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Enduring Time by Lisa Baraitser

Amber Edwards explores suspended time.

Enduring Time is a philosophical discourse concerning time as explored through ‘temporal suspension’. I enjoyed the text for the unique way in which Lisa Baraitser – a professor of Psychosocial Theory at Birkbeck, University of London – structures her argument, using examples to depict the temporality of caring for others.

The main aim of Enduring Time is to explore the nature of time through its suspension – surely a timely idea in these suspended times. ‘Suspended time’ is not simply time which stops, but is a different form of present which is stuck and will not pass; time which is intensely felt and yet radically static, leaving no direction or purpose. Baraitser is interested in what this form of time can tell us about how we are living time. The book draws heavily on Denise Riley’s work Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2012) which similarly explores ‘arrested time’. Following the death of her son, Riley describes the flow of time stopping in a feeling whereby

“You’ve slipped into a state of a-chronicity. From its serene perspective you realize, to your astonishment, that to dwell inside a time that had the property of ‘flowing’ was merely one of a range of possible temporal perceptions… Your apprehension of sequence itself is halted. Where you have no impression of any succession of events, there is no linkage between them, and no cause. Anything at all might follow on from any one instant.” (p.57)

It is this precise feeling of atemporality that Baraitser wants to understand, in particular what it can tell us about how we live in time.

Baraitser’s lack of a formal philosophical background likely explains why she chooses to structure her work in a different format to the usual analytical philosophical argument. Instead she explores cultural and social situations which exemplify suspended time. This can be seen quite radically in the case she presents of endurance through time, as exemplified through The House That Herman Built, a project by American artist Jackie Sumell and Black Panther Party member Herman Wallace. The House That Herman Built is about endurance in situations where nothing is changing and time becomes ‘raw material’. It documents Herman Wallace’s thirty-eight year imprisonment in solitary confinement, and considers what kind of house a man in such a situation dreams of. Through a series of letters over a twelve year exchange, Sumell and Wallace developed a dream house, which represents the struggle of black imprisonment, wrongful conviction, and the inhumane conditions of the prison system. The project depicts a practice of care through the endurance of unbearable time, and is itself a project of endurance and suspended time.

In using this demonstrative method to formulate her ideas, Baraitser humanises the subject, making it more approachable and relatable to the reader. She specifically focuses on the social practice of caring, a temporal practice, involving maintaining on-going relations with others. Different suspended temporalities, namely staying, maintaining, repeating, enduring, waiting, recalling and remaining, are explored explicitly because they produce the experience of time not passing – just because they can be typically characterised as being arduous, boring, or unbearable.

Using uneventful or mundane temporalities which involve a lack of change is a deliberate way of providing contrast to philosophies of becoming, which explore change over time. Enduring Time thus avoids thinking solely about what has changed in a situation, and instead looks at our way of living in the time of waiting for change to occur. Baraitser therefore aligns herself with the ideas of French phenomenologist Alain Badiou’s understanding processes of social change – specifically his concept of the ‘non-event’, or situations that are ‘not yet supplemented by the event’.

The book is interdisciplinary, and regularly looks beyond philosophy to formulate its argument economically, geographically, politically, and socially. It does this through considering the future as being developmental in terms of the world moving at a faster pace. It also draws on the collapse of modernity’s belief in progress, to give us the sense that the future is unpredictable. Baraitser uses this notion of the uncertain future to develop the concept of the present being perpetually ‘stuck’. Highly critical of capitalism and social hierarchies, her book uses psychoanalytic, feminist, queer, and post-colonial theories to create a lens through which to analyse the nature of time. One of the highlights for me is when Baraitser explores ‘female labour’ and ‘maternal time’ – the ‘care work’ involved in the raising of children. She considers unpaid, and often unrecognised, household labour, such as cleaning, cooking, sewing and raising children, to be ‘dead time maintenance work’ which leads to the time starvation of (mostly) females. Here Baraitser builds on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, who also explicitly refers to these as activities needed to maintain life which women are conditioned to accept as their duty. Drawing on the work of feminist pioneers such as Kate Millet, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan and Germaine Greer, Baraitser uses the idea of ‘maternal time’ to question whether the time involved in this distinct relation of care can tell us anything about the nature of time itself. A similar format is modelled throughout the book, using a diverse range of examples. These situations also add a light relief to its often very dense subject matter, and so make the work more accessible to a non-philosophical audience. The book also adds to the Continental philosophical discourse on time, by drawing on the ideas of Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. In these aspects, it is an extremely dense read, so I strongly recommend acquiring some understanding of these figures before embarking on this text.

This book is extensively researched and provides an original and fascinating approach to the notion of suspended time. This being said, I would warn the reader without a grounding in the philosophy of time that the text may be in part inaccessible and they might want to consider Time Lived, Without Its Flow as a starting point or alternative. Still, it is fruitful to explore the historical and social depictions of care examined in this book. These provide enough of an interesting and sustaining subject matter in themselves for any reader.

© Amber Edwards 2020

Amber Edwards is a librarian living simultaneously in Rome and in suspended time.

Enduring Time, Lisa Baraitser, Bloomsbury, 2017, $14 pb, 232 pages, ISBN: 978-1350008113

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