Constructing COVID-19 as a Crisis: Reflections on Narrative, Time and Politics

Constructing COVID-19 as a Crisis: Reflections on Narrative, Time and Politics

Lee Jarvis discusses his new article on COVID-19 and Political Language

A few years ago – in fact, probably more than a few years now – I was halfway through a PhD thesis focusing on the discursive construction of the war on terror. I’d spent a long time reading through political speeches from various figures within the George W. Bush administration. And I’d spent even longer reading theorists of discourse from Ernesto Laclau to Michel Foucault and their interlocuters in International Relations and Security Studies. Despite all of this effort, though, I just couldn’t find my ‘angle’. I couldn’t work out how exactly to focus my writing, and how to make a distinctive contribution when so much was already being written on these events. I wasn’t helped either when Richard Jackson (my future PhD examiner, although I didn’t then know this) published his own fantastic book excavating the war on terror discourse.

One day, though, I must have got lucky – although, frustratingly, I can’t quite remember how this happened! And I had a moment of realisation. So many of the topics I’d been trying to write about were fundamentally related to the construction of temporality – the construction of time. From hyperbolic arguments about good and evil; to parallels with World War II; to the exceptionalism of 9/11; to accounts of the post-9/11 new normal, to predictions of the inevitability of future victory, and beyond. All of this was focused upon particular imaginations or representations of time. The rest of my time as a PhD student was hardly devoid of blood, sweat, tears and anguish, but it did become a lot easier once I realised this. I began reading around the literature on social time, narrative time, and the politics of time, and the work of Paul Ricoeur, Gordon Graham and others became central to the framework and argument of my thesis which was subsequently published as an article and more fully as a book.

In the years since I’ve written a few pieces continuing this interest in temporality in various ways – including on the remembrance of terrorist attacks at vernacular and elite levels, the memorialisation of terrorism’s victims, and on the importance of temporality within videogames. Throughout the last year, though, I’ve found myself thinking about temporality even more as I’ve watched the COVID-19 crisis unfold in the United Kingdom. One thing in particular to have struck me has been the parallels between constructions of time in political speech on these events, and the constructions of time in the post-9/11 Bush administration on which I had focused my PhD. How constructions of temporal discontinuity – our new ‘new normal’; of temporal linearity – ‘we know that we will beat it’; and of historical cyclicities linking COVID to earlier battles against smallpox – have all been as vital to our current ‘crisis’ as they were to that at the start of the twenty-first century.

In my recent article in British Politics I therefore try to trace the emergence of constructions of temporality such as these across the first half of 2020 by focusing now on British political discourse. Returning to the work of those theorists of time, and drawing on some of the (rapidly growing) contemporary literature, I argue that such constructions contributed to the public explanation and justification of the crisis, showing us (once again) the importance of temporality as a political and discursive resource. Temporal constructions such as these do not, of course, exhaust the importance of time in this context. An earlier piece here, for instance, explored specific temporal metaphors from the same period and their role in ascribing credibility to the British government. But they do show us that we neglect temporality at our peril if we do want to understand the political interpretation and management of problems, threats, and crises from terrorism to pandemics. Why similar metaphors and constructions of temporality seem themselves to recur at different moments and in different contexts is beyond the scope of that article (and this blog!). But it does, I think, give us something important to think about going forwards.

Lee Jarvis is a Professor of International Politics at the University of East Anglia

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