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In 1909, French everyday life Le Figaro featured on the cover "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism," a startling essay by the radical Italian philosopher and technophile, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. In it, Marinetti championed the rise of technology and mechanized transportation to usher in an era of innovation, a lasting concept.
If there is a contrast to futurism, it may be presentism, a kind of fixed-in-neutral worldview. Few academics have written more about presentist thinking than François Hartog. The French historian has spent decades studying time, and how, in our fast-paced world, it seems increasingly silent ̵
In his 2015 book, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time Hartog wrote about the phenomenon of living in a presentist age. It is not a flattering description of our modern times. Think short term, but only shorter. The presentism that Hartog embodied in his authors is a cynical worldview devoid of vision.
Presentism, Hartog explains, is "the feeling that only the present exists, a gift marked by the tyranny of the moment and of the treadmill for an infinite moment."
The treadmill for an uninterrupted now may sound abstract – that is, until you consider the situation of, for example, your nephew, a recent college graduate with a mountain of debt and few job opportunities. to think about. Or maybe it rings in a bell when setting the arguments of climate change denial that rejects the need to act now to save the planet down the road . Or maybe you can hear the treadmill grinding your head in this age of social distance and home-at-home orders. Who hasn't caught up with a Zoom conversation with obscure colleagues just to wonder what day it is? (Could a COVID-inspired remake of Groundhog Day be in the works?)
Hartog is quick to point out that this idea of presentism does not explain all the conditions of modern life. It also does not reject every argument that, in the face of enormous existential challenges, it is best to stick to the status quo. But he had some timely observations about our shared experience of life in the coronavirus era, and how we live in a truly unique age.
The following questions and answers have been edited for brevity.
Wealth: What is your view of our lives during lockdown? Many adults juggle home schooling with their children. For many of us, it's a lopsided time.
Duke: Yes. With lockdown, people are suddenly locked in a suspended time, a time that is always the same. It's a kind of confinement. The days are passing, but time seems to have stopped. But because of computers, a person can be present anywhere with a click. Therefore, the digital world, I believe, is fundamentally present. It is instant and simultaneous. Of course, for those excluded from this world [digital] it is different. But in the last few months, when hundreds of millions of people were able to log in and connect, it was transformative. Thus, we came to embrace our new digital state. Our digital state is a drastic change from our human condition … We managed to travel the world without leaving our room. We could join the aperitif on WhatsApp with our friends, or listen to a concert. We could follow every moment that happens everywhere. We could see everything, feel everything, be present at everything. Only our physical presence was missing.
Wealth: The pandemic also forced some of us to reflect on our relationship with the planet.
Hartog: Even before the pandemic, you had some people who condemned short-sightedness – the way our society became increasingly centered on instant gratification. A good example of that was the movement around slow – slow food, slow everything, the need to slow down. It was people who embraced frugal living. They moved out of town and out into the countryside. That's a real trend.
Fortune: In your research, you must have come across historical events similar to what we face in COVID-19.
Hartog: What we are facing here is something unique. This is a very serious health crisis. Pandemics and health crises of this kind are as old as humanity … But with COVID, this pandemic stems from humanity's deteriorating relationship with nature. We have dramatically reduced the Earth's biological diversity. What is brand new today is that humanity has become a geological force for itself. This is what is meant by the Anthropocene … And thanks to COVID, we have rediscovered that we are only one species, and not necessarily the strongest. This virus can in a way suppress the human species as we know it – that is, if we do nothing. This makes it outstanding. It puts our whole view on the modern world – our vision of progress, our mastery of nature – into question.
Wealth: So do you see humanity on a kind of crossroads?
Duke: Yes. At the beginning of the pandemic, the impression was that science had a prominent role and that scientific message remained with the public. It is also because governments relied so much on scientific advice. But very quickly, doubt came into the discussion. Part of this is because of the way the media set up the discussion. In France, what we saw on talk shows, on television, was health experts. One says this. The other says so. People discovered very quickly that science cannot be as affirming in their statements and conclusions. Many times the answer was: & # 39; We don't know. & # 39; … It's extremely exhausting for people. This idea that you have to live with uncertainty is very, very difficult. It generates anxiety. And when science did not have a permanent and definitive grip on the problem, people lost confidence. Naturally, conspiracy theories emerge: 'The virus was made in a laboratory. The government is lying to us. “These theories get a lot of attention on the streets, at least in France.
Fortune: Do you think the public's belief in science and expertise will come to an end?  Hartog: I don't know. If the epidemic fades, probably, yes. If there is a new wave – it will be terrible. There will also be so much doubt with medical experts. The same can be said of the government. They are in an impossible position. In France, there has long been suspicion and opposition to the government. This is ahead of the pandemic.
Wealth: Faith in government institutions is crumbling everywhere.
Hartog: Politics these days is nothing if not current. Trump is the best example of this, and his tweets are the best signal of that. He represents the zero degree of politics. The nature of Twitter is to put you in a loop – someone says something, you answer, and a few minutes later it has lost all its meaning. And now all politicians use Twitter for communication. And it can distort not only the present, but the moment – especially if the message is completely different, at that moment. In that case, you are no longer obliged to remember what was said just three minutes earlier. In this type of policy, it is first of all about reaction and then emotion. And of course you have no room for any reflection or analysis. You cannot take any distance to consider. You have to be there every minute.
Wealth: Do you really see a danger in being "always on"?
Hartog: I think the danger is great. Especially for democracy. Our political system in the West is based on representation. This means that decisions take time. Democracy needs time. If you advocate immediate decisions, instant democracy, you totally destroy this system. You destroy democracy … With presentism, it is the victors and the victors. The overpowered would be those who have nothing but the present in life. They live from one day to the next. They have no perspective of any kind. Many young people who cannot find jobs are in this position. The other emblematic figure is the migrant. The migrant is defined by his condition. It means that he is in a way completely stuck in a gift without any opportunity to escape. I see this figure as symbolic of our present moment. He sees no future.
Wealth: Will your next book reflect our shared coronavirus experience, and how it may or may not affect our relationship with time?
Hartog: My next book is called Chronos: The West & # 39; s Struggle with Time. It should come out in May. But it has been postponed because of the crisis. It is coming out in October. It is not a time story, but it takes a long look at the question of our understanding of the Christian world up to the anthropocene – this present crisis included.
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