thoughts on the relationship between epidemics and time.

© Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf

Classic redivivus: Albert Camus, The Plague (1947). By literary scholar Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (German studies)

Published in 1947, Albert Camus’ classic novel The Plague has gained renewed relevance in recent weeks and months. According to media reports, sales figures have risen significantly in France and Italy, but also in Germany. An inquiry with a Münster bookshop revealed that the book had often been unavailable for a few days because it had had to be reprinted. Stocks at wholesaler Libri show that Camus’ novel is currently on a par with the bestsellers. People are obviously looking for a reflection of their own situation in literature, which is something that also seems to be indicated by Daniel Defoe’s motto that precedes the text: “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!” (Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, London: Penguin, 1960, 3). More

© Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Public Domain CC0 1.0)

The plague as a transitory moment: Raphael and Raimondi. By art historian Eva-Bettina Krems

500 years ago, on 6 April 1520, the famous Renaissance artist Raphael died at the age of just 37. To mark this anniversary, many museums around the world planned to put on exhibitions, with these now having to be closed or postponed due to the corona crisis. There has been much speculation about the reasons for Raphael’s early death: repeatedly cited as causes are malaria or syphilis, but also the plague. More

© Ulrich Thon

The future in the time of corona. By social anthropologist Dorothea Schulz

“I don’t understand why you’re so worried about the uncertain future. This is nothing new for us. I’ve always lived with the idea that tomorrow can bring anything, good and bad”. This is the remark that an old friend living near the town of Mbarara in southwest Uganda made when I asked him in early March how he and his family were coping with the difficult economic situation in the corona crisis. More

© Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Boccaccio’s Decameron, or the art of storytelling as a remedy against the plague. By literary scholar Pia Claudia Doering (Romance studies)

Boccaccio’s collection of novellas, which dates from around 1350, the time of the Great Plague, begins with one of the most famous depictions of the plague in European literature. The narrator vividly describes how the plague brought social life in the city of Florence to a standstill. Although the number of doctors increases rapidly, they by no means all agree in their expertise, some of them do not even have a medical training, and what they all have in common is that they cannot find a cure for the disease because ultimately they do not understand how it works. More

© Roger Howard (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Divine punishment as a turning-point: Venice and the plague epidemic of 1575-77. By art historian Jens Niebaum

While in times of modern biology we can explain the outbreak and spread of epidemics scientifically, for millennia such events were considered divine punishment of sinful humankind. Thus, an essential part of the countermeasures aimed at appeasing the enraged deity – through collective prayers, processions, and vows. When God lifted the punishment from the community affected, a special act of atonement was promised to him – votive masses, the building of an altar or monument, or even the erection of an entire church. More

© Oto Godfrey und Justin Morton (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Back to the future. By historian Matthias Sandberg

In times of crisis, time and the perception of time are subject to disruption, something made very clear by the current corona epidemic: for the first time (with the exception of the years of the two world wars), the Olympic Games of the modern period will break with the usual Olympic cycle. However, the organizers have not only decided to postpone the Games until the following year at the earliest, but also to continue to hold them under the name “Tokyo 2020”. This is undoubtedly unusual, but it goes beyond the economic calculation of brand protection and marketing measures already implemented: the forced anachronism seems to show defiant opposition to the epidemic and its manifold consequences. More