Reclaim Your Time
“Clock-time no longer measures our temporal relationship to nature, but instead regulates our daily activities in relationship to capitalism.”
Hey--what time is it?
Perhaps you’re reading this on a phone or a computer, so you might have just glanced at the numbers in the corner of that backlit rectangle to check. It’s 12:44 as I write this. Maybe it’s 2.17pm or 10 am for you?
Or maybe you already had a felt sense of what time it was and didn’t need to check a clock. Perhaps you’d looked at the clock a few minutes ago. Maybe you’re on lunch break at work, or on the bus on the way there or back, and so intuitively could guess the hour and minute when I asked.
I have another question for you. Whose time is it?
Is it your time? Your bosses’ time? The time of your phone? The time of the central servers which update your computer’s calculations? The time of society? Of civilization?
Maybe you’ve never really quite thought about this question. That’s okay; time is one of those things that are easy to take for granted, like governments and taxes. But here’s another question, related to that last one:
When did you learn about time?
If you were like me, you were born into a family that had clocks in the house. Your parent(s) regulated their life according to clocks, waking up to an alarm clock and leaving for work in the morning at a specific time most days. Perhaps they turned on the television at certain times in order to watch the news or their favorite show, and if they were particularly conscious of time, meals were laid out at a certain hour. So already, before you were even able to speak, the actions of the humans closest to you were patterned according to an external logic you didn’t control.
For most of us, though, our first real experience with time comes when we begin school. I left for kindergarten every morning at 8:30 am to arrive on-time at 9 am. But not only was each day scheduled like this, the parts of the day were also regulated by the clock. Lunch was at 11:30, nap-time at 1, the school day ended at 3:30. Even though I didn’t yet understand the movements of pieces of metal around the numbered circle that hung above the chalkboard, my actions—and those of the other kids in class with me—were determined by them.
Later, once I learned to read the clock, I began to measure out my day by its proclamations. When I was bored in school, I’d stare at the minute-hand and watch its slow circuit, begging it to go faster so I could go home. Or when there was an exam, I’d look anxiously at the clock and hope for those minutes to pass slower so I had time to finish.
When I first started working at 13 years old, clock time took on a new meaning. Work (like school) was something I didn’t really want to do but had no choice over, and its length was set by clock time. Except unlike school, the hours I spent at work translated into money: each hour meant a little over $5, and those five dollars translated into other things when I spent them. So time meant money, which meant things I could buy. Hours weren’t just something that moved on a clock, they were a kind of currency.
I also learned something else about time from school and work: there were consequences for not looking at the clock. When I was late for school, I was punished with detention, which meant sitting in a room for an hour with absolutely nothing else to look at except a clock. When I was late for work, I got “in trouble,” which meant a very stern talking-to by my manager; when I was late too many times, I was fired. In school, if you were on-time every day in a year you got a piece of paper as an award; at work, there were no awards for being on-time.
Your relationship to time was probably similar to mine, even if you didn’t start working until much later. The point here is that though it may have felt that time was an intuitive thing, it was educated and disciplined into you. You were trained to co-ordinate your actions according to clocks and learned that bad things could happen to you if you didn’t.
This training is called “time-discipline,” and it’s a very new thing in the history of humanity. Being punctual, working for a pre-determined amount of time during a day, and scheduling the rest of your human interactions according to the imperatives of clock-time only became a social phenomenon about 300 to 400 years ago. It arose with the birth of industrial capitalism
A Very Brief History of Modern Time
That isn’t to say that clock-time didn’t exist before that. Monks and other religious specialists kept clocks, as did alchemists, astrologers, and other magicians. Clerics kept clocks (and in Europe, they mounted clocks on church steeples or inside cathedrals) in order to perform religious rituals at specified times. Alchemists and other pre-enlightenment era “scientists” used standarized methods of tracking time as aids for their experiments. Astrologers and magicians (often the same people, who also often happened to be monks and alchemists as well) used clock-time in order to determine when certain events might occur or when other actions could best be performed.
In fact, modern clocks were developed specifically out of a need to record and translate astrological information and signaling regular intervals. The specific pre-cursors of our clocks are water wheels and astrolabes: water wheels (or water clocks) moved at regular intervals that could be set according to need; astrolabes measured the position of celestial bodies on a disk against the geographical position of the observer. Combining these two created a machine which could track the apparent movement of the sun and other bodies according to the intervals in which those bodies appeared to move.
In plainer language, clocks were ways of telling us where the sun (and sometimes the moon and some planets) was, and how to predict when it would be in the same place again.
As I mentioned, clocks were primarily of interest to specialists: those who needed to track astronomical events for their magical or spiritual rituals, alchemical experiments, or for predicting when certain things might occur. This might still have been the case except that a new class of people found a new use for the clock: measuring and organizing humans. Factory owners, particularly in England, soon discovered that they could use clocks to calculate how much work they needed from humans in order to make a profit from their products. Economic theorists then began using clocks to determine how much work a human had performed, as well as how to make those humans work more “efficiently” during an hour.
Soon, knowledge of clock-time became a requirement for entire societies. Workers who didn’t learn how to regulate their lives according to the clock couldn’t keep jobs. Because most of those people had less and less access to other ways of surviving (through Enclosure laws and other criminalization of non-capitalist ways of living, through colonization, and many other processes), time discipline became a question of life-or-death.
So the clock transformed from a useful instrument for magic and religion into a requirement for survival. It took decades and centuries for this transition to occur, and it would not have been possible without standardized universal education (that is, schools as we know them now). Schools discipline time into us from an early age, constantly re-inforcing not just the logic of minutes and hours into children, but the threat of punishment for not shaping our lives according to its demands.
The Tyranny of Clock-Time
Now, we all have clocks on our phones and computers which constantly re-inforce the lessons taught to us in school. Those are lessons we’ve internalized more deeply than what is first apparent. For instance, in English we speak of time as something to be “spent,” something that can “run out,” our attention something to be “paid.” That is, we speak as if our life and thoughts are a currency to be traded away, rather than the very substance of our existence.
Time has also become completely disconnected from the very celestial bodies clocks were first developed to track. Can you look at the time and know where the sun is without looking for it, or when the moon will rise tonight and what phase it will be in? Probably not. Time now is a measurement of chronological distance to work or a meeting, the imminence of waking or the imperative of sleep.
That is, clock-time no longer measures our temporal relationship to nature, but instead regulates our daily activities in relationship to capitalism. Clocks tell us when we need to go to work, when it’s time for lunch, when we need to wake up, when we really should go to sleep. We don’t do those things when we want to, we do them when others have determined they should be done. Those others aren’t the sun, stars, planets and moon of the pagan and animist worlds, but the bosses, the owners, the managers, and the bankers for whom we work.
There are still places in the world where clock-time hasn’t fully taken hold of humanity, though there are fewer and fewer every year. The British Empire particularly had quite a bit of trouble inculcating time-discipline into the Africans, Asians, Aboriginal, and other peoples they dominated and enslaved. Even still you can hear references on the BBC to “African Standard Time,” “Arab Standard Time,” and “Indian Standard Time,” derogatory ways of complaining that other cultures have not fully accepted the dominance of capitalist time-discipline.
But there are also places in each of our own lives when the clock loses its tyrannical grip over our actions. When we fall in love, for instance, the relentless march of capitalist time seems to disappear completely. In a new relationship, minutes feel like days, days feel like seconds. Weeks seem to pass without us noticing, while just a short afternoon with our newfound desire expands into a delicious eternity.
In fact, any strong emotion can disrupt the time of Empire. Sorrow, grief, joy, anger: each of these, at least for a short while, pulls us out of the ticking of machine-time and into new currents of experience. Even work, when it is done for ourselves and not scheduled by a corporation’s policies or a boss’s demands, pulls us out of that hegemonic torrent into our own time. An afternoon in a garden, an evening writing or painting, a late night reading a book before bed: these all remind us that time cannot truly be standardized and that the clock can be just an instrument, not a dictator.
In those moments we don’t just feel liberated from clock-time, we feel more ourselves. Those experiences are rich with meaning, moments of deep humanity and connection to others. Those times are when we live, times we remember long after they have passed, times that remind us we are more than workers and consumers.
How To Reclaim Your Time
There are many ways to reclaim these moments, ways to cultivate practices and rituals to disrupt the tyranny of capitalist time, ways to give us more control over our own lives. What I offer below is a very incomplete list, but each will help open a gate into a new way of understanding time and our relationship to it.
Look at the moon, not the finger pointing to the moon:
Try to look for the moon every night for the next 28 days. Learn where it rises and memorize its various phases, and use a resource to figure out where it is when you don’t see it (try this one). Then, come up with some simple ritual that helps you connect the experience of noticing the moon’s presence. For instance, I say “hi” to the moon when I see it. It’s kinda silly, but it works.
My best friend and I had a ritual whenever we went camping in the mountains together. We had to take a ferry to get there, and the moment we boarded we both turned off any devices we had that would tell the time, and oathed to each other that we wouldn’t turn them back on until we returned. Try something similar at the beginning of your next weekend, vacation, or trip. Once you’re ready, hide all your clocks until you need them again. This can be tricky at home with others and even harder if you are constantly using a smartphone. For the former problem, just tell the people you’re with what you’re doing; for smartphones without the option to hide time (i.e. iPhones), put a tiny sticker over the time display at the top and a sticky note over the time display on the lock screen.
“Everyone sees noon out their front door” *
(*a French proverb)
Noon, the point where the sun is half-way through its progression in the sky, is completely different from 12:00 pm. Try to figure out its half-way point (“true-noon”) where you are: there’s some math involved, but an even easier way is to use a calculator used for setting up sundials here. And then try for a few weeks to see that time as the mid-point of your day, rather than noon. You can also develop a little ritual around it, like ringing a small bell or just going outside for a minute during true-noon.
In the time it takes for rice to cook:
Humans naturally develop other ways of marking the progression of time besides clocks. One of the most common ones in many animist and pagan cultures, or those where time-discipline never fully took hold, is to measure time according to some common daily activity. For instance, several cultures have measurements aligned with cooking, like the amount of time it takes for water to boil, tea to steep, rice to cook, or bread to bake. In industrialized cultures, we usually use timers and don’t think much further about it. But anyone who cooks can tell you that you don’t need a timer, and with some regular practice you can intuitively guess when something will be done. Try giving (not paying!) attention to how you intuitively feel time this way, using some regular activity around cooking. Just make sure you don’t look at a clock!
Meet me in the gloaming*:
(*an old Scottish word for the time between sunset and twilight)
School and work are not the only ways that time is disciplined into us. We often discipline each other through our social interactions. When a friend is late we may feel like they’ve violated our personal time and schedules, when we’re late, our friends, family, or lovers may berate us. Instead of trying to make your friends (or yourself) more punctual, try arranging dates, parties, or other meetings with people you care about without using clock-time as a reference. Tell your mates to meet you at the bar when the sun sets, or after they’ve eaten dinner; ask your lover if you can meet them just after the moon rises, or after they’re done with work. And see how your relationship with them changes and expands when “lateness” isn’t an issue.
Feasts of the sun and moon:
Many modern Pagan and animist traditions have revived pre-capitalist ways of marking the seasons and the changing of the year. One such way is celebrating the “eight stations of the year”, which are the two solstices, the two equinoxes, and the four “cross-quarter” days which survived into many Catholic cultures (Imbolc: 1 February, Beltane: 1 May, Lughnasadh: 1 August, Samhaim: 1 November). Whether or not you ascribe spiritual or magical significance to these dates, they can create a stronger connection to the cycles of the sun and the seasons and help disrupt the Roman-Imperial calendar we use now. You can also do the same with full or new moons, which further disrupts capitalist time because the lunar calendar doesn’t sync up with the solar calendar. Traditional Thai, Hindu, Chinese, Arabic, and many other calendars are all lunar-based. Consider adding one of these to your wall to have a sense of more ancient methods of calculating time.
Each of these suggestions based on the principle of cultivating a relationship with other forms of time. Bodily rhythms (waking, sleeping, menstruation, hunger and digestion) create their own time. Growth cycles of plants and animals, seasonal weather patterns, tides, springtime melting of snow, and others are also other patterns of time which held much more importance to our pre-capitalist ancestors.
Shifting the way you see time can also shift the way you see the rest of the world. Regardless which of the above you try, you may find that other things change in your life, helping you reclaim a sense of time outside the time of Empire and the tyranny of its clocks.
Rhyd is one of the founders of Gods&Radicals Press and heads its publishing division. He’s a pagan, druid, theorist, punk, and poet who hates Empire but would rather talk about all the things he loves. Born in Appalachia, he now lives in French-occupied Bretagne with his husband. Find his books and links to his other works here.
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