- Non-Industrial Faces of Modern Times
It has been almost fifty years since E. P. Thompson published his famous article on time, work discipline, and industrial capitalism, in which he asserted that temporal modernity arrived with the industrial world order. Although the historiographical trend it was part of has changed over and over since then, Thompson’s thesis is still often taught as a base-line assumption, as a fact. Alexis McCrossen, in Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013; pp. 272, $48), and On Barak, in On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013; pp. xiii+341, $29.95), join a handful of scholars who challenge Thompson’s thesis, and show how far removed the ideal of temporal modernity, imagined by both contemporaneous ideologues and by later historians, is from reality. Both authors dispute the claim that capitalist industry brought about the emergence of temporal modernity. Both disagree with the notion that modern technologies forced people into obedience to an oppressive time discipline. And both focus on the same historical period critical to the emergence of modern time—the early nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.
Nevertheless, their approaches are strikingly different. McCrossen shows that industrial developments did not, in fact, achieve what we regard as temporal modernity, and claims that the roots of modern time lie elsewhere. Barak, on the other hand, shows how modern technologies did affect temporal experience but demonstrates that these effects were the opposite of what we associate with the modern temporal order. McCrossen claims that the growing ubiquity of timepieces increased the possibility of time orientation and thus made timekeeping less—not more—oppressive. [End Page 965] Barak argues that the potential oppressiveness of modern time discipline has actually been resisted by people in a range of ways. Finally, Barak attempts to complicate the narrative of an industry-induced modern temporality by showing how different the historical reality was in Egypt. McCrossen, for her part, shows that this narrative is not a good representation of the evolution of temporal modernity in the West, either.
McCrossen describes the evolution of modern American time by addressing several layers of factors that shaped the cultural meanings attached to timekeeping. In her account, individual clockmakers produced timepieces that were influenced by cultural and historical currents. These timepieces in turn shaped the ways people thought about time and timekeeping. The intricate and ever-evolving temporal landscape that emerges in McCrossen’s book undermines unidimensional portrayals of the Western world of the second half of the nineteenth century as characterized by industrial time discipline. She demonstrates that the process of achieving what we imagine to be temporal modernity was gradual and was not completed with the emergence of modern transportation and communication technologies. She shows that even after the 1883 announcement of standard time, timekeeping practices in America were highly variable and the act of timekeeping itself was perceived as malleable. Moreover, in spite of explicitly stated aspirations for synchronicity, the desired degree of synchronization was not achieved until well into the twentieth century when technology caught up with the ideal. Synchronicity, at that time, was more aspirational than factual.
But if factories and railroads did not bring temporal modernity, what did? What caused the longing for synchronicity that took decades to achieve and that eventually brought about changes in temporal practices? McCrossen’s answer is that it was the growing ubiquity of timepieces—first watches and then gigantic public clocks—that provoked the impulse to follow their temporal guidance. She agrees that railroad clocks captured the public imagination, but she also tells us that in reality railroad clocks comprised fewer than six percent of all public clocks. Consequently it was other public timepieces that solidified standard time as a reality. The growing visibility of time-measurement manifested on public time-telling devices encouraged the aspiration to standardization and synchronization. These public time-telling devices were civic and commercial clocks erected by jewelers and merchants, as well as by the federal government, which used magnificent clock-faces adorned with...