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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Organising Time

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. This essay is a look at time for Marx, Ricœur and Hudis; the vast concerns of an eternal scene. It was first published June 26 2020.

Be wise to-day; ’tis madness to defer; Next day the fatal precedent will plead; Thus on, till wisdom is push’d out of life. Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled, And to the mercies of a moment leaves The vast concerns of an eternal scene. ~ Edward Young, Night-Thoughts

Life in lockdown can lack the markers of prior forms of existence. I have described this subjectively in previous essays, characterising it as a mode of life marked by a peculiar lack of texture. That sense of the tactile is redolent not because sensation itself is lessened, but because it is flattened, repetitive, predictable. Life indoors, sociality mediated by digital platforms, and the sense in this long haul crisis of alway waiting, wanting to exercise more agency than is permitted, of both falling back on and railing against historical uncertainties.

I have also written previously of creating and sustaining safeguarding and self-sustaining routines in these conditions. These days I use an elaborate range of interacting, interfacing programs to keep sight of my projects, deadlines, upcoming events and also the international temporality into which my work life of global clients, meetings and geographically diffuse familial connections keeps me in constant mind. Editing contracts in Paris and in-laws in Canada, Zooms with Americans and just the passage of one day into the next in a world where weekends and day cycles lose their former significance.

Time’s Symptoms

But in truth all time in capitalism suffers grotesque alienations and is characterised by a pervasive dehumanisation. What capitalism does to time is central to Karl Marx’s diagnosis of it, and his ideas about how it could be overcome. As Peter Hudis writes in Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, ‘The replacement of the dictatorship of abstract time with time as the space for human development serves as the basis of a new kind of labour — directly social labour.’ More on this at the end of the essay.

During my attempts to organise my own time (from a position of relative privilege, it must be admitted) there are two important principles I have discovered. The first is that there is no point adding some new tracker if it isn’t integrated into something else that I am likely to spy in the normal course of things. One set of reminders, separate from a calendar system, separate from a countdown app, separate from, etc etc. means that stuff falls outside of my field of attention. As attention narrows to a single monitor in a single room, its limits become more obvious. Even our ability to marshal time is something precious, scarce.

The second related principle is that procrastination is always and only the symptom of inattention, that is, always rooted in, symptomatic of, something else. If whatever anxiety and tension that grounds procrastination exists, it will find a way to express itself even without social media, games, etc. I procrastinate out of anxiety, and it is that anxiety that is of interest. It’s an anxiety about time, which is why it manifests in a temporal symptom.

Human Time

Time is the variable. I find myself often thinking back to Paul Ricœur’s masterful three volume work Time and Narrative, which I read hoping to incorporate some of its ideas into my doctorate on utopia, only to find that it fell too far outside my studies and needed to eventually be completely excised. However I still have the excised section, which looks at how utopia relates to aporia and temporarily, how different generations of utopians handled time as a concept in ways that were related to the concerns of their own times and places; one day I hope to do something with it!

In the first volume Ricœur explores how ‘time becomes human time to the extent that it is organised after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience.’ In volume two he presents brilliant studies of the treatment of time in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Volume three ends with a mournful exegesis of Hegel’s notion of time, of the idea of ‘the plot behind every plot’, before reaffirming time’s fundamental narrativity.

There is far too much to say about Ricœur’s project here (especially his treatment of Hegel), but this rooting of time — human time, at least — as something beyond phenomenology (the study of appearances) and within the domain of narrative (the ordering of mere events into meaning) gets at the heart of the present sense of time disrupted. We are at that point in a story when one meaning crosses over into another, when one seeming narrative is exposed as having always been a different narrative. And this turn is necessarily both traumatic and can create, if we are to trust Ricœur, an abyssal sense of the loss of time.

This is, time no longer organised into a narrative, and narrative no longer able to depict temporal experience.

Fruitful Timelessness There are other kinds of loss of time. For example, when all attempts to narrativise are simply rejected by a period whose meaning has no sense of continuity or direction of travel. Stale time. The sense that time in Ricœur’s sense is superfluous to the requirements of an age. The postmodern loss of narrative felt most utterly during the 90s, Francis Fukuyama’s much discussed end of history. Times of aporia, on the other hand, signify instead is a kind of fruitful chronological impasse, and is useful to explain how the timelessness of the current crisis can be distinct from that of postmodern timelessness. One is a kind of death of time, the over is its surfeit.

The current crisis (of global financial collapse, the reemergence of vital struggles of the oppressed in public discourse, the focus on the imminent threat of ecological destruction, the horrifying resurgence of the far right as an increasingly hegemonic politics) indicates a point when the future direction of time is obscured by being so radically open. It is a fraught and anxious time, which will not be over soon. It is a time in which the temptation to procrastinate (both individually and collectively) will be overwhelming, because time itself is frightfully disorganised.

Human Time We need to take time and its symptoms seriously. Marxism, which is so originally rooted in concerns of time (of alienation, which is all about time; with abstracted and reified time; with socially necessary labour time as constitutive of value; with leisure and work time as falsely separate temporalities; with historical time as something contestable) should be trailblazing in this domain. Time is vital to Marxism as a living research project that can provide a philosophy of revolution, that can thereby contribute to a great reorganising of time, the beginning of a fully human time.

Sensuous time, the texture of time, is fundamentally at stake in all of this. But also increasingly at stake is an altogether different end of history than the one Fukuyama envisioned (and has since rejected). The end of history that has obsessed the fiction of modernity since at least Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, the increasingly plausible possibility of extinction. Our time is moving towards the difficult to conceive and absolute end of human time, a great nightmare impasse of a time-without-us. This also has to be taken seriously; the basis for human time, as a whole, is itself contingent; it might never be realised in the course of our actual history.

These are the stakes, the tools, the dilemmas. Organising time can appear the atomised task of the individual, but is in fact the imperative of our lifetimes.


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