The “Meanwhiles” of Post-War Cultures of Care

In the second of the Waiting Times takeover, Kelechi Anucha reflects on the temporality of the ‘meanwhile’ and how it operates in post-war spaces of care

In the animated comedy television series SpongeBob SquarePants, ‘meanwhile…’ appears as one of many recurring time cards that act as a placeholder for the passing of time. Read in the dulcet tones of the ‘French Narrator’ (a deep-sea diving, extradiegetic, supporting character), this time card is often comically deployed to join together – or transition between – surreal and improbable scenarios which might be otherwise unconnected. In SpongeBob and elsewhere online, ‘meanwhile…’ has come to function similarly as an elliptical interpolation which suspends the current action in order to announce a spectacular event, to return from or digress into an incongruous tangent or development.

Clock on the wall. The time being twenty to five.

As part of the Time of Care conference, members of the Waiting Times team working on the ‘Waiting in Late Times’ strand of the project formed a panel to present some of our research findings, thinking with a different formulation of this concept – “the meanwhile”. Signifying temporal transition, it seemed to represent the ‘gap between what is past and the unknown future’ (Masquelier and Durham, 2023, p. 2) and therefore capture the temporalities of continuity and the everyday, but also the anticipation – or apprehension – of endings and significant change.

In this strand of our project, we have been interested, broadly, in forms of waiting that emerge in twentieth and twenty-first century cultures of care in Britain and the US, in a long post-war period. Together we have been thinking about how ‘felt experiences of time not passing’ – waiting as ‘staying, delaying, enduring, persisting, repeating, maintaining, preserving and remaining’ (Baraitser, 2017) – might relate to the cultural, intellectual, and sociohistorical conditions of European and US modernity. In our panel, we gathered to articulate how and with what significance the National Health Service (NHS) and Britain’s post-war welfare state might itself be suspended in a “meanwhile” – still anticipating the delivery of the original promise of truly equitable, universal care, amidst chronic underfunding and ongoing dynamics of discrimination. We explored how, in the context of drives towards urgency in management and governance, it has become increasingly difficult to hold open temporal intervals or forms of suspended time, or even to understand these forms of time as offering their own kind of potential to involve or enact care.

Waiting rooms and the welfare state

Speaking to this idea of the NHS as an embattled terrain in which waiting is often associated with the failure of care, Martin Moore and Michael Flexer presented on General Practice waiting rooms, past and present. Moore examined the racial politics of the waiting room in the early days of the NHS. He described how ‘racist codings of migration’ often drew battle lines around the topic of welfare, illustrated by a racist cartoon from The Daily Express (Cummings, 1949) which queried the legitimacy of the NHS’s universality. Before appointment systems were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, patients queued in turn on arrival, with arguments and hostility breaking out if particular individuals jumped the queue. Moore cited work by Jordanna Bailkin and Gail Lewis to illustrate the discrimination that people of colour faced from fellow patients – and even GPs themselves – in this keenly contested space of waiting (Bailkin, 2012; Lewis, 2000). Yet other sources identified by Moore – such as a BMJ article by well-known GP and anti-racist activist Lord Pitt (Pitt, 1979) – suggest that a willingness to wait represented a cultural symbol of belief in the principles of a social contract which would make healthcare, for the first time in England, ‘free at the point of use’. In this spirit of social optimism, the waiting room emerged as a space of synchronisation and collectivity for the sharing of stories, the discussion of family and ailments and even ‘wagers or secretive speculation about fellow patients’ (Moore, 2023).

Drawing from experiences over the course of his engaged research, Flexer spoke about the dynamics of the contemporary GP waiting room. He reflected on the sometimes-bizarre semiotics of this timespace, with its proliferating healthcare advice leaflets, out-dated magazines and oddly placed chairs. The one-size-fits all logic of this while-you-wait literature seems to have one signification – the GP Surgery, ostensibly the first call for personalised care, cannot know or properly care about your specific complaint.

Care beyond the clinic, care beyond the state

Offering a different picture of the relationship between non-progressive time and care, Laura Salisbury presented a paper on ‘doomscrolling’. This practice is described by Mathew Arthur as a ‘compulsive swiping through pandemic-related headlines, graphs, and tweets’ (Arthur, 2019-2020). Salisbury had previously explored doomscrolling through and alongside readings of two short pieces of writing (Salisbury, 2022), Don DeLillo’s The Silence (2020) and Saidiya Hartman’s ‘The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance’ (2020). Doomscrolling, with its anxious textuality, shares qualities with these pieces of writing and is also aligned with the diagnostic markers of General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Like waiting, it is a practice infused with negative valence, one that seems to undermine the rumination-managing techniques central to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the NHS intervention of choice for those suffering with GAD. Salisbury’s intervention thinks through how doomscrolling might also be an attempt at a practice of care: ‘self-soothing… [but also] affirming a relationship with the world, of making things count’, of containing in the mind an endless ‘landscape of overwhelming information’ which is ‘flattened’ into a proliferation of simultaneous action (Salisbury, 2022).

The idea of doomscrolling as representative of a kind of action without a clear endpoint – forever in process – resonated with the paper I presented, which built upon formulations of fugitivity originating in US Black Studies (Hartman, 2021 [2006]; Harney and Moten, 2013; Sharpe, 2016). Hartman has expressed something of the temporality of fugitivity in her descriptions of her grandfather’s perpetual orientation to an elusive elsewhere – a yearning for ‘an imagined country, the promised land of the heart, the territory of dreams’ (Hartman, 2021 [2006]). In her work, flight is both a literal and metaphorical practice and an ongoing orientation. A care ethic within this temporality involves strategies, kinship claims, allegiances and modes of dreaming which provide lines of flight to real or imagined spaces of temporary reprieve from the overwhelming reach of institutions – whether political, carceral or medical. I thought about how the concept of ‘fugitive care’ might then illuminate modes of relationality running counter to the institutional ‘care’ represented in an NHS psychiatric ward – the setting of Jacqueline Roy’s novel The Fat Lady Sings (2000).

Conclusions

Collectively, our papers suggested that there are shared qualities in the various “meanwhiles” within cultures of care in an extended post-war period. Sources on early NHS waiting rooms examined by Moore emphasise their makeshift spatiality; they were constructed in ‘old lobbies or shop floors’ or in the appropriated ‘dining rooms, kitchens and hallways’ of domestic surgeries. These waiting rooms are rendered in photographs and illustrations in monochrome palettes, which convey an affective quality of dreariness and monotony, unrelieved by the social promise held out by the newly formed NHS (Moore, 2023). These waiting rooms then also resonate with formulations of the ‘grey time’ of anxiety that Salisbury’s paper evoked: Leonard Woolf’s description of endless ‘waiting in a dirty, grey…cosmic railway station waiting-room…for the next catastrophe’ and the grey, rubble-filled landscape of DeLillo’s text. As Flexer illustrates in his analysis of contemporary waiting rooms, this monotonous “meanwhile” is seemingly indifferent to the specificity of the individual complaints and desires that make up the collective. Instead, as I suggested in my reading of the relations of care between the characters in Roy’s novel, it is left to individuals to endure the meanwhiles of waiting in the UK welfare state by consciously orienting themselves towards the future, cultivating strategies and an ethic of care, improvised amid systems which do not or cannot work. While the monotony, or perhaps ‘monochromy’ following Salisbury, of the “meanwhile” is collectively experienced, we recognised that this time of waiting is also unevenly experienced, disproportionately distributed across classed, racialised and gendered lines.

Thinking retrospectively, our papers also captured how the “meanwhile” of post-war cultures of care often resonates poignantly and unintentionally with a surrealism native to the ‘meanwhile’ of the internet meme. Both “meanwhiles” represent a temporality of incongruous juxtaposition. Salisbury, for example, highlighted how one day bleeds undifferentiated into the next in a cultural landscape of ‘crisis ordinariness’ (Berlant, 2011), even as the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stands at a mere 90 seconds to midnight and apparent global catastrophe. For Salisbury, whose research interests include the work of Samuel Beckett, this way of going on against a semi-apocalyptic background might be characterised as a peculiarly Beckettian form of endurance.

The meanwhile is also a temporality of humous paradox. In one historical source Moore examined, those waiting for their GP were presented with ‘an ashtray complemented by a “No smoking, please” sign on the wall, embroidered by the doctor’s daughter’. Similarly, Flexer observes how, in a contemporary GP waiting room, proliferating information sheets on ‘cancer, diabetes, dementia mental distress, pregnancy, heart disease, giving up smoking, applying for benefits, parent and baby support group, Zumba, drug addiction, recovery, deafness…all coexist and shout each other down’ in a cacophony of surreal contradiction.

This sense of paradox and incongruity, of course, has a more pernicious edge. As, Gloria, the protagonist of The Fat Lady Sings notes dryly, to its commonwealth citizens arriving in the ‘mother country’ as part of the Windrush generation, ‘Britain gives the kind of mothering that would fetch the social workers in’ (Roy, 2021, p. 29). With socially equitable healthcare as a seemingly distant prospect then, what can we do in the meanwhile, except cultivate intervals, spaces and times of care for one another?

References

Anucha, Kelechi. “Fugitive Care.” Paper presented at The Time of Care, A Waiting Times Conference, London, March 2023.

Arthur, Mathew. 2019 – 2020. Care Is a Defiant Act: ii. Writing Pandemic Feels. Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 2 (1–2).

Bailkin, Jordanna. 2012. The Afterlife of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Baraitser, Lisa. 2017. Enduring Time. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cummings, Michael. 1949. “I’ve just had an idea for an economy in the Health Service, Mr Bevan!” Daily Express, 12 May. Newspaper Illustration.

DeLillo, Don. 2021. The Silence. London: Picador.

Flexer, Michael, and Martin Moore. “The general practice waiting room: Signification and the “post-war” in the NHS’s ‘Meanwhiles’.” Paper presented at The Time of Care, A Waiting Times Conference, London, March 2023.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.

Hartman, Saidiya. 2020. “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance.” BOMB Magazine, 5 June. Accessed 27 July 2023. Available from: https://bombmagazine.org/articles/the-end-of-white-supremacy-an-american-romance/.

Hartman, Saidiya. 2021 [2006]. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Lewis, Gail. 2000. ‘Race’, Gender, Social Welfare: Encounters in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Masquelier, Adeline Marie, and Deborah Lynn Durham, eds. 2023. In the Meantime: Toward an Anthropology of the Possible. New York: Berghahn Books.

Pitt, David. 1979. Peer from the West Indies. BMJ 2 (6203), pp. 1486–87.

Roy, Jacqueline. 2021 [2000]. The Fat Lady Sings. London: Penguin Books.

Salisbury, Laura. 2022. On Not Being Able to Read: Doomscrolling and Anxiety in Pandemic Times. Textual Practice 37 (6), pp. 887–918.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham London: Duke University Press.

About the author

Kelechi Anucha completed her PhD in English at the University of Exeter as part of the Waiting Times Project. She is an associate of the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health and a member of the Black Health and Humanities Network. Her project examined the relationship between time and care in contemporary end-of-life narratives. She is on Twitter @DrKelechiAnucha

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