In this new column, Body Language, Tracy O’Neill considers how our physical selves relate to one another and the world.
I used to work at a spot where people would wait in line for hours for the privilege of being tousled by strangers while spending their money on drinks made by dreamers who thought expressing themselves meant wearing ostentatious half-outfits. Outside, corralled by velvet ropes and stanchions, imminent patrons learned to mark time in people. They became experts. “Five girls ago, the bouncer said forty-five minutes, so it will be at least another thirty,” they would calculate for newcomers; in the face of doubt they would flash their credentials: “ We’ve been waiting since there were people wrapped around the block!” Their smugness was born of having inched closer to the place whose worth was validated by the length of its line—that is, by its very inefficiency.
When I looked outside those weekends, I didn’t get it. Waiting in line has always threatened my sense of well-being, due to an early introduction to grocery shopping. I wait, and no matter where I am, I am wedged between the grates of carts piled with frozen peas and pearl onions, and the line is starving me. It denies my survival instincts, my hunger, all the bottom-tier Maslovian needs. In queue, one becomes aggrieved by a burdensome load that needs to be held up, and the load is one’s own body, this thing whose exigencies—pissing, eating, resting, willful sedation—register as a more immediate part of the self. In line, you cannot ignore the intelligence of the flesh. It is not incidental to cerebral processes and a winning personality — all the smart things done at a desk. You are a thwarted full bladder that can earn no preferential treatment with the mind. The senses hyperventilate.
But for those who file patiently, the line is flirting. Every minute is almost being kissed by someone witty. It is knowing the gun hung in Act One will go off in the right direction. It is silently rehearsing the acceptance speech, and it is a faith in the social contract: Follow the rules, receive rewards. In line, time passes in fits of bodies dropping off—just like everywhere else, if you take the long view. But the phenomenon appears less horrifying in a limited visual field. If human bodies equate to some material quantity of minutes, this appears to evidence some correspondence between the body and time. One’s turn will come.
At my old job, I sometimes saw full-grown men point, their voices high and tight-throated as they with quivering fingers sputtered, “Cutter! Cutter!” at offenders. The sense of injustice was primal, urgent. Someone else was going to be gratified instantly, and what, after all, in a neoliberal society, is more of an insult than another individual being compensated without laboring for it? In this paradigm, patience is a virtue. You do not buy until you’ve built up the credit line. We are told good things come to those who wait, and we rarely acknowledge that there is always a VIP entrance—not always with bottles of champagne and unpoliced drugs and balcony seating—but a privileged entrance nonetheless: the first house loan from parents who are “comfortable but not wealthy,” command of Western social cues, birthright citizenship, and so on.
The literature of the queue realizes the illusions built into the line’s simple form. Olga Grushin’s The Line tells the story of a year-long line for a trumped-up concert fabricated by authorities to filter out “undesirable elements.” In Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue , a doctor searches for the place where waiting people will have their needs satisfied, and cannot find it: “He walked as far as he could towards the front, but never arrived.” The doctor can wait, but he will never not wait, either. Sometimes what appears to be a line is really a geometric ray that begins at one point and extends indefinitely. It can be a technology of control; as Vladimir Sorokin wrote, queues in Soviet Russia “rendered maximally governable” the collective body.
Still, there are those who believe the line, if not the shape of fairness, provides a modicum of visibility that will ensure safety. As one of Aziz’s characters reasons, “at least no one had disappeared there.”
Recently, when Instagram announced the replacement of its chronology in favor of a Facebook-style algorithm, panicked citizens of Twitter complained with the hashtag #RIPinstagram and creative spellings of the word “chronological.” A change.org petition was issued. Everyone’s selfies would not get an equal shake! Mediocre food porn would cede attention to pornier food porn! Baby Frankie’s first birthday photos would be cut in the feed by Blue Ivy’s everything.
But the grievances were more than histrionics. The chronological feed, where user contributions to social networks appear in order of the moment of sharing, is the digital analog to the physical line. At a time when experiences are both increasingly online and increasingly orchestrated by opaque algorithms constructed of unknown inputs, there is a longing for the apparent transparency and equity physically manifest in the line: first come, first served.
On other platforms, we know the algorithms exist but not their criteria, rules, recipe, nor why our presences are sometimes disappeared. We know that what we see in our feeds—what we are fed—is only a fraction of the text and images produced and shared by our friends, but we don’t know how this media is selected for us. We know that our internet searches glean results ranked and returned to us by Google, but not the epistemological assumptions underlying the hierarchy of relevance that organizes information. The production of authority is, then, mysterious. We hunt, peck, press buttons, and call the impulse for the quick fix “customization”; we believe that investing in individuality means not needing to choose. Choosing is slow.
Legal scholar Frank Pasquale argues that secret algorithms, or “black boxes,” are “a signal that information imbalances have gone too far.” Without knowing the composition of these algorithms, it’s impossible to say just how many VIP entrances there are, or whether we are served as well as everyone else. It’s enough to make us miss the long line, where at least it was clear that most other people were passing minutes as we were, a collection of bodies in pursuit.
What writers like Sorokin, Grushin, and Aziz convey is that sometimes the very inefficiency of lines opens space to be surprised. In The Queue, one man waits bloodily for a bullet to be removed from his body, while other characters move in and out of alliances, businesses, friendships. The queue-goers in Sorokin’s novel find love. One of Grushin’s tries to save a man’s life. The queue presses strangers together, and bodies—unlike online identities embedded in personalized interfaces—are never just waiting; they’re in friction, feeling against the plan.
It is hard to imagine being exhilarated by the swift algorithmic turnaround of search results, but I have, on rare occasion, during lapses in grumpiness and momentary lack of concern for productivity, been exhilarated by the possibilities of the line. Once, a kind guy for whom I was only ever able to muster laborious fondness broke up with me in the line for a show at the Mercury Lounge. It was a Friday. He could not bear me through the end of the weekend, or even until we got inside, and the decisiveness was thrilling. Waiting can prompt urgent sensing, and that night what was urgent was the insufficiency of our comfortable apathy. In line, inconvenienced by choice, the perception of what convenience is worth reconfigures. You realize, in filed constraint, that you are always free to feel, that sometimes you will be surprised, and that being surprised means getting something you hadn’t necessarily sought.
Grushin’s character Sergei muses after standing in queue:
They had arrived at the end of this strange, long year with seemingly nothing to show for it, with, if anything, things lost . . . and yet he felt his world to be so much larger now, and, too, felt so much larger himself, as though in the course of this year of hoping, of waiting, this year of doing nothing, he had, without noticing, stepped across an invisible line and been taken apart, piece by piece, then put together again; but the order of the pieces was subtly different, or else they fit together in a different, looser way, with spaces left between them for air, or light, or music, or perhaps something else altogether, something ineffable that made him feel more alive.
You cannot wait for a secret, black box or otherwise. Its reception is its undoing. But you can stand on feet that ache, the body reminding itself to the mind, and sometimes the orientation toward transforms to a being between —between bodies in an uncustomized world. Suddenly, the weird impresses, results unsorted, and the nerves laugh at the misconception that quickly gratified expectations are the formula for the full, blooming life. Where after all, is the feeling in a streamlined user experience? Where is the space for the world to grow larger?
I remember a night when a patron at my old job, irritated by the time she had spent waiting and then by the manager’s lack of sympathy for her duress, turned on him. It was 10 p.m. and she wanted relief. At other hours of her life, perhaps she had an assistant or intern, sent professional emails in full block style. But in front of the club, she pounded her fist, got loud.
“What’s your name, motherfucker?” she said. “I’m reporting you to the owner, motherfucker. Do you understand I’m from Brooklyn, California, motherfucker?”
The manager asked if she had a pencil to write his name down and when she retrieved a pen spoke slowly.
“M-O-T-H,” he began. Laughter came before the final letter.
It’s been a long time since I worked there, but still on Saturday nights, people chasing frisson deliver themselves to the sidewalk. There are always too many already inside. So they wait, being more than enough, and bodies stand in for minutes, tick toward the threshold; down the line , they become the future, and no one knows what the future will hold.
Tracy O’Neill’s fiction workshop, co-taught with Jonathan Lee, begins August 16th. Apply now.