Saturday, June 23, 2007


Does our perception of history, our obsession with the recent past, compare with attitudes towards the past 50, 100 or 500 years ago? The answer must be no. Not only the conception of history, but also the impression of time itself differs according to the economic model predominant in a given society. The stage of capitalism, the social relations of the labour process, the ideas people have of demography and the world, all undergo continual change. Accordingly, our perceptions depend on our experiences of the world, right here, right now.

How can something as metaphysical as time change according to our concrete circumstances?

With the commodification of labour comes an estrangement of man from his work. In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a trend (in capitalist countries of course, but also the Soviet Union) of increasing rationalisation, with standard methods for each job, specialisation of labour, a complex and official hierarchy of power and a more scientific approach to business planning. Productivity is assessed according to ratings, outcomes, performance targets etc.

Essentially, the worker becomes depersonified, a mere unit of labour. Individual personality is only sanctioned outside of the workplace. At work, the worker must relinquish his humanity and become a piece within the whole, a cog in the wheel, and his work must comprise, in Lukacs’s words, “the mechanical repetition of a specialised set of actions”. Idiosyncracies become errors because they do not function according to rational predictions. Workers and consumers (among whose number are now included people in receipt of health or social care) are reduced to performance indicators. The market operates independently of human intervention, and the worker must conform to its codes whether he likes it or not.

At the heart of this rationalist, calculable way of working is the endeavour towards maximum efficiency. Time, therefore, becomes the means by which productivity is measured. “Time,” says Marx, “is everything ; man is nothing, he is at most the incarnation of time.” Lukacs, in History and Class Consciousness, goes one further :

Time thus sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature ; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things’ (the reified, mechanically objectified ‘performance’ of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality) : in short, it becomes space.

Of course, the role of the citizen in capitalist society is twofold : to produce and to consume. This dual demand succeeds in splitting the identity of the subject. Cowed by ideology, the worker believes that the exchange of his labour power for a salary is fair, even “natural”. He does not stop to consider why the flat-rate that he receives is for a 35-hour week as opposed to 30 hours or 20 hours, nor that it may not stay that way forever. Like everything else in life, this arrangement seems entirely normal and historic. So too does the time allocated him for social life, which is considerably less than for his working life.

Outside of work, time provides people with the space to consume. When we see an advertisement, it will often hint at something unsatisfactory about the present from which we will be redeemed so long as we buy the product being advertised. Any advert containing sexual suggestions will always be aimed towards the person worried at their sexually inactivity. Consumption allows us a brighter future, and the process of publicity means that any pleasure to be found in the present is eternally deferred. The present becomes a place of anxiety and discontent, ensnared between the possibilities of the past and the future. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, describes the effect of publicity thus :

Publicity is, in essence, nostalgic. It has to sell the past to the future. It cannot itself supply the standards of its own claims. And so all its references to quality are bound to be retrospective and traditional.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer stated that “time never lets us so much as draw breath but pursues us like a taskmaster with a whip.” This idea of time as being an outside force, one which harangues us as we pass it (or does it pass us?), is apposite. What it boils down to is that the present never exists for its own sake. This is in part, of course, a consequence of human subjectivity. We, unlike other animals, possess the capacity to reflect and the inclination to desire. Both necessarily defer the present. We cannot quite grasp the potential of the present – it is there for the taking yet … no, we cannot quite absorb what it offers. But we are convinced that whatever it is, it is obtainable – and so our search continues. But this search, for the bit of future concealed in the present, comes at a price. "The publicity image," writes John Beger, "steals the love of the spectator-buyer as s/he is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product."

Modern history performs precisely the same role.


Blogger Jerome said...

Nice article. I found your page searching on a statement in the audio of "studies in pessimism" by A.S. I also came across A.S's work by chance and I have been able to explain/ not explain what has been going on around. His work does provide me with explanations of what is going on. I have always struggled with the purpose of existence and I'm shocked or may be relieved to find out that there may be none. I'm not there yet, but all my research seems to point that there is no goal.

11:18 PM  

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