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Modern Time

One of the things that seems most overbearing about Gotham is the sense of misplaced urgency that glowers in the faces of its residents. People are always in a hurry to get from nowhere to somewhere, and become very agitated if they feel someone in front of them is in their way, moving too slowly, or creeping up steps that should be taken at a jog. There’s no real reason for this, it seems, since I have yet to have a meeting with a New Yorker that began on time. (Many of the real estate brokers who were supposed to show me places “at 2 o’clock” showed up at 2:10 or :20, or sometime after 2:25 when I got tired of waiting for them and left. Trains that are supposed to show up “in 5 minutes” take 15 to groan into the station. People rush down onto the subway platform after the cars are leaving the station.)

There is an urgent, frenetic energy, and it does not seem to ever meet its purpose, or avoid the source of its anxiety. The continual, consolidated thrum of purposeful activity permeates the air. It is as if everyone had taken into the very core of their being the conviction that there is always something to be done, now, even if there isn’t, and that they need to rapidly get it done, even if they can’t. Perhaps that is why cocaine is the apparent drug of choice here: a jittery, ineffectual energy courses through the arteries of the city, its gallop and jerk-halt streets, the trains full of oh so many strangers, blossoming skyscrapers soaring upwards, like jagged teeth (If we can make hasty generalizations about a the character of a place from the drugs popular in it, what can we say about Northern California? Southern? The Southwest? &c).

The city and its citizens are something of caricatures of the ethic of time as a currency, as something to be grasped, hoarded, and spent wisely. Or prodigally. They act out daily, hourly, by the second, the shift in the apprehension of time that marks the modern psyche: no longer is duration matched to task, but an overarching, abstracted system of measure — one pristinely quantifiable — positions tasks along a line. EP Thompson, in “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” contrasts this contemporary sense of time with previous or prior notions of temporality, each as embedded into their particular culture as the clock is into ours. Our fixation with the clock, he argues, caused all manners of shifts in our understanding of the world. So, because we do not carve the days along “pissing whiles” or “credos,” but cut them into interchangeable sections of identical times, we judge what can be done not according to the needs of the task itself but to a measure thereof. Interchangeability, maneuverability, flux: the experienced possibility of a more efficient way of spending time, and this possibilities coeval shadow-fear of wasting it unnecessarily.

Where traditional societies did not have to worry about waste-time, modern ones, liberated from the regulative, necessary rhythms of nature, seem to integrate a neurotic impulse to save a few moments by shaving off a few unnecessary seconds. And while it is perhaps not necessary that this modern sense of time be married to capitalism, historically the rise of capitalism and the clock occurred simultaneously. So, not only did time begin to take on a more rational, regular character, but farmers and capitalists began to be interested in quantifying what exactly a “day’s work” looked like, so that they could calculate proper wages; on the other side of things, workers began to see not only a distinction between their own time and that of their employers, but to see the duration of the latter in the objective, abstract terms of clock-time. A twelve hour a day; a ten; an eight.

The spread of clock-time integrated into the functioning of society, and came to serve as one of its directing structures. From the first landowners who made donations in order to have wake-up tolls rung in the morning, to the working-classes organization around such things as a regularized work-day lasting no longer than twelve hours, the clock and its treatment of time became a tacit assumption of social action. The sense of an abstract, interchangeable, time-as-currency, to be instrumentalized and made most efficient was inescapable: it was one of the prerequisites for a rational discussion about any course of action.

It is this sense of time that courses through Gotham, as it does through most cities, as they are structured cities of commerce. But as with most things in Gotham, its sense of clock-time seems to have reached an almost grotesque level. If you do not get a call in on an apartment or a resume in on a job within a day (or minutes, if you want to be realistic) of it being posted, you may as well forget about it. Hence the sense of urgency in all things.

II

The regular sense of clock-time that developed out of the genesis industrial manufacture and wage-labor took its particular moral coloring from the exigencies of the social organization of the time. Capitalists wanted to gauge exactly how much labor could be performed in a day; they had to impose a regular start time for labor in order to enforce proper work habits over the entire work-force; they wanted objective measures of work-time, as this was conducive to wage contracts and the further tinkering of the production process; etc. All of these requirements grew out of, it should be obvious, a particular technological horizon: manufacturing was based in one location, in order to ensure surplus, labor had to be structured. Economical calculation of the time found irregular work levels anathema, etc. And so, a moral condemnation of irregular work patterns (Saint Mondays, festivals, etc) spread throughout the social representation of work. Laziness, drunkenness, lack of responsibility came to be held up as the symbols of unreformed workers, laborers and profligate artisans. Only those that took on the work habits that ensured the profitable production of goods were seen as upright and proper citizens.

But times change. Regular, structured manufacture has passed out of vogue — or, profitability — in the most developed nations. Manufacture and work now is “flexible.” It’s no longer necessary for employers to enforce a strict start-time for labor; productivity can be electronically calculated from each worker’s individual workstation. With this slackening of rigid work-time, there has also been a slackening in expected social practice regarding work. New industries and new corporations seem to lead this charge, and with it has come a new aesthetic of both time and work.

Categories: Notes.

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