Time control

A few months ago, the Guardian letters page published this appreciation of the Marxist historian John Saville, who had recently died. The writer recalled being a student of Saville’s at Hull University in the early 1970s, studying economic history:

We once waited for him to lecture us on the somewhat dry subject of “The Meiji Restoration in Japan”. He eventually arrived 20 minutes late and was heckled for his tardiness by the rebellious students.

He turned to us in amazement, smiled benevolently, dropped his notes on the floor, and gave us an impromptu lecture on the “concept of time is bourgeois”. We learnt about the employers’ struggle to drive the time-indifferent peasantry from field to factory, using hooters, clocks, time cards and coercion.

The best lecture I have ever experienced, and one which summed up his subversive instincts as well as his sense of humour.

This came to mind while reading the cyclist Michael Hutchinson’s book The Hour, an entertaining account of his attempt to beat the hour record. In one of the later chapters, Hutchinson writes:

Time. It’s not just me – almost everyone involved in any kind of exercise or sport is obsessed with the passage of time. Either exercise is a trial to be endured for the minimum time possible, worked out and monitored to the second, or it’s a predetermined distance to be completed quickly. Time is of the essence.

As a psychological phenomenon, I imagine it’s closely related to the one that causes otherwise sane people to drive a mile to the gym to walk two miles on a treadmill, then drive a mile home. It’s about being in control.

It struck me that the birth of modern sport was closely associated with industrialisation and the growth of the urban proletariat. There are no doubt many reasons for this (and no doubt much research has been done on it), but I wonder if one element is this turning the tables on time: from being controlled by it (in factories, mills and mines) to being in control of it (on football pitch, athletics track and bicycle).

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11 Responses to Time control

  1. I’m sufre you’re onto something, John. The difference between your life being refgulated by natural light, seasonal work, etc., and having regular hours, punchcards and a factory hooter telling you what to do must have been considerable…

    The bigger change int he background was most people changing from working for themselves (albeit as hirelings) to an order where they became employees, or company servants.

  2. We’ll leave aside the weirdness that “Marxist” is not a pejorative label for a historian. You’d think after the 20th century, it would have as respectable a place as the word “fascist,” but intellectuals still have an odd need to redeem good ol’ Karl. Seriously, why can’t one be a “fascist” historian? Fascism has every bit as noble a history as Marxism.

    What do you mean by “modern sport”? Any sport that involves a clock? Completing a task quickly certainly isn’t new–foot races go back as far as we have history. Keeping time is a relatively recent introduction, but the Greeks doubtlessly would have used stopwatches to train if they’d had them. Nor is competitive team sport a recent invention. American football evolved from British rugby, which in turn evolved from games of medieval origin.

    The line of thought is anachronistic, too. The mechanical clock was invented in service of astronomy in the 16th century. Dividing the day into hours and even minutes is millennia old, and dividing a vigorous, physical game into time sections is a natural extension of this.

    Just goes to show Marxists are as useless at history as they are at keeping citizens from starving by the million.

  3. Rob says:

    I heard a saying from a visitor to Africa.

    A local was asked about what time it was, and he didn’t have a watch. He said that the local people didn’t have watches, but they had time, while we have our watches, but don’t have any time.

  4. John H says:

    Josh: reaching for Wikipedia (yeah, yeah, I know), I find this definition of Marxist historiography: “The chief tenets of Marxist historiography are the centrality of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes.”

    Now, we can argue over the merits of that as an approach to history – though it’s been more influential than many non-Marxists (and anti-Marxists) might care to admit – but it’s certainly some way removed from the definition you seem to be working on: “A historian who thinks Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were really great blokes”. (Admittedly, there is probably an alarming amount of overlap between those two definitions in practice…)

    I also don’t see why the fact that the mechanical clock was invented for astronomy should mean that it cannot have played a part in the development of the relationship between capital and labour during the industrial revolution. Prof Saville’s statement chimes with other accounts I have read of how early industrialists struggled to get their workers to give up their traditional devotion to “St Monday” (the habit of taking Monday off to recover from a weekend’s drinking – a devotion that still continues today for many people, of course…) and similar time-keeping issues.

    Finally, I should stress that I am neither a Marxist nor the son of a Marxist, though I will plead “no contest” to the charge of being useless at history… 😉

  5. Tom R says:

    Josh, if someone quotes an interesting sociological observation by Carl Schmitt, or reads a poem by Ezra Pound, or shows a scene filmed by Leni Riefenstahl , I am prepared to consider it on its merits.

  6. Yes, John, I’m sure you’re right.
    Growing up in a rural setting as recently as the 1960s, I learned to “tell time” by the passage of the sun through the sky, not by a wrist watch. The urban proletariat doubtless didn’t have that “luxury”.

  7. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » The man who invented exercise

  8. I’m just saying I think it’s funny that you can use the label “Marxist.” I could probably invent an equally innocuous definition of “fascist historian”–perhaps a historian who thinks national identity and the relationship between business and government are central in determining historical outcomes–but the point is no one with such a theory of history would use the label, since fascism as a political ideology resulted in the deaths of millions.

    So the real question is why didn’t Communist purges and killing fields poison the word “Marxist” the way WWII poisoned the word “fascist”?

    It doesn’t have much to do with the argument, just an observation about language.

    Anyway, of course accurate time-keeping played a big part in the industrial revolution. I don’t think anyone questions that. But so did the invention of thermodynamic analysis. But does this mean that “heat is a bourgeoise invention”? No; that’s ridiculous. Keeping warm is as ancient a concern as keeping time.

  9. John H says:

    Josh: I used the label “Marxist” just because the linked newspaper obituary did so.

    The reasons why Communism in practice failed to completely poison the word “Marxism” are, I’m guessing, quite complex. One element is undoubtedly the lingering hypocrisy that seeks to excuse “fascisms of the left” (“At least they meant well”).

    But equally there was a prior philosophical/historiographical meaning to the word Marxist (relating to dialectical materialism etc.) which can be separated from the horrors of what governments (and others) did in the name of “Marxism” during the 20th century. There was no prior meaning to fascism, no “fascist philosophy of history” which could have formed the basis of a continuing respectability for some connotations of the word.

    That said, I’m beginning to wish I’d said “Marxian”…

  10. John, I know you didn’t invent the label “Marxist historian.” I didn’t enter the university yesterday, you know. I just find it interesting. Marxian analysis is cut from the same cloth as the political ideals in Communist Manifesto. It’s couched in more academic language, but it’s a relatively thin veneer over class-warfare ideology, hatred of the successful, and deep suspicion of technology as the destroyer of the bucolic collective–the so-called “analysis” is just an outlet for the ideology.

    So for this historian, time and the clock are an invention of evil, selfish bourgeoise class seeking to oppress the noble peasant class. That’s why I responded by showing that they simply aren’t. Metered time measured by mechanical devices is not a “bourgeoise” invention. It’s not even an invention of the industrial age. That can be demonstrated by facts.

    The reality is, unfortunately, less serving of any ideology. Time, its measurement, and its use correspond to what people are doing. The changing use of time has far, far more to do with the fusion of mathematics with science (and the many, many changes that portended) than it has to do with class warfare. After all, even the Soviets had clocks and stopwatches.

  11. John H says:

    Josh: if you think Marxism is characterised by a “deep suspicion of technology as the destroyer of the bucolic collective” then you’re obviously reading a different edition of the Communist Manifesto than mine. Marx sang the praises of capitalist technology and despised the “utopian socialists” who sought to turn the clock back to a bucolic idyll.

    It’s also worth clarifying that we not talking about the invention of mechanical clocks, but their use in an industrial setting, and the role that they played in fundamentally changing people’s attitudes towards time – in a way far-better suited to industrial life. I’m not even saying that is a bad thing – I caught my train today at 7.26, not when the driver happened to get round to thinking it was a good idea to set off. But it is a change that goes beyond simply “We’ve invented the clock so we might as well use it”.

    Though certainly I agree that technology produces its own social transformations, regardless of ideology (which is what Jacques Ellul is talking about when he discusses “technique”).

    Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind the context: this was an impromptu (and witty) response to rudeness by students who thought they were being rebellious free-spirits. Prof Saville was not giving a considered treatise on absolutely everything that can and need be said about how attitudes towards time have changed; he was exposing his students’ unacknowledged conventionality.

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