Conscious Pause
Standstill as Protest

Farmers protest at the Delhi-Haryana Singhu border against the new farm laws in India. © Shutterstock

Those who speak of standstill must address time. In a physical world, defined by time and matter, standing still is a subjective phenomenon: We are overcome by spiritual, physical, or aesthetic experiences that make us stop and stand still, beyond time and space. As an act of will, a standstill becomes a form of resistance, protest — against the power of time, against the world’s rulers, and against the universal exploitation of people and nature.

Berthold Franke

Standing still is impossible. Even as I write this sentence, the small blue ball on which I am sitting, together with the cluster of galaxies in which our solar system is located, has hurtled almost 10,000 kilometers through space, rotating on its axis, at a speed of 630 kilometers per second. A universe (Is it expanding? Is it pulsating?) that can never come to rest, given that its existence — based on our current knowledge of cosmology — and the phenomenon of time are equiprimordial.

Standing still in space is possible only in the context of the progression of time, much in the way that our being or existence per se needs time. There is no such thing as a timeless existence. And time, this fundamental dimension, cannot be defined, as has been often noted but can only be seen, namely, in the form of movement — the stroke of the pendulum clock. In this respect, standing still always means pushing back, a phenomenon within the movement, always coming to a halt even in movement. As a philosophical question, it is therefore virtually settled.

What is time? As Augustine famously said, “If no one asks me, I know what it is – and ‘if I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Heraclitus’ “panta rhei,” “everything flows,” the much-cited river into which nobody can ever step twice, is the great metaphor: time flows and runs, sometimes quicker, sometimes slower (only since modern times have clocks been trying to deceive us that time passes uniformly). Even islands in the stream stand on moving ground. The impossibility of a standstill is most apparent in the inevitability of nature, first and foremost in the heartbeat and the breath, which are withdrawn from our volition in such a provocative way.

Should one of the two fail — the diagnosis is cardiac arrest, circulatory arrest, respiratory arrest — the end has been reached. Only in this sense, as the end of life (analogous to the cosmological state before the start of time), is a standstill possible, indeed inevitable, in line with the fate that awaits each individual. At least from a subjective point of view, because the matter will, after all, continue to exist, will transform itself, and will continue to travel through space. In the context of an individual end or death, a standstill can only be final and ultimate, never a pause; continuation is impossible. The religious expectation of continuation, be it in the form of resurrection or reincarnation, is essentially only a childlike fantasy of protest against the “great reprimand” — as Schopenhauer described death — that is experienced here.

Contemplation and Transcendence

In contrast, the moments of actively standing still amid the bustle of everyday life and the unconscious way we lead our lives are more mature. These moments usually arise when one has the urge to step back, to switch to the role of observer, to reflect. For only a handful of individuals does it become a truly alternative way of life, for those who receive a calling, opt out of society, and choose to lead a quiet monk-like existence, comprised of asceticism, reduction, concentration, and meditation.

For us normal consumers, this subjective state of stillness as a form of withdrawal from the existence-defining continuum of time can only be reached in exceptional cases — in stages, temporarily, as the outcome of a conscious act of will or of being overcome by the moment. The latter may refer to unique events in world history — the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11 — or, of course, to highly personal turning points — moments of shock seared into our memories. Moments that are attached to the setting in which one heard momentous news because, in these moments, time really did stand still. This is also true of other significant, overwhelming experiences gifted to us by nature or love. In cultural history, it is primarily religion that is responsible for the ritual staging of these invariably time-bound and ecstatic moments of intensity and transcendence.

"The impossibility of a standstill is most apparent in the inevitability of nature, first and foremost in the heartbeat and the breath, which are withdrawn from our volition in such a provocative way."

In modern times, the legitimate successor of what is often an intoxicating blurring of the boundaries of a standstill is art. Art can enrapture us with its sensual and spiritual power and eject us from the flow of time. The need it fulfills is obviously a fundamental one and finds expression in the most diverse forms (and is therefore also taken advantage of — think of the mesmerizing aesthetics of mass fascist rituals).

The effects are probably best described with the help of music, the art form with the most immediate physical effect. Music itself is a completely time-bound phenomenon, yet paradoxically, its psycho-physical effect is the most likely to lead us to a state that transcends time. From the mesmerizing effect of Gregorian chant to the manipulatively overpowering sections of Richard Wagner’s operas, to the large pop and rock productions that lead to communal ecstasy — in the midst of experiencing the most powerful emotions, time can be suspended, especially when the effect of repetitive rhythm (Prince: “There is joy in repetition”), the magic of the groove, comes into play.

These ecstatic moments are a state of experiencing intense emotion and transcending time — yet this state is not quiet. Emotion means movement: The climax of all feeling — of course, also in erotic moments — leading us out of time and transporting us to a state in which we stand still, only to then, when the last bar has faded, invariably release us back into the profanity of this world.

Withdrawing and Enduring

No wonder then that to avoid the terrible yet inevitable moment of disenchantment, we repeatedly try to stretch out the moment, regardless of what it costs. In all cultures, drugs have been used since time immemorial. Drugs — whether to escape or to “expand consciousness” — highlight the dilemma in a particularly vivid manner: The hangover is programmed, reality, daily life, and continuation, all maintain their harsh superiority. To resist is pointless.

Nevertheless, one tries to resist again and again — the prospect of enjoying just a little bit of standing still is too tempting, the promise of a moment to step away from the tumult of everyday life as if in a daydream. However, the moment can be captured only if, in situations of uncertainty, one is able to resist the temptation of the universal gesture of internal embarrassment — reaching for the smartphone. No longer being able to endure moments of pure, undefined time that is free of distractions and allows us a contemplative withdrawal from its continuum, has become a sign of our era. This cultural mutilation, which appears to be universal, ultimately subjects us to a totalitarian apparatus of exploitation. This technology has seeped into the tiniest cracks in our attention span at the intellectual-sensual level, guided by the information gleaned from our digital fingerprints, in order to subject us to “targeted” advertising.

Poetry is the genre of stagnation.

There is no doubt that the refusal to participate in the pervasive flow of media networks has long taken on the character of protesting, regardless of the harmless motive (“I just want my peace and quiet”) that may lie behind it. When you don’t have a WhatsApp account or ask people to contact you via email or text message, you are viewed with suspicion like the guest who abstains from alcohol at a boozy party. His asceticism expresses his silent disapproval of the intoxicated majority.

In this sense, not partaking means being able to go from addict to onlooker, from onlooker to observer. For this, an intellectual distance must be maintained, sometimes even isolation, which is conducive to understanding. A museum visitor is alone while viewing a painting, possibly a “still life.” The panel painting as a medium of standing still in art, especially in its modern iteration, photography, is a telescope through which one can view a state of stillness in a far-removed time. Yet, this medium also resonates strongly with the observer. Even the written word can do this: Poetry is the genre of stagnation.

Power of the Powerless

While large political campaigns rely on “being loud” and on the organization of the many, a stillstand is an option for the powerless. A strike is an organized, mass refusal among workers to perform, in accordance with the motto, “All wheels stand still, if it is your will.” This potent weapon of the workers’ movement positions them competitively against their opponents who are equipped with all the instruments of power at the state’s disposal. The powerless can be empowered when production comes to a standstill, and the powerful are forced to relent.

During the classical phase of the workers’ movement, the revolutionary empowerment of the disadvantaged and the suppressed, whether in the factories of Manchester capitalism or in the power zones of European colonial powers, was always considered to be the exact opposite of a standstill, namely a progressive acceleration of the historical process. Substantial progress, according to belief, was only possible after a critical “stage of maturity” had been reached. Just as the young Marx and Engels practically yearned for industrial capitalism with its polarizing effects to make a rapid breakthrough (because this was a prerequisite for the proletarian revolution), young intellectuals from African colonies such as Léopold Sédhar Senghor in Senegal were promoting the development of nation-state institutions based on the European model well into the 1950s as this was a prerequisite for the successful transition to independence in their home countries (see Adom Getachew: Worldmaking after Empire; Princeton University Press 2019).

While large political campaigns rely on “being loud” and on the organization of the many, a stillstand is an option for the powerless.

In contrast, the shrewdest and most successful activist in the struggle for colonial independence — Mahatma Gandhi — was also the activist who least identified with the colonial power, both internally and externally. Gandhi developed his anti-colonial strategy based on a decentralized model with origins in the social principle of rural communities; he perfected the method of strikes and boycotts to develop what ultimately became the invincible weapon of passive resistance: standstill as an uprising, as a physical blockade in the face of which the ostensibly militarily and economically superior colonial power eventually had to succumb.

The ultimate stage of this resistance, the hunger strike, seeks to transform complete helplessness into a symbolic weapon at the risk of death. This can succeed, provided there is a modicum of humanity and a public that is ready to be outraged. Under totalitarian conditions, this weapon remains blunt, of course, like the forlorn gesture of the young man who stood alone in front of a tank at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with nothing but his jacket in his hand on June 5th, 1989. Only after his cause was lost, did his action become politically effective in the form of a widely circulated photograph.

In summer 2013, Erdem Gündüz, a choreographer, remained standing for many hours, hands thrust into his trouser pockets, in a still and silent standing protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul. Demonstrations against a construction project in neighboring Gezi Park had been ongoing for several days and had therefore been banned by the government. After initially hesitating, the police recognized the potential of this gesture — being taken up by more and more protesters — to arouse the crowd and used force to disperse the silently standing crowd that was threatening to grow. The message was clear, as strong as the message of the Russian demonstrators against the war in Ukraine in the spring of 2022, who only needed to hold up a sheet of white paper to attract the attention of Putin’s “security” forces. Their goal is the most important and elementary form of standstill, which at the same time, is the highest stage in the civilization of a species that is warlike per se — the ceasefire.


Today, standing still as an intervention by people in the continuity of the social, political, and economic spheres is almost always disagreement, protest. It is the subjective objection to the blind power of circumstances — always fighting a losing battle but by no means in vain. A standstill becomes an option particularly when we notice that this continuum, the so-called “draw of time,” is no longer moving in the right direction, when “progress” is no longer the solution but the problem. When progress becomes regressive, to stop, opt out, endure, and slow down becomes progressive. “Stop!” — this calls on us to pause for breath, to stop carrying on blindly with what is entrenched in us, which at best, can give us a new hold.

A standstill becomes an option particularly when we notice that this continuum, the so-called “draw of time,” is no longer moving in the right direction, when “progress” is no longer the solution but the problem.

Have we not already gone so far that virtually every action becomes reactionary in this sense, and instead, standstill as resistance becomes the most reasonable option? Is it not true that the new virtues of an environmental policy have for a long time been more about leaving and refraining than about doing? In this way, standing still, as a pause, is definitely political: braking, stopping, interrupting, disturbing, sand in the wheels. When many people do this, we have a “movement.” The form of action they take is no longer the protest march but individual renouncement of a culture of mindless consumption, be it in the mass production of shopping malls or in the veritable treasure trove of online stores that organize supply chains and flows across the world from the sweatshops in South Asia right up to the living rooms in the West. This kind of standstill not only puts a halt to the destructive exploitation of people and nature but also generates just the opposite — time.

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