Tuesday 13 September 2022

'The Time is Out of Joint:' Thoughts on an era of dislocation

When I was around 11 or 12 I met (the then) Prince Charles on a visit to my school. My mum reminded me of this fact (which I had strangely forgotten) and dug out the photo below which - despite being a staunch republican - she has in a frame. Even at 12 I felt fairly ambivalent, but it struck me this week that meeting a member of the royal family has a whole range of connotations and meanings for others. I cannot relate to the desire to lay flowers at Buckingham Palace, or line the streets to watch a coffin pass by, but then again many others will not understand my reluctance to engage in mourning or public recognition of the Queen's passing. I have been surprised by the strength of the sadness displayed by people who I expected to react very differently. And people I thought knew me well have been surprised by my (lack of) reaction, too. My social media timelines are split between the righteous anger of people of colour, and mawkish photos of the Queen in a cloud. To say that this feels disconcerting is an understatement, and takes me back to the Covid days of deeply polarised masking and vaccination discourses. This tendency to fall into binary thinking (which I am as guilty of as many) eludes the complexity of the feeling of these strange, affective times. It is in the spirit and recognition of this complexity that I write this blog. 

Thinking, in an age of academic and expert distrust, is seen as the practice of the elite; yet we are in a time that calls for new ideas and approaches to complex ethical dilemmas more than ever. As Virginia Woolf said 'Think, we must.'  And so, despite calls to put a lid on my thinking or to sit on my hands to prevent myself tweeting (yes, I do this!), it feels like the absolute time for critical thought. We are seeing the convergence of an increasing authoritarian society with public mourning, via infringement on the right to protest; as I write, a number of people have been arrested for public order offences, otherwise known as simply expressing republican views. Schools, who are simultaneously restricting the questioning of rules via zero tolerance policies are unquestioningly instigating mourning rituals and events which may well be troubling at best for students of colour.  Minoritised voices are being shut down at a time when we need to question whose views matter and whose are privileged. And yet at the same time, many people are experiencing very real feelings of grief and despair. Hamlet's call, that our 'time is out of joint' speaks to this growing sense of unease and dislocation; a dis-ease, which is catching an affective mood and transmitting itself through the crowds in London and the proliferation of voices and memes on social media. This affective mood does not sit outside the very real and recent pain of pandemic; the grief and loss we feel (even if unexpressed) of climate change; or the impending fear of lack of food and heating. It is very real, and very out there.

I often speak about Gramsci's notion of interregnum; as he stated in the Prison Diaries:  “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We are quite literally in interregnum at the moment - the time-lag between the death of one royal sovereign and the coronation of the next - and so it feels apt to mention it again. Gramsci, of course, widened the concept to refer to a wider and deeper social rupture; the kind which we are seeing through stark equality gaps and the rise of far right views and overtly racist commentary.  It is at times like these that I argue we need to turn towards, and not away from theory in order to make sense of these 'morbid symptoms'. As Spinoza calls us, we need to transform pain to knowledge in order to make sense of the world, and this may begin by a return to our own ethics and values. For myself, as a posthuman thinker I try to live by the call to “…mark the end of the self-reverential arrogance of a dominant Eurocentric notion of the human, and open up new perspectives” (Braidotti and Hlavajova 2018, 3). This position requires us to move beyond humanism as we augment and reposition the voices of those overlooked and oppressed by Enlightenment ideas of “humanity.” This week I have returned to the work of bell hooks, Rosi Braidotti, Priya Satia and Mona Eltahawy to remind myself of the thinkers who speak to these ethics and values while trying to make sense of the behaviours around me.

Living through a 'time out of joint' is dislocating and unsettling. It requires the extension of empathy and understanding to those taking different positions (I'm working on this!) alongside a desire to further our knowledge. For myself then, this means a return to history and decolonial theory, to plug the massive and damaging gaps in my own education. It also necessitates a need to examine the 'fascist inside us all'; which, for me, is the desire to trouble my need to feel safe and comfortable in my own opinion and world-view and be dogmatic in the way I impart it to others. I am learning that it isn't enough to rant on social media or to surround myself with those who think exactly like me. I need a more nuanced understanding in order to take on the affective mood of these times.

Whatever we do, let's not shut down critical thought just at the time we need it most. 

To close with Virginia:

“Think we must. Let us think in offices; in omnibuses; while we are standing in the crowd watching Coronations and Lord Mayor’s Shows; let us think as we pass the Cenotaph; and in Whitehall; in the gallery of the House of Commons; in the Law Courts; let us think at baptisms and marriages and funerals. Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilization’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men?” (Woolf, 1938, p.60)


  1. This is an interesting post, and I was interested in the photograph. Not because of Charles but for you, as a child, an image have not seen before. That is the personal, the interest, the thing that attached. Not because your writing here is not compelling, but I was not the same in terms of reflection. I did not/ do not feel ill at ease with all of this, and that made me think why. I think it is age related, that we have this narrative forced down us and always have, and that to question it is somehow unpatriotic. Actually, it really is unpatriotic, quite literally, as the notion of states and nations that accompanies colonialism is at its very zenith at moments like this. The archaic rhetoric of 'defender of the faith' and multiple hidden, dusty, unused terms and customs/ practices are revealed and we all (all bar a tiny, tiny few) know nothing off, and because of age allow it to go on as 'normal', reify the mystery, talk in terms of historic significance. It is significant, on a human and non mysterious, non-archaic level of history. Debord's society of the spectacle, the recognition of the image diverting and reshaping the world, cannot be removed from this image of a human on banknotes, coins, stamps, TV images, walls, places of power and authority - it is perhaps more evident now that this carpeting of our psyches with powerful concerns of authority were largely done with this one human face. I am not uneasy about now, it is part of the perpetual feudalism that seems to have as many supporters alongside me down here at the spud kickers level as it does up above. They must have their reasons, and I cannot see those reasons. maybe stability, maybe indoctrination, maybe Queen's shilling logic, maybe a depth of passion for flag and country that I do not share in the same way. But I do not feel uneasy, and I feel that any loss is sad - this loss, we cannot ignore, means we are almost forced to feel as a deeper personal one.
    I remembered when I was given a flat in a bock in Wigan, the day I walked over to take a look, the bottom floor flat had emergency people gathered round and they were removing a man's body from inside. one of them gave me some abuse for not noticing his death, and leaving him to rot in there - they could not know I had just that minute arrived at my new abode. He has stayed with me all this time, I would have liked a state funeral for him - not the pomp and the streets lined, but a recognition of a life and the love that is given here and now to another person we did not know and never met. Obviously, he would have liked that when he was living I am sure - I know I would. Maybe what is evident here with the clamour to see the coffin, line the streets, is a self driven desire to be part of the power, aligned with it, a human need for safety by being close to the glorious end. I like to see myself as a critical thinker, part of a more insightful way of engaging with the world (don't we all). But that comes with a perpetual unease, a knowledge that we, by saying 'Think, we must', we at once lose the surety of ignorance, or the certainty of allegiance to the powerful - there is no reciprocity in this allegiance. I was interested in your hair and face as a child, it made me smile, we are all older now, and the old is always dying - in the way that we are closer to death every day. But the new is also born, and exists in various ways and in many multiple small spaces that can be dancing under a tree, drunken and hidden and free. Or carried out of a brutish flat in a body bag after falling part for months after the last breath.
    All deaths are moments of reflection, this one no more or less than any other. We are clearly being asked to stand one side or the other of some invisible marker in how we respond, and I refuse.

    1. Thank you so much for writing this :) I am really glad that it is provoking wider reflections and connections...as part of me fears we'll just be trapped in a kind of malaise (in the spectacle) and not engaging with the world more widely and deeply as you suggest. I was thinking about all the other people in the photograph, and their stories, successes and sadnesses. All of those could be told and celebrated as 'just a life' (as Braidotti might say), equally as valid as a monarch's.