- How to Do Time with Texts
The “deadly statistical clock” with which Thomas Gradgrind “measured every second with a beat like a rap on a coffin-lid” makes Hard Times (1854) one record of the mechanization of time so essential to modernity—the “technological conditioning” E. P. Thompson says clocks contributed to “work discipline,” the “disciplinary methods” Foucault discovers in the “profitable durations” clocks measure (75; 80; 157). Clock time was the false metric against which Henri Bergson and others defined the truth of human time. Modernists made clocks the target of their iconoclasm, staging clocks’ destruction (smashing watches, like Quentin in The Sound and the Fury ) or (like Dali) just melting them away, and cultural theorists before and after Foucault have founded cultural critique on the premise that clock time destroys humanity. Modern cultural history itself is founded on this premise. Pre-industrial cultures enjoyed truly human time; industrialization brought the apotheosis of the clock, and life ever since has been harrowed by its deadly statistical mechanics. Nationalism, too, takes these deadly measures. Its uniform prerogatives are patterned after “homogeneous” time, which orchestrates false cultural unity. By contrast, diversity, freedom, transnationalism, and other goods exist to the extent that we can defy clock time and realize temporal heterogeneity.
Unless clocks have a heterogeneity of their own—unless this opposition of clock time and human time does not really hold. If nations, too, are actually made up of all kinds of time, then we need some theory other than that which has held sway since Gradgrind, Bergson, Thompson, and Foucault. Thomas Allen’s Republic in Time: Temporality and Social Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (2008) provides just that. In Allen’s transformative account, American clocks were both statistical and [End Page 836] freely creative, providing both lock-step formations and “richly layered temporal experience” (13). Their temporalities included chronological regulation, open contingency, and everything in between; time itself was not just an agent of narrow nationalism but a heterogeneous form that “provided opportunities for diverse agents with different interests to produce competing accounts of American national identity” (3). Inversely, “heterogeneous” temporalities were not automatically “marginal or resistant to the nation” (11). They were quite often nationalistic—despite the conventional wisdom long associating subjective, private, or natural time with social subversion. Undoing the associations that have so long polarized our thinking about the forms of time, Allen reopens time’s excluded middle to important and productive scrutiny, effectively rethinking the nineteenth-century American “social imagination.”
Allen defines nationalism as “an ongoing negotiation, in narrative, of heterogeneous temporal modes” (4). What makes this specifically temporal revisionism so significant is not just the way it undoes the old temporal polarity but also its recognition of the diverse ways temporal practices shape social and cultural possibilities. Once again the clock is instrumental, because clocks enable Allen to make his claim most boldly: even if clocks tick off a uniform measure, their designs, modes of production, and uses could bespeak all kinds of alternative propositions. Engraved about the faces of clocks were doubts about precisely the form of discipline measured by the mechanism. These doubts—and others raised by clocks’ histories and their relationships to other forms of statistical measurement—kept active different ways of thinking about the uses of time in daily life. Artisanal clocks kept old times alive, not simply in resistance to modernity but in such a way as to “define market exchange in terms drawn from traditional modes of production” (93). Even patents could humanize clock time and fit it for diverse uses: the “mystique of the mechanical or inventive genius” associated clocks with funky creativity, moderating any associations with dutiful compliance (107). Clocks...