My wife has lost her sense of smell, and we’ve all lost our sense of time. Lockdown feels like one endless loop of a working weekend from home, a never-setting Sunday lost to conference calls that run into one another, unpicking knotted clumps of email chains. If, like me, you are recovering from a bad-ish bout of the virus, progress is measured in lung capacity: the first time you can go up the stairs without having to sit down again; how many more minutes you can trot without gasping. When I first ventured outside, I was struck by how the constant need to judge that you are the government-prescribed two meters from other walkers meant that measuring space has replaced measuring time. We undulate around each other on suburban pavements, drawing mental centimeter lines onto the flagstones.
My wife, whose sense of smell has now been missing a whole month, says it has plunged her even deeper into an always repeating present. Smells help to connect you to the past, which, through a contrast, becomes a way to construct a future. Perhaps it’s the loss of time’s direction that has inspired demand for the flourishing genre of articles that pronounce, like some grand bell, an end of one Pre-COVID Era and the dawn of a new Post-COVID Age, where nothing in geopolitics or economics or whatsoever will ever be the same again. Such pieces try to restore a sense of progress through drawing a mythical before and after.
For my own part I’ve realized the extent to which I relied on the sports season to hold my sense of time together. I flounder without the crescendos of cup finals, title races, and transfer windows. One magical morning during quarantine I woke up, logged on to Twitter, and for a moment forgot all about COVID because in front of my eyes respected journalists were live tweet-commentating a cricket match—an Ashes test no less—with passionate intensity. Suddenly time had its order back: It must be high summer, term time was around the corner. . . . It took a while before I realized the respected journalists were entertaining themselves by “live” tweeting a match from 2019 as if it were today—a nostalgia for a time when time existed.
Though, when I look back to the years before the lockdown, I already had the sense the march of time was stumbling. I put it down partly to technology, and the production of news especially. Print newspapers, way back when one used to buy them every morning, had dates on them that marked the orderly, linear passage of events. Each day had its own news, and that news was new. When old newspapers piled up around the house, they frayed and yellowed, their discoloration a clear delineation of their place in time. Social media ruptured this. On Facebook, “news” does not come in an orderly march of dates. Rather, it floats up from different days, months, years concurrently, as if someone has torn up the calendar and scattered the days into a pond, so now stories drift back to us fitted around our own reflection, the algorithms surfacing content that fit our biases and algorithmically-recorded preferences. Thus news became less something from a real world outside of you, that you need to keep pace with to explore, but instead helps turn you inwards, always reinforcing who you are, and where what matters is the distance between your in-group and the one against which you define yourself. Since 2016, I had the sense of living in one story every day, Brexit and Trump, Trump and Brexit, and all the action was to designate which side, and how far to each side, you stood on them. Were you keeping the necessary two meters?
And of course the politics we are nostalgic for was itself riven with nostalgia. Make America Great Again; the “Merry” England of Brexiteers; Duterte in the Phillippines exhuming the body of the old dictator Marcos and reburying him as a hero, even as he restored Marcos’ culture of extra-judicial killing; Bolsonaro trumpeting the old military junta in Brasil; Putin reimposing Russian Empire by annexing Catherine the Great’s old conquest of Crimea, a peninsula that many Russians are also personally nostalgic for as it is synonymous with childhood holidays in summer. In places, time seemed to have been completely rent, with recreations of grotesque versions of the past like some historical horror cosplay: ISIS re-establishing the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq; the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (created by the Kremlin in East Ukraine in 2015)—a Soviet Dismaland, with slogans from Stalin hanging from red banners and children in Komsomol uniforms chanting Soviet anthems.
When did time first start to disappear? In 2018, as I worked on my last book, I came across a memoir of a conversation that seemed to anticipate all this. The conversation took place in Moscow in the early 1990s, and was between a Russian historian, Mikhail Gefter, and his disciples. Gefter was responding to the just published, now legendary, Francis Fukuyama book The End of History. Gefter agreed that History with a big H, the competition of ideas each claiming to represent universal progress towards some shared ideal, was over. All the big ideas were gone. But Gefter thought this problematic. If there is nothing else to strive towards, then the notion of progress would implode. This was a crisis born out of the internal logic of how History was conceived. It depended on there being underdevelopment, development, movement forwards; once the ultimate future has “arrived,” the sense of time as historical progress hits a strategic stupor.
During the Soviet Union, Gefter had been a dissident. Now he seemed to be saying that all the high ideals he had been fighting for might themselves soon hollow out. He died in 1995 and never wrote down any of these thoughts, and we only know about them from one of his disciples, Gleb Pavlovsky, who discussed them in an interview with the Bulgarian philosopher Ivan Krastev. “Today’” Pavlovsky said, “history has exhausted itself, just like Gefter foresaw.” We live in a “flat world” where different eras have become squashed together in a mental space where they can’t by definition all fit at the same time, and where there is no History to order them in terms of their level of “development.” Everything is contemporaneous, but with no model of common communication, a synchronization of the incompatible: ISIS and Putin, Trudeau, Kim Kardashian, and Duterte all jostling against each other with no way of saying which represents the past and which the future.
Gefter, according to Pavlovsky, had feared that this “flat” world would be dominated by what he called “sovereign murderers,” rulers who make up their own norms as they go along, who murder according to their own sovereign logic with no reference back to any universal values. As long as there had been powers claiming they represent a better future for all humanity, there was scope for a conversation about global norms and rules; one could attempt to keep the powerful in check by holding them accountable to their own claims about the future; dissidents and victims of regimes could still sense they were fighting for a greater cause. But the flat world of the sovereign murderers would be lacerated with moral vacuums, black holes where all appeals to a greater good were meaningless.
Perhaps this helps explain a strange paradox: Never before has there been so much evidence, filmed on smart phones and broadcast in near real time over social media, of mass crimes against humanity in Syria, Yemen, Burma, or Sri Lanka. And yet the weight of evidence has been in reverse proportion to the reaction. A little less poetically than Gefter, David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee, has dubbed this the Age of Impunity. When Putin and Assad gas civilians, they do it with a shrug, unafraid of any global condemnation. “The image of a common humanity has become impossible,” says Pavlovsky. “And no alternative to it has appeared. Everyone invents their own normal humanity and right ancestry.”
Pavlovsky, it should be noted, is not a mere analyst of this condition. From the early 1990s, he was a leading spin doctor in Russia, working on Yeltsin and then Putin’s presidential campaigns before, in the late 2000s, falling out with the regime. Pavlovsky claims his original aim was to make the Russian state strong so it could be a vehicle for progress. Back at the start of his career, Gefter already warned that Pavlovsy was repeating a recurring mistake from Russian history: For Russia to progress, Gefter believed, the Kremlin needed to be restrained and not reinforced. At his death, the historian was immersing himself in archives from 1905 and Russia’s brief first parliament before the Bolsheviks seized power, scouring the past for alternative traditions of Russian power.
Perhaps the only politics that is possible in a futureless, flat world is nostalgic, and the choice is merely what one is nostalgic for. During my quarantine, the American presidential candidates have begun their online advertising campaigns. Both look backwards. Trump wants to keep on Making America Great Again, a nostalgia for the nostalgia of his 2016 campaign. Biden’s calls on Americans to “remember who they are,” with clips of JFK and Martin Luther King, invoke the grand and very universal ideals of the American Republic. Biden’s ads yearn for a time when there was still a sense that history had purpose, a past where there was still a future.
For many, Biden’s great appeal is as a link back to the Obama Presidency. As President, Obama liked to talk about history having a right side and a wrong side. He invoked the idea that history had an “arc,” a direction, a future with the hope of a better day. But even as Obama spoke about “the arc of history,” those words were concurrently being emptied of their meaning: History’s direction was being barrel-bombed to oblivion in Aleppo; Putin was occupying Crimea; ISIS restored the Caliphate. Merely returning to the last days of the future uncritically feels like falling into these contradictions once again. It is hard to think of two statesmen more different than Obama and Trump, but as my colleague Damir Marusic has painfully pointed out, American’s turning inwards from the world began with Obama and is being continued now, as if both Presidents stand on the same geopolitical tectonic plates. And the turn inwards already frames a way of thinking that is uninterested in universal progress. Nationalism, its ultimate destination, is always searching for a non-existent, ideal past.
To recover time, American thinking has to turn outwards once again. The pandemic is already a great lesson that only global solutions can solve global issues. Meanwhile, sitting on hard drives throughout the world are terrabytes of video material proving mass crimes in Syria and beyond. How can these facts be given meaning, so they are placed in a perspective to show that history, and time, has a moral perspective once again? Or are we just going to have quotes invoking old ideals? When there’s no progress, Pavlovsky warns, everything becomes just imitation, including imitating the grand words of JFK and MLK.
The Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym contrasted two types of nostalgia. One she called “restorative” nostalgia. This strives to rebuild lost homelands with “paranoiac determination,” thinks of itself as “truth and tradition,” obsesses over grand symbols, and “relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding. . . . Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters.” The other she called “reflective” nostalgia: It looks at individual, often ironic stories from the past, and tries to tease out the difference between the past and present to formulate the future. The options of nostalgia are not merely to choose what one is nostalgic for, but how one is nostalgic. Can one go back to the past and then find a new direction out of it? Might I wake up one morning during lockdown, log into Twitter, find my friends “live commenting” a match from a year ago, but this time, magically, witness the game play out differently, so the result is altered, and new futures suddenly appear?