In Onto-Cartography I spill a lot of ink discussing how structurations of time and energy can function as forms of power (and analyzing similar things with respect to how space is structured). An “ont0-cartography” just is a mapping of how temporal, spacial, semiotic, and material beings function in producing certain social relations. The hope is that with better maps we can develop more efficacious political interventions. When dealing with issues of temporal structure, I called this form of politics “chronopolitics”.
One of the things that often fills me with dread with respect to time is its binary nature. Time forces me to choose and in choosing I am perpetually killing other possibilities. I can’t have both of the possibilities. In writing this blog post, for example, I am not write the exam for my students or talking to my friend I haven’t talked to in weeks. In driving to work, I am not walking. If I watch a television show, I am not talking to my daughter. If I am reading Derrida’s Specters of Marx, I am not reading Badiou’s Logics of Worlds. Each act necessarily excludes other possibilities because we exist in time. We can always console ourselves by saying that time can be regained. I can have the conversation with my daughter later, I can take the walk tomorrow, I can read Badiou another time. However, time can’t be regained. The time I exclude is lost forever. The walk I take tomorrow will be different than the walk I would have had today. Who knows what I missed? That opportunity for conversation with my daughter is gone. Badiou will read differently after I read Derrida than he would have had I read him first.
With each choice, I’m killing time, I’m aborting it, I’m exterminating other possible futures both as to what would have happened and who I would have been. Yet it’s not just me that’s killing time with my choices. It’s the social structure I live in that kills time as well. As a community college professor, I’m relatively fortunate to have next to no publication requirements and to have fairly light service duties. I have a large student load, but otherwise have a fair amount of free time. From what I understand, things are quite different for my university colleagues. It’s not unheard of for such people to work upwards of 80 hours a week between service, scholarship, supervision, and teaching. The nature of the labor system academics inhabit– and often it’s not just administrations that are doing this, but we make unreasonable temporal claims on each other when it comes to uncompensated editorial, conference organizational, publishing, etc., work –that force us to kill time. The binary structure of those 80 hours mean that during that time we are not attending to our children, loved ones, friends, home, health, etc. We have aborted the stream of time that would have allowed that, and often our personal lives and health suffer significantly as a result of this. To be sure, we chose this life, yet we also become trapped in it.
What I say here is not, of course, unique to academics. It’s the nature of all labor. We have to work in the current system to live. As Zizek likes to say, we are free to choose any labor we like and can get. What we can’t choose is to opt out. In one form or another, then, all labor forces us to kill time. I think back to a friend who did mortgages at a certain bank. That bank was so greedy in its demand for time that the loan officers weren’t even permitted to take lunch or take off early on occasion to take a child to a doctor. Such decisions would come with significant sanctions from the management. “She chose to work there”, someone will say. True. But what was she to do? As a single mother whose ex-husband was a dead-beat dad, she had to support her child. She had to pay rent. Eat. Pay for daycare (because she had to work). And all the rest that comes with being alive. She was stuck in time and beholden to a disjunction of choice that was not of her own making but that of her employer’s who got to make the decisions about how time was used. While she had some freedom to make her own decisions as to how to kill time, many of the decisions belonged to her employer because if she wanted to take care of her child and pay her student loans she needed that job. She was caught in a sticky web of economic power.
I think American neoliberal capitalism is particularly egregious in how it forces us to kill time (especially with the student loan and broader debt system). However, it’s also true that every social system has its own way of killing time, of requiring us to kill time. The question is two-fold: At the level of our own lives as individuals and our own decisions, how ought we to kill time to live a flourishing life? Answering that question would require figuring out just what a flourishing life is. At the societal level, however, the question is one of justice. Are these ways in which social systems force us to kill time just and reasonable? Is it right, is it just, for an employer to literally take the life of its employees because they have a gun to their head that basically says “work this time or don’t support your kid?” This is a question of how to make time and the demands made on time a site of political struggle rather than a mere obvious given that’s just “how things are”.