Mumford’s Clock

Picking up Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization again after a year-long hiatus caused some clocklike wheels in my head to be set into motion.  If there is an incept point at which to approach the critique of technics this is surely it.  Take a look at page 12 of the 1963 Harcourt edition to see what I mean.  …”[D]uring the first seven centuries of the machine’s existence the categories of time and space underwent an extraordinary change, and no aspect of life was left untouched by this transformation.  The application of quantitative methods of thought to the study of nature had its first manifestations in the regular measurement of time; and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of the routine of the monastery…[w]ithin the walls of the monastery was sanctuary; under the rule of the order surprise and doubt and caprice and irregularity were put at bay.  Opposed to the erratic fluctuation and pulsations of worldly life was the iron discipline of the rule…Coulton agrees with Sombart in looking upon the Benedictines, the great working order, as perhaps the original founders of modern capitalism; their rule certainly took the curse off work and their vigorous engineering enterprises may even have robbed warfare of some of its glamor.  So one is not straining the facts when one suggests that the monasteries–at one time there were 40,000 under the Benedictine rule–helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.”

Thus, the seeds of positivism were sewn in the late fourteenth century, and men began to internalize this new conception of time, allowing it to regulate everything, externally and internally.  Gratuitous time, always in short supply heretofore, became for all intents and purposes non-existent.  What are the implications of this phenomenon?  One could refer to a short story by Robert Lebel, whose monograph on the artist Marcel Duchamp brought this artist to the attention of a widespread audience in 1959.  Ten Pages That Shook the World, or would have if anyone knew about it.  If one is baffled by the work of the enigmatic master, this is one of those places one can look for guidance.  Its protagonist is one A. Loride, Inventor of Gratuitous Time.  His entryway into the field of “Pyrrhonic suspension” which constituted the principal vein of his research was the discovery of three clocks left by the previous tenants of the warehouse the occupancy of which he apparantly acquired through squatter’s rights in the old Lower Manhattan environment of the 1940s.  After the query, “What about time?”  by an interested acolyte who had stumbled upon him by accident exploring the old warehouses one day, Loride begins a most extraordinary soliloquy: “The most satisfied people are still the busiest, hence the ones most enslaved.  Now, it is clear that no progress is within our reach if we do not first master the compulsion to useful activity. And yet it is this compulsion, and this alone, that continues to govern our concept of time.”  Loride has lined up three clocks to illustrate his idea.  He continues: “each of these faces represents time in one of its three aspects.  For almost all men, only one of them exists.  So-called developed individuals have an inkling of two perhaps, but I am one of the rare people to define the third explicitly…” And so the properties of the first category of time, indicated by Clock One, measuring the time “that has a market value.  Those already rusty hands go round with a regularity that can only have something prodigious about it.  It seems to be their destiny to go round, whatever happens.  For them happiness consists in being neither fast nor slow, and above all not motionless.  One can discern in their precise, resolute, self-assured movement the chauvinistic satisfaction resplendent on the face of the honest servant, the diligent housewife, the conscientious worker, the methodical official…”   The second clock represents those who have separated themselves only partially from the “crude vibrations of social time” exemplified by the motion of the first clock.  “If individuals who achieve relative independence are, as a matter of fact, the ones in most trouble and the quickest to take offense, it is because, physically emancipated, they remain mentally enslaved….all the time they are ahead or behind, but ahead or behind what, one may ask, since, precisely, these hands are situated beyond the circuit of puncutality?”  And then the third type of clock:   “‘Do not let that inertia summon up in you facile images of the void or eternity,’ said my host in a sardonic tone. ‘Instead, imagine in this stopped clock a mechanism more sensitive than the others, too perfect to register the crude vibrations of social time.'”

The “compulsion to useful activity.”  Here we have a psycho-religious formulation.  The modern idea of the clock began in the monasteries of the Benedictines, according to Mumford.  One might go so far as to say that this compulsion is tantamount to a fixed idea; it is no longer tied to a utilitarian basis.  I ask the reader to comtemplate how much more the clock rules us now than it did in 1944 when “The Inventor of Gratuitous Time” was written.   The anarchists tried to take the clocks in Grand Central Station down in 1967.  Then the police moved in.

The hegemony of the quantitative now threatens us as never before.  It is the clock that stands at the entranceway to this psychologically dubious way of thinking and feeling.

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