chapter  6
17 Pages


The notion of absolute time was formulated by Isaac Newton in England at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (see Chapter 2). Its characteristics appear to have been embodied in a number of social or political phenomena in different parts of Europe, workhouses, schools, armies (Foucault 1991: 149-6), at varying historical junctures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but always in connection with capitalism in its respective forms. Absolute time, regular, external and independent of place, may have been formulated in the rarefied context of a Cambridge college, but its substance emerged out of the factories of England. Absolute time was from the outset intimately linked to the emergent capitalist system. Both absolute time and capitalist production detached temporal and productive structures from the traditional matrix of nature, locality and social networks. Indeed, it is possible that the capitalist system provided the primary contours of absolute time, with the theoretical notion legitimizing a postioriwhat the industrial revolution forged as one of its most potent productive processes. A number of aspects of industrial time closely resemble absolute

time, suggesting that practice and concept emerged in conjunction with one another. First, industrial time was effectively separated from the task itself and became an abstract standard of measurement imposed upon varying pre-existing temporal patterns, not unlike

the framing time of the Enlightenment’s container-like temporality within which events are held to occur. Prior to this, time had little existence outside of the rhythms of day and night, inflected by the seasons, which were in turn intimately bound to the exigencies of a specific local context. In rural, pre-industrial France, for instance,

In the course of Enlightenment modernization, time was separated from locality and removed to an abstract, framing position encompassing all places, though this abstract absolute time was only universal in principal before the spread of coordinated, universal time in the late nineteenth century (as shown in Chapter 1). In concrete processes of work and production, this abstraction and removal of time from the immediate local context took the form of its extraction from the task of manufacturing and from the commodity itself. The gradual transition from place-based task-orientation towards timed labour is evident, for instance, in the 1641 account books of the Yorkshire farmer Henry Best, which refer to ‘the Cunnigarth, with its bottomes, [as] 4 large dayworkes for a good mower’ (quoted in Thompson 1967: 61). Time was less and less the ‘immanent’ texture embedded inextricably in the task itself, but increasingly became an abstract, external measure utilized to record how long it took to complete that duty, and thence to calculate its cost for the manufacturer. When Marx speaks of the way in which work-time becomes an

inherent part of the value of the commodity, his own formulation performs this shift from the concrete and the local, to an abstract and delocalized universal framework. In Marx’s conception, the exchange-value of a commodity is measured by the quantity of labour objectified in it, that is, by being removed from the connection to the worker, and this quantity can in turn be measured in terms of work-time. The more effort and work-time that goes

into a product, the greater its value (1976: 129-31). Marx describes a first stage of abstraction when he explains that ‘As exchange values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time’ (ibid: 130). This ‘congealed’, lifeless labour-time, however, will be subject to a further degree of abstraction, rendering uniform different types of work: ‘Commodities which contain equal quantities of labour, or which can be produced in the same time, have therefore the same value’ (ibid: 130). In other words, the now frozen labour-time disappears into the potentially mobile and decontextualized commodity; the commodity itself loses its specificity, sharing with all other commodities produced in the same time the same time-related value. Labour-time has now diminished to the status of an abstract and thus universal measure of conversion of values. It has become a cognate of absolute time. With the increasing volatility of exchange values, however, the abstract, objective, externally imposed time of production begins to veer towards a more radically fluctuating temporality indexed by mercurial forces of inflation/devaluation and obsolescence. At this point, absolute time undergoes a fluid transformation to which we will return later. A second aspect of industrial time which closely resembles

absolute time is its tendency to atomize a temporality that was previously fluidly modulating, into discrete units. This segmentation was a direct consequence, as Marx demonstrated, of the practical imperatives of production deadlines and profit margins:

The production line embodies this process of atomization. The commodity itself, as one of a series of identical products being

assembled and then delivered, moves along a temporal trajectory, that of its gradual construction from a number of basic elements. The workers at each stage of the process repeat, over and over again, one element of this construction process, where once they would have been involved in its many phases. Thus time as the dynamic process of production is converted into mathematical values and measured by the imposition of a deadline. By the same token, lived time is atomized into parts in the same way as time itself as a flow is atomized into the calibrations of time-as-measure. The internalization of time segmentation and the discipline it inculcated, down to the temporal patterns imposed by the machines themselves, has been documented by Thompson (1967: 82).1

A whole array of temporal strategies, from the development of shift-timetables, bells and horns to mark the passage of time, via long-service rewards such as pocket-watches, through to the rhythm of the machines themselves, created a deeply ingrained consciousness of industrial time, and a sense of discipline which became part of the worker’s subjectivity. A further refinement of this cutting-up of the temporal

sequence of production was to analyse the individual segments of the process-segment to which the worker was assigned, then to time both the optimal segment completion time and the sub-segments, and finally to have the worker compete against the clock. In this way, the production tempo could be constantly accelerated. This analysis and synthesis of the temporal components of the production process was formalized early in the twentieth century by Taylorism, a forerunner of contemporary managerial science which measured and then shortened production times (Kern 1983: 115-16). Such formalization, however, merely documented practices that were long established in the workplace and were deeply ingrained in workers’ habitus. The philosophical idea of the divisibility of time was a correlative,

perhaps even a residue or a spin-off of the division of labour. The concept of temporal divisibility facilitated the increasingly hegemonic, but at root coercive logic of industrial time. When Hume, in his 1738 Treatise of Human Nature, postulated the divisibility of time, the factory had already contributed to the intuitive rightness of his conception: