We all have a relationship with time. A difficult relationship, mostly. To inspire us to think differently or at least with more differentiation about time, there is (among others) the Dutch philosopher Joke J. Hermsen. Recently Hermsen supplemented her time-work with an excellent essay entitled Melancholia of the Unrest (accompanying the Dutch Month of Philosophy 2017) and with Kairos Castle, a delightful exhibition at the Castle of Gaasbeek, near Brussels.
In Greek mythology Chronos is the god of the practical, measurable (clock) time, of which we never have enough (or so we think). His grandson Kairos is much less known and according to Hermsen the god who deserves our attention, now more than ever. Kairos is the god of “the opportune moment”: if we are sufficiently open to him, Kairos can break the clock time for us and create a different experience of time. This “Kairotic moment” is a sort of interval, “in between” time (the term is Hannah Arendts’, one of Hermsen’s philosophical heroes), that holds unexpected insights and new possibilities.
Kairos is mostly represented with one lock of hair: attention and good timing are primordial to grab the opportunity when it presents itself. Which is why a sense of restfulness, awareness of oneself, openness to the world and a preparedness to wait are so important. These are not qualities contemporary society treasures: the exhibition offers a rare and delightful opportunity to practice.
Kairos Castle is Hermsen’s argument put into practice: let’s create more time for stillness, for reflection and consideration, for attention and concentration. And the exhibition makes this literal: you can of course choose to pass by unseen (among others) the five long videos – or you stop, sit and get drawn into a different world, a different time. And when you find yourself in that different time, you’ll experience an interval between looking and understanding. Perhaps art first alienates before there’s recognition. Perhaps you don’t even understand what you’re seeing: there’s a hitch, a faltering, a necessary delay of judgment. And it’s exactly that “in between” that accommodates new thoughts, forgotten memories perhaps, a different insight. The general idea is that artful suspension of clock time frees the mind, as if it empties itself of clutter and gets ready to think and feel differently.
Kairos Castle is meant to bring us into an intermezzo in the time regime of grandfather Chronos, so that we can practice opening up to the strong qualitative moment that inspires insight and or change. I’m happy to say it worked for me: time was “shredded” while I visited the exhibition. I had no idea of the clock time when I came out. And it was a great experience.
But in fact the exhibition represents only half of Hermsen’s argument: if we stop there, we’ve missed her point – for where is the action? Ideally, I would have come out of the castle and grabbed Kairos’ hair lock. To do what exactly?
In fact, Gaasbeek Castle contains the ultimate answer: the adage “All in Time” on the kitchen chimney refers literally to the different layers of time. And that includes time for action – which must always be preceded by time for reflection. The point is thus not so much to escape time as to master it differently so that new things become possible.
Here Hermsen aligns herself with the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) who advocated Kairos to princes whose rashness or sloth could ruin nations. Note that time’s mastery concerns both quick and no action: at all times it’s a question of identifying the “tempus legitimum” with circumspection and sagacity. In Erasmus’ words this becomes “Festina lente”, or “Make haste slowly”: select the right moment, take your time to consider carefully whether it is indeed the right moment – and only then act, courageously and swiftly.
Yet the question remains: what does a philosopher, whose task is essentially to think about the good life, mean by action? Why is the part on agency so crucial to Hermsen’s argument?
Hermsen has often argued that the true Kairotic moment carries the promise of change. If all is well, it enables us to act when the time is right. But in her latest essay Hermsen examines the world and concludes (with many others of course) that all is not well. People are restless and people are melancholy. The philosopher shows great awareness for how this affects people individually but here she presents a collective viewpoint: Melancholia of the Unrest is Hermsen’s most political book so far.
There have been the elections in the United States, the Netherlands, France and, still to come, Germany. There’s the Brexit. There’s individualization, globalization, digitalization, climate change, economic and social disruption. There’re the humanitarian disasters whether in the context of migration, terrorist attacks or war and famine. I think we all agree that “times are a-changin”.
Hermsen isn’t satisfied though to ascertain what seems obvious. She presses us towards the poignant question of how we as a society seem to have lost the capacity to deal with things not going the way we expect them to, with disappointment and loss – with change.
And her own answer is disconcertingly simple: it’s neoliberal market thinking. It promotes far reaching levels of technocracy. It puts people under high pressure to perform and rejects ‘non productive’ behaviour, including suspension and nuance of judgment. It breaks down structures that in the past supported a sense of community and collective engagement. In sum, it assesses everything, all the time and exclusively, on its consumption value.
In such a system which additionally holds the individual responsible for virtually everything, qualities such as simple friendliness or a caring attitude crumble because they’re not market relevant – not to speak of more complex values such as solidarity or citizenship. We’ve all been reduced to “hyper consumers”. And who doesn’t know people who feel exhausted, alienated, emotionally and morally empty? These people also see no reason nor have the strength to imagine the future differently: this is yet another version of the TINA-syndrome. So people are scared. And fear further isolates them, heightens their feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness and depression. Neoliberalism in short undermines resilience and the possibility of agency.
Hermsen’s definition of the societal malaise is eeringly recognizable. Yet she takes her own role as agent seriously and points us towards a clarification. For if melancholy is the problem, it can be the solution too. If we stop navel-gazing into our own confused times, we discover that melancholy is part of the human condition. Even a child can experience melancholy. And often a sense of transience and dissatisfaction is a precondition to creativity. Other times and other cultures too can inspire us to turn melancholy into reflection and creative imagination, and when the time is right, into action.
There is in other words no need to fear melancholy itself. But we must find a more diverse, richer way of dealing with it. More specifically, Hermsen’s aim is to steer away from melancholy’s “pathological” version that pushes us collectively towards depression. It’s the “healthy” version that we need to strengthen. Slowing down doesn’t have the purpose of acting less but better. If we can create space for feelings of confusion and loss, we may learn to acknowledge them to ourselves and express them to others. We may even recognize them in others – and thus create a common ground in which feelings of connection, empathy and solidarity can grow. And if we can put our powers together we may find creative ways to turn change for the better.
This is of course Kairos. What others call disruptive times, Hermsen sees as society reaching a tipping point. Hence the urgency of her argument. Hence her insistence on stimulating as many conditions as possible so that we are capable of grabbing the lock of hair – and live a better life.
We need to do this collectively. For a society to draw power from critical times, it needs to steer away from confusion and fear and find a common language, values and ideals. It needs connecting stories. Perhaps above all it needs time – a different kind of time that enables us to think slowly before we undertake swift action. Hermsen believes that art can bring about Kairotic time. Because the temporary suspension of judgment, needed to appreciate art, can (also) inspire kindness and love and thus break through the neoliberal mechanisms. And so we are back to the power of art in Kairos Castle.
Hermsen also emphasizes the importance of education in order for society not to slither towards depression. Evidently rejecting the current priorities (here too) with utility and efficiency, she strongly advocates the so-called soft values – that will allow young people to build resilience and hold faith in agency in a world full of complexity, diversity and change. A possible third solution, which Hermsen mentions in passing, is travel as opposed to tourism.
I agree with most of Hermsen’s arguments. Of course it’s a good idea to incorporate the values of Kairos and more generally what in English is so beautifully called a liberal education in, for instance, the reforms being planned in the Flemish educational system. There can’t be too much counterweight to the utility thinking that continues to emphasize the direct match between education and the workplace. And forgets the common truth that two third of the present toddlers will have jobs that do not exist yet. We need to invest in the future, of course.
But it’s important to address the present as well – and seize the right moment for the greatest possible impact. The problem is that most people Hermsen wants to help, do not read her books, do not go to exhibitions like Kairos Castle and have already gone through the educational system – to no avail, apparently. So what to do? Should we give them up?
I suggest another ‘channel’ through which to reach a broad segment of the population, namely work. Many of the people who’re past the educational system are scared into feelings of emptiness and powerlessness because the forces of globalization and disruption seem too large for them. Depression is already the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, with an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015 according to the World Health Organization. That sounds like the conditions for hasty action to me. But the omnipresent TINA-thinking offers no way out. And the current predominant political rhetoric makes large groups of people susceptible to polarization – which only increases their isolation and alienation.
Yet there are alternatives. In an earlier post I pointed out that disruption can also employ the current transit phase of society to change things for the better. Organizations that are committed to social innovation focus on human needs and the power of communities. Often there is also a clear sense of urgency about bringing back meaning and dignity into work. More generally an alternative attitude towards work, whether in social or commercial enterprises, is one of the most promising paths towards a better life for many. As I summarized before, this includes trust, flexibility for individual talents, room for growth and agency.
Since I started looking into meaningful work, I’m astounded about how widespread its principles and benefits are known and acknowledged. The critical question then becomes why, despite some very successful examples – and the continuing rise of individual cases of depression and burn-out, there is so little agency. Perhaps Hermsen is right after all: perhaps we first need much, much more investment in the right conditions. I hope with her that Kairos’ time will arrive soon. Go and experience Kairos Castle, your time runs out on June 18!