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  • From Occupy to the OccupationIndeterminate Temporariness
  • Adi Ophir (bio)

A Common Experience

The temporal finitude of everything human is produced and distributed unequally by social forces. A work contract, time spent at school or in prison, vacation time, longevity—these are all politically determined goods and evils whose production and distribution should be studied as elements in the general economy of any society. The economy of time presupposes finite, more or less fixed and measurable time cells, which have use and exchange value related to duration, parts of the day, periods of the year, the activity assigned to the time cell, the ability to use it for its purpose, among others. But the concept of temporariness captures not only the way social time is organized in more or less fixed slots; it also reflects the way in which the end of any such time slot is part of its experience, and the fact that this experience cannot be reduced to the use or exchange value of a certain unit of time. In this piece I will look at temporariness as a certain form of temporalization in which finitude is experienced as a duration whose end is promised, proclaimed, calculated, awaited, and in any case expected, with fear or with joy, yet whose end nevertheless fails to arrive.

Temporariness is not simply a temporal limitedness but the way this limitedness is brought into play—experienced, articulated, problematized—in the very duration of the finite. The termination of a finite state of affairs is certain, but how and when exactly things will come to an end is not. This mixture of certainty and indetermination is sensed, more or less acutely, and it gives rise to a variety of tactics in relation to the terminating point itself as well as to the way time flows toward it. Temporary is the mode of experiencing an end that is sure to arrive but is not arriving, it is the experience of the end as not yet, and of the not yet as unending. It is an experience of a future whose coming in the form of the “not yet” plagues the present and cuts through its flow, from one moment to the next.

The experience of the not yet may be episodic and benign: an occupied lavatory, a tenant who fails to leave his apartment after the termination of a contract, a pregnancy that lasts long after the due date. It may also be systemic and structured: delays in flight schedules, returning a debt, ending a military occupation. In all these cases, when a temporary occupation of a time cell fails to come to an end, a timetable designed to regulate the use of, or presence in, a spatial cell or a social position has failed to function, and the occupation of a time cell has become indefinite. This extension is also temporary, of course, but it is experienced as non-finite, an end that presents itself as not coming. The expected but indefinitely suspended moment of termination can no longer belong to an organized timetable, coordinated with other moments of transition. Everything may hinge on this moment in time, but it cannot be trusted, calculated, or calibrated. This is a moment of time that literally went out of joint.

Two Examples

Consider two types of temporary occupation: the Occupy Movement and a military occupation. Activists of occupy movements usually avoided setting terms for the evacuation of the public spaces they were occupying, but they also did not claim permanent possession of these spaces. Because they refused to set the terms that should be met in order to terminate their occupation, they were not partners for negotiation; they could have been defeated only by use of overt violence, which most western governments tend to avoid or postpone. This was one source of the movement’s strength, but also of its weakness, part of the reason why it was tolerated for a while, but ultimately dispersed. Most of those involved in the Occupy Movement, political authorities and activists alike, shared a tacit understanding of the situation as temporary. The question soon became that of Kairos, the right time to call an end to the...


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