PhiloFiction

Time & History

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23 Jul , 2019  

transcript of a talk for the Radical Philosophy Association’s Fall conference ]

I would like to begin with a passage from Giorgio Agamben’s 1978 essay, ‘Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum,’ since it will serve to orient the remarks that follow:

Every conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time which is implicit in it, conditions it, and thereby has to be elucidated. Similarly, every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without an alteration in this experience. The original task of a genuine revolution, therefore, is never merely to ‘change the world’, but also – and above all – to ‘change time’. Modern political thought has concentrated its attention on history, and has not elaborated a corresponding concept of time. Even historical materialism has until now neglected to elaborate a concept of time that compares with its concept of history. Because of this omission it has been unwittingly compelled to have recourse to a concept of time dominant in Western culture for centuries, and so to harbour, side by side, a revolutionary concept of history and a traditional experience of time. (Agamben, Infancy and History, 91)

So, according to Agamben, the central impasse at which historical materialism finds itself is that of having a revolutionary understanding of history without an equally revolutionary notion of time – the result being that we find ourselves compelled to rely upon a traditionally Western conception of time as rectilinear, characterized by the present as fleeting instant, and flanked by the abstract and homogenous notion of a past, which came before, and a future, which comes after. If such an impasse were indeed actually the case, it would be tantamount to conceiving the history as the history of (class) struggle without the necessary means of effectively participating in struggle, let alone abolishing the very conditions that ensure the reproduction of class based society. History, when viewed within situations such as these, cannot help but feel less like the time of struggle and more like the indefinite wandering of Humanity. However, rather than recapitulating Agamben’s wide sweeping argument for what he takes to be a properly historical materialist understanding of time (an argument that begins with Gnosticism, moves through Stoicism, culminates with Benjamin and Heidegger, thereby giving rise to the decidedly non-quantifiable time of Aristotelian pleasure), I would like to turn out attention to an essay entitled  ‘The Time of Capital and the Messianicity of Time. Marx with Benjamin’ (2012), by Sami Khatib; for it is here where one encounters a critical rejoinder to Agamben’s position that does some of the important groundwork for demonstrating how, contra Agamben, “it is in Marx himself that we find the grounds for a materialist theory of time.” After having provided a general overview of Khatib’s reading of the various forms of capitalist time analyzed by Marx, I will articulate both the virtues and limits of Khatib’s rejoinder, which treats the relationship between abstract-time and historical-time as the very grounds for any possible historical materialist concept of time. The concluding portion of this talk will begin from what I deem to be its chief limitation – namely, what is elided by this overemphasis on the importance played by abstract-time and historical-time is the existence of a qualitatively different form of time that Marx will call disposable-time, and a concept of time whose cardinal virtue is in its overcoming any brute opposition of abstract/historical-time as well as the false dichotomy between labour-/leisure-time.   

1. In Defense of an Historical Materialist Concept of Time

In Defense of an Historical Materialist Concept of Time

At the outset, what is significant regarding Khatib’s inquiry is the fact that he undertakes a defense of an either latent or manifest theory of time in the late Marx not insofar as time is understood as being divided into labour- and leisure-time. Rather, Khatib begins from a two-fold concept of Time, where one form of time is time understood as “rectilinear, homogenous, cyclical time” (abstract time) and another form where time is said to be “disruptive, revolutionary time as an opening up of history” (historical time). And as Khatib remarks, it is necessary to distinguish between abstract and historical time precisely because capital is simultaneously “a social formation within history,” and “a social formation that produces and reproduces its own historical time.” In other words, capital is that historical social form that is both a product of history and that which brings into existence a wholly new form of time proper to itself.

Now, what is meant by “abstract time?” Abstract-time refers to what Marx called “socially necessary labour-time” – the average amount of time required for the production (of value) and reproduction (of what is necessary for capital to sustain itself). Or as Marx put it in chapter 6 of Capital, “[T]he value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special article. So far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labour of society incorporated in it.” Thus, to speak of abstract-time is to speak of time as the measure of value. However, insofar as abstract time as measure of value refers to that quantifiable average of labour-time required for the production of surplus-value and reproduce itself, that which abstract-time measures must be something distinct from itself. And it is precisely time as “historical time” that allows for the measurement of total value produced. However, this is the case, not because historical-time refers to a supposed set of iron laws that dictate history’s progression; rather, it is due to the fact that historical-time is the temporal form whose content is nothing but the rise and fall of productivity given a certain period of capitalist development. And this is perhaps best seen in Marx’s comment regarding the working day, when he writes,

What is a working day? […] The working day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of rest without which labour-power is absolutely incapable of renewing its services. Hence, it is self-evident that the worker is nothing other than labour-power for the duration of his whole life, and that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and by right labour-time […] It is not the normal maintenance of labour-power which determines the limits of the working day here, but rather the greatest possible daily expenditure of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory and painful it may be, which determines the limits of the workers’ period of rest. (Marx, Capital vol. I, 375 fn., emphasis mine)

Thus Khatib is correct in saying that it is due to the inherently variable content of historical-time that abstract-time is itself “the bearer of an historical index that cannot be measured…external to the movement of the self-valorization of capital.” What is more, says Khatib, abstract time is not simply bound to the variable transformations in productivity, which is the content of historical-time; abstract-time is itself determined, to a greater or lesser degree, by the fluctuations of historical-time.

Now while Khatib has explicitly made reference to the work of Moishe Postone throughout his argument, it is when this two-fold understanding of capitalist time as both abstract and historical that he reminds us of Postone’s own remark (“The entire abstract temporal axis, or frame of reference, is moved with each socially general increase in productivity; both the social labour hour and the base level of production are moved ‘forward in time’”) in order to provide the following formulation: “historical time is a function of abstract time retroactively changing the parameter of this function [measure of value].” Thus, while historical time is distinct from abstract time insofar as it is the object that is to be measured, historical time is also distinct from abstract time insofar as it alone is capable of forcing a change in the way in which capital measures the production of value. In other words, while abstract-time measures the movement of labour according to discrete moments within the spaces of production or reproduction, historical-time continuously modifies what labour will and will not be compensated for via the wage and relative to the current rate at which surplus-value is produced. And it is at this point that the following question necessarily arises: are the categories of abstract-time and historical-time sufficient for developing an historical materialist understanding of time? For Khatib, we must answer in the affirmative and the negative: in the affirmative insofar as abstract-time and historical-time are a two-fold understanding of a kind of time that only exists within capitalist societies; and in the negative because, according to Khatib, this two-fold nature of capitalist time generates its own paradox whereby the linear and homogeneous time of abstract-time does not move in a linear fashion and only moves in accordance with the rise and fall of the rate of production (i.e. historical-time). Thus, we find ourselves in a particular situation where we are confronted neither with rectilinear time nor with the temporal structure of progress but rather (abstract-)time as that which rules everything around us: “Time has become the equivalent and exchangeable form of contingent events on a global scale – the temporal form of the world market. [T]his empty temporality lacks historical openness since it ‘lacks’ the lack of linearity, that is to say, it does not allow for a temporal rupture or cut irreducible to equivalent intervals of exchangeable time units” (‘The Time of Capital and the Messianicity of Time,’ 56-7). That said, it is due to this aporetic conclusion regarding capitalist time in its abstract and historical forms that Khatib turns to Benjamin’s concept of ‘now-time’ [Jetztzeit]; a form of time that is said to be capable of overcoming the impasse of time-as-concept.

2. Jetztzeit & the Critique of Historical Progress

In his 14th theses ‘On the Concept of History,’ Benjamin defines now-time in the following terms:

History is the subject of a construction whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled full by now-time [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with now-time, a past which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate…it [was] the tiger’s leap into the past. Such a leap, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical leap Marx understood as revolution. (Benjamin, Selected Writings, 395)

As Khatib rightly notes, Jetztzeit does indeed share a certain structural likeness to the historical-time of capital insofar as both “consist[s] of non-linear, disruptive short circuits between historically different base levels of productivity.” However, what separates them and renders them ultimately incommensurable is the fact that Benjaminian ‘now-time’ marks a transformation in the forces and/or relations of capitalist production that functions as the conditions of possibility for the reintroduction of “a certain fragment of the past” and whose consequences are, as Benjamin says, enough “to blast open the continuum of history.” What is more, ‘now-time’ is actually “a model of messianic time” and “comprises the entire history of mankind in a tremendous abbreviation.” However, what must be understood in is that Jetztzeit’s abbreviated capture of human history is said to be a model precisely because within each of its irretrievable images of the past (or dialectical images) are the three modes of messianic temporalization: (i) the present as the moment “in which time takes a stand [einsteht],” (ii) the present as the moment that “has come to a standstill;” and (iii) the present as the moment wherein a certain “image of the past…unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger,” or the image of an “irretrievable…past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image.” Jetztzeit, then, as a present pregnant with the unrealized past and its possible future, is a form of time whose concept situates the current cycle of struggles in a certain historical lineage (e.g. workers movement, feminism, antifascism, etc.) such that these images, which continue to find no place within the dominant conception of history (i.e. history of the victors), are redeemed by this time which “takes a stand [einsteht]” and achieves “a conception of history that accords with” the insight that “the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

Now, contra Khatib’s suggestion of Jetztzeit as the dialectical corrective to capitalist time’s aporetic structure, and in light of Benjamin’s own understanding of the term, what is made clear is that Jetztzeit is less a concept of time and more so a cognitive abstraction that takes place in time but whose subject is the history of the struggling, oppressed class itself. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, while Benjamin nominates messianic time as the capacity for redeeming the past that belongs to a given collective revolutionary, Khatib understands messianic time to be “nothing [other] than an inner loop of/within capital-time giving us time to subtract human labour from capital-time – to deactivate capital-time and ultimately to bring the latter to an end.” In other words, attempting to resolve the impasse of capitalist time via the concept of ‘now-time’ only leads to a confusion of categories and their respective registers of analysis (i.e. now-time is a concept indexed to history, and insofar as it is not a form of time that is essential to capital’s self-reproduction, then now-time as a resolution to the capitalist form of abstract-/historical-time leaves the impasse unresolved).

3. On Non-Alienated Forms of Time: from ‘now-time’ to disposable-time

In the time that remains, I’ll provide the general contours for an argument that views the category of disposable-time (rather than Jetztzeit) as the adequate form of time that would (i) resolve the aporia of abstract and historical time and (ii) provide a more complete historical materialist concept of time. In the Grundrisse one reads the following claim from Marx: ‘For real wealth is developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.’ This disposable-time that is said to be the true measure of the wealth produced under communism; this time with which we can do as we please and that structures one’s life as a life defined by this form of time that can only be attributed to communism; this time, then, is the form of time that allows us to move beyond the static division of labour-time  vs. leisure-time (i.e. socially necessary labour-time that is waged and extra-socially necessary labour time, which is unwaged). In other words, it is by moving beyond this brute opposition of labour- versus leisure-time that one can grasp the way in which disposable-time is a form of time that is both immanent to the capitalist mode of production and a form of time that is potentially adequate to, or at least orients us toward, the time of communism: adequate because it is only through disposable-time that society’s negotiation of the questions/problems/experiences of love and sexuality can  be determined in a specifically communist manner; communist because disposable-time is a form of time the existence of which necessarily implies the abolition of any notion of time as the measure of value.

However, at this point in our analysis what becomes clear is that in having identified the category or form of Time needed to move beyond all that is false in the separation of labour-time from leisure-time, it remains the case that its corresponding content has yet to be accounted for. So what good is an indeterminate category; in other words, of what use does a historical materialist analysis have for a pure and empty form of time? This suspicion of disposable-time’s insufficiency due to its being a form without content, however, misunderstands what is at issue; it is not the case that Marx offers disposable-time as a way of answering the question ‘what is the actual, empirical, and material reality that corresponds to this form?’ Rather, it is in response to the question, ‘what will give order and structure to social existence in the absence of time as the measure of value?’, that the category of disposable-time is applied. For what is at issue is not a question of describing reality but one of the reality of social relations, since it is these real-abstractions that govern and regulate individual existence in accordance to the demands of the market. Thus, it is of no consequence if time-as-category is said to be empty since it is the form of a certain social relation that is sufficient for discovering the kind of concrete social relations that will come to define social existence. On this point that Dauvé is once again instructive:

“When they [the proletariat] transform or reproduce what they have taken over, what matters is the material and psychological satisfaction obtained not just by the product, but also by the productive activity…To put it another way, what will regulate production will be more than production procedures, it will be the social relation experienced by the participants. Sharing becomes not just giving other people…but acting together…Organizing, resisting, and fighting imply places to meet, eat, sleep, produce, and repair. When social relationships integrate what is now distinct – what is called producing and consuming – time-count and its coercion are ignored. Since objects are not made to be exchanged according to the average quantum of time necessary to make them…there is no point in keeping track of minutes and seconds. People take their time, literally. It hardly needs saying that some people will be slower than others and that people will rush to do something urgent: time of course matters, but it no longer rules as the universal quantifier.” (Gilles Dauvé, Time, ‘An A to Z of Communization’)

Disposable-time, then, is a properly communist time since in its abolition of life organized according waged and unwaged activity it creates and organizes our social existence in accordance with a form of time the function of which is to act as the condition of possibility whereby everyone can rediscover themselves in actuality, including a rediscovery of what love could be independent of the obligations of socially and/or extra-socially necessary labour time. Thus, it is to our advantage that the category of disposable-time is a form devoid of content (since it does not make any claim to knowledge but rather establishes criteria for anti-capitalist social relations) precisely because the content of any form can only assume one of two possible modes of existence: that of succeeding or that of failing to conform to what is materially and objectively the case. For the promise of marxist theorizing was never the confirmation of the existence of the real-abstraction of capital; thus, disposable-time also serves as a really existing social relation that is to be constructed. Hence my suggestion of disposable-time as the condition of possibility for becoming acquainted with a non-alienated and collective self (a profound rediscovery no less since it would be nothing more and nothing less than our becoming reacquainted with a self that we have never known). As Dauvé puts this: disposable-time is the time of communism because ‘Time is…the dimension of human liberation, providing the measure of time does not turn into measuring the world and us according to time.’ Disposable-time, then, is nothing but the measure of human liberation whereas the forms of time appropriate to capital are those which measure ourselves and the world against a standard that is, in essence, other-worldly and in-human. Thus, what was true in Agamben’s provocation with which we began is the idea that engaging in class struggle does not simply mean participating in a process of increasingly equitable distributions of the total surplus-value of capital. It also means to struggle against situations where our lives are measured according to capitalist Time instead of Time being measured according to all that is alive in our needs and desires, and what is required for its self-reproduction. Or, in the words of an Argentine comrade:

It was really interesting to begin to think about and imagine very concrete strategies for going on strike in atypical places. Because if we are serious about the strike, if we are really proposing it, we have to address all of these questions that we have about what it means to strike. It can’t be allowed to force us to give an image of ourselves that does not correspond with our everyday reality. What is powerful is that the women from the popular economy were the first to say “we will strike.” That is, these questions are asked from a position of a determined wager on the strike, in order to strengthen the strike. They really liked striking and they are eager to continue elaborating these questions about what it means to go on strike when you don’t have a boss, when you work in a cooperative, when you receive welfare, and so on. To include all of these realities in the strike, it is necessary to overflow it and effectively think about work beyond the typical job, under a boss, in a determined place, and so on. Another interesting question that has been debated recently has to do with how to connect the strike to care work, and in the way in which that care is carried out in homes, in community or neighborhood spaces or is self-managed. On the one hand, thinking about what it means to take those spaces to the mobilization, that the mobilization takes responsibility for that part of care work. There is a double measure to the time of the strike. We strike for a few hours in our workplaces and for the whole day we remove ourselves from the gender roles that assign us tasks of care. We strike and we make time for ourselves. That was a very powerful slogan: we organize ourselves to be able to dispose of our time, to free ourselves from daily obligations, and open up that time. (Verónica Gago, ‘The Strike of Those Who Can’t Stop’)

taken from here

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