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The Fate of Public Time: toward a time without qualities

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to respond to Lee Weng Choy’s thoughtful posting on the need for “slowing things down.” There is something intuitively urgent about that appeal for calm, which I felt needed to be fleshed out. Has something happened to time, I found myself wondering, or is it just our overwrought egos and zealous scheduling that need to be put on depressants? Then, during the Basekamp discussion, I heard myself improvising something about the becoming-we of n.e.w.s.; arguing somewhat self-evidently that our collective assemblage of enunciation is bound to “change over time.” That it is, but what does it mean to change “over time”? What is “over” time? When is that? The preposition bears reflection, but even if one were to say “in” time, the assertion would still beg the question: can anything change “out” of time? To change and to shift presuppose time; they are time-laden verbs – which, unless I’m mistaken, makes our collective voice an eminently time-fraught phenomenon. Which brought me back to Weng’s insight that if all of us are struggling with finding time, something may have happened to time itself, even as we continue to think of it as a smoothly flowing through phenomenal space and against which changes and shifts could be measured. What about cracks in time? What about a “third time,” a fuzzy, slothful or vacant time, recalcitrant to the tyranny of real time? It’s speculative, but such speculation appears less frivolous when one considers the frictional interfaces between competing experiences of time in our contemporary societies.

What is known as the “public sphere” has been the object of sustained and welcome reflection over the past decade. But does the term itself not somehow predetermine the very object it is supposed to describe? When one speaks of a public “sphere” or “space”, one makes use of a metaphorical term, which inadvertently predisposes the user to conceive of the public dimension in spatial terms, whereas what is primarily at stake in contemporary societies has less to do with defining public space than with coming to understand the de-definition of public time (memory and forgetting as blocks of ideological memory well up in the technological present). But what is “public time” and how might one conceptualise it? More pressingly, what is its status today at a time when new communications technologies along with the generalisation of flex-time in the labour market have come to imperil the very notion of private time? Breaking with romantic conceptions of the artist as outsider, sociologists have pointed out to just what extent artists represent in this regard the ideal-type of the worker of the future, whose work time never stops and thus never starts. However, contemporary art also enjoys a reflexive and heuristic relationship to time. How have artists drawn attention to the sort of disqualified, vacant or fuzzy time – time “without qualities” – that might be described as public? Might one not think of public time as carving out breathing spots, intervals, transitory breaches in the very core of collective existence, time slots still unfettered by moral or political discipline, where moral and ideological density remains tolerably low? When one turns to practical examples of time-based art practices, often inscribed in the body politic or human landscapes – relational and infiltration practices, performative actions or even just video production – which unfold not only in space but in time, one is obliged to acknowledge that time is their defining but as yet undefined factor. In short, introducing the dimension of public time into the ongoing debate on “Öffentlichkeit” may better equip us to address its still ongoing yet already advanced de-definition.


“Crack” is an ambivalently unstable term in English. This is surely because there is something edgy about a crack: it resists conformity, it’s not supposed to be there; it provides an illicit way in. Cracks thus have an irresistible attraction – as do crevices, fissures, breaches, gaps and intervals. But above all cracks. “There’s a crack,” says songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, “a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Mystical overtones notwithstanding, this is an intriguing insight. For what is of interest to me here are the cracks in otherwise seamless time – and how they can be hacked. Time appears to us as a seamless continuum – and indeed to speak of cracking into time is to use a spatial metaphor to grasp time. Our phenomenological experience of time is such that we are invariably compelled to seek recourse to spatial metaphors to speak about it: though we can no more leave space than we can leave time, we are able to visually verify the fissuring of space; we can see and feel its discrepancies and qualities. This is not true of time, of course, though we are intuitively aware of the ill-fit between lived time and chronological time, we struggle to find the word-images to describe it. In a wonderful passage in W.G. Sebald’s extraordinary novel, Austerlitz, the protagonist points out this conceptual difficulty. “If Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow? Every river, as we know, must have banks on both sides, so where, seen in those terms, where are the banks of time? What would be this river’s qualities, qualities perhaps corresponding to those of water, which is fluid, rather heavy, and translucent?” The Newtonian metaphor of time as a flow seems to cunningly postulate some timeless reality through which time moves. But perhaps it is that sometimes time flows through time itself; that there can be not only different quantities but different qualities of time. And what is of interest to me – following Robert Musil’s lead – is a time without qualities. An available time, an undisciplined time, a public time, whose ideological and moral density is tolerably low.

This is not a given time, but rather a time that has to be generated. Isn’t that what art is supposed to be about: churning out great expanses of time in invisible factories, manufacturing time in huge excess; secret time mills churning away day and night, destroying the economy of artificial scarcity – which is the very cornerstone of capitalist value production? Rather than focusing on the sort of monumental urban paraphernalia that ideologically demarcate our cityscapes, visual artists are often fond of those empty, unqualified spaces, which in English are called vacant lots, and more eloquently known in French as terrains vagues: they are places in transition, in-between zones in the urban fabric where it is positively possible to project difference. I am interested here in the temporal equivalent of these “vague zones”: vague intervals, breathing spaces in an increasingly frenetic regime of urgency. This regime is the key component of the privatisation of the public sphere, not merely or even primarily because it transforms it into yet another commodity, but because it is premised on the indistinction between public and private time. Lived experience is permanently on call, and where the private knows no limits, the public has nowhere to begin. In Jacques Ranciere’s recent book, The Hatred of Democracy, he argues that democracy is never a given but always under construction – “neither borne forth by any historical necessity nor the bearer of any” – he insists that the sphere of democracy is the interval, forever to be re-conquered, between legal identity and social identity. And that “sphere” is essentially temporal: “democracy… is the process of struggle against the privatisation [of the public sphere], the process of broadening the public sphere.” Aristotle argued that the first condition of possibility of democracy was “availability” – that citizens be available, unencumbered by work, to participate in democratic deliberation. I propose to translate Aristotle’s insight here as “public time.” The sort of public time that I refer to as “without qualities” – in other words, non subjected to privatised usage – is the very condition of possibility of democracy itself, not just n.e.w.s.

Yet today, time is increasingly and indeed massively qualified and quantified. We live under what some authors have described as the “dictatorship of real time”, a tyranny of the present, or a regime of urgency that defines our social time slots and roles. The dominant time metaphors that I hear myself using these days – and which led me to thinking about the need for a time without qualities – seem linked to verbs of possession, privatisation and yield: “have time”, “lack time”, “lose time”, “save time”, or indeed Lee Weng Choy’s hope that n.e.w.s. “give us a bit more time.”

As the philosopher Zaki Laïda writes, there is an interaction “between the acceleration of globalisation and a genuine redefinition of our relationship to time: everything is moving faster and this ‘faster’ itself is felt all the more acutely in that it is linked to the perception that it is spreading worldwide. Globalisation is experienced in the form of the ‘tyranny of real time over real space’, as if, in some way, the equalisation of conditions of access to space by different actors… has shifted competition into the field of time. The point is no longer to gain new spaces, but to gain time. Or, to be still more precise, it is in gaining time… that one is able to regain new spaces (markets for business). World space is thus entirely temporalised. Being in ‘world time’ comes down to being part of a new planetary dynamic and not belonging to any given space.” In other words, the advent of the regime of generalised urgency in economic life is closely linked to the emergence of this new worldwide space-time continuum.

The fate of public time should not be underestimated. Our societies are undergoing today a period of economic metamorphosis that may well culminate in the total commodification of lived experience, where the logic of capital will end up penetrating literally every aspect of life itself – of life as capital. Little by little, modern capitalism, based upon a wage-labour relationship – which though certainly ridden with conflict, nevertheless by acknowledging the separation of the contracting parties and by limiting the labourer’s obligation to a certain amount of work, set out jointly recognised and legally upheld boundaries between the sphere of labour and the sphere of private life, between working time and leisure time – has yielded to a new breed of capitalism, based upon the capture of the cognitive, creative and emotional capital of working subjects. Certain authors have acknowledged such key significance to the generalisation of aesthetic and intellectual functions in the general economy that they have come to redescribed our contemporary mode of production as “cognitive capitalism”, not only because of what it produced (not so much objects per se as consumer-subjects of objects whose production has been outsourced to the global South and East) or through the systematic inclusion in commodity goods and services of cultural and communicational components. In its very mode of producing, the production process has been intellectualised, aestheticised and more insidiously still, artialised, as Montaigne usefully put it some four centuries ago.

Now, this new configuration begs the question as to how co-workers (to use fashionable neo-management jargon) can be totally “mobilised”. How can their subjective involvement be maximised, how can they be made to show unreserved identification to their job in the framework of a wage-labour relationship which is based upon an opposition between the subject and the company? As economist André Gorz wrote in a recent book, The Immaterial, “the total subsuming of the production of the self by capital runs up against limits which cannot be overcome as long as there subsists between the individual and the company, between labour and capital, a heterogeneity which enables the former to withdraw from the equation, to refuse total work.” Total work – that’s a frightening prospect, and should give even productivists pause. The fact is that today the heterogeneity Gorz refers to is still solidly anchored in social mores – meaning that capitalism has a long term project of ideological attrition and subversion ahead of it if that heterogeneity is to be overcome. But in theory at least, and in many sectors of immaterial labour in practice, its objective is already perfectly clearly defined: wage-labour has to be abolished. “Each person must become for him- or herself a business,” Gorz continues, “and has to become, for him- or herself, as labour power, a form of fixed capital that needs to be continually reproduced, modernised, broadened and recapitalised. No constraint can be imposed upon him or her from the outside; he must be his own producer, his own employer and his own seller, imposing upon himself whatever constraints are necessary in order to ensure the viability and competitiveness of the business which he or she is.” Here we have a glimpse into entrepreneurial utopia: the genuine “co-worker” is none other than an entrepreneur, managing not only his career but his life, his relationship to himself and to others in the form of a small or medium sized business model. We also have a glimpse into the conflation of private and public time into a regime of total temporal mobilisation – the dystopia of utterly qualified time.

Art, unfortunately, is all the less removed from this development in that in many respects it has been the laboratory for test-driving it; or as sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger recently asserted, its “principle of fermentation”, allowing management to appropriate what until not so long ago were skills specific and intrinsic to artistic activity – autonomy, creativity, high level of involvement in an activity, not merely acceptance of flexibility and mobility but insistence upon them, non monetary remuneration, inter-individual competition, strategic exploitation of an unequal distribution of symbolic capital often referred to as “talent,” and so on.

Whereas outside working hours, workers were free (capital merely claiming the body of the worker for the duration of the working day), contemporary “cognitive” capitalism has found ways to assert a claim to every aspect of being, by designating any part of that being as a resource. As McKenzie Wark puts it, in his Hacker’s Manifesto, “the struggle to limit the working day, while salutary as a means of freeing the body from commodity labour, no longer frees the worker from the commodity, but merely releases the subject as producer for the even more burdensome task of being the subject as consumer.” If we are to enjoy time without qualities, time itself must be freed from commodification and an economy of scarcity.

Stephen Wright


I want time that is NOT money

According to Svetlana Boym there are two types of nostalgia. "Reflective nostalgia," while grounded in longing, contemplating, and remembering, does not attempt to restore the past. "You don't deny your longing, but you reflect on it somehow," she says. "It's a positive force that helps us explore our experience, and can offer an alternative to an uncritical acceptance of the present." In contrast, Boym sees danger in "restorative nostalgia," which "is not about memory and history but about heritage and tradition. It's often an invented tradition--a dogmatic, stable myth that gives you a coherent version of the past. Generally it's far removed in time, even prehistoric, as in the German myths that Wagner used for his operas."

Reminicent of 'Imagined Communities' whether mechanical or digital. I don't want to look back at n.e.w.s. as a 'we' that never was, or a constructed 'gated' online community. Rather, it's the carpe diem of n.e.w.s. that seems pertinent to me. Please see the blog entry ‘I want time that is NOT money.’