On the Total Eclipse of August 2017

Homogenous and desacralized time emerged victorious as soon as it provided a means of measuring working time.

    Henri Lefebvre

Aside I turn to the holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night.

    Novalis

What we euphemistically call the transition to capitalism, written across the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries in letters of blood and fire, was predicated on the enclosure of the commons, the dispossession of the peasantry from the land and thus from the means of production and their own reproduction. With no other way to survive, and nothing left to sell but their bodies’ capacity to labor, people were forced to work for wages. Many preferred to take their chances as brigands and die on the gallows or burn at the stake than submit to the wage relation.

Why did the wage relation seem a horror to which death was preferable? Because the wage relation was not simply about the privatization of space and the hire of bodies: it was also about the rationalization of time. For what does the capitalist, who owns the means of production, pay the worker wages? Not for sensuous human practice or its products, the way a hungry person would directly buy a loaf of bread from the baker who baked it. The capitalist purchases the worker’s capacity to labor for a given period, and whatever value the worker produces in that period, the capitalist appropriates, even though it is considerably more than the worker’s wage. The capitalist purchases labor power in the abstract. This requires the polyrhythms of everyday life to be carved up into quantifiable units that can be bought and sold. Human practice is no longer measured in loaves of bread baked, cows milked, conversations had, seeds planted, mugs of ale drunk – a river whose currents ebb and flow subjectively – but in hours on or off the clock, a rigid grid slicing up life. To this day, the rudiments of class struggle often manifest as a struggle over time in everyday life, as anyone who’s taken an exceptionally long bathroom break just to steal a little time back from the boss knows.

But in the early-modern period, before electric light and the 24-hour society, the grid frayed at sundown. At night, time became amorphous and malleable again, its pulse not the steady tick of abstract labor-time, but the slow waxing and waning of the moon. For the worker, the night was a reprieve from labor discipline, a time of rest and pleasure, but for the ruling class, the night was a time of danger, under the lunatic sign of the moon, whose ever-changing face assures us that all this, too, shall pass.

The night was populated with all the paranoias of the burgeoning bourgeois order, a non-contemporaneous irruption into the contemporary – it seemed the time of witches and the wild hunt, of the vestigial survival of magic and mysteries, of devils’ festivals where the negative reigned, turning the mass upside down and appointing beggars rulers. It was the time of thievery and crime, when private property was vulnerable, the time when conspirators met and plotted the possible. If the day had been given over to industry, time a homogenous, regular succession of present moments that could be exchanged as money, the night was the bridge that linked memories of the past and dreams of the future. Thus the night was also the time of poets and philosophers, when they could see things clearly: as rigid boundaries blurred, inner connections revealed themselves, and the world appeared conditional, mobile, alive and flickering with inversions.

In our age, the night to which Novalis wrote his hymns is no more – it too has been really subsumed by capital. We stagger home from night shifts as others are starting their commutes. Capital has made the night like the day, segmented, quantified, subject to labor discipline. But on this August 21st, 2017, the day will be, for a short time, disrupted, and made like the night, as the moon blots out the sun. Let this then be the start of a festival, in the old sense – a time of inversions. An inversion, however festive, is also a critique, a critique that reveals that every aspect of society which we daily treat as natural and inevitable is nothing of the kind: it is the result of historical forces, human struggle, social practice, thus in process, subject to change, pregnant with its negation, its overcoming.

Our critical theory is written at night, but on the morrow it will rise as practice, like the morning star in the sky of social life, to illuminate a new day.




A New Institute for Social Research