Rogelio P. Panuelos Jr.: Spacetimemattering During the COVID-19 Pandemic
"These materialities—the empty roads, SMS exchanges, and the quarantine pass—and my engagements with them and other bodies like my mother and the barangay official—formed the visible, sensible, and visceral markings of what seemed to be a suddenly unfamiliar space and time, which made the mundane task of waiting for the jeepney one lockdown morning a phenomenon charged with high levels of anxiety and fear."
I was revising the chapters on the literature review and methodology of my master’s thesis when the first lockdown was imposed in the Philippines March last year. I was detailing how, months after I first collected my data through photographic documentation, a most common method in the study of linguistic landscapes or publicly displayed signs, I was still making repeat visits to one of the buildings in a state university to check on my primary research site. This was prior the onset of COVID-19 in the country when no dramatic restrictive measures on mobility were set in place.
And so it felt peculiar that I found myself suddenly writing on a subject that once relied heavily on mobility during a period of global crisis that almost instantly characterised everyday life with curfews, home quarantines, and progressive large-scale lockdowns.
This paradox lies at the core of my contribution to this dossier. I argue that the pandemic has reconfigured our experience of/with space, time and other human and nonhuman agents, which has consequently expanded the boundaries of linguistic landscape scholarship dominated by what Josh Prada calls a “logo-centric visual perspective.” I suggest that the LL researcher is inevitably a constituent part of this complex phenomenon chiefly since much of the fieldwork involves navigating public—often dense, urban—spaces.
I find the Baradian notion of “entanglements” and its interest in the world in its “differential becoming” particularly relevant here as I attempt to understand the ways the pandemic has engendered differences on many layers of social life and the profound impact it has on my position as a novice LL researcher accustomed to roam around public spaces for visual-linguistic data collection. How do I take account of the occasions when it felt like space and signs exerted greater power over me, occasions that were radically different from how I used to visit spaces pre-pandemic and take pictures nonchalantly?
Such an approach makes the nature of meaning-making knotty, as it lends special attention to things-in-phenomena where space, time, and matter (both human and nonhuman) are no longer deemed as independent entities but as intricately constitutive agencies. My case therefore argues for an approach that performs relational thinking through a deliberate engagement with lived experience and entanglements.
During the first few weeks of lockdown, an atmosphere of shock hung over San Pablo City, an urban-agricultural area in the southern part of Luzon, one of the country’s main island groups. I recall how the mundane task of waiting for the jeepney, the most common vehicle for public transportation known for its capacity to accommodate eighteen to twenty passengers, elbows touching elbows, has exposed a great deal of difference. The experience was certainly more than visual. The absence of loud vehicle noise and the pungent smell of smoke emitted from cars intensified the aura of emptiness in the major roads of the city.
The photograph of vehicleless road was taken in March 22 last year at around 9 o’clock in the morning, when residents from our barangay or local community were allowed to do grocery shopping only within the specific schedule set for the day. The main road is a section of the longest highway in the Philippines, which makes the absence of vehicles a most unusual occasion. As someone who has been commuting via public transportation to reach the city since 2005, I have seen a consistent volume of road vehicles, and while there were sporadic strikes mounted by public utility vehicle operators, the road was never empty of private automobiles.
As I was waiting for the jeepney for more than an hour now, my mother sent me a text message, asking me if I ended up riding the vehicle made available by the local government unit. I then replied, saying “I was still waiting for a jeep” to which she responded with another question to make sure that I passed by the local government hall to obtain my quarantine pass, which my mother erroneously identified as a gate pass. She then reminded me to make sure I was wearing my face mask.
A small copy paper, almost a third of the regular letter size, was the quarantine pass that we were required to obtain from the barangay hall every time we had to go to the town center to secure such basic needs identified in the pass as food, medicine, bank transaction, etc. The pass also asks for the name of the household representative, the date, and for people with their own cars, their plate number. A reminder that says only one member of the household is allowed to buy the basic needs is also written after the space for personal information. At the bottom portion of the pass, one can read a note that says it was valid for one day only adjacent to the signature of the highest barangay official.
These materialities—the empty roads, SMS exchanges, and the quarantine pass—and my engagements with them and other bodies like my mother and the barangay official—formed the visible, sensible, and visceral markings of what seemed to be a suddenly unfamiliar space and time, which made the mundane task of waiting for the jeepney one lockdown morning a phenomenon charged with high levels of anxiety and fear. From here it is not too much of a stretch to imagine the disproportional impact of quarantines to people with different differences: for instance, the private vehicle owners who, despite certain mobility restrictions, could still access the city, the locals like me who could afford taking the tricyle, a smaller five-seater vehicle for a “private” ride for an amount triple the jeepney fare, and those who could only reach the city by waiting for the round trip of the lone service vehicle offered by the barangay.
While preliminary and tentative, this account demonstrates a move away from the modes of representationalism and separateness towards a phenomenological and performative understanding of entanglements to expose who and what matters in the thick of a global disruption. The pandemic has made visible the agential capacities of (non)human matter like face masks and vehicles, text messages and official passes, things that broaden the traditional notion of signs and space and urge for a push towards a greater emphasis on affect, memory and recollection to make sense of the complex, always different, phenomena we find ourselves in.
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