Is anybody “active now”? Longing in the Era of Instant Messages

Picture Credits: priscilla-du-preez


I call to complain.

“Message me!”

“It’s unbearable! On virtual office, email and messaging applications, no one replies… Can you hear me?… They are all ‘green’, colleagues and customers, they are ‘active now’ The same with my students yesterday, I sent the fourth reminder. Not to mention my friends. I-g-n-a-w-e-d, no spelling mistake: ignored and gnawed by those who are ‘inactive now’… Is anybody there?… My Angel…”

Angélique, my Angel, has been filtering phone calls via an answering machine since the ‘80s. As a writer, she worships her time. She is always “there”, at home, her health is fragile, she does not write anymore. And listens. And decides. She uses a low-tech device to achieve what high-tech communication applications have to offer. I use high-tech network technology. I teach in online programmes at the University where I am a PhD Candidate and I work from home in a customer service role that pays my bills. Before the pandemic, we were all answering calls in an office. Since the pandemic, we have been displaced to isolation and silent messaging with three breaks per shift.

Time of Displacement

Green lights encourage fantasies of people being constantly “here”, at their screens with their fingers ready to interact “now”. There is a paradox, though: constant visibility of “active now” becomes the perfect place to hide. Instead of constant communication, there is silence. This paradox displaces me, I lose faith in network technologies. This loss of faith that “networks function the way they promise” is a displacement, according to Kenneth Goldsmith. In his 2014 essay Displacement is the new Translation he describes the uncomfortable moments of a clash in online and offline experience. The reason of the paradox is that instantaneity of “here and now” clashes with human temporality. Delivery of messages is instant, contact takes time. My typing is faster than my handwriting, but the velocity of my thinking is not adapted to the writing technology. I experience the clash now, when I write notes and I type this text. I can only make sense of what ignaws me when I embrace the displacement from the clash of temporalities.

Time for my break

“My Angel… Are you there?…‘Turn your damn head’. Your favourite expression. I do it. It’s not people, but technology that ignaws me. It gives too much hope for contact. These green lights are mistaken for activity, although they are just a promise that may not be kept… Like your voice on the answering machine, my Angel, that makes me long for talking to you… Are you ok?”

Time of Fiction

When Angélique does not reply I begin to worry: illness, anger, boredom, why is she silent although I know she is there? The same as with instant applications: customers are rude, my students dislike me, my manager wants to fire me. It is inevitable. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… we live entirely […] by imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images”, writes Joan Didion in The White Album (1979). As instantaneity fails to deliver its promise, it becomes the time of the dismantled narrative. Deprived from the familiar narrative, we can make sense of the potentiality of communication by shaping a new one. This is the fiction I am doing now. Etymologically, fiction is not related to “fake” but to “shape”.

Time of Longing

Angélique’s voice awakes my longing for her, the same as green light on messaging applications. Longing is not instantaneous, it is related to length, to distance. Longing lasts longer, is the title of Penny Arcade’s performance that I watched in Soho Theatre in 2015. For her, longing is “a persistent sense of loss”. In his novella Mokusei (1982) Cees Nooteboom states that longing for a great love is “a preparation for the moment”. Longing is the hybrid temporality of having something without possessing it, the present opening up towards a future of potential contact. Human temporality is the time of longing that can be triggered by the “green” promise of the instantaneous applications. The fiction of longing becomes the narrative of interaction via instant messages.

Time for my break

“My Angel… Are you there?… My phone rang: ‘You are the first human after long automated messages. My electricity meter…’ I do not work for an energy provider. A mistake. No, the mistake is mine. It is not me who is ignawed, we all are. We are both senders and recipients, longing senders and overwhelmed recipients. We are together, I am not alone in a no-reply world.”

Time of Aloneness

Angélique’s favourite poet is Sylvia Plath. In her journals I read “Aloneness and selfness are too important to betray for company”. Aloneness can be creative, although not easy to sustain – Plath took her own life. For psychoanalysts, it can be either an empowering capacity when there is a sense that someone is present, as Donald Winnicott claims in his 1958 paper The Capacity to be Alone or a painful failure when no sustaining people can be imagined, as Gerald Adler and Dan Buie claim in their 1979 paper Aloneness and Borderline Psychopathology. Aloneness is the fiction of longing. Longing can be a creative way towards togetherness when the narrative of “active now” is replaced by the narrative of “online”. Our devices are online, we, recipients/senders, may or may not become active. When distance is accepted and the “here and now” becomes longing in space and time, the potentiality of contact rises on the horizon. However, this potentiality may never be realized. Longing may last too long and lead to despair. Longing risks longer.

End of shift.

“My Angel… Are you there?… Stop listening, start talking!”

(laughs) “Whassup, ma petite?”

“People ignore me. Technology gnaws me.”

“Time gnaws you. You cherish time, you need it for contact and for writing. Stop wasting it on people and work that make no sense to you. We all try to do the same. How does this Dutch writer, who loves Sylvia and Ted Hughes as much as I do, say it? What’s her name?”

Connie Palmen. In The Inheritance, her 1999 novella, she writes: “I do not have enough time to be very pleasant and well-mannered to you… And if you cannot bear it, then you must leave.”

I do not leave. I take the risk, online and offline. My aloneness chooses to long for togetherness.

How about you?

Sylvia Solakidi

Sylvia Solakidi is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Performance Philosophy, University of Surrey. She publishes essays about experiences of time with the help of theatre and music performances, visual arts and literature, as well as through the writings of phenomenologists, anthropologists and performance scholars.

Sylvia Solakidi is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Performance Philosophy, University of Surrey. She publishes essays about experiences of time with the help of theatre and music performances, visual arts and literature, as well as through the writings of phenomenologists, anthropologists and performance scholars.

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