There is an experience — one often overlooked — woven into our world since 2020. It is an experience of rhythms lost, silenced and then reformed. An experience of being out of step, caught in a misbeat of time and place. In those early days of lockdown, we were betwixt and between rhythms, suspended in a world where cadence and tempo were dissolved and recast. Suddenly, the old routines and rituals of daily life were unmoored. Commute, café, desk, work, meeting, lunch, walk, work, meeting, commute — these became echoes of a rhythm briskly ended. Then slowly the ebb and flow of the working day was appropriated by new tidal pulses. Some were energising and revelatory — yet others proved corrosive, debilitating. Here the emerging rhythm became one without end as the boundaries between work and non-work blurred and liquified. This was a metronome that vibrated without cessation.
One way, perhaps, to approach this experience is through Henri’s Lefebvre’s collection of essays, Rhythmanalysis (1992), which seeks to understand the emergent and dynamic interplay of space and time. In those early days of lockdown, rhythms once synchronised (in subtle and often unconscious ways) to those we worked with — the informal drift to the kitchen area or a coffee shop at a particular time, for example — were now dislocated. This was Lefebvre’s arrythmia — a ‘discordance of rhythms’ (p. 25) — similar to that charted by Nash in a rhythmanalytical study of the City of London where visitors, unsure of where to go, found themselves ‘not being able to keep up with the rhythms’ of the commuters flowing around them (Nash, 2018, p. 174).
Slowly though, new rhythmic patterns formed — with partners, children, flatmates — as we choreographed our presences and absences around available spaces. Our homes pulsed with new polyrhythmic sequences and, within this, our own particular rhythms became more manifest for, as Lefebvre argues, rhythm emerges through both repetition and difference. And gradually, our mundane workday rhythms were also reimagined. But often with new and peculiar time signatures. For example, meetings which, in former days, coalesced into being and then dissolved as people packed their bags and maybe paused for a final chat —were now ended with the abruptness of a 2 minute, 30 second punk single as we activated the ‘Leave Meeting’ button on Teams, Zoom and WebEx.
And such meetings also introduced new rites, routines and scripts for behaving. Think of that (often briefly lived phenomenon) the ‘virtual office drinks’ where, as if to signal that this virtual gathering was different from other more formal and businesslike meetings, we would hold our drinks to the camera in a way that would be bizarre and, indeed, unsettling in any face-to-face assembly. In this, perhaps, we see the Lefebvrian notion of dressage. In bending our gestures and movements to the values and expectations of this new social interaction, we were breaking ourselves in through the repetition of a particular act (see Lefebvre, 1991, p. 48).
Then, as lockdown intensified, we found other, compensatory (and consolatory) rhythms. Colleagues and friends talked of being more attuned to the turn of days and seasons — more alert to the ‘temporalities of fecundity and decay’ (Edensor and Holloway, 2008, p. 484). One social feed at work attracted pictures of wildlife, fungi, woodlands, the night sky. In this we see Lefevre’s notion of cyclical rhythm — those ‘movements, undulations, vibrations, returns and rotations’ — that exists in the beating of our hearts, the breaths we take as well as the ‘alternation of days and nights, months and seasons’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 84). The rhythmanalyst’s explorations are embodied and multi-sensory making them capable of listening to a ‘house, a street, a town, as one listens to a symphony, an opera’ (p. 94) — and similarly our senses were re-awakened. We saw, heard, touched and inhaled the world around us as if emerging from a dream.
For Lefebvre, cyclical rhythms contrast with the linear — those emerging from social practice and human activity. At one time, Lefebvre argues, this link between the everyday and the cyclical was clear but then it twisted apart (see Elden, 2004, p. 196). Yet, perhaps in lockdown that link was, for some, reforged. As the clocks went back last October, friends spoke of recalibrating their working day to enable a walk, run or cycle during daylight hours — here the cyclical and linear were bound together once more. They were seen to ‘unite with one another’ in a state of eurhythmia (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 25).
Perhaps too we became more aware of the linear rhythms of others. From the window of my house, I noticed the vans and agricultural vehicles that drove by at particular times; the commuting cyclist (regularly spotted at 8.50 am) on their way to the nearby village; the daily runners and walkers performing a circuit of the local lanes. That such appreciation was gained through the window is significant. Shruti Ragavan argues that balconies, windows and terraces are spaces that have assumed new meaning over the past year as the ‘locus through which our active interactions with the outside world took place’ (Ragavan, 2021, p. 675). Similarly, in the essay ‘Seen from the window’, Lefebvre notes that to grasp, and be grasped, by the fleetingness of rhythms, it is ‘necessary to situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 37). The liminal, it seems, is a friend to rhythm.
And, now, as many organisations explore more hybrid ways of working, the rhythmanalyst is presented with a rich field of study. With different sequencing of days ‘in’ and days ‘out’, many workplaces have become multi-tidal, a polyrhythmic harmony of different flows and gatherings. For some, this is an experience of eurhythmia — a sense of being in step once more with old rhythms resurrected and replayed. For others, it carries the dread hand of dressage: movements and activities bound once more to the constrictive beat of linear time.
And, as we adapt to these re-sequenced pulses, we may find it hard to evade the ghosts of rhythms newly acquired over the last year or even, perhaps, those that haunt us from our pre-lockdown lives. The drive to the station at a different time to catch a later train — as unsettling and disquieting (at least at first!) as any spectre.
But maybe, like a restless drummer absconding from the restrictive cage of 4/4 and exuberantly exploring new rhythmic patterns, some feel liberated by the intensifying beat of hybrid working. For them, it is an emancipatory cadence that blends the linear and cyclical into a polyrhythmic mix of promise and possibility. And who knows where this particular tune might lead.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,‘The Burial of the Dead’, The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot
A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
With thanks to Daniel Beunza for alerting me to the peculiar glass-raising ritual of the virtual drinks!
Photo credits: Photos 1-2, Eleanor Rodwell (www.eleanorrodwell.co.uk)
Edensor, T. and Holloway, J. (2008) ‘Rhythmanalysing the coach tour: the Ring of Kerry, Ireland’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 33(4), pp. 483-501.
Eliot, T.S. (1954) ‘The Waste Land’, in Selected Poems. Faber: London, pp. 51-74.
Elden, S. (2004) Understanding Henri Lefebvre: theory and the possible. Continuum: London.
Lefebvre, H. (2013) Rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life. Translated by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. Bloomsbury Academic: London.
Nash, L. (2018) ‘City rhythms: walking and sensing place through rhythmanalysis’, in
Kingma, S., Dale, K. and Wasserman, V. (eds.) Organizational space and beyond:
the significance of Henri Lefebvre for organizational studies. Abingdon: Routledge.
Ragavan, S. (2021) ‘Between field and home: notes from the balcony’, cultural geographies, 28(4), pp. 675-679.