the sensual reality of time/the social reality of time

History is made of time – evidently. But time, we should remember, is a socially processed parameter in our lives. It is to this parameter that Marx will turn in Capital, putting to use insights from the theoretical phase of his work in the 1840s. This is from the German ideology – I would love to be able to spin on at length about the tree that ends this passage, since wood – and the organic growth time embodied in wood – is a sort of background noise in much of Marx’s writing. Trees have a special place in Marx – after all, it was the forest laws that he criticized in Köln which, on his own account, started his intellectual journey from philosophy and law to the political economy.

“He [Feuerbach] doesn’t see, how the sensual world around him is not immediately given by eternity, an always self-same thing, but instead is the product of industry and social circumstances, in the sense of actually being a historical product, the result of the activity of a whole series of generations of which each stood on the shoulders of its predecessors, constructing its industry and commerce, modifying its social order according to its altered needs. Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensual reality’ are present to him only through social development, given through industry and commercial interactions. The cherry, as almost all fruit tress, was, as is well known, only planted a few centuries ago through trade in our zone and was thus first through this action of a determined society in a determined time given to the “sensual certainty” of Feuerbach’s.”

As is well known, Marx cast a jaundiced eye on country life – the idiocy of country life, as he liked to call it. Of course, Marx’s phrase has a scholastic side – the idios, the private man, is the man who doesn’t participate in the life of the polis. He is the clown in Shakespeare – for clown, etymologically, takes us back to the inhabitant of the backwater, cultivators of the soil, colonnus.
One of the social aspects of country life that creates the clown is the allotment of time. Marx, in Capital, uses the time of the day as the great natural parameter with which the worker, under capitalism, deals. But this natural parameter is, as is always the case in Marx, not simply a given ‘sensual reality” – rather, it is an indicator of a great change in the mode of production. The temporal determinants in the cultivation of the soil are seasons. Of course, under the season comes the working day – but, in the 1840s, there is nothing to do but wait upon the time of growth of the plant or animal. A few years ago, I reviewed Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and I made much of the sparsity of his data in relation to the generality of this conclusions. One of his data points irritated me more than most – a comparison of the use of time of the European peasant compared to the use of time of the Chinese peasant. Gladwell took a passage from, I believe, Robert Gildea about the 18th century French peasant, who went into semi-hibernation during the winter, as opposed to the rice cultivating Chinese peasant, who was active all the year round. This was wrong on every count. Historians, work in the line of Charles Tilley (among whom Jan de Vries, with his notion of the “Industrious revolution”, is important), have destroyed the clownish image of the peasant as the simple herder or cultivator – as James Richard Farr points out, even in 1600, there were probably more looms than plows in Picardy, as cottage production was a vital source of peasant incomes. De Vries quotes a study by George Grantham of the increase in agricultural productivity before the 1840s – when Marx, of course, wrote the Communist Manifesto – which attributes that increase to more productive time use:
“Technical innovation was not a central feature of the growth of agricultural output throught he 1840s, when the appearance of commercial fertilizers and the elaboration of mechanical harvesting equipment began significantly to affect methods of production. Rather, up to that time, the growth of output depended more on intensive use of known technology than on novel methods.”

But even given this more complex picture of economic life, the peasant world was governed by longer increments of social time. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the capitalist system was to replace this parameter with another – the time of the working day. Even as we have developed the information networks that, in many ways, seem to make the factory working day an anachronism, capital still clings to it fiercely.


roger said…
I should say, one of the most interesting aspects of emotional labor is connected to time - to off time as the time in which "I don't know what to do". Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, noticed this in particular about Americans - they were perpetually restless. They couldn't stand still. William James wrote an essay about the same thing, in the 1890s.