The existential challenge of changing tempo

After the busiest few months of my life, I’ve spent the last couple of days doing what feels like nothing. I’ve been for a shave, bought a graphic novel, seen a (crap) film, had a walk, been out for dinner and had a massage. But otherwise I’ve just read, slept and watched tv. It’s obviously not the case that I have done nothing because I have just listed a sequence of activities which I’ve undertaken. But these have been chosen haphazardly, reflecting little more than my fleeting whims and my ready-to-hand preferences as I intentionally refrain from doing anything even remotely challenging.

This has left me reflecting on changing tempo in existential terms. What happens when we move between two periods of time with distinct and different rates of motion? The last few days have been a striking example of that for me, as I’ve moved from a crescendo of activity over the last four weeks (six trips in three countries, doing lots of work while I go) culminating in the Undisciplining conference in Gateshead last week before suddenly embracing nothing. My days have been increasingly defined by rhythms outside my immediate control, leading up to four days in which the closest I had to self-directed time was reading before bed. By changing tempo I refer to the pacing of activities (what do I have to do each day?) and their self-directedness or otherwise (to what extent am I choosing to do it?) but there are other ways in which we could characterise these temporal shifts.

The sudden transition into deliberate inactivity strikes me as interesting. Though it does occur to me that intellectualising the experience could easily be read as part of a pathological flight from rest which I’m prone to. I often feel strange when I change tempo. Many people do and I think this is at the heart of what people mean when they talk about coming down from events. The drug analogy works because it tracks what can meaningfully be called a different state of consciousness resulting from an (over) abundance of stimuli, a sudden increase in the quantity of interaction, an absence of time alone, a spatio-temporal break from normal routine or some combination thereof. But these experiences, returning to normal life after a specific intense event, should be understand as a particular instance of a more general trend. Put it this way: what do we mean when we say an event was ‘intense’? It conveys that much went on within a particular period of time. We understand these judgements because we recognise the intensivity of our days varies in patterned ways which are susceptible to analysis, even if sociologists of time are the only people who would use language like this to make sense of these patterns.

The opposite tendency for me is one particularly associated with when I lived alone. An extended period of working from home would often leave me failing to converse with anyone for up to a few days, beyond perhaps talking on the phone. When I’d then enter a period of more intense obligations, it would often be hard to get into the swing of things.  Certainly, the fact most of these were on the other side of the country from where I then lived imposed a spatio-temporal logic on the sequences which accentuated the change tempo. But I still get similar feelings now, even though my life is ordered in a way which makes the contrast between phases less stark and sharp than it would otherwise be.

If social synchronisation is unwinding then changing tempo will become an ever more common experience. If we can’t take temporal regimes for granted, as collective realities grounded in shared institutions, temporal heterogeneity within a life will become increasingly normal. Therefore I think it’s important we understand experiences like changing tempo, as well as the mechanisms underlying them and accounting for commonalities and differences in how we experience them.

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