Attack and Dethrone Time

stop the clocks

It is long past time to abolish time. I have felt this strongly for a few years now and the pandemic’s askew, endless, perilous temporality has only convinced me further of this. And so, on a Sunday evening, a time once characterized by a far better writer than I as “the long dark tea-time of the soul”, I have decided finally to make good on my repeated threats to write preliminary notes for a manifesto for the abolition of time.

time is pure commodity

Time is no longer on our side, if it ever was. By “our” I mean those committed to the overthrow of capitalism and creation of a just world. Time is thoroughly commodified, with no shortage of opportunities to buy and sell it. But of course Marx knew this, inscribing temporality at the heart of his critique of capitalism with such concepts as necessary and surplus labor time. And as Marx notes, we are not all called upon to buy and sell our time equally. Who can afford next week’s shiny new labor-saving device? Who is pressed into the service of others? Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours to do what we will began as a revolutionary slogan but has if anything become a straightjacket—a rule that, transmuted into the forty-hour work week, we seem unable to imagine past. Whether through explicit “extra” work, the thousand daily cuts of commuting hours or buzzing emails, or even the torrent of inescapable anxiety through which work extends into every waking hour, even into our dreams: the fact is that capitalism has learned thoroughly how to turn time against us.

computation has made time inescapable

But it is not capitalism alone that has so thoroughly operationalized time into an instrument of oppression. Media technologies, which are themselves always expressions of their own internal temporality, have served as capitalism’s eager accomplices. More so than any extant media technology, the computer has emerged as a temporal foreman par excellence. UNIX time names a system of temporal measurement through which our omnipresent computational devices count forward from their own personal Big Bang, 00:00:00 UTC, 1 January 1970. The laptop on which I wrote these words and the phone on which you read them count inexorably. Computers are little more than overgrown clocks: a low level signal beats within them metronomically outward forever, synchronizing digital impulses into an elegant tyrannical whole. This is to say nothing of the profusion of software for the constant measurement and negotiation of time: clocks, timers, calendars, timesheets, all ticking out endlessly a single unified temporality of one second per second, overriding the possibility of all others. At least turntables let you fuck up and put a record on the wrong rpm: without that ticking, the computer breaks.1 But perhaps it is time to let them.

what do you feel in a second?

Count off ten seconds. Now watch a clock. For many of us, there will be discrepancies. We should honor those—rather than correct them. A minute is only a minute under certain circumstances: contrast the minute spent waiting near your computer for bad news with the minutes spent in bed with your spouse or a hot stranger.2 We have divorced ourselves from the perceptual technics of time; while at the same time we are perhaps never more aware of it. This is the lesson of the pandemic: we are now obligated to playact the standardized time that capitalism demands of us, now without any of the external social trappings. We are locked in a battle with the ticking clocks of our own emails and 9 AM Zoom meetings. Is it no wonder that so many of us feel that time is out of joint, when we are faced daily with the resounding contradiction between our clocks and our lived experience? Or that social unrest emerges in a moment when many have that most precious resource of all: free time?

moralizing the “early,” or, everything wrong with the world is Benjamin Franklin’s fault

This part is just my own axe to grind. “Early to bed, early to rise” has transcended aphorism in American society and become pure cultural moralizing. I write now as an explicit “night person,” which isn’t even really a phrase, a testament to how thoroughly the moral ideal of being a “morning person” has saturated our culture. Too long have we night people suffered under the yoke of morning people! I reject your early workouts and breakfast meetings. There is no morality to the morning or the evening; they are not even stable concepts, as anyone who has lived through 3 PM in January in Boston can attest, when evening falls well before happy hour. (Happy hour is illegal in Massachusetts—another victim of temporal morality.)

the sun is not an easy way out

But: the answer is not in a return to some agrarian temporal ideal. This is not Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Yet: through our circadian rhythms we seem yoked to the sun as a master clock above all others. Is it though? Chronobiology may not be deterministic; as John Durham Peters writes, “the human sense of unified time is a post-hoc production,” the impossibly complex coordination of multiple discrete biological timekeeping systems, from neurological transmitters to gut flora to phases of hormonal production.3 I suggest that the coordination of these chronobiological systems provides not yet another master clock but rather a model for temporality and its synchronization beyond only the sun. After all, the lesson I take from the sun is not that its circulations are stable. Perhaps they are if only only ever stays in one place. But we are constantly moving, aren’t we? (Literally and metaphorically?) This is about a time that rejects capitalism’s totality and the lie of the sun’s permanence in favor of a renewed appreciation for and centering of embodied perceptions of time.

rediscovering rhythm

Perhaps what I am proposing is a return to “rhythm.” I am reminded of DJ Spooky’s idea of “rhythm science,” drawn from Black DJ culture, to name “new way[s] of pronouncing the ancient syntaxes that we inherit from history and evolution.”4 Or NourbeSe Philip’s closing essay to her poem Zong!, a meditation on the Middle Passage, in which “repetition drives the event and the memory simultaneously, becoming a haunting, becoming spectral in nature.”5 Or Shintaro Miyazaki’s “algorhythmics,” which understand media along the lines of chronobiological coordination I suggest above. These are only preliminary sketches for a concept that feels long gestating for media studies and beyond, and which might serve as a useful model for imagining a non-tyrannical temporality.

the irony is

That I would have liked to make this post much longer, to have shown more of my work, to have done more thinking. And of course the point of blogging is to give space to half-formed ideas and sketch out shitposts. But in a very real sense I don’t have the time—these questions are theoretically tangential to the main grist of my dissertation, to the #brand I have begun to carve out for myself as a scholar, which in turn demands a certain amount of ruthless consistency (another lesson we have learned from time). In abolishing time I want to create a world where no one lacks for time, because the concept of running out of it holds no meaning. Sure, we can’t outrun the ultimate clock of death. But can we organize our world around a different set of rhythms such that death, when it comes, is less an irruption of the time we wished we had and more the cadence on a melody well-played?

now if you excuse me,

I have to wrap this up. I’m late to making dinner.

  1. What media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst calls the “time-criticality” of digital media. 

  2. I don’t own a copy of Lewis Mumford’s 1934 Technics and Civilization so can’t track down this exact citation, but I vividly recall a passage where (to paraphrase) Mumford argues that the technical regimentation of time in the form of the “workday” is no doubt one of many things that stands in the way of human sexual expression. Really, this whole blog post is just footnotes on Mumford’s notes on time in that volume, which are magisterial in scope. 

  3. In The Marvelous Clouds, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp. 180. 

  4. In Rhythm Science, MIT Press, 2004, pp. 72. 

  5. In Zong!, Wesleyan University Press, 2008, pp. 201. 

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