The Power of a Pause



Over the past six months in Australia we have experienced a long and extreme drought, devastating widespread bush fires, and now the Covid-19 pandemic. These crises have brought to the fore already simmering questions about how we are to survive, let alone thrive, with others on this planet. Achille Mbembe’s (2020) reflection on the current pandemic is a striking example: “We must answer here and now for our life on Earth with others (including viruses) and our shared fate. Such is the injunction this pathogenic period addresses to humankind.” Statements like this are nothing new. Scholars of the environment in particular have highlighted this historical juncture for some time. As Val Plumwood (2007, 1) wrote, “If our species does not survive the ecological crisis, it will probably be due to our failure to imagine and work out new ways to live with the earth, to rework ourselves and our high energy, high consumption, and hyper-instrumental societies adaptively . . . We will go onwards in a different mode of humanity, or not at all.”

How do we respond to such challenging propositions? When J.K. Gibson-Graham (2010, 322) and I pondered the question of economic transformation in response to climate change in 2010, we had no immediate answer and instead we faced “a spacious silence and a slowing down.” Ten years later, once again I feel the need to pause, to stop and appreciate the ability to breathe freely when many cannot. Rather than trying to define what is happening (the end of capitalism?) and what comes next (a new form of socialism?), my research with Gibson-Graham and that for my book Building Dignified Worlds, as well as that of many other scholars, shows how important it is to embrace this slow down and to pause. 

A pause can be seen as an opening, creating: 

opportunities for the body to shift its stance, to meld a little more with its surroundings; chances for the mind to mull over what floats by on the affective tide, or to swerve from its course as momentum decreases. Undoubtedly these are openings for learning. Not learning in the sense of increasing a store of knowledge but in the sense of becoming other, creating connections and encountering possibilities that render us newly constituted beings in a newly constituted world (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink 2010, 322).

Affect is a powerful force at work when we pause or stop. A tricky force to grasp, it relates to a body’s capacity to act and is felt as this capacity increases and decreases (Hynes and Sharpe 2009, Massumi 2002). Shifts in affect can be generated through breaks in a flow of communication or thinking, which create an opportunity for new ideas to emerge (see Chapter 3). As William Connelly (2002, 71) writes, such breaks “[allow] new thoughts to stroll or run onto stage; now and then setting an internal dialogue into motion that brings something new or exciting into being.” In Building Dignified Worlds (chapter 3), I show how social movements have been able to interrupt the discourse of neoliberalism, for example and, in doing so, create a disjunction between this totalising discourse and the alternatives enacted in everyday life. It is through this disjuncture—this interruption—that other worlds become possible. The play of affect, then, can create hope when little is offered by prevailing totalising beliefs (see also Anderson 2006).

Affect can also operate in a kind of bodily learning, one in which the body becomes attuned to the changing world. To be alive in the world, Bruno Latour (2004) writes, we must be capable of being moved by others. He operationalises this idea as “learning to be affected.” When someone learns to be affected they begin to detect and appreciate the many different elements that move their body—such as smells, sights, other people, different species and so on. Through this process, a person comes to inhabit a more highly differentiated world, while at the same time increasing opportunities for action in the world. In Building Dignified Worlds (chapter 5) I explore such learning in situations of climate destruction, where despairing farmers have paused to take stock of their land and, in doing so, learnt to be affected by the landscape. This learning has led farmers to experiment with new forms of regenerative agriculture centred on the capacities of the land developed through long historical relationships between humans, animals, and the landscape. Might such a stocktake offer affective learning and unthought of possibilities at this time? Who would have thought we could put a break on so much economic activity when we were previously “told it was impossible to slow down or redirect” (Latour 2020, 1). 

Before we get to decisions about what next, for which Latour (2020) provides guiding questions, a pause itself offers a way to transform the economy. A pause creates opportunities for what Isabella Stengers (2002) describes as a politics of slowing down: “… slowing down is not only about capitalism. It is about giving a chance to the event, to the encounters which have you feeling and thinking…. When you go too fast you do not feel the possibility of new creations, new connections” (352). One important way in which such a politics can slow down economic life is by extending processes of ethical decision making and participation (Stengers 2002 and Chapter 4, Building Dignified Worlds). I show in Building Dignified Worlds (chapter 4, 123), for example, that market transactions can be slowed by creating mechanisms (such as fair trade or an ‘evil eye’) through which all those affected by market activity are taken into account. There is also much work by members of the Community Economies Institute, published by the University of Minnesota Press, advancing ethical deliberation in other areas of economic life and working towards the recognition and enactment of economic interdependence (see Gibson-Graham 2006, Gibson-Graham, Cameron and Healy 2013). 

Of course, many are unable to pause and take stock of the current rupture as the struggle of day-to-day survival becomes overwhelming. And some, as Arundhati Roy (2002) suggests, want nothing more than to deny this rupture and return to normal life. For those who are able, though, this pause is an opportunity to think differently and imagine new possibilities in the here and now, and into the future.    


Gerda Roelvink is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University. Roelvink is author of Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action and coeditor, with J. K. Gibson-Graham and Kevin St. Martin, of Making Other Worlds Possible: Performing Diverse Economies.



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