Liberating Clocks: Developing a Critical Horology to Rethink the Potential of Clock Time

By Bastian, Michelle | New Formations, Autumn 2017 | Go to article overview

Liberating Clocks: Developing a Critical Horology to Rethink the Potential of Clock Time


Bastian, Michelle, New Formations


INTRODUCTION

When trying to imagine a new time, a transformed time, a way of living time that is inclusive, sustainable or socially-just--a liberatory time--it is unlikely that a clock will spring to mind. If anything, the clock has become the symbol of all that has gone wrong with our relationship to time. This general mistrust of the clock is well-captured by literary theorist Jesse Matz who observes:

   Clock time was the false metric against which Henri Bergson and
   others defined the truth of human time. Modernists made clocks the
   target of their iconoclasm, staging clocks' destruction (smashing
   watches, like Quentin in The Sound and the Fury [1929]) or (like
   Dali) just melting away, and cultural theorists before and after
   Foucault have founded cultural critique on the premise that clock
   time destroys humanity. (1)

Thus, across a wide range of cultural forms, including philosophy, cultural theory, literature and art, the figure of the clock has drawn suspicion, censure and outright hostility. When we compare this to attitudes towards maps, however--which are often thought of as spatial counterparts to clocks--we find a remarkably differently picture. While maps have been shown to be complicit with power, (2) they are also widely recognised as objects that can be critically reworked in the service of more liberatory ends. (3) Indeed utilising some kind of mapping, such as collaborative mapping, (4) participatory GIS, (5) or counter-mapping, (6) is often central to the work of diverse social movements and participatory projects. In the case of maps then, despite the questionable range of uses to which they have been put, they are nonetheless understood as having the potential to be critical tools that can help rework and reorient our relationship with the world around us.

In contrast, it is rare for clocks to appear in repertoires of critical, participatory or activist methods. There is no 'collaborative clocking' or 'counter-clocking'. Instead, the clock continues to symbolise capitalist forms of control and domination, as well as the constraining of progressive impulses more generally. This paper seeks to counteract these tendencies and argues that clocks have many more interesting possibilities than they are usually given credit for. Like maps, they too have complex relations to social life. Even further, they also have the potential to be reworked as creative responses to a host of social, political and environmental issues. As a result I argue that when seeking to make interventions into the time of politics and of social life we would benefit from paying closer attention to the complex ways clocks and clock time are constructed, while also starting to experiment with making more of our own.

As a first step in my argument, I suggest one explanation for why clocks are not generally approached with the similar sense of possibility that maps are. Specifically, I look to continental philosophy as an area that often informs discussions of time and its relationship to politics. I argue that within these literatures there has too often been a dismissal of clocks as unworthy of further analysis, and that this has been based upon an inadequate understanding of how clocks operate. That is, while in human geography maps have been treated as key manifestations of the interplay between power, inscription, material objects and social life, continental philosophers have either read clocks as straightforward representatives of an 'objective' or 'universal' time, or barely mentioned them at all. Thus, after outlining examples in the work of Bergson, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, I argue that their critiques of the clock, for flattening out the time of experience, in fact rely upon reductive accounts of clock time itself. In particular, their discussion of clocks primarily in terms of measurement misses the fundamentally political nature of any standardised device, while their treatment of clock time as an unending series of nows is overly-idealised. …

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