A Break in Time: Politics and Temporality

Kazuo NakamuraKazuo Nakamura, Time and Space Series 1, (1974)


**Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of three essays on the topic of politics and time. Check back in the coming weeks for parts two and three.


Different understandings of time—its movements, its inner-workings, its cycles or lack thereof, the patterns that course through it and the way these interact with distinct events unfolding in history—serve as central, if under-acknowledged, aspects of sociocultural expression and political management. Sweeping changes in the cultural and political spheres so often trigger immense transformations in how these spheres view time itself. Such is the case, for example, of the unique temporalities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: three Abrahamic faiths emergent from a common fount, yet differentiated not only at the theological level, but through the religious calendar. Each is organized in a similar, yet idiosyncratic manner, with different orders for holy days and months, relationships with lunar and solar movement, and the position of days of rest.1 In another vein, there was the radical transmutation of time attempted during the French Revolution: so committed to obliterating the traces of the Ancien Regime, a new calendar—the French Republican Calendar—was deployed. Stripped of all sacred and royalist overcoding, this new system was inspired by the work of Sylvain Maréchal, a poet, philosopher, and theoretical precursor to the utopian socialists who heralded a golden age based not on the religions of old, but on the new cult of Reason. Just as the descendants of Abraham found the reconfiguration of time as necessary in setting themselves apart, the Republican calendar was to be a marker of a new time and, following suit, a year after his coronation as emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte formally abolished the calendar.

If cultural and political shifts institute new temporalities in their wake, the reverse is also true. It is the contention here that forces operating above and beyond the sociopolitical sphere are entangled with temporalities that run ahead of political institutions, and are even capable of forcing those institutions into new forms, if not destroying them outright. At the heart of this is an intense and seemingly all-encompassing fracture, which we can articulate as the split separating modernity from that which came before it. From this crack, a crisis arises for all things that depend on stability in duration.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze places time and its fracturing at the center of his early philosophy. He speaks of two registers: the time of the revolving door and the time of the straight labyrinth. These two poetic images serve as designators for what appears on either side of the split: they are, respectively, the pre-modern understanding of time as a cyclical process and the modern time of linearity, in which no return is to be found. The disjunction between the two—the immense “categorical reversal”—was, for Deleuze, the great discovery of Immanuel Kant. Legend has long maintained that Kant was fascinated by timekeeping and adorned his house with various mechanisms of it, and perhaps even structured his daily routine in a repetitive, clockwork-like manner. In Deleuze's own reading of Kant's philosophy, this fundamental mutation of time was intimately related to vast and sweeping sociotechnical and economic transformations. As he wrote in his “On Four Poetic Formulas that Might Summarize the Kantian Philosophy,” “[t]ime is no longer the cosmic time of an original celestial movement, nor is it the rural time of derived meteorological movement. It has become the time of the city and nothing other, the pure order of time.”2

The time of the city: this is the time of industry, of the pulse of the machine, of timetables, contracts, all manner of highly regimented, standardized rhythms and patterned successions. For Deleuze, this shift is one from cardinality, intimately linked to space with movement in distinct directions, to ordinality, that is, the countable, formal series. In Marx's writing, it is a shift from quality to quantity In The Poverty of Philosophy, his missive against his onetime comrade Proudhon, he writes that under the regime of capitalist industrialization “[t]ime is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time's carcase. Quality no longer decides everything. Quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour, day for day...” In the line running from Kant to Deleuze, the separation of time from “original celestial movement” and “derived meteorological movement” means that ordinal time is not only formal, but empty. Likewise, for Marx, time is detached from its content—a realization foregrounded most palpably by his insistence on measuring value in terms of labor-power, the abstracted capacity to do labor in a given unit of time, than in terms of the activity of labor itself.

Deleuze, in his joint work with Félix Guattari, suggests an additional element to this schema: the temporality prevalent in the pre-modern epochs was organized around a singular point in time—we can think of this as that which time revolves around, the religious deity or the despot—while modern, capitalist time was marked by linear progression and succession of events stretching out towards the open infinite.3 Borrowing from structuralist theory, Deleuze and Guattari dubbed the first mode synchronic, and the latter diachronic; for purposes here, it is important that modern time, that of the straight line, is regarded as being evolutionary, something gradually pouring forth from the pierced side of the previous mode. And indeed, we can find in the pages of history a conflict between the two—between a sense of time that troubles all that is solid, and a mode that strives to ward off the sense of impending dissolution that modernity brings with it. Between the two—the time of cycle and the time of the straight line—perhaps we find the true face of modernity, at least insofar as socio-cultural and political institutions are concerned.

It isn't just that cyclical time is unwound into a line that presents such a crisis for the political. It is a sensation of acceleration that seems occur within the new time. Marx had noted that the capitalist mode of production inaugurated something profoundly new in terms of the relationship between time and space. While politics is always an affair of space, “capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it,” a process that he describes elsewhere as exhibiting accelerating tendencies.4 These insights lash together two phenomena vital to understanding the contemporary, (post)modern condition: theories of accelerating rates of technological change, offered by thinkers and futurists as varied as R. Buckminster Fuller, Jacques Vallee, John Smart, and Ray Kurzweil, among others, and the concept of space-time compression, discussed by critical geographers, often of the Marxist variety, such as David Harvey and Doreen Massey. The first of these analyzes the way in which techno-economic development self-exacerbates by setting the stage for its own continued development, unfolding in the shadow of rapidly collapsing time-horizons. The second indexes the widespread effects of these trendlines, probing “a significant acceleration in the pace of life concomitant with a dissolution or collapse of traditional spatial co-ordinates […] usually expressed via some kind of discourse on speed – or space divided by time.”5 When viewed with this in mind—the tightening coil of time, the barrage of events speeding up into a blur, the break-down of decision-making capabilities—the crisis engendered by the temporal transition becomes starker, raising itself even, at least in some popular imaginaries, to the specter of apocalyptic fury.

There are perhaps three generalized phases that are identifiable in this crisis-ridden process. The first of these is a religious phase, inaugurated by the Catholic Church's role as temporal regulator and the subsequent challenge posed by the Protestant Reformation. The second is the political phase, situated in the so-called “epoch of revolutions,” while the third is the economic phase. Each point boasts a mode of crisis unique to it: to the religious, the apocalypse, revolution to the political, and to the economy, a generalized crisis of intelligibility. No doubt there is some degree of entangling of the same elements across each of these, the anticipation of some future revolution persists in our current moment, and the notion of the singularity heralded by techno-prophets like Kurzweil bear the distinctive traces of Protestant eschatology, and in many respects there are lines of continuity that can be drawn between each of these. At some level, the recurrence of old concepts and modes of articulation in the shell of current society points towards some oblique function, of strange passageways and odd loops.


The Three Modalities of Time and Speed

I: The Religious

In her excavations of the revolving door and the straight labyrinth, Amy Ireland traces Deleuze's use of the former back to the account of temporality offered by Plato in the Timaeus. The architecture of temporality in this dialogue—offered through the title character of Timaeus, an almost certainly fictional philosopher and astronomer—unfolds under the watchful of eye of a great demiurge who imposes “order on a previously disordered cosmos,  composed only of confused matter and erratic motion.”6 This allowed the introduction of measurable time, but it is a time that is distinct from eternity. For while the demiurge itself labors in the eternal, the world that it divides and crafts can only ever be a copy—a 'fallen image' that nonetheless moves in the grand, arcing revolutions of cosmological circulation and balance. Time is not eternity, but it is molded in the “likeliness of eternity.”7

This Platonic account entered into Catholic theology through multiple avenues, with one of the most notable being its usage by Saint Augustine in the pages of his Confessions and the reworking of the Timaeus carried out by Plotinus.8 The distinction between the eternal and time was, for Plotinus, the distinction between the Mind and the Soul, the former exhibiting none of the duration or movement that characterizes the latter. If there is no duration in the “life of the Mind,” then it follows that this “eternal Reality is a life that is whole and complete, lacking in nothing. It is, thus, timeless and durationless, existing always in an eternal present...”9 Augustine follows this line of reasoning, writing that “[i]n your [God's] Word all is uttered at one and the same time, yet eternally. If it were not so, your Word would be subject to time and change, and therefore would be neither truly eternal nor truly immortal.”10

Yet in Catholic doctrine we also perceive the contours of a break, one that is palpable even in Augustine's work. While he is ready to concede to the ultimately Platonic account of the Eternal, he breaks apart the linkage between time and cosmological movement, denying the governance of time by the revolutions of planets and stars.11 Time here begins to achieve an independent sense of duration, foreshadowing the immense reversal that Deleuze finds in the heart of Kantian philosophy: no longer would time be subordinated to space, as it was for Plato and Plotinus—it would be the reverse, space subordinated to time, an empty and formal sense of time in which the sense of autonomous movement began to grow along a line of time. And indeed, the very structure of Christian eschatology, etched into the Bible itself in the movement from Genesis to Revelations, ultimately forces a linear articulation of time to rise to the surface. Despite this, however, Augustine fiercely rejected speculations concerning the terminus point of this eschatology, a maneuver with support for which he drew from the scripture itself. As he wrote in The City of God:


[T]he scripture says that [Jesus] will kill [the Anti-Christ] with the breath of his mouth and annihilate him by the splendor of his coming (2 Thessalonians 2:8). Here the usual question is, 'When will this happen?' But the question is completely ill-timed. For had it been in our interest to know this, who could have been a better informant than the master, God himself, when the disciples asked him?... To all those who make... calculations on this subject comes the command: 'Relax your fingers, and give them a rest.’12


Challenges to the Augustinian eschatology arose in the late 1100s from the apocalypticism of the Joachimite heresies, named for the Italian theological Joachim of Fiore. The passage between three distinct ages, each aligned with one point of the Christian Trinity, governed Joachim's millenarian vision: the Age of the Father, which was the time of the Old Testament, the Age of the Son, inaugurated by the birth of Jesus, and the Age of the Holy Spirit, a time-to-come in which direct communion with God would replace the organization of the Church, itself dissipating in the emergence of a “society of perfection.”13 The year 1260 was to mark the transition from the Age of the Son to the Age of the Holy Spirit, and in the wake of this declaration, a branch of the Franciscan monastic order known as the “Spirituals” came together to advance his work further, even into revolutionary directions. “The Franciscan movement”, wrote Karl Lowith, “reminded the church that beginning or creation implies and also demands an end or eschaton and that history is an interim not because of the indefinite time of its possible duration but because of the decisive threat of a definitive termination.”14 

Joachim was condemned in the course of the Church's Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, which also established certain protocols dealing with excommunication and the question of heresy. It would be at the Fifth Lateran Council—the final council prior to the Protestant Reformation, held in 1512—that a prohibition on 'unlicensed' prophecy was established. Over the course of the three centuries that separated councils, the European landscape was swept over by a veritable swarm of heresies: the Joachimite-inspired Brethren of the Free Spirit, the gnostic-influenced Cathars, proto-Protestant groups such as the Waldensians and the Lollards, so on and so forth. Predominantly millenarian, many of these groups heralded an impending apocalypse, the date of which was frequently determined with recourse to calculation and vision. The response of the Fifth Lateran Council to these events was to “place a restriction on each and all of the said clerics, secular and regular and others... who undertake this task” of prophecy.15 Individuals and groups were commanded “not to keep on predicting some future events as based on the sacred writings,” and protocols were established to study and verify any claims being  made concerning “the holy Spirit or... divine revelation.”16

For Reinhart Koselleck, this series of events serves as a terrain of struggle over differing accounts of temporal passage, that is, the very relationship between duration and history. At the heart of this struggle was the power of the Church itself. To quote Koselleck at length:


...the future of the world and its end were made part of the history of the Church; newly inflamed prophets necessarily exposed themselves to verdicts of heresy. The Church utilized the imminent-but future End of the World as a means of stabilization, finding an equilibrium between the threat of the End on the one hand and the hope of Parousia on the other. The unknown Eschaton must be understood as one of the Church’s integrating factors, enabling its self-constitution as world and as institution. The Church is itself eschatological. But the moment the figures of the apocalypse are applied to concrete events or instances, the eschatology has disintegrative effects. The End of the World is only an integrating factor so long as its politico-historical meaning remains indeterminate.17


And yet it would be that the “most basic assumptions of this tradition were destroyed by the Reformation,”18 In these events we can find, too, the same struggle over temporality. Apocalyptic vision proliferated, with innumerable sects and factions adding their own idiosyncratic theological interpretations into the mix. Martin Luther himself was no stranger to eschatological utterance: “it is not to be expected that mankind will still see two or three thousand years after the birth of Christ,” he declared, adding that “[t]he end will come sooner than we think.”19 The final note there indexes further elements in the time-shift: the presence of acceleration—not only was time gaining its own freedom of movement, first from its status as mere copy of the eternal, then from eschatological ”suspension” carried out by the Church, but it was speeding-up. The time-horizon of the Second Coming was imploding. Anticipating the imminent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, Luther foretold that “God would shorten the final days, 'toward which the world was speeding, since almost all of the new century had been pressed into the space of one decade.'”20

This was also the time of immense technological transformation – namely, the invention of the printing press, and the mass proliferation of clocks. For Marx, the printing press was one of the three inventions that had helped lay the groundwork for the subsequent emergence of the bourgeoisie as an economic class, and the wider capitalist mode of production, alongside the introduction of gunpowder and the compass. “Gunpowder blew up the knightly class, the compass discovered the world market and founded the colonies, and the printing press was the instrument of Protestantism and the regeneration of science in general; the most powerful lever for creating intellectual prerequisites.”21 Meanwhile, the clock—having emerged in part from the calendrical studies carried out in the Church's monasteries in a remarkable historical diagram of the ordinal emerging from the cardinal—helped establish standards, universal in scope, to allow the entire, distributed system execute its self-movement with greater and greater ease. It is little wonder, then, why the sense of acceleration was palpable: the old order was shaking apart, empires crumbling into the modern nation-state, and the organic hierarchies and ways of life dissolving into the webs of commerce.



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  • 1. This is discussed in Eviatar Zerubavel, Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981).
  • 2. Gilles Deleuze, “On Four Poetic Formulas that Might Summarize the Kantian Philosophy”, in Essays: Critical & Clinical (New York: Verso, 1998), p. 28. This is also discussed at length in Ireland, “The Revolving Door and the Straight Labyrinth.”
  • 3. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 223. It is worth mentioning briefly the reason for associating synchronic time to the State and diachronic to capitalism. Synchronic denotes a specific place in time, whereas diachronic is concerned with change through the passage of time. Deleuze and Guattari, following Nietzsche's account for the genesis of the State, describe the State as arriving “like lightning”; it has a certainly temporal specificity that we can perhaps relate to the orderly circularity of the Revolving Door. Capitalism, by contrast, marks a break with this synchronic order: “[t]he capitalists appear in succession in a series that institutes a kind of creativity of history.” It is thus diachronic in nature. On the arrival of the State in the deep past as an immense temporal event, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 359-360, 427-431
  • 4. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 459
  • 5. Jon May and Nigel Thrift, Timespace: Geographies of Temporality, (London: Routledge, 2003), 7.
  • 6. Ireland, “The Revolving Door and the Straight Labyrinth”.
  • 7. Plato, “Timeaus”, Timaeus and Critias, trans. Robin Waterford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 25; quoted in Ireland, “The Revolving Door and the Straight Labyrinth”.
  • 8. While being a particularly notable example, Saint Augustine was by no means to bring Platonic philosophy to bear on Christian theology and the question of temporality. The Church father Origen (c. 184-253 AD), for example, drew from what has been described as the “Middle Platonism” of Plutarch (in contrast to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus). Plutarch described God as existing “for no fixed time, but for the everlasting ages which are immovable, timeless, and undeviating.” Similarly, in his On the First Principles (composed sometime between 220 and 230 AD), Origen writes that the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to be understood as transcending all time, all ages, and all eternity. For it is the Trinity alone which exceeds the comprehension not only of temporal but even of eternal intelligence.” Elsewhere he describes how God, situated in the heavenly eternal, designed a particular arrangement of the cosmos and the celestial bodies within it, whose revolutions mark the passage of time. See Phillip Schaff, Fathers of the Third Century, Part Four: Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Commodian, Origen (no location given: Benediction Classics, 2010), p. 523, 647. On the Middle Platonism of Plutarch and the movement towards the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, see Eunsoo Kim, Time, Eternity, and the Trinity: A Trinitarian Analogical Understanding of Time and Eternity (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), p. 70-74. I would like to thank Vincent Garton drawing my attention to Origen.
  • 9. See the discussion in Alan Padgett, God, Eternity, and the Nature of Time, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), p. 43.
  • 10. Ibid, 44.
  • 11. For an analysis of the distinctions between the interrelated accounts of temporality offered by Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine, see Robert E. Cushman's essay “Greek and Christian Views of Time”, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 33, No. 4 (October, 1953), p. 254-265.
  • 12. Saint Augustine The City of God, Book 18, Chapter 53, (New York: Penguin Books, 1973): p. 838.
  • 13. It is worth noting that there is a line of somewhat meandering, but no less important, influence running from these early heresies to the communist currents in modernity. One such pathway flows through the work of the philosopher August Cieszkowski. A member of the Young Hegelian school, Cieszkowski adopted Joachim's triadic diagram of spiritual epochs into a Hegelian framework to produce a model of history that culminates in an age marked by the synthetic unity of God and World. While whether or not Cieszkowski's religious philosophies directly influenced a young Marx is a subject of debate, there is a case to be made that there was indirect influence by way of Moses Hess. For various dimensions of this debate see Benoit P. Hepner, “History and Future: The Vision of August Cieszkowski”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 15, No. 3 (July, 1953), p. 328-349; and Louis Dupré, “Marx's Critique of Culture and Its Interpretations”, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 34, No. 1 (September, 1980), p. 91-121.
  • 14. Karl Lowith, The Meaning of History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 157.
  • 15. Lateran Council V, Session 11, “On How to Preach” (December 19, 1516), http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG0067/_PI.HTM
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Reinhart Koselleck Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 13
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Carmen Gomez-Galisteo, “Flight from Apocalypse: Protestants, Puritans, and the Great Migration”, in Karolyn Kinane and Michael A. Ryan, End of Days: Essays on the Apocalypse from Antiquity to Modernity (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009), p. 103.
  • 20. Koselleck, Future Past, 12.
  • 21. Karl Marx, 'Division of Labour and Mechanical Workshop. Tool and Machinery', “Economic Manuscript of 1861-63”; in Karl Marx and Ben Fawkes (trans.) Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 33, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), p. 403

Edmund Berger is an independent writer and researcher based in Horse Cave, Kentucky. His writings and assorted scribblings can be found at DI-Subunit 22 and Vast Abrupt, among other places. He can be followed on Twitter @EBBerger.