Paul Stenner considers recent events in Bristol and calls for more psychological research into time, and its political significance.
Time – as a psychological experience – has always been political, but in recent weeks it has become political in a way that almost nobody can ignore. Bristol is well known to have been built to a large extent on money from the slave trade (though we must not forget offshoots like the tobacco industry). Even as a child I remember being faintly disturbed walking along streets called things like Blackboy Hill and Whiteladies Road. Nobody’s name looms larger over the city than that of Edward Colston, and yet to see his statue dislodged, defaced and dumped ceremoniously into the docks made me wonder: how could it have taken so long for this to happen? Of course there are many different views on whether this was a good thing to do or not. But since only a minority of extremists would today argue for the virtue and necessity of slavery and racism, we cannot avoid asking: How can a city have ignored such a scandal to its self-image for so long?
One reason that Colston’s fine cut bronze figure did not constitute a general scandal to the self-image of Bristolians is that it has endured slowly over a period of time during which changes have, for the most part, been experienced as a continuity. As illustrated by the many World War 2 pilots who, flying at altitude, died with a smile on their face due to hypoxia or gradual oxygen deprivation, we can often fail to notice the slow drift of change. Indeed, as monuments are meant to, Colston’s statue has contributed to that sense of continuity by itself being a continuity, a familiar landmark whose unseeing eyes overlook the passing events of the city. Since Colston died in 1721, 174 years passed before his resurrection in the form of a Victorian statue. When it was erected after having been crafted by John Cassidy in 1895, it was considered a fine work of art expressing great civic pride (despite the fact that that the country had abolished slavery earlier that Century). Lodged on a plinth of beautiful Portland stone adorned with dancing dolphins, it bears a plaque which reads: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895’. Although we do not know the feelings of the artist who hailed from County Meath in Ireland, one can imagine his pride in the inscription which reads ‘John Cassidy fecit’ (‘made it’). And one can imagine how proudly the latin fecit would have evoked in turn an imperial lineage which seems to connect Bristol and Great Britain directly to Ancient Rome where still today the Pantheon bears the inscription ‘M.Agrippa… fecit’. In this way, the statue has contributed towards an imaginary sense of temporal continuity of feeling and value that constructs a connection between Agrippa’s Imperial Rome, the British Empire bolstered by Atlantic slavery (during Colston’s lifetime), and the massive colonialism of the Empire during Victoria’s reign (when the statue was erected). That sense of continuity, it seems, lasted through the tumultuous twentieth century and has continued without significant challenge until…, well: June 7th 2020. All of a sudden, and for good reason, a substantial proportion of the people of Bristol have taken a stand and refused to keep that old imperial feeling of value alive. They have interrupted the continuity of a sense of civic pride that had long since become toxic and undergone, not just a revaluation, but a reversal of its value. But why now?
Obviously, the tragedy of George Floyd and the response of Black Lives Matter is of paramount significance here, and we should in no way be distracted from this fact. As psychotherapist Dwight Turner has put so well in a recent talk and blog, people of colour have for too long been subjected to a form of ‘racial gaslighting’ in which concrete experiences are treated as if they were not real, as if the racist acts that routinely happen don’t really exist, for example. But we also need to understand the conditions under which, as Turner puts it, Floyd’s murder was ‘a step too far for me’, and one which – unlike the many other comparable examples – has led to the widespread events we have been recently witnessing. One factor here, I suggest, is the fact that Floyd’s murder occurred during the coronavirus pandemic. With the pandemic, not just the UK, but the whole world has just been through a phase of change that is anything but a ‘slow drift’. On the contrary, there have been rapid and abrupt transformations which – to continue the asphyxiation analogy – are less like the slow deprivation of hypoxia and more like having one’s windpipe directly obstructed.
Unlike the unnoticed slow drift, rapid change imposes itself starkly upon our consciousness and demands a response even when we are at a loss as to what to do. This is far from the simple matter of catharsis that many have invoked, as if the pressure of lockdown were merely being released. Abrupt changes – from the unexpected death of a loved one to an earthquake that destroys our town or a revolution that transforms our country – force a change of perspective on much that we take for granted about our lives. They alter our sense of time because the future we had previously imagined is suddenly gone and the present we see before us is radically unfamiliar. These are what we call liminal experiences and, amongst other things, they force upon those of us who go through them a new encounter with time and indeed a new experience of time (Stenner, 2017). We come in an instant to realise quite how central to human psychology time really is. And we come to realise quite how thoroughly time as a psychological experience is connected to our political existence. We come to realise that the present we inhabit gives rise to a future that is shaped by the recollections of our past. If we want a present with a different future, as surely most of us do, then we need also to reconstruct our past. The Black Lives Matter movement is leading the way here.
It is, to conclude, crucial to think about time and yet, with the occasional exceptions (see for example Brown and Reavey, 2015), psychology remains sadly ill equipped to do this.
For further ideas about how liminal experiences associated with the pandemic force a new understanding of time, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-chZRbnu9Ior https://diecisiete.org/expediente/virus-ante-portas-the-covid-19-pandemic-as-a-liminal-hotspot/
Stenner, P. (2017) Liminality and experience: a transdisciplinary approach to the psychosocial.London: Palgrave.
Brown, S.D. and Reavey, P. (2015) Vital memory and affect: living with a difficult past.London: Routledge.
You can read about Paul Stenner’s research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ps7476