WAITING GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

SOME UNSEASONAL THOUGHTS ON  TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY

This year I am giving a  Brexit Advent Calendar to those of my friends who voted to Leave because they thought it would de-stabilise the political class, liberate us from the bureaucratic toils of Brussels and open up the road to socialism in our  small island state. The online calendar depicts the Houses of Parliament as a gothic ruin, and each day as you prise open one its  shuttered windows  you are told to expect one of the Brexiteers  suitably dressed for the occasion. So far I have met  Boris Johnson as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Jacob Rees Mogg as Scrooge and  Theresa Maybot as Goldilocks.  Unlike the traditional advent calendar this one does not stop on December 25th, but is so constructed that it can continue almost indefinitely, by the simple device of  updating its entries.  Yet this  very  iteration  undermines the structure of excited but still  patient anticipation which it is the purpose of the conventional Christmas calendar to organise, because it removes any  principle of punctuation or closure from its unfolding story.

The count down to Christmas  begins earlier and earlier each year, as  its marketing as a global consumerfest intensifies.  In a sense then people have to wait longer and  longer for  the big day  to arrive. This is a highly paradoxical form of deferred gratification  in that it proceeds by means of accumulating goods which promise instant pleasure. Children, of course, find this prolonged waiting  especially trying, but fortunately there is  the  Christmas story  to hand to attenuate their frustration, and indeed transform it into a pleasure principle. The advent calendar is one such device, as each day reveals a new and surprising delight en route to the climactic moment; the mythic  figure of Santa Claus, working away in his arctic factory to make the presents and then deliver them  to  deserving children,   is  another.

These devices work because they are embedded within  a narrative that guarantees a good outcome. Christians have faith that Christ will be born again every year on the same day, and that punctual  epiphany makes it possible for them  to go on waiting for His second coming even if  this advent  is indefinitely postponed.  The Bible is full of quotations enjoining patience : Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools(Ecclesiastes); Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Galatians).  Jacob is praised for waiting seven years to get Rachel, ‘but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her’.In fact the capacity for patience in the face of life’s adversities is an important  mark of faith even and especially when divine intervention in human affairs is conspicuous by its absence.

The Protestant work ethic  transformed waiting from  a form of spiritual enrichment into  a social investment which might also have a material pay off. For secularists, however such motivated displays of patience are mere virtue signalling, while  the quest for salvation  is a  bad case of ‘pie in the sky bye and bye’.   Yet unbelievers  have their own ways of creating unwarranted certainty principles, involving all kind of magical thinking, from throwing coins into a wishing well or  having their fortunes told, to constructing  elaborate ‘ personal life plans’ complete with ‘milestones’, all designed  to grant  immunity from the contingency of l events.

In this context, it is possible to read  Waiting for Godot  as a play about people living on the margins, who are trapped  in an existential limbo where it seems impossible to make any decisions; nevertheless Valdimir and Estragon  manage  to summon up  a belief that there is some point to going on, although  there is no guarantee that  their  patience  will  be rewarded by a hopeful outcome, either in this life or the next.   Samuel Beckett   himself lived by this principle which he  enunciated in his famous injunction : try, fail, no matter, try again, fail better. Although he remained plagued by doubts about the value of his work long after it had become internationally recognised, this mantra of fortitude kept him keeping on writing.

Waiting as a Power Game

All things being equal ( which they never are) our capacity to wait is  largely  determined by the extent  of our confidence that   things will come to pass in the fullness of time,  whether for good or bad. And that is inevitably  linked to the distribution to social and cultural capital, and thence to power.

For example, in military and political affairs, where power is at its most naked and forceful, the  element of surprise intrinsic to the waiting game comes  to the fore. To bide your time until the right  moment comes  to strike, when your adversary  is  off their guard, or in a weakened position  is the mark of a master strategist. Similarly, to  lie in wait for the enemy and  stage an ambush is a well tested   stratagem to turn the tables on an  otherwise superior  foe.

In general terms, to wait on someone is to submit to their will,  to exist in a state of suspended animation until such time as you are called  upon to perform some task  at their  bidding.  For someone in a position of power or authority, to keep someone  else waiting, for example by turning up late to a meeting, is a means of asserting superiority  and/or exerting control; for a subordinate to do the same thing, is immediately construed as a mark of disrespect, or rebellion, warranting  severe rebuke or punishment. A double standard which speaks volumes about where we are placed in the social pecking order.

Historically, in Western societies,  the capacity to wait for what you want, to defer gratification, is associated with  the culture of the dominant class. Subordinated cultures, in contrast, are  seen to be prey to hedonistic pleasure principles and to demand instant satisfaction of needs and desires. Can’t wait, won’t wait, is their supposed creed. And yet it is these same  groups who are most subject to work and other disciplines in which constrain them to wait on the dictates and desires of  their superiors.

When the frame is shifted to race we get another kind of  double standard.  In the age of Empire,  ‘Orientals’ were both  castigated and praised for  their  ‘impassivity’, their   capacity to spend large amount of time apparently  do nothing but waiting for something to happen.  This was  contrasted with the dynamism of western capitalism within its obsessive regard for punctuality and productivity. Ironically,  in a post colonial  age  the tables have been turned and   now it is the tiger economies  of South East Asia who  are seen as  delivering the goods, on budget and on time,  while the ex-imperial powers  are regarded as stagnant and lagging behind.

The age of deference may be past, but today society is  still divided  into the waiters and the waited upon. and these positions    indexed in complicated ways to social inequalities, just of class and race  but  gender and generation.   Social commentators frequently talk about the  ills of ‘affluenza’ in  contemporary capitalist society, chief among them the  growing  impatience, distraction and  restless frustration which characterise our increasingly uncivil society.

There is very  little research into   differential waiting times and how this  varies normatively between cultures. There is a much quoted study into  how long residents  had to wait for an elevator in a high rise  apartment  building in New York  before they experienced intense  irritation or anxiety. The study  found that comparing the findings for 1994  to those of 2014 with a similar population, there was a dramatic  drop  in the threshold of impatience amongst all groups. This  was especially marked  amongst  young single white professional men, the self proclaimed ‘alpha males’  who began jabbing the lift  button and expressing frustration after a mere 9 seconds delay, irrespective of whether they lived on the second or the twentieth floor!   Older women of colour who had a family waited for over 90 seconds before  doing the same, while twenty  years  previously, the same demographic waited for nearly three minutes before concluding that the elevator was  either busy or malfunctioning, and started walking up the  stairs.

Class and race are clearly important factors in  the waiting games people play, but so are gender and generation. There is a lot of evidence that  that the life course has become  seriously discombobulated, and that for increasing numbers of  young people  the transition to adulthood, associated with ‘settling down ‘ to  a relatively stable job, home  and personal relationship has been postponed or foreclosed. For many the coming of age story never comes. Or rather it becomes  about  the lack of becoming, a kind of shaggy dog story spun out  as young people wait  to attain the normative markers of maturity which officially make them ‘grown ups’. The endless distraction  of tweeting and texting  offered by digital platforms like Instagram offers young people a way to deal with  chronic frustration by  instantly creating  small immediate  satisfactions to mask the larger disappointment. And this in turn animates the  drive to consumerism: what do we want ? More! When do we want it? Now!, a mantra that   is now built into the algorithms  of choice administered by Google and Amazon.

Equally the power relations embedded in  waiting games are never not gendered. Within a patriarchal order, not only do the young have wait on their elders wills, but women are expected to be at the beck and call of men. The work of care is supposed to be a labour of love,  a moral duty or a vocation, and the women who mostly do it are supposed to postpone their own needs and desires indefinitely  in order to fulfill  their ‘special mission’. Against this background second and third wave feminisms have succeeded in creating a vibrant culture of radical impatience with sexism. Young wimmin in particular are no longer waiting for boys to grow up into different kinds of men.

Since 2008, austerity regimes have added a new twist to the tale.Waiting times for hospital treatment, public transport, affordable housing and decent well paid jobs  have increased exponentially for large sections of the population, especially those who rely on public services. At the same time  we are bombarded with the message  that we are  authors of our own lives,  it is up to us to  continually ‘reinvent ourselves’ as we adapt to the increasing pace of  technological change. The pervasive  fear of  ‘missing the boat’, of getting left behind   in some imaginary  waiting room along with a lot of other no hopers is fuelled by the constant media parade of ‘alpha males’ and powerful women.

Here we have a new and potentially explosive  contradiction which is entirely the work of neo-liberalism : an intensification of waiting as part of the fabric of everyday life  and an erosion of the subjective capacity for patience. The emergence of new forms of populism, both libertarian and authoritarian ( and sometimes a mix of both)  is a symptomatic  response. The sudden and spontaneous, upsurge of feeling directed against the political establishment, the outpouring of bottled up resentment against the powers-that-be on the part of those whose lives have been put on indefinite hold, this is an integral part of the emotional logic of late capitalism.  On  both the Left  and the Right this logic  is linked to a  valorisation of direct action to achieve immediate ( and often ‘unrealistic’ ) goals, coupled with rejection of bureaucratic forms of governance and representation  associated with  liberal democracy. The new categorical imperative  of populist action  is a rhetorical  ‘What do we want ?  Everything! When do we want it? Now ! ‘ This is underscored by the decline of grand narratives of progress, which assured us that history was on our side,  and that political set backs  were mere blips in the onward march of Labour . Hence the capacity to sustain struggles of long duration , confidant in ultimate victory has collapsed.

There has been no shortage of commentatory  which characterises  populist movements , like the Yellow Jackets in France, as  signifying the revolt of  the  ‘uneducated’ and ‘philistine’ masses against a cultural and intellectual elite.  Down with the experts and the technocrats!!    But, I have suggested, there is much more to it than  that ; there is a collective refusal to wait while the political class  temporises and fails  to address the multiple crises of global capitalism:  global warming ,  the precarity of work  the  hollowing out of community,  the failure of Social Democracy etc  .  On the Left , the self styled  ‘accelerationists’ have argued for  the fullest  possible  automation  to be introduced as fast as possible  so that the socialisation of  knowledge ushered in by the information economy reaches a tipping point where  capitalist relations of production  based on private ownership, implode, and create the conditions for a ‘bloodless’ transition  to  a post-capitalist society of abundance for the many not the few.

It is easy to castigate this argument as yet another example of left wing communism which  Lenin derided as  an ‘infantile disorder ‘.  Certainly those Ultra-Left  ‘vanguardists’ who cannot wait for  the conditions to be ripe for  revolution and who act precipitately, as if they  could bring those conditions about by their own actions, have blood on their hands, and not only their own. Yet  when in May 1968 the French Communist Party, the party of organised labour, decided that the factory occupations and student revolt  did not amount to a point of rupture  and who told their cadres to wait  and not join in the demonstrations, this  inaction actively contributed to the movement’s defeat and the counter-revolution that followed. For the fact is that the new world  envisaged, and to an extent prefigured  by the soixante huitards  was one based on  a moral economy of mutual aid, not a market economy of competitive  individualism, and this new order  was actually in the process of coming into being before it was forestalled and  twisted into  simulated forms of creative enterprise by the neo-liberal project .

The accelerationist argument has been challenged from within the Left itself.  In opposition to the drastic speed up of  labour processes, travel  and  the general pace of life in our 24/7  cities,  against the constant imperative to   ‘get  up to speed,’  to ‘get ahead’ and ‘stay  in the fast lane’ there is now a go- slow movement  which aims at promoting social well being  by cultivating a healthier life style. The capacity to wait becomes once more a positive value. The flaneur takes over from the jogger; speed dating  is out,  yoga and other forms of meditation are in; staying home to cook proper meals replaces fast food, walking  or cycling  takes over from driving cars as the best way to get around town;  parks and other public areas,where citizens can relax in places of relative  peace and quiet, are vigorously defended as an urban commons’ against the forces of privatisation.  However important these goals, the go-slow movement  remains   confined to those  who can afford to wait  pleasurably, secure in the knowledge that the world is still their oyster and they are one of its pearls. It is not an agenda likely to win over  those who are waiting for the storms of history to pass so that they can at last get on with their lives.

Waiting Room Only

Ontological security and epistemological trust are the necessary conditions of pleasurable waiting. And these are in short supply in times of economic precarity and social uncertainty. Waiting games are always  linked, directly or indirectly, to factors of scarcity, especially where such  factors are not just about  market supply and demand, but  take on symbolic value.

In Sartre’s famous description of a Parisian bus queue,  every member of the  group waiting for the bus is united with all the others only in a relationship of negative reciprocity ( which Sartre calls a series) in so far as each one is potentially one too many  , if there are not enough places for everyone on board. Waiting time in this scenario  of social atomisation  is fraught with  anxiety and paranoia, a typical Sartrean construct.  Today information technology intervenes. Members of the queue can now know with reasonable accuracy  when the next  bus will arrive and how long they have to wait,  simply by consulting the LED indicator at the stop, or from their phone apps. Yet the same technology can also accentuate social atomisation. It is now possible for everyone in that queue  with a smart phone to be immersed in texting or talking to people who  are elsewhere, on the other side of town or the globe. Under these circumstances, it is much less likely that members of the group will  mitigate their exasperation at the non- arrival of the bus through a  shared conversation of complaint with fellow passengers, or even, perhaps decide to take  collective action to do something about it – thus transforming themselves from an alienated  series, into what Sartre calls a ’pledged group’.

There is one area of popular culture where waiting  games can still be played with pleasure by those whose lives are neither certain, nor privileged. Suspense is the name given to all those stories, in films or fiction,  which immerse us in their unfolding because  their trajectories are as  fixed as their  outcomes are unpredictable; the more the plot makes us wait for the denouement, the more  we are drawn in to  discover   the clues to unravel the mystery and arrive at some kind of  narrative  closure. In any whodunnit, we need to have some initially stable frame of reference provided by the mise- en -scene, even if it is subsequently demolished. What keeps us turning the pages or on the edge of our cinema seats right up to the end  is  not knowing exactly what is coming next, or how the different elements of the plot are connected.  Soap operas are brilliant at this, because their multiple story lines are always being reconfigured and each episode, however dramatic its ending, is always qualified with the caveat  ‘to be continued next time’. And so we  gladly wait,  held  ‘in suspense’.

The soap opera taps into a basic structure of human feeling: curiosity. We  feel curious , as opposed to merely puzzling over something , because we are not trying to fix  a  problem, but rather letting our imagination  flow in whatever direction it wants  around  a question.  Curiosity opens up rather than closes down a problem, it seeks to make  the familiar strange, is eager for the unexpected. It is  a curious mixture of patience and impatience. Equally when we say we ‘cannot  wait’ to see a lover, renew an old friendship, find out who dunnit,  go on holiday, or   celebrate the fall of a hated figure,   we are actually admitting  that we have no other choice than to await its occurrence.  We may fill that  waiting with longing or loathing, with daydreams or horror stories, but fill it we do. That is why waiting is never pure boredom. Waiting time is time slowed down, a minute can seem like an hour, an hour a day, a day an eternity. This is precisely because we so desperately want time to speed up, to whisk us away  on  a magic carpet so that tomorrow, or next week is already here and now. The phenomenology of waiting is distinct from that of boredom in that it has this dual time signature. In contrast boredom iterates on one flat  note.   When we are bored the world stretches out interminably before us,  a featureless landscape, an endless repetition of the same, trapping us in empty homogeneous time.

When we  say the ‘suspense is killing us’  we are  referring  to   the fact that our fragile manoeuvres  against the onset  or foreclosure of  an  ending are always at risk of collapsing into a mere compulsion of repeat what we always and already know. This is especially the case with our own personal ending.  For, of course, in reality, death is always lying in wait and is infinitely patient.  Suspense is one way to keep the grim reaper at a distance until the very end. One reason why dying is so boring is that the element of suspense or surprise is missing. The institutionalisation of boredom which we find in so many care homes and hospices comes from the fact that these regimes are organised primarily around the ministration of physical needs, to enable their inmates to go gently into that good night. They ignore the fact that that  when waiting games become end-of life games, they carry with them a principle of counter-finality. Our   lives never unfold entirely according to plan, we  turn out otherwise that our parents, or children  imagined, even the most  never quite coincides with itself.  It is these aleatory moments, when we radically depart from the social script, when we  challenge  the forces of destiny, that are the most memorable, and  stay with us right up until  the very end, even in severe cases of dementia. They are what  enables us to rage against the  dying of the light.

In Praise of Procrastination

Prevarication  and procrastination are two cognate  strategies for avoiding more everyday deadlines, but there are important differences in how they operate.  Prevarication  is a strategy  of  mystification that attempts to forestall  a day of reckoning, by throwing dust in the eyes of those who might deliver such judgments. In legal discourse the term  refers to  a  witness giving  contradictory or inconsistent evidence in a way which undermines  their credibility and hence make it difficult to reach a verdict. This is a strategy of deliberately unreliable narration which is often  deployed by  authoritarian states.   The Polish philosopher and science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem,  presciently talks about ‘prevaricated truth ‘ as a form of authentic fake news, at once true and false. He has in mind the Stalinist regime of ‘truth’, ( aka  ‘Pravda’)  under which the countries of the Eastern bloc suffered  for so long and through which  they  sought to postpone the day of political reckoning. It could just as well apply to  the Trump L’Oeil  effect created by the current US president’s tweets that continually undermine  the reliability of  their own conditions of truth.

In contrast the practice of procrastination  is founded on what we might call the manana principle: never do tomorrow what you can do the day after, as Mark Twain once  put it. It is a way for those who have neither the power or authority to legitimately  make other people wait,  to nevertheless  create a delay system that forces them to   do just that. This waiting game relies for its effectiveness on creating credible excuses for not performing a task. These excuses  function as  pseudo –performative  statements in that their utterance actually enacts the delay  they are referring to. The political filibuster is a classic example, in which a topic is talked out of parliamentary time, so that no vote can be taken on it. As Charles Dickens’ famously put in ’procrastination is the thief of time’.

There is a  poetics of waiting  which explores some of these temporal complexities  and in particular retrieves one its key meanings. To wait originally meant to be attentive  to a phenomenon, to  stay still, observe and take note of its manifold unfolding. It is in reference to this standpoint that Milton defined the poet’s special vocation:   ‘they also serve who only stand and wait ‘. Before him  Chaucer cautioned that ‘unless ye wait well’ the writer would never be privy to the secrets  of the wordsmith’s  craft.  Keats  also warned  would-be poets not to  ‘reach irritably after fact or reason ’, but to ‘stay in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts ’. Ever since, the cultivation of this ‘negative capability’, as Keats called it,  has been held up as a key to understanding and encouraging  the creative process. The Romantics may have been in revolt against organised religion  but they  re-invented waiting as a form of spiritual investment.  It was left to Mary Shelley to point out that for ordinary mortals, waiting  also had its darker side:

Full little knowest thou, that hast not tried,

What hell it is——

To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares,

To eat thy heart through comfortless despairs;

To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,

To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.

Finally there is a politics as well as a poetics to these two  forms of temporizing. As we enter a period of radical uncertainty about the political future of the UK, we can see  prevarication and  fake prognostication abounding on all sides of the debate. In this context the positive value of procrastination becomes more apparent. Against  those who want to Leave or Remain at any cost – and there are costs and benefits to all the options on offer- we need to insist that the debate should be prolonged  as long as possible in order for it to become properly democratized, leading to an informed Peoples Vote. As part of that process public  deliberation needs   to be deepened  and  widened to include the key issues that underlie Brexit. What kind of  civil society do we want to live in: a closed or an open one ?  What kind of political economy  has to be developed : one governed by existing  hierarchies of power and wealth  or  re-organised around horizontal  networks of co-operation and mutual aid ?

Of course there is presently no consensus and a lot of confusion about these issues and it will take a great deal of time and political effort to achieve anything like a majority view, let alone a consensus. But surely this is a waiting game worth playing. Even in terms of electoral  realpolitik, it makes sense for Labour to hold  their fire until an election in 2020 when they might realistically  expect to form a government, with SNP support, to renegotiate any deal struck in the meantime.

So in arguing for the need to introduce Keat’s  principle of negative capability into our political discourse, I am saying that, yes there is an alternative to the deal on offer  which  is neither crashing out  nor simply crashing back in. The terms of any future deal will have to be derived from a new settlement or contract between the People, however constituted or imagined, and the existing apparatus of UK  governance. It will take time to arrive at  this new deal , but it will be an outcome worth  waiting for.

 

Meanwhile, back on the Carousel…

These somewhat unseasonal reflections were  provoked by a recent  experience of waiting anxiously for my luggage to arrive off a plane  from Hong Kong.  The scene is familiar enough to anyone who flies: the passengers  all standing  around the carousel as a silent processional of suitcases, rucksacks, travel bags,  trolleys and unlikely looking  parcels   slowly snakes its way past. Some people are noticeably tense, casting agonised looks as each new item  appears  on the belt   in  the hope that it  will be theirs; others are more relaxed,  chatting away and seemingly  secure in the knowledge  that their things will turn up sooner or later, it is just a matter of waiting.

The situation is made more fraught by the fact that so much modern   luggage is mass produced and almost identical  in appearance   with few distinguishing marks and thus easily mistaken. One of the  most cited travellers tales concerns someone picking up the wrong bag, and making off with it in the innocent belief  that it is theirs, only to discover that it belongs to A.N. Other. In some of its versions this becomes a story  of identity theft. The very idea that  some unknown person could be  walking around with our most intimate belongings, wearing our clothes, assuming the trappings of our life style, pretending to be us,  even bidding for a game of trading places, is enough to bring most of us  out in a cold sweat. At least this was the picture story I  began to paint in my mind as  I waited with mounting panic for my non-descript black bags to arrive. Around me the ranks of expectant  luggage owners slowly   thinned out, until I was the only one left, staring aghast  at a single battered brown  suitcase  as it  revolved endlessly  on the belt  waiting to be claimed. Maybe it belonged to a passenger on another flight whose luggage had somehow been exchanged for mine en route? Perhaps my   books, my  papers and clothes,  the kites and boomerangs I had brought for my grandchildren,  were at this very moment  revolving  on a carousel in Moscow, or Paris,  Istanbul or  New York waiting to be snatched up by another luckless traveller, or worse still by a passing  bag bandit.

These  paranoid thoughts were interrupted  by a  bag handler  coming up to inform me that my luggage had been discovered in the hold of the aircraft and would shortly be delivered.  The world  that just a moment ago had    seemed so threatening suddenly  become once more a reliable and even joyful place. To be re-united with my belongings was indeed like coming home.

So yes, of course, moments such as these are  worth waiting for. They  offer a glimpse of  a principle of hope in the midst of uncertain times.  Like  Christmas itself, however tarnished by social anxiety or fake optimism. Perhaps then  it is worth remembering that once upon a time  the festive season was  marked by the advent of musical watchmen, called wayghtes,   specially appointed minstrels who performed  their popular and often scabrous ballads  in the streets of towns and villages up and down the country,  usually at night or in the early morning. These early wassailers  provided the citizenry  with a  creative counterpoint to both the lofty indulgences  for less than mortal sins  offered by the church  and the profane rituals of feasting and gluttony reserved for the rich.  We could sure  use some of this troubadour spirit  right now  as we wait for the tragi-comedy that is Brexit  to play out its next act.