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Postmodern Time

So the clock, and the related social practices that were enabled by it and furthered its penetration into society, shifted the way we perceive time and how we relate ourselves to it. From the ‘naturally’ dictated patterns of social behavior, structuring the productive processes of a society around the rhythms of the sea, the seasons, the rains, or herd migration, the behavior of society moved into the reign of the hour, the minute, and the second. Incrementally better clocks and measures of days went hand in hand with a growing desire to whip the unruly patterns of society into a ‘rational’ form.

This impulse to rationalize — to discipline — the work-force probably crescendoed with the insane masscult of 50s surburban iconography. This was during the heyday of Fordist production models, when the regular shifted workers were at once being incrementally more controlled and the labor becoming increasingly more productive. Over the next decade, Fordism broke down as a model of production. No longer was it “competitive” to invest huge outlays of capital into a regularly planned plant, and to run mass shifts of (high-waged) labor on the same schedule. A more ‘flexible’ approach was necessary. The response to this need by global capital was a more fluid investment model — one that appears more irregular than regular.

Of course, the ethic of time demanded by this sort of business is different from that of Fordism. Where the slow advance toward rational, regularly scheduled labor — morally fit to work (and hence live) in the society envisioned by liberals and entrepreneurs — took place over centuries, and encountered much entrenched resistance; the shift to the postFordist, irregular work ethic has encountered a similar sort of resistance, but it has occured far more abruptly. Instead of a process of 300 years consolidation of labor practice, we have seen a general restructuring of labor in 30. This relies, probably, on the foundation layed out that made Fordism a reality: the sovereignty of nation states; legal jurisdictions; media pathways; etc. Certainly the ‘new’ media have played a role in the rapid spread of postFordist practice, but it is categorically incorrect to cite them as the source of the practice.

But recent moral-dressings of work, the “new” work, grow out of the exigencies of postFordist production (fluid capital, short contract, rapid turn around, etc) in a way that nicely mirrors the way the old moral tales grew out of Fordist requirements. They complement each other: viewing the concrete correlates of admonitions to “work hard and save time” underscores those of advise like “learn to relearn.” The New Work is almost not sold as work at all; it is sold as fun. Of course, there are old stodgy codgers still kicking around work’s moral-punditry. They — perhaps they are a lot like Warren Buffett, really — are conservative about workdays, suits, and ‘personal time’. But the salesmen of the new work — and they are the way of the future, as they will calmly and repetitively reassure you — know that now the 9-5 is dying a slow death. Why not a 11-7? Or a 2-11? And why not come in wearing jeans and a T-Shirt? And maybe we should really have pingpong in the break room! All these things are the perks of the new work — which is not just work, but life.

The new work effaces the break between the laborer’s time and the time of the employer — or, it is trying its very best to do so, anyway. It wants to coddle the new worker, to make him into a happy and busy little bee, who comes, at the hour of his choosing, and in the garb that he likes, to the hive and buzzes all to his merry little self. The objective distinctions between the worker’s time and the company’s stand: in legal contracts, non-disclosure agreements, in all the myriad structures of power that can be dreamt up. But there is great effort — there is pingpong! — to make the felt-experience of this work and this work-time quite different from those their precedents.

Categories: Notes.

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