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PATIENCE / Vol. 90, No. 3 (Fall 2023)

Arjun Appadurai, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Patience and impatience are not best treated as simple opposites of one another. Analyzed separately, they reveal different dimensions of disposition, worldly circumstance, and ethical orientation. It is no surprise that they have produced differently meaningful worlds and different ideas about whether patience is a virtue or a crutch in a world of unfair waiting. In those societies where some sort of idea of God remains the anchor for human life, patience remains a godlike virtue and impatience a symptom of greed, haste, or excessive ambition. Once capitalism becomes the dominant framework of any society, patience is reserved for the masses, and speed and disruption become the hallmarks of the entrepreneurial masters of the universe. Institutions like universities and political systems such as democracy, which thrive on deliberation, deferral, and debate, do not flourish in a world where impatience seems to have replaced patience as the best recipe for a humane life.


Impatience is a defining aspect of the modern world and its identity, as is starkly exemplified in the emphasis on technology. It is the central mode along which individual and social life are organized. In contrast, for Mahatma Gandhi patience is the crucial category for healthy individual and social existence.


Two critiques of mass media in the twentieth century gestured at its effects on the capacity of patience. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Daniel Boorstin’s The Image examine how the media changed our imagining of the world, the scope of its relevance for us, and our ways of being in it. This article follows their lead by inquiring how being online further undermines the capacity for patience, manifested most clearly in the self-generating rage characteristic of social networks’ discourse. It refers this effect to three basic elements of the online world: the ubiquitous timeline format, the hybrid creature of written speech created by it, and digital objects that adapt themselves too closely to our needs, imaginings, and desires. All three foster a disruption of distances, where the remote and unfamiliar are experienced as unbearably close, a blurring of distinctions between inner life and external reality. A world composed of digital objects has lost what Hannah Arendt described as its power to “relate and separate people at the same time.”


Many consumers suffer from present bias. To present-biased consumers, the long term is a foreign country, and they are not sure they will ever visit. If consumers suffer from present bias, there is room to rethink national policies in multiple domains. Regulatory mandates might turn out to be better than economic incentives. Fuel economy and energy efficiency mandates might produce billions of dollars in annual savings to present-biased consumers. The net benefits of mandates that simultaneously reduce internalities and externalities might exceed the net benefits of incentives that reduce externalities alone, even if mandates turn out to be a highly inefficient way of reducing externalities.


The play of patience and impatience is often powerfully active in the experiences of the clinic. The onset of an illness, the exposure to suffering, and the awareness of our mortality that it awakens compel us to negotiate and renegotiate our relationships with time and with others. Seen in this way, drawing on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, what emerges is not a fixed value but rather a continuous axis in relation to which we valorize the complex and multifaceted ways in which we relate to the unfolding of time.


While the exhortation to patience is commonplace in literary and religious traditions across the world, equally widespread are diverging etiquettes of patience and varied histories of its reception. The focus in this essay is on the medieval reception of patience in the Islamic world and the manifold ways in which that history has informed its modern invocations. Finally, the political purchase of patience is brought under relief by juxtaposing competing languages of statecraft in Iran and the United States.


The first serious and sustained literary response to cultural acceleration in modern society comes not from Benjamin or Simmel, as some have suggested, nor the work of Baudelaire and Flaubert, but the poetic experiments of Wordsworth. At the turn of the nineteenth century Wordsworth confronted an impatient mediascape, inhabited by readers requiring “outrageous stimulation” that the “rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” He published poetry that programmatically tried the patience of his readers and changed the course of literary history. He also evolved a theory of patience, passion, and poetic genius that shaped literature and criticism through the twentieth century, but had its opponents early and late, from Percy Shelley to Raymond Williams.


The essay traces an arc from a true story of shipwreck involving the ships Patience and Deliverance in the seventeenth century to a twenty-first-century conversation between the artificial intelligence system ChatGPT and the author on the subjects of patience and narrative crisis. It is suggested that deliverance from crises is integral to the conceptual structure of both patience and narrative. Features of patience as a “postcrisis virtue” are then sought to be captured within a triangulation of concepts: urgent patience (paradoxical and action-oriented), narrative patience (methodological and linguistic), and fake patience (mechanical and emotionless), leading on to a tentative listing of some features of a “slow criticism” attentive to the fractious anxieties of our times.

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