Breaking Out of The Music Box - Time As An Affect of Objects

According to dialectical philosophy, objects have contradictions, and unfold themselves through time. For example, the class struggle within the object known as capitalism has driven history forward the past few centuries.  Capitalism exploits workers, workers revolt, capitalism coopts these revolts by developing new technologies and methods of social organization, and the cycle continues. 

 Timothy Morton flips this on it's head.  Or, perhaps, he expands it outward in all directions.  He says that time itself is actually an aesthetic effect, the surface appearance of objects as they unfold themselves through contradictions. This is similar to a point that I've heard friends make about how we need to decolonize the illusion of time that we inherit from Western philosophy.




What Morton means by effect is not some mechanical process of cause and effect.  It is more like "affect" - the emotional responses our bodyminds make to each other.  Time, like colors, sounds, and tastes, is a function of relations among objects/beings. We perceive time as happening only because we perceive changes in objects/beings. Everything - past, present, future, the ripples and paces of time itself - is an inter objective mesh, a sensuous, dynamic interplay of objects with each other, what Thich Naht Hanh calls inter-being.

This includes our consciousness, because we ourselves are conscious objects / subjectified bodies, so we are part of that mesh. 


This challenges the Marxist tradition and its Hegelian roots.   Hegel's dialectical philosophy was idealist not only because he said ideas are the driving force of history, but ALSO because he conceived of time and space as a blank stage inside which human history unfolds itself. The dialectic is like a dance happening inside a music box, but no one questions the existence of the box itself, and the dialectic never destabilizes or changes the box. Marx was materialist because he flipped Hegel on his head, saying that it is human labor that unfolds itself dialectically through time, not ideas. But he still assumed that there was a world, time, space, etc. that were the box, the container, or the stage for this unfolding. He never thought that anti-capitalism might require the dissolution of the box itself.

Marx didn't understand what ecology, relativity, and quantum physics are now showing us - that time and space themselves are relations among objects. So even Marx needs to be flipped on his head. Even he doesn't' go far enough; his materialism is simply the inversion of Hegelian idealism, and it doesn't escape its flawed, human-centered understanding of time and space.






 The ecological crisis pushes this to the forefront of our consciousness now because we are faced with decisions that have temporal implications WAY beyond the scope of human history. Some forms of radiation we have produced will exist for 46,000 years and we will need to keep taking care of them for that long if we don't want them to hurt our descendants and non-human beings. Every time we turn the ignition key, we incinerate dinosaur bones, and continue a transformation of the planet that can only be understood at geologic time scales - what some call the Anthropocene. If we stay on the same trajectory, we will face the possibilities of either going extinct, or evolving into a new species. 


This time scale is nauseating, yet it is wrapped up with the most temporary, short-term decisions in our everyday lives, such as cooking food or talking about the weather. It sickeningly intertwined with every discussion about revolution, anti-capitalism, and historical self-activity. It punctuates and rips apart the historical dialectic because we realize that there is no box containing it, that our history and its contradictions are just one corner of a vast unfolding inter-objective reality that includes the planet itself, climate, etc.  And yet, our labor under the capitalist system is shaping that vast reality, in (self)destructive ways. 

 As Marx argues in the Grundrisse, the fundamental contradiction in capitalism is that it measures the value of everything based on how long it takes to make (the amount of socially necessary labor time), yet at the same time capitalism reduces the amount of labor time to a minimum through technologies that increase the productivity of our labor. 

What this means today is that capitalism simply does not need to draw everyone it has displaced from the land into manufacturing work, since there are robots and other forms of automation that greatly enhance the productivity of the workers already employed.  The system is going into crisis precisely because it takes less and less time to reproduce capitalism in its entirety, which means there is no longer an engine of growth - and the very core of capitalism is the relentless pursuit of growth.  

One result of this is a rising population of people who are permanently unemployed.  This is what is driving the expansion of mass incarceration in the US, as the state tries to control this population, which is overwhelmingly Black and Brown due to white supremacist discrimination in education and employment (the school to prison pipeline).  The same phenomenon is driving the expansion of urban slums across the world, informal employment, cartels and black market industries, the expansion of slavery, etc.  Even in China, the manufacturing workshop of the world, workers employed in manufacturing are still a minority of the workforce. 

Time is on both sides of the contradiction driving these changes. Technology is being implemented more and more rapidly so the capitalists can save time in production.  Yet the system is based on socially necessary labor time remaining the core standard of all value. 

Both sides of this contradiction involve abstracting (and extracting)  time from specific objects and beings, something that may not be sustainable for much longer.   I think Marx may have started to get at this when he talked about the contradiction between abstract and concrete labor. Capital measures the value of commodities based on abstract labor - the average amount of time it takes for workers in general to produce a commodity.  It doesn't care about the concrete labor of any specific worker and how long it takes her to make that commodity.  It doesn't care about that workers' body, or her body's interaction with the tools she uses, or to the tool's interactions with the object being produced, or the materials in that object and where they come from, how they used to relate to other objects such as rocks, water, trees, various chemicals, the sun, climate, etc.   It doesn't care about the pace of the work and how speeding up that pace wears down her body and stresses her out.  It doesn't care about the trail of pollution that that commodity leaves behind it, pollution that may last longer than the entire time that commodity cycles through the market.  Yet it is the interaction of all of these objects that actually produces our experiences of time.  

Capitalism reifies time - it takes one specific experience of time, one surface effect of the interaction of all of these countless objects - and freezes this, claiming that this, and only this is time.  Only this counts.   Only this is measured by punch clocks and life insurance policies.  Only this is the basis of measuring value.  All the other objects that went into producing that labor time are left out of the equation. 

Meanwhile, objects continue to interact, undermining these frozen, parceled out strands of time.  The climate continues to warm, pheromones drift through sterile workplace air, people continue to daydream of  far distant pasts, and far distant futures, while they're supposed to be working.  We go out on a smoke break and realize the weather is acting strange, and we think of global warming.  The warming climate intersects with our daydreams and we realize that the work we are doing is physically connected to thousands and millions of years worth of objects' interactions with each other.  

In the earth 20th century, many communist strategies of overthrowing capitalism were based on workers coming together in the factory.  The assumption was that capitalism would draw more and more humans into these factories and the demand for labor increased, and the factory would unify and discipline people to the point where they could work together efficiently.   They would use these skills to build parties/unions/councils, and take over the their workplaces and the government.  These strategies were based on accepting capitalism's conception of time, but taking it over and running it ourselves.   This is what it meant to make history. 

 Communisation theorists today point out that these strategies are not likely to be effective now that capitalism excludes the vast majority of humanity from the factories and seems to divide us more than it unifies us.   They say we need different strategies if we want to achieve escape velocity from capital.  

Maybe shifting our conceptions of time might help us create these strategies.  How can we develop strategies of struggle that highlight and explode the contradiction between abstract and concrete labor?   Between time as an abstraction, and time as a relationship among objects/beings/people?  How can we develop forms of creativity and struggle that are on different time scales than capital, so that capital either can't keep up, or moves too fast to detect the growing threat?  How would thinking and acting in reference to geological time scales (e.g. millions of years) and the ecological interactions that create them put our struggles into perspective?  Could this motivate more of us to take the risks necessary to overthrow capital and avert ecological breakdown? 

 Finally, as my partner wrote in her essay "Caring: a labor on stolen time",  what happens when we insist on understanding time as a function of our relations of care and love for each other?  What happens when this clashes with the bosses' conception of time, to the point where we have to steal time from them in order to care?  

 Is it possible to communize time?  Wouldn't that involve forming new relations among objects, new forms of community among people, grain, the sun, trees, tools, water, carbon dioxide, etc.? 

I wonder if communizing time would mean learning how to fall in love more widely.   I don't mean love as a Hollywood love story or a sacred bond between spouses.  I mean love as a political unfolding that changes everyone involved,  creating specific and irreducible combinations of intensities.   That's what Michael Hardt means when he talks about communism as the creation of a "new sensorium", new ways of relating to other beings.  If time is indeed an aesthetic affect similar to many other sensory perceptions of objects, then attuning ourselves to the textures of time through meditation, struggle, art, music, etc. may be part of the process of building communism.  

And in the meantime, it might help us build more vibrant relationships with each other and with other beings on this planet.