Laura Yakas received her Ph.D. from the joint Social Work/Anthropology Program in 2018.
Timelessness is cruel because it is dehumanizing. As a mad anthropologist who researches madness, I have spent considerable time tackling timelessness. Timelessness is the name I have given to a phenomenon many researchers have witnessed among people experiencing madness—a broad experience of extranormativity that is predominantly defined and addressed as mental illness in the United States. I, however, follow the system-critical/rejecting footsteps of my fellow Mad Studiers (see Beresford and Russo 2016 and Gillis 2015).
Erving Goffman (1961) noticed that total institutionalization disintegrated the experience of time. In asylum life, little began, ended, or changed, so in set an apathy that atrophied any remaining strengths. Then came de-institutionalization—a laughable term, as the closing of single-purpose institutions only meant that the institutions interfacing with madness dispersed (prisons, community health agencies, hospitals, group homes, homeless shelters, etc.). After this shift, Robert Desjarlais (1994) encountered people experiencing madness and homelessness who didn’t experience life at all. Without the structure (beginnings, endings, changes) of social and economic participation, time collapsed on itself such that they merely “struggled along” without accumulating things that felt like “experiences,” or even memories. And although Bruce O’Neill’s The Space of Boredom focuses on homelessness and not madness, his theorization of boredom inspired my reflections on timelessness. Boredom, in O’Neill’s view, is a pervasive sense of being left behind in an increasingly globalized capitalist world where all sociality is filtered through consumption. Thus conceived, boredom is not a term to use lightly, and it is very different from the boredom of the under-stimulated privileged.
From the position of unending impoverished left-behind-ness—be that the result of a dramatically collapsing economy (as in O’Neill’s case), or the everyday exclusion that comes with experiencing disability and madness in a neoliberal-ableist society that oppresses people based on their in/ability to produce, accumulate, and consume (Runswick-Cole, Lawthom and Goodley 2016)—boredom is “something chronic (rather than passing) and cruel (rather than petty)” (O’Neill 2017, 15–16). It is a cruel boredom that never passes: timelessness.