What is a clock?
Corpus Clock at 6:48am
Originally published on the Time of Encounter blog, part of an AHRC funded project exploring social aspects of time.
The Time of the Clock and the Time of Encounter is a project that seeks to explore the role of time in the formation and continued production of ‘community’. The project has a number of different strands led by the different project participants. In this post I want to introduce you to the strand I’ll be working on – “Redefining the Clock”.
A lot of philosophical work on time assumes that there are two key aspects of time – an objective time, epitomised by the clock, and a subjective experiential time or non-linear temporality. I have always found this to be extremely problematic because it fails to respond to the large amount of work in anthropology and sociology that argues for the need to understand much of what we call ‘time’ as a social phenomenon. Failing to see the conceptualisation and production of time as a social process means that the role of time in social inclusion and exclusion, in the production of power and legitimacy, in the shaping of understandings of agency, change and success is often not even acknowledged and is currently not adequately explored.
What I want to suggest then, is that we need a more adequate philosophical engagement with the clock if we are to understand what we really mean by time in social life. Part of this will involve redefining what we mean by clock. The OED suggests that a clock is “an instrument for the measurement of time; properly, one in which the hours, and sometimes lesser divisions, are sounded by strokes of a hammer on a bell or similar resonant body”. For me this includes too many assumptions, including of course an assumption about the nature of time, but also is too shallow an understanding of the clock to really capture the work it does within social life.
In a forthcoming article with the Journal of Environmental Philosophy, Fatally Confused: Telling the Time in the Midst of Ecological Crises, I’ve suggested instead that a more adequate definition of the clocks would be something along the lines of “a device that signals change in order for its users to maintain an awareness of, and thus be able to coordinate themselves with, what is significant to them”.* Here I suggest that a clock is not an objective tool for measuring a single smooth flow of perpetual change, instead it is a device of coordination, a device encoded with social values, and produced through social decisions about what is important and what is not, what we need to be synchronised with and what we can afford to ignore.
I’m going to unpack this approach in a variety of ways in the project and will be blogging about it along the way. In my next post I’m going to talk about what might be thought of as standard clock time and show some of the contingent collective decisions that go into its construction. But I’m also going to look more widely at artistic and and scientific interventions that have attempted to shift shared experiences of time through the development of new ‘clocks’. This is partly in order to articulate the historical and comparative context within which The Time of the Clock and the Time of Encounter is situated. But I’m also interested in exploring how an analysis of interventions such as the Doomsday Clock, the Clock of the Long Now and the 100 Months Clock, as well as the Encounters Shop projects by community arts organisation Encounters Arts, might work back on philosophical accounts of time.
* You can now access this article here
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