Issue #06 September 2017

The Political Dimensions of Time: A Polemic

“History, however, is certainly not a game, and if it smiles, it tends to do so with grim irony.”

The previous article in this series, A Schema For Time, was concerned with showing how — within both philosophy and the everyday life with which philosophy maintains its ambiguous but intense relationship — the real of time is not only absent, but systematically avoided. The key proposition was that a schema which divided a complex totality of Time into four domains (Physical Time, Biological Temporality, Historical Temporality, Metaphysical Time) would allow different disciplines to develop research programs which would intersect in ways which could fruitfully indicate the rational kernel of this real, even while the real itself escapes “final capture”.

Here we can see this elementary schema. We are not looking at separate forms or substances of Time, we are looking for orders of relative complexity which progressively transcribe the inclusion of subjective time within objective time and vice versa.

The question, in other words, is whether the incorporation of death and finitude results in handing Time back to an existentialist project? Not at all, it would instead be a matter of thoroughly historicizing temporal experience, while at the same time being tested for consistency with the chronobiology of the body and the brain. Knowledge production in history and in chronobiology can no longer be separated: the sleep crisis is evidence of this, and a very rich terrain for articulating the ways in which, under contemporary capitalism, there is a crisis of temporality. Jonathon Crary’s “Capitalism and the End of Sleep” is an excellent introduction to this topic.

We all find ourselves in an individual relationship to time as well as a historical one. Which is to say, we all experience the history of our times, in some sense, for ourselves. I, personally, often find time to largely be a dimension of intermittent torture and languor, a special domain of the superego, the domain in which all my plans are most at risk of self-sabotage, as I overestimate my ability to complete tasks within a given period, and overestimate the amount of time I should spend on “nothing in particular”/rituals of preparation/abysses. There is little point, when extending out from whatever the psychoanalytic particularities of my case may be {there is clearly a connivance between my Superego (in guise of the demands of time management) and my Id (in the guise of the fantasy of time as somehow irrelevant/always able to bent to fit in enjoyment) which produce the more excruciating pleasure of my ultimate failure to relate to time and order time “properly”, which I take as the excremental, shameful, but also immensely gratifying, proof of my unique being, at once below/above these petty concerns}… As I was saying, there is little point in searching here for substantial, mythicised narratives of a universal human subject — although, generalities must abound for particularities to be disclosable — when there are richer questions that will appeal to sociological and biological imaginations alike.

For an individuated temporality to exist, there must be a difference (whether or not at the pitch of antagonism) in the social and the biological rhythms that play out on a particular body. Arguably, this is why dance is so special, why it is such a vital gateway to the ecstatic treasures of both ceremonial and popular cultures. It is the moment when the individual can experience the social and the biological rhythms as unified in their own body, when the body can be social/biological at once. Sex, or sex performed with sufficient mutuality of grace and prowess, can be a means to a similar moment of reconciliation. As we might expect from our psychoanalytic detour, where social demands for time discipline are gathered under the superego, and the biological desire to be at rest becomes a contesting Id, there will always be individual pathologies that will play into the explanation of why someone “failed” to coordinate their life according to certain schemas. Along with, and subtending these individualised patterns, there will be general social pathologies which explain the individual ones at a statistical level. In other words, we can’t confine the historical to the history of an individual, but can only hope to help individuals find an image of themselves that they can be reconciled with, and empowered by, within the pressures of their historical moment.

The historical moment I was born into would be dubbed, according to its own ideology, the End of History, and despite the apparent absurdity of this phrase today, when History has seemingly returned, wearing the most dreadful and absurd of its masks — neither tragedy nor farce, but both at once and high on bad acid. There was nonetheless a certain, temporary, truth to this triumphalist rhetoric, which was better captured by Rage Against the Machine than Francis Fukuyama when Zach snarled a whisper that “history is caught and frozen still”. If we forget that, we forget the full reach of Capital into social life, and we forget that time, the transformation of time and labour, as concrete sensual realities, into abstract labour-time, is at the nexus of this.

Historical research projects into changes in temporality seem to have largely initiated within “New Left” Marxism. The historian E.P. Thompson’s work on time discipline looks at the economic, social and cultural conventions around time measurement in societies at different historical and geospatial distances. According to Thompson, the dominance of clock-time flowed from the capitalist industrial revolution in Europe, and that creating work discipline according synchronic (quantifiable according to an equal measure at two ends of a spatiotemporal distance) forms of time (so that the rate of production and the value of labor can be measured precisely) were key components in the development of capitalism and the modern state, as was the spread of this synchrony throughout the logistical web of the market. Prior to this, there was a patchwork of local times; different countries, states, and even neighboring towns, kept time in local singularities with no attempt at consistency. Personal time devices like clocks and watches made little impact by themselves, they appeared first as eccentric flourishes in the upper of the temporal architecture, while the Solar and Lunar cycles remained the base of time measurement for most of the world even towards the end of the 19th Century. The fundamental infrastructures of synchrony were the transcontinental railways and the telegraph, leading up to the rollout of Standard Time in the 1880s.

This leaves us with the basic questions for a historical anthropology of time. How did a world of many locally and culturally particular times become flattened and regulated into the global time system we know today? How complete is this process today, where local variances in time culture still exist, regulated largely by levels of economic development, but also closely associated to factors such as climate — which is tempting to force into the stereotyped and romanticised image of the more fluid and relaxed “polychronic” cultures of the colonised world and the “monochronic” efficiency mongers of the colonial… How did the co-ordinating projects of colonialism and industrial capitalism pull off the incredible feat of making us all inhabit one vast chronometrically regulated space? What resistance is there in cultures that continue to live within, contend with and subvert this apparent monolith? The increasing extent to which the machinery of techno-capitalism have come to determine our relationship to time has become even more legible in our digital revolution, where the infinite divisibility of time, the 24/7 media market and online sociality, and the sudden possibility of experiencing the eventscape of the globe in virtual simultaneity are being experienced largely as an erasure of the sense of time as a totality, a narrative or even a flow… instead what spreads as the new metaphysics of temporal life is a crude presentism, where more and more we try to capture and experience a single instance of time as the only “real” dimension. Unfortunately for us, the present is precisely the modality through which time escapes us, precisely the lure that leads us into abyss of our own lack-of-presentness. Unless, that is, we manage to frame our present in terms of some logic of relation to past and future.

If it is impossibly romantic to imagine a return to a world before clock time, to imagine, as a basis for transformation, the natural regularities of seasonal rhythm, the ingrained and near-invariant patterns of ritual and religion; if cultures such as the Kapauku of Papua New Guinea, who have taboos against working on two consecutive days, or the !Kung of the Kalahari, who work two-and-a-half days per week, seem dreamlike in the light of the time pressures and micromanagement of modern life, this only highlights the fact that our modern experience of contemporary temporal acceleration naturally gives rise to utopian and dystopian images of its endpoint. If the way we think/experience time is bound to a particular, historical, social formation, then if ideas of time are the sites, not of a shared idea, but a continuing antagonism between irreconcilable ideas (or, to put it more mildly, the space of contending hypotheses) is to suggest two further consequences:

First, that the same irreconcilable contradiction applies to our society itself; and, secondly, that we cannot adopt, collectively, a truly shared idea of time without having adopted some radically different social form. In these Anthropocenic, Capitalocenic, Cthulucenic times, it seems it is both a personal and a political necessity to try and develop a new relationship with time itself — a relationship which will require us to understand both how we are “in it”, as an objective reality external to us, and “of it” as embodying a mode of relation to it that is quite possibly a part of our unique human nature.

Andreas Gursky “Tokyo Stock Exchange” (1990)

If we are in a time of crisis, perhaps we are also in a crisis of time. This would spill from historical time. Everywhere it is at the edges of the delineations I have tried to make. Again, what is being called “the sleep crisis”, is a prime example of this. As our chronobiological rhythms are scrambled by the lure of everything, all the time, 24/7, the bleeding of work into leisure and the the transformation of the leisure into work, the haze hanging over futureless horizons as we pursue passionless hedonism with rote efficiency — all of this is the disconnecting of time from the possibility of its synthesis as present/past/future. Maybe philosophising about this is a useful form of therapy, maybe it can illuminate the urgency of work in all of these dimensions (the burden of historical time that needs to be answered), maybe it can provide the morale and discipline and confidence that come from rigorously argued positions, and these modest contributions are certainly as necessary as they are insufficient.

The winning of time is implicated in both the means and the ends of political struggle. First as a resource needed to imagine, think, strategise, organise. Second as a strategic moment: to strike at the right moment. Thirdly as the experience of struggle, the glimpses of liberation in moments of solidarity and transformation. Fourthly, as the greatest luxury to be won in a better world: time to be human, to be with loved ones, to experiment with possible lives, time, even, to technologically extend the brutally short life expectancy that, not only underdevelopment, but the idiot rule of evolutionary contingency have conspired to leave us — these “luxuries” are in fact the necessities of a world truly worth living in. What a tiny and privileged minority now enjoy these things, how they (we, I should say) waste them on psychologically and monetarily expensive efforts to escape recognizing the brutal reality of that privilege (welcome to the culture industry). How unbearably stupid it is.

Imagine if every human being alive today had just a handful of extra years of peace, of love, of freedom from need, hunger and violence, away from the necessity of time given to wage labor (in either the form of its intensifying, slavish demands, or its demoralizing, impoverishing unavailabilty). Would this not create a ratcheting effect? What could they achieve? What “impossible” wonders..? If this dream can sometimes fill your mind to the point of searing from it every other thought, then my heart would find it easy to see a comrade in you. More time won meaning more time to organize the liberation of yet more time. This is why the struggle for the 8-hour day is the most fundamental struggle in the formation of working class, and why it needs to be taken up again and given new ambition suited to the new realities of automation, the immense possible benefits of which must be won for the vast majority of humanity. It is on the basis of the desire for more free time that we can pitch the flag of a modest utopia… A utopia where the anxiety of the state we find it hardest to face, boredom, can finally be confronted. The final frontier.

Brendan De Paor-Moore used to study philosophy at the University of Adelaide. He is now studying to be an Archaeologist. He is an active member of anti-austerity, anti-racism and eco-socialist movements, and has generally led a small but rare sort of life, ever growing weirder and a little wiser.


September 2017


A Few Notes On Post-Modernism

by Timofei Gerber

“Ethics Matters”: A New TV Series

Epoché Magazine in conversation with Dan Halliday

The Political Dimensions of Time: A Polemic

by Brendan De Paor-Moore

You and I, I and It: Martin Buber’s I and Thou

by Justin Richards

Lacan on Satisfaction

by John C. Brady

Arendt’s “Philosophy & Politics”