The Antechamber
Toward a History of Waiting
Helmut Puff



Waiting means being no stranger to paradox.

—Andrea Köhler, Passing Time

The present study is animated by the apprehension that temporalities have frequently been obliterated from social analysis and cultural criticism. With its focus on times operative in a type of room, The Antechamber seeks to set an example to the contrary. We will visit societies and spaces of the past through the lens of a particular temporal modality: waiting.

Before we embark on this endeavor, let us take stock of the magnitude of the task at hand. “We necessarily express ourselves by means of words and we usually think in terms of space” is the opening salvo from Henri Bergson’s 1888 treatise Time and Free Will—a foundational essay on the problem of time’s perceptibility.1 Almost 150 years later, the contemporary geologist Marcia Bjornerud detects “a pervasive, stubborn, and dangerous temporal illiteracy in our society.”2 A conceptual hierarchy that prioritizes the spatial prevents us from recognizing that in late modern societies “temporal norms . . . have become dominant,” in the words of another critic.3 Despite these and other calls to change course, the obstacles to carving out how actions acquire meanings through socially mandated or culturally negotiated temporal protocols remain considerable.

The sociological literature that tackles social time, timing, and timekeeping has for the most part pursued one tagline: acceleration. In a dizzying array of publications, Hartmut Rosa, for instance, has proclaimed our times to be an “Age of Acceleration.” The insight that time as a resource is scarce at precisely a moment when human life expectancy has been on the rise (at least for those privileged enough to have access to health care and other services), serves as the linchpin of his social theory.4 Acceleration’s contradictions notwithstanding, this sociologist hypothesizes that Western societies are entering an era that amounts to a dictatorship of speed.

Theorists of modernity have persistently envisioned modern times as ever faster, more mechanized, efficient, attentive only to their own rhythms—a sense of historical progression that necessarily distances us from the past, and quickly so.5 This focus on speed is such an all-comprehensive theme that it risks swallowing all reflection on speed’s other: slow or still times, of which waiting is one.6 Even in our age of “frantic standstill,” interstitial times persist.7 With regard to technological innovations, Judy Wajcman contends that “the simultaneous production of fast time spaces with those of remarkable slowness” constitutes a temporal pattern in contemporary societies in the West.8 In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic, with its waves defined by the virus’s mutants, has upended restless everyday rhythms on an unprecedented scale, globally.9 My goal in this study is a modest one: to nudge practices of waiting and letting others wait above the threshold of our perception when studying society and culture.

If “modernity is speed,”10 as many critics contend with rhetorical verve and an armature of observations, then premodernity must represent its opposite.11 According to this story line, times before the advent of what passes as modern were everything that contemporary societies are not: slow, steady, predictable. It is said that people back then viewed their existence as part of a cosmologically defined order whose cyclical nature grounded one’s life. What is a precious resource today must have been in good supply before industrial production, mass society, the bureaucratic state, and digital devices turned time into a scarce commodity. Whereas today we live for a future we hope to be part of, if not help bring about, people in the past lived in the present. Wherever they lived or live, whether in Africa, Asia, or Europe, “premoderns” and “nonmoderns” were or are little troubled by the irrelevant past or the unknowable future. Thanks to the religious certainties anchoring their communities, these people escaped and escape the mere functionalism of work-related stress in a globalized capitalism run amok.

To be sure, there are a great many versions of this vast terrain of assumptions.12 At the same time, critics in this vein often treat the past like a projection screen: “Pre-moderns were fated to live in a world in which their existence unfolded in a steady rhythm from birth, to death and beyond. Time was predictable and inescapably infinite, saturated with ideas of singular determination and first cause. . . . In the context of circular time, we waited for fate, that is, determination, or alternatively the intercession of magic or prophesy in order to break or confirm this circle of determination. Waiting for the future was subordinated to, or subsumed by, determination.”13 The author marshals a chorus of luminaries to buttress his claim about premodern restfulness: Marcel Mauss, Stephen Hawking, John Berger, Norbert Elias, and Charles Taylor. Yet no studies of temporizations as experienced trouble a capriccio whose main, if not sole, purpose is to provide a historical backdrop to the apparently ever faster lockstep of modern life.

The author wouldn’t have had to look far. The 2009 volume in which John Rundell’s contribution appeared features a study of how Tibetan nomads time their existence. Their relationship to time, as Gillian G. Tan demonstrates, is strikingly dynamic: “In their interdependent and attentive interactions with their environment, [social] structures and each other, [the Tibetan nomads] have achieved an attitude that does not attempt to grasp or fix.”14 Different registers—the microclimate, time-honored practices of old, the behavior of neighbors in the present, to name but a few—inform complex decision-making processes about what to do next in an environment where being alert is of the essence because of water, food, and energy scarcities. If there is a commonality to how so-called pre- or nonmoderns in various parts of the globe inhabited or inhabit the temporal dimension of their lives, it is the layered texture of their experience—different from that of “moderns,” to be sure, yet tangled, existential, and affectively charged nonetheless.15

In this context, focusing on scenarios of waiting offers a chance for us to catch our breath. Let us embark on the task to forge new narratives amid the staccato of an ever faster discourse on acceleration—narratives where past and present temporalities come to resonate in novel ways.

“Waiting” is one temporal modality that makes time—according to Norbert Elias, time eludes the senses—experiential.16 Waiting portions out the flow of time; its temporal horizon has humans situate themselves in expectation of what is to come. Such an expectation is predicated, at least for routine social interactions, on a memory of similar experiences one has had or knows about. This strong anticipatory horizon sets “waiting” apart from similar states of the mind, such as tarrying, hesitating, or dithering.17

How long and what we are waiting for shapes how we, as waiters, experience the time we spend during temporal in-betweens.18 It matters whether we wait for the birth of a child or the diagnosis of an unknown ailment, whether we are standing at a bus stop to go to work or longing to hear from a lover. A prisoner waits differently for his imminent release than an overworked employee for a long-awaited vacation. Waiting for the Messiah near the end of times is unlike waiting for a person’s death to arrive. Still, all these experiences have something in common. No matter what one expects to occur, waiting can be said to be a bounded condition in which time becomes actual. It is a temporal modality tied to the prospect of a future conceived to be within reach—a state different from existential or open-ended waiting.19 Waiting for something or someone is thus both situational and generative.

What merits consideration, among other things, is the fact that waiting triggers responses in waiters: joyful anticipation, anxious reflection, bored indifference, fledgling tedium, and so on. Why confront the cluster of feelings and states of mind or body that waiting unleashes in those who wait? To answer this question, I turn to Vincent Crapanzano, an anthropologist who, planning to study the “effects of domination on everyday life” in South Africa under apartheid, instead arrived at writing about white South Africans, whose waiting shaped their lives:

To talk about dread, angst, guilt, or being overwhelmed, all of which are components of the experience of waiting, adds a metaphysical dimension, a melodramatic tension, to the very ordinary experience I am trying to describe. Such terms “elevate” the experience. They give it importance. They permit a sort of moral indulgence, a taking comfort, in it. Symptoms of the ordinary, they mask the ordinary. It is precisely this masking that has to be avoided. Waiting—the South African experience—must be appreciated in all of its banality. Therein lies its pity—and its humanity.20

Despite its wealth of emotions, waiting often is considered dead time, “untime,” or nontime. To some, this state equals a state of deprivation, namely an inability to act on one’s own accord, or a state of dependency, if not a temporary loss of subjectivity. Precisely for this reason, “waiting can be the most intense and poignant of all human experiences,” as W. H. Vanstone proposes.21

Although we often like to think otherwise, being human necessarily entails being in need, whether we are children, frail, sick, or elderly. Even if adult and compos mentis et corporis, we might join the ranks of those who rely on others at any moment. As “patients,” we endure. Where assistance in times of need is a matter of course, we wait for assistance. We hope for support or survival where such infrastructures of collective welfare are lacking. In Vanstone’s words, “one is frustrated not because the system constantly fails to deliver” (which, of course, it does) “but because one must constantly wait for it to deliver—because one has no alternative to waiting.”22 For Vanstone, Emmanuel Lévinas, and others, living in time and waiting are inextricable—a form of Heideggerian phenomenology with a theological-temporal twist.23

For social scientists, waiting has fewer ontological qualities. Rather than seeing it as indexical of the human condition per se, they interpret interstitial times as politically, socially, and culturally conditioned. Although waiting has to be tolerated individually, it actually forms an integral part of sociability. Whether the wait time one experiences is imposed or someone willingly subjects themselves to it, waiting enlists those who wait in its ranks. Waiters are removed from the activities that would fill their hours ordinarily. Intermittent waiting therefore disrupts routines while reorienting us toward other beings or infrastructures whom we rely on to end this in-between state. In this sense, waiting’s characteristics are about more than the strictures put in place by those in a position of power or authority. In many ways, waiting is structured time. An individual child’s capacity to calculate potential gains in the immediate future and choose to wait longer in order to be rewarded has been considered an indication of strength of character and, possibly, future educational or professional success, for instance.24 Waiting is both an activity and an inactivity, a collective and an individual condition (sometimes simultaneously), and these dualities make it a modality worthy of critical attention.

In a study of feminist artworks on women in hospitality, Irina Aristarkhova reminds us that “waiting is not expected equally from all people. . . . Some people (such as those in need of refuge, or approval, or another type of actual or social capital) are expected to spend more time in waiting than others.”25 Put differently, waiting scenarios reflect the distribution of power in a society. Importantly, these asymmetries concern people on the move: refugees from war zones, areas ravished by climate change, failing states, and other places of deprivation across the globe. They wait for food; they wait for passage; they wait for a visa or a stamp or some other recognition from the authorities; they search for a job; and they wait for friends and family members to join them. For shorter or longer periods of time, they live in a state of latency with high stakes, limited opportunities, and, in some cases, life-threatening risks.26

But they are not the only ones who are waiting. Those who stayed behind, be they kin or friends, are often looking for news from those who left, for transfers of money, or for cues about how to follow on the same migratory paths. The children of the Eastern Europeans who work in Western Europe as caretakers, agricultural workers, or in other professions wait for a call or a visit; they grow up getting to see their parents only occasionally.27

Modern bureaucracies, in particular, have made waiting an institutional mandate.28 In a seminal account of how delays shape the workings of businesses, hospitals, publishing houses, and the like, the sociologist Barry Schwartz concluded in the mid-1970s that variations in waiting times reflect the distribution of power in a social system. What is more, how people wait—the time spans they are made to wait, their willingness to wait, their discontent with having to wait, the meaning they attribute to the wait, and how they narrate their waits—varies according to race, class, gender, profession, context, and culture.29 In this context, Schwartz also touches on the impact of waiting spaces when discussing the “atmosphere of the waiting room” that can be orchestrated to produce a certain effect.30 In Beyond Caring (1986), the photographer Paul Graham famously captured rooms in the UK’s social security centers. What we get to see are neglected spaces, filled with rows of plastic chairs, adorned with handwritten signs or posters peeling from the walls: spaces populated with apathetic waiters worn down by their plight (which we can only imagine) and, viewers are led to assume, a long wait.31

In a meditation on Blaise Pascal, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu sees social stratification imbricated with temporizations: “Waiting implies submission.”32 The powerful control time, their own and that of others. As a result, paradoxically, those in positions of power lack time. Because they are in high demand, their schedules are tight. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the powerless. The jobless, undocumented, and refugees not only command large quantities of time; their marginality is constituted, in part, by the inability of some of them to partake in temporal and other regimes that would allow them to make economic, political, and other demands to improve their lot. For those who are so powerless that they live apart from the civic horizons that make up the welfare state, restitutions, reparations, and caretaking are hard to come by.

This is why transitory spaces for the privileged sometimes serve as a refuge for the less fortunate. Mehran Narimi Kazeri, for example, lived permanently in the “non-places” of Charles de Gaulle Airport.33 After having been denied entry into the UK for lack of identification, and with no visa that would have allowed him to enter France, this international traveler without papers was stuck in the airport’s departure lounges for eighteen years. Starting August 26, 1988, he lived confined to one particular area—he relocated to another area owing to renovations and other changes—where he slept, ate, washed, read, studied, guarded his belongings, and wrote a diary until he was moved to a hospital to receive medical treatment in 2006; after living in a Paris shelter for many years, he moved back to CDG Airport, Terminal 2F, shortly before his death in November of 2022.34 Waiting became his life, as his autobiography says:

I am sitting on my red bench from the Bye Bye Bar in the middle of Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting to leave.

I am waiting for a green card so I can go to America. I am waiting for a British passport so I can go to England. I am waiting for my documentation so I can go anywhere.

I have been sitting on my red bench from the Bye Bye Bar in the middle of Charles de Gaulle airport waiting to leave for fifteen years.35

It is rare for those who are waiting to address others as waiters while waiting. If their cause enters the public purview, others usually speak in their stead or on their behalf. Insofar as those who wait form a group, they are hardly ever heard. The impermanence of their state, as well as their isolation, even if they wait with others, works against their mobilizing. When those who once waited have moved on, their concerns may no longer be what they were when they were waiting. As a rule, those who have waited speak about what it means to wait, as a rule, only in retrospect, if at all.

In this sense, The Terminal Man qualifies as an exception. Sir Alfred Mehran addresses the reader as a Wartesubjekt. But the autobiography published under his adopted name transcends waiting’s liminality by embracing it as permanent—an outlook that echoes how prominent writers, philosophers, literary theorists, and essayists had cast waiting in the twentieth century (Roland Barthes, Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, Martin Heidegger, Franz Kafka, Siegfried Kracauer, and Michael Rutschky, to name but a few).36 As a result, waiting for an identity metamorphoses into waiting as an identity, or so goes the story we get to read.

Judging from the quotations of Mehran’s diary that form part of The Terminal Man’s textual score, it is likely that his coauthor, Andrew Donkin, took an active part in shaping this waiter’s account. What is clear is that Sir Alfred Mehran erased traces of his bureaucratic self that possibly would have allowed him to make a home elsewhere than in a transit area. Whether he actually was Iranian (which he denied) and the identity of his parents were questions the authorities waited to see answered. Ultimately, this migrant turned the tables on those who were ready, if not eager, to right his situation (or simply were worn out by the media attention he received) and had them wait in turn for answers.

Indeed, over the years he was waiting and living in CDG Airport, he became a global celebrity. Journalists interviewed him; he received mail from all over the world; immigration lawyers took up his cause; his fate, it is said, inspired the Steven Spielberg film The Terminal (2004) (though no member of the director’s team seems to have contacted him); and Sir Alfred Mehran played a role in inspiring the British composer Jonathan Dove to compose The Flight (1998), an opera that has become a theatrical success.

If many people were touched by Sir Alfred Mehran’s waiting in permanence, it is, in part, because we can relate. Truth be told, we have all been “there.” Many of us know the experience of being stuck somewhere for some time, though most of us extricate ourselves from this state.37 When young, we wait to become grown-ups; adolescence is often experienced as an exercise in extended waiting for something we know will come, though we are unsure what it will be like. In other words, scenarios of waiting invite identification. We are tempted to project our ideas, memories, or affects about waiting onto others whose waiting we learn about, different structures of liminality manifest in different waiting scenarios notwithstanding.

Anthropologists have recently begun to cast the social phenomenon of waiting as multiform. Waiting, it is said, is formative for those who wait. Craig Jeffrey, one of the doyens of critical studies on waiting, excavated its potential as a basis for political formation among young male students from an agricultural background in Meerut, India, in the early 2000s. In defiance of middle-class codes of behavior, these men performed “timepass” near their university’s campus—chatting, playing games, and doing nothing—thereby alerting the public to the fact that they lived in limbo against their will. Lacking the job opportunities they once were promised, they mobilized collectively as chronic waiters, brokering negotiations with local officials on occasion.38 In Argentina’s government agencies, those hoping to receive assistance from the state assist each other, exchanging information, stories, food, and childcare.39

Rebecca Rotter argues that long-term waiting among asylum seekers in the UK (whom she observed over the course of one year) is not simply lost time, nor is it seen as such among those who hope to be able to stay. Accordingly, waiting qualifies as a state that helps those kept in suspense against their will to home in on horizons of expectations and anticipate what is to come (rest assured, her research is not meant as a blueprint for making people wait, though I cannot guarantee that it won’t be used in this way).40 Similarly, while saying they are “just waiting,” people in contemporary Kyrgyzstan achieve a whole range of things, tending to relationships, possessions, and little futures. For post-Soviet Georgia, Martin Demant Frederiksen exposes the precarity of the “politics of hope.” A young and rapidly aging generation is haunted by the lingering presence of past conflicts. Without much of an education or a job, these Georgians find themselves unable to partake in their country’s national reconfiguration.41 In sum, anthropologists have discovered multiple and complex forms of agency in waiting, this supposedly passive state. If we follow their findings, waiting’s agency is haphazard, momentary, and unstable, though undoubtedly present.42

The moment has come to explore the potent ways by which waiting in its different registers and rhythms structures societies and meaning-making, in the present as well as in the past. And what we need, above all, are empirical studies. My goal in these introductory pages has been to turn the reader’s attention to an evanescent yet semantically rich mode. Waiting, thus viewed, proves a paradoxical, powerful, and prolific guide to social relations.

But does waiting have a history? This study argues that it does, and it proposes to anchor an exploration in spaces where people waited—“architectures of waiting” like the zones for travelers that we encountered through the eyes of Sir Alfred Mehran.43 Such built spaces envelop and outlast individual waiters, and they offer a potent heuristic to explore modalities of waiting. They shed light not only on those who wait but also on a gamut of social actors—be they elites, bureaucrats, or architects—who make others wait and are responsible for forging the messages these spaces impart to waiters. In short, rooms designed for those who spend time in limbo have a lot to tell us about what it meant and means to keep others waiting or to be kept waiting. As stations, airports, hospitals, and public agencies show, such in-between areas coordinate human interactions, means of transport, and public services, whether medical, business-related, or governmental. This book explores temporal interstices as part of interactions within a specific architectural infrastructure: the antechamber in late medieval and early modern Europe.

The “structures of waiting” I have in mind for this endeavor invoke the “structures of feeling”—a concept the late Raymond Williams elaborated over many years. As a battle cry for a restorative criticism, this formulation countervails the “reduction of the social to fixed forms,” meanings, and values in sociocultural analysis, instead inciting accounts with a focus on processes of becoming and meaning-making.44 Time, space, and experience are not givens, Williams contends. They are always lived, and as a result, our descriptions ought to strive to capture them in flux and on the move. Situating interstitial waiting in the concrete circumstances of a particular space, The Antechamber aims for such history-writing in process.

In fact, the intersection of the temporal and the visual or spatial forms the basis of the word waiting.45 Its root combines the semantic layers of “to watch” and “to lie in wait for.”46 In medieval English and German, the word conjures up turning one’s watchful eye to the perils on the horizon.47 As a temporal-spatial condition, waiting provides those who wait with the opportunity to prepare for what is or may be coming their way. If we are on guard, in other words, we can be ready for those who approach us. Being alert in this fashion entails imagining the immediate future with tense anticipation: Who are the persons moving toward the watchful observer and waiter? What kind of encounter will ensue?

Chronotope, or “space-time,” is how the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin captures the “intrinsic connectedness of the temporal and the spatial.”48 His “historical poetics” traces literary representations of space and of time in texts or genres from antiquity to the present. As Bakhtin acknowledges, this term pays homage to the theory of relativity. According to Albert Einstein, space and time always and everywhere are entwined in the physical world.49 He speaks of the “space-time continuum,” a term the physicist Carlo Rovelli recasts as “spacetime.”50

New conceptions of spacetime such as Einstein’s abounded in early twentieth-century Europe, when scholars, writers, and artists explored afresh the grand question of how humans come to inhabit time and space in new media and with different technologies.51 Their explorations of temporal-spatial relations shattered mechanistic or monadic conceptions of both.52 Approaching schizophrenia as a particular engagement of time, space, and, ultimately, reality, the psychoanalyst-phenomenologist Eugène Minkowski coined the term lived time (temps vécu).53 Jean Piaget investigated children’s distinct temporal and spatial sensibilities.54 In a series of exploratory texts, Ernst Bloch uncovered the layered temporalities that engulfed German society on the eve of National Socialism.55 From a variety of angles, these and other critics discovered spacetime in the social world to be eminently variable, as well as consequential.56

While many such approaches commented on space and time as larger-than-life categories of cognition, others attended to spatiotemporal constellations on a human scale. For Walter Benjamin, the urban stroller scans and surveys outmoded spaces of urban commerce, the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris.57 In this unfinished project, one passage compares the flâneur to the waiter. Their “apperceptions” of time, he suggests, differ—radically so. They are antitypes: the latter fixates on the clock, the former does not; the flâneur has an interest in the past, the waiter looks to the immediate future; the latter’s vision is moored to a circumscribed space, the former’s gaze reaches far and wide.58 In addition, the one is privileged in that flânerie is an activity engaged in by a member of the leisure class, whereas interpersonal waiting, as a rule, is replete with intentions, strategies, and aspirations of the less privileged, who do not command their time fully. Likewise, in the pages that follow, I examine the small futures that waiting compels us to investigate, pursuing everyday interactions rather than time and space as categories writ large.

*   *   *

This book comprises three chapters: “Times,” “Spaces,” and “Encounters.” Each chapter takes the reader on a journey through continental Western Europe during the early modern period. All three culminate in the eighteenth century, with a focus on the Holy Roman Empire. Its tapestry of territories, the German lands, which boasted many courts and cities, allows us to reconnoiter Europe-wide phenomena.

The first chapter takes its departure from the finding that the early modern period knew no explicit discourse or theory of waiting. “Times” approximates how early moderns conceived of what it meant to live in time. Notions of time often revolved around acting—an ethical field defined by one’s situatedness and one’s opportunities with regard to one’s plans. Through proverbs, poems, maxims, treatises, novels, and visuals, early moderns learned to become aware of what was possible and advisable to do at any given moment. Their temporal present was not so much defined by chronometers. Rather, they lived in an ever-evolving present—a present structured by frames of actions, occasions, and expectations. This expansive present of constant change was a restless, ever-endangered place: an experiential register of hatching plans, waiting for opportunities, and revising these same plans. In other words, it was a present that required being alert, attentive, and ready to act, even if this entailed deferring action until circumstances were more favorable to one’s intents.

“Times” sets counterpoints to the burgeoning historiography on time, with its emphasis on technologies of timekeeping as instigating change. How may time have drawn subjects into its ambit? This is one of the questions this chapter seeks to answer. In the process, I muddy the distinction many critics have inferred between the supposed slowness of premodern times and the supposedly fast pace of modern times. Importantly, the pocketed time that is ours to act (in reference to Baltasar Gracián’s Pocket Oracle) is a temporal sensibility centered on the personal.

The second chapter, “Spaces,” pursues the idea that antechambers, as built structures, were anything but neutral. The owners, residents, or their ancestors constructed, furnished, and decorated the spatial vessels where people waited to interact with other people. Through their size, imagery, and accoutrements, these rooms communicated, and as in the case of other architectures of waiting, they shaped and were meant to shape the experience of those who spent time there. What messages did these spaces forge? To be sure, no specific iconographic programs existed for this type of room. As different examples of anterooms show, they intimidated, impressed, informed, or entertained waiters (if not a combination thereof). Yet the occasionalist ethics readers will encounter in “Times” also ran through these spaces. At times, such images encouraged waiters to seize opportunities or premeditate their actions. Chapter 2 thus traces the historical trajectory of such architectural receptacles from the palatial buildings of late medieval Europe to the antechamber as an architectural standard for members of the elites in the eighteenth century.

Finally, “Encounters.” Spending time in anticipation of an encounter was and is an integral part of social life in stratified societies. The temporal intervals imposed on people were a constitutive element in the production of power, status, and authority. Yet in late medieval and early modern societies, interactions between unequals increasingly happened indoors.

How long did people have to wait? What were their chances of being admitted? What could one do to increase the likelihood of getting access? What may have been the sentiments, affects, and emotions that shaped waiting in the antechamber? Was the antechamber a place to bond with or talk to others kept in limbo? What were the codes of behavior operative in the antechamber?

Importantly, interactions on the thresholds between ante- and audience chambers did not simply reflect a rigid hierarchy in a period when everyone knew their place. Given the tussle between lineage, offices, and favoritism, access was contingent on the basis of protocol, precedent, and other factors. Antespaces therefore emerge as a stage where the vagaries of status were enacted as if they were certain. In short, there was great variety in how outsiders were welcomed and treated. To be sure, this type of room brought about a tightening of opportunities to interact with a person of station, as well as a delay in bringing about such an interaction. Thus viewed, the antechamber constituted a key space in a complex social arena.

This chapter sounds out how waiting in the antechamber played out with regard to a number of specific incidents and encounters. Selected court ordinances, images, diaries, memoirs, and letters offer insights into waiting scenarios in the antechamber. During the Enlightenment, one can hear the clocks ticking in the rooms where those who waited roamed. From the vantage point of an industrious society, waiting was time spent unproductively; time that could and should have been put to better uses simply ticked away.

In sum, waiting was part and parcel of early modern sociability. Learning how to bide one’s time while hoping for an encounter was an important lesson many people needed to master. So the antechambers, with their amenities and discomforts, were a central site in early modern culture, and this culture endures, as my conclusion shows.

An investigation into the history of waiting necessarily rubs against the limits of archives that, all too often, revolve around outcomes. By contrast, how events acquired meaning as processes is difficult to know. Yet a history of waiting has the potential to disrupt history as we have come to know it; a history of waiting is impossible to conceive in a linear fashion. By necessity, it is episodic. But such episodes are not impossible to piece together from the shards of letters, etiquette manuals, chronicles, prints, and other documents we have mined frequently, though mostly for other ends, without giving attention to how temporal corsets or time-bound routines shaped people’s lives. In that sense, waiting’s histories—and I hope there will be many—are capable of revealing the structures, strictures, and possibilities of waiting.

Map of Europe showing placenames mentioned in the book (illustration by Matilde Grimaldi).


1. Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will, an Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. Frank Lubecki Pogson (London: G. Allen, 1913), xix; Henri Bergson, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, 5th ed. (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1906), vii (Avant-propos): “Nous nous exprimons nécessairement par des mots, et nous pensons le plus souvent dans l’espace.” See also Anthony Giddens, “Time, Space, Social Change,” in Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 198–233.

2. Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: How Thinking like a Geologist Can Help Save the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 7.

3. Hartmut Rosa, Weltbeziehungen im Zeitalter der Beschleunigung: Umrisse einer neuen Gesellschaftskritik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2012), 299.

4. Rosa, Weltbeziehungen, 204, 284–85, 316–19, and 205.

5. In Faster! The Acceleration of Just About Everything (New York: Pantheon, 1999), James Gleick explores particularly how humans are not necessarily subjected to but are complicit in the acceleration they suffer from. See also Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age (London: Pluto, 2001); William E. Scheuermann, Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); and Judy Wajcman, Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

6. Jason Farman, Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

7. Rosa, Weltbeziehungen, 196–99; Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013); Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering, trans. Daniel Steuer (Cambridge: Polity, 2017). A history of the various slow movements and their genealogies remains to be written; see, however, Caleb Smith, “Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age,” Critical Inquiry 45 (Summer 2019): 884–909.

8. Wajcman, Pressed for Time, 173.

9. David Caron, “Waiting = Death: COVID-19, the Struggle for Racial Justice, and the AIDS Pandemic,” in Being Human During COVID, ed. Kristin Hass (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021), 93–116.

10. Eriksen, Tyranny of the Moment, 169.

11. Matthew Champion, “A Fuller History of Temporalities,” Past & Present 243 (2019): 255–66. See also Daniel Lord Smail and Andrew Shryock, “History and the ‘Pre,’American Historical Review 118 (2013): 709–37.

12. As examples, see Rebecca Solnit, “The Annihilation of Time and Space,” New England Review 24, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 5–19, esp. 15–16; and Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 17–26.

13. John Rundell, “Temporal Horizons of Modernity and Modalities of Waiting,” in Waiting, ed. Ghassan Hage (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2009), 39–52, 39.

14. Gillian G. Tan, “Senses of Waiting among Tibetan Nomads,” in Waiting, ed. Ghassan Hage (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2009), 66–75, 73.

15. Stefan Hanß, “The Fetish of Accuracy: Perspectives on Early Modern Time(s),” Past & Present 243 (May 2019): 267–284. See also Arndt Brendecke, Ralf-Peter Fuchs, and Edith Koller, eds., Die Autorität der Zeit in der Frühen Neuzeit (Münster: Lit, 2007).

16. Norbert Elias, Time: An Essay (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 3.

17. See Joseph Vogl, On Tarrying, trans. Helmut Müller-Sievers (London: Seagull, 2011).

18. In “Six Types of Waiting in Berlin,” South Atlantic Quarterly 120, no. 2 (April 2021): 279–83, Christine Sun Kim captures different types of waiting and their temporizations through musical notation.

19. Giovanni Gasparini, “On Waiting,” Time and Society 4 (1995): 29–45.

20. Vincent Crapanzano, Waiting: The Whites of South Africa (New York: Random House, 1985), xii, 43.

21. W. H. Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1982), 83.

22. Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting, 49.

23. Emmanuel Lévinas, Wenn Gott ins Denken einfällt: Diskurse über die Betroffenheit von Transzendenz [De Dieu qui vient à l’idée] (Freiburg: Herder [1985], 3rd ed. 1999), 93. Among the many relevant essays and texts by Heidegger, see especially Martin Heidegger, “Abendgespräch in einem Kriegsgefangenenlager in Rußland zwischen einem Jüngeren und einem Älteren,” in Feldweg-Gespräche (1944–45) (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1995), 203–45.

24. See, e.g., Walter Mischel, The Marshmallow Test (New York: Brown, 2014).

25. Irina Aristarkhova, Arrested Welcome: Hospitality in Contemporary Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 29.

26. Here are some select titles from a vast bibliography: Alexander Schunka, “Zeit des Exils: Zur argumentativen Funktion der Zeit bei Zuwanderern im Kursachsen des 17. Jahrhunderts,” in Brendecke, Fuchs, and Koller, Die Autorität der Zeit, 149–68; Salim Lakha, “Waiting to Return Home: Modes of Immigrant Waiting,” in Waiting, ed. Ghassan Hage (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2009), 121–34; Brenda Gray, “Becoming Non-migrant: Lives Worth Waiting For,” Gender, Place and Culture 18 (2011): 417–32; Daniel Kazmaier, Julia Kerschner, and Xenia Wotschal, eds., Warten als Kulturmuster (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2016); Manpreet K. Janeja and Andreas Bandak, eds., Ethnographies of Waiting: Doubt, Hope and Uncertainty (London: Bloomsbury, 2018); Christine M. Jacobsen, Marry-Anne Karlsen, and Shahram Khosravi, eds., Waiting and the Temporalities of Irregular Migration (London: Taylor and Francis / Routledge, 2020).

27. Andrea Diefenbach, Land ohne Eltern (Heidelberg: Kehrer, 2012).

28. Paul E. Corcoran, “Godot Is Waiting Too: Endings in Thought and History,” Theory and Society 18 (1989): 495–529, 511. The late social theorist and historian Alf Lüdtke worked on a talk about waiting in 2018, based on letters written by the German writer Heinrich Böll and other writings. With gratitude to Helga Lüdtke and Jan Wernicke.

29. Barry Schwartz, Queuing and Waiting: Studies in the Social Organization of Access and Delay (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975); Barry Schwartz, “Waiting, Exchange, and Power: The Distribution of Time in Social Systems,” American Journal of Sociology 79 (1974): 841–70.

30. Schwartz, Queuing and Waiting, 140.

31. Paul Graham, Beyond Caring (1986; London: Mack, 2021).

32. Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 228.

33. Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995). Interestingly, the author doesn’t couple his coinage, “non-places,” with its twin, “non-times,” despite hints in this direction at the outset.

34. Jeffrey Schaeffer, “Iranian Who Inspired ‘The Terminal’ Dies at Paris Airport,” Associated Press, Nov. 12, 2022.

35. Sir Alfred Mehran [Mehran Karimi Nazeri] and Andrew Donkin, The Terminal Man: The Extraordinary True Story of the Man Who Has Lived in an Airport Terminal for Sixteen Years (London: Corgi, 2004), 7.

36. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard (London: Penguin, 1990); Maurice Blanchot, Awaiting Oblivion, trans. John Gregg (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997); Siegfried Kracauer, “Those Who Wait,” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 129–40; Michael Rutschky, “Wartezeit,” in Wartezeit: Ein Sittenbild (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1983), 227–42.

37. Rana Dasgupta’s novel Tokyo Cancelled (New York: Black Cat, 2005) imagines passengers stranded at an unspecified airport and spending their time in transit narrating stories.

38. See Craig Jeffrey, Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).

39. Javier Auyero, “Patients of the State: An Ethnographic Account of Poor People’s Waiting,” Latin American Research Review 46, no. 1 (2011): 5–29; Javier Auyero, Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012). See also Lisa Björkman, Waiting Town: Life in Transit and Mumbai’s Other World Class Histories (Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, [2020]).

40. Rebecca Rotter, “Waiting in the Asylum Determination Process: Just an Empty Interlude?” Time & Society 25 (2016): 80–101. The Africans in Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel Go, Went, Gone would strongly disagree; their first priority was to end the wait and work, as they let interlocutors know frequently. The characters are based on conversations with refugees the novelist encountered in Berlin in 2014, as the acknowledgments make evident. See Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone, trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2017). For more information on the novel’s background, see “Writers Speak: Jenny Erpenbeck in Conversation with Claire Messud,” Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University, March 5, 2018, YouTube video (uploaded on June 4, 2018),

41. Martin Demant Frederiksen, Young Men, Time, and Boredom in the Republic of Georgia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 180. See also his “Waiting for Nothing: Nihilism, Doubt, and Difference without Difference in Postrevolutionary Georgia,” in Ethnographies of Waiting: Doubt, Hope and Uncertainty, ed. Manpreet K. Janeja and Andreas Bandak (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 163–80.

42. On the concept of temporal agency and the limits of such agency, see Felix Ringel, “Can Time Be Tricked?” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34 (2016): 22–31; Laura Baer, “Afterword: For a New Materialist Analytics of Time,” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34 (2016): 125–29. See also On Barak, On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013), 209.

43. The formula is from Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Architekturen des Wartens: Bushaltestellen in Armenien, Bahnhöfe der Hejaz-Bahn in Saudi-Arabien, 2nd rev. ed. (Cologne: König, 2007).

44. Raymond Williams, “Structures of Feeling,” in Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 128–35, 129.

45. See also Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Anselm Hollo (1979; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

46. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative, 1996), s.v. “to wait”; Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 95 (s.v. “weg-2”). In Germanic languages, wait replaced bide; see “bīdan-” in Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic, ed. Guus Kroonen (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 277; “bidda” in Old Frisian Etymological Dictionary, ed. Dirk Boutkan and Sjoerd Michiel Siebinga (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 172; Carl Darling Buck, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages; a Contribution to the History of Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 837.

47. Oxford English Dictionary [online], 2nd ed., s.v. “wait”; Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm, digitalisierte Fassung im Wörterbuchnetz des Trier Center for Digital Humanities, version 01/21, s.v. “warten,” vol. 27, cols. 2125–67,

48. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 84–285, 84. The first footnote in this essay gives credit to a lecture by the biologist A. A. Uxtomskij in 1925, where the author first encountered the concept of chronotope. On Uxtomskij see Michael Holquist, “Answering as Authoring: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Trans-linguistics,” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 307–19, esp. 315–17 and 319n16. On chronotope, see Sue Vice, Introducing Bakhtin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 200–228.

49. Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and General Theory, trans. Robert W. Lawson (Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1959), 9: “In order to have a complete description of the motion, we must specify how the body alters its position with time”; Albert Einstein, Über die spezielle und die allgemeine Relativitätstheorie (Gemeinverständlich), 20th ed. (Braunschweig: F. Vieweg, 1956), 6: “Eine vollständige Beschreibung der Bewegung kommt aber erst dadurch zustande, daß man angibt, wie der Körper seinen Ort mit der Zeit ändert.” The sociologist Helga Nowotny translated Einstein’s insight about time and space into the concept of proper time (Eigenzeit): everyone, every activity, every collective has their own time. See Helga Nowotny, Eigenzeit: Entstehung und Strukturierung eines Zeitgefühls (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989); trans. Neville Plaice as Time: The Modern and the Postmodern Experience (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).

50. See Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time (New York: Riverhead, 2018), 52. The term is also used in the contemporary social sciences; see Ben Anderson, “Time-Stilled Space-Slowed: How Boredom Matters,” Geoforum 35 (2004): 739–54.

51. On Bergson, see Mark Antliff, “Creative Time: Bergson and European Modernism,” in Tempus Fugit, Time Flies, ed. Jan Schall (Kansas City, MO: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2000), 36–65.

52. On the contradictions of this change see Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time, 1870–1950 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Oliver Zimmer, Remaking the Rhythms of Life: German Communities in the Age of the Nation-State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Jean-Michel Johnston, “The Telegraphic Revolution: Speed, Space and Time in the Nineteenth Century,” German History 38 (2020): 47–76; and Oliver Zimmer, “One Clock Fits All? Time and Imagined Communities in Nineteenth-Century Germany,” Central European History 53 (2020): 48–70.

53. Eugène Minkowski, Le temps vécu: Études phénoménologiques et psychopathologiques (Paris: J. L. L. d’Artrey, 1933); Eugène Minkowski, Lived Time: Phenomenological and Psychopathological Studies, trans. Nancy Metzel (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970). With reference to Bergson, the book’s translator, Nancy Metzel, speaks of the “irrational nature of time” (xxiii) and adds, “If we attempt to understand the phenomenon of time in purely rationalistic terms, we fail to understand it” (xxiii).

54. Jean Piaget, Le développement de la notion de temps chez l’enfant (1927; 1946); Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of Time, trans. A. J. Pomerans (London: Routledge, 1969).

55. Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times, trans. Neville Plaice and Stephen Plaice (Oxford: Polity, 1991); Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit. Erweiterte Ausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1962).

56. Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift, “Reworking E. P. Thompson’s ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,’Time & Society 5 (1996): 275–99, 280–81; Miriam Czock and Anja Rathmann-Lutz, eds., ZeitenWelten: Zur Verschränkung von Weltdeutung und Zeitwahrnehmung, 750–1350 (Cologne: Böhlau, 2017), esp. the introduction with its bibliography. See also Karl Schlögel, Moscow, 1937, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity, 2012); and Merry Wiesner-Hanks, ed., Gendered Temporalities in the Early Modern World (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

57. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), esp. 416–55. See also David Frisby, “The City Observed: The Flâneur in Social Theory,” in Cityscapes of Modernity: Critical Explorations (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 27–51.

58. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 855; Walter Benjamin, Passagen-Werk, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 5:2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), 1023–24.