Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 2
Clearing the Ground, section 11

by Henri Lefebvre, 1961
translated by John Moore, 2002

Let us look from yet another perspective. Cyclic time scales submerged themselves immediately and directly in the rhythms of nature, in cosmic time scales. For a long time they held sway over human life: social man had not yet controlled nature, that is, he had not separated himself from it. His life was made up of a set of cycles and rhythms, from birth to death. The regular return of the hours, days, weeks, months, seasons and years gave rhythm to an existence which was organically linked to nature. We can go as far as the supreme cycle, the temporal system of the world, the Great Year conceived of by so many thinkers since Classical and Eastern philosophy (up to Nietzsche and Engels). Villages and cities also lived in accordance with these rhythms which did not control individual life alone. The alternation and rhythm of the generations had a profound effect upon collectivities (age groups, the preponderance of those who resisted death: old people, etc.).

The study of these time scales reveals several more precise characteristics. First, cyclic time properly speaking has no beginning and no end. Every cycle is born from another cycle and becomes absorbed in other circular movements. Cyclic time does not exclude repetitive action. The cycle is itself a repetition. However, in cyclic time,repetition is subordinated to a more ‘total’ body rhythm which governs the movements of the legs and the arms, for example. Second, these rhythms do not exclude enumeration and measurement; one number in particular is extremely privileged: twelve (with the submultiples and multiples of twelve: minutes, hours, months; the division of a circle into degrees; the notes of the tempered musical scale, etc.). Third, no genuine cycle returns exactly to its point of departure or reproduces itself exactly. No return is absolutely exact (a remarkable example: the way an octave is divided up, scales and the cycle of fifths in music). If it were otherwise, cycles would be vicious circles and the geometry of the circle would exhaust all that is physically real. Finally, cyclic and cosmic time has always been and remains the subject of magic and religious representations. It is noticeable that rational and of course industrial techniques have shattered cyclic time. Modern man detaches himself from it. He controls it. This control is first expressed by interruptions in the cycles. Cyclic time is replaced by a linear time which can always be reckoned along a trajectory or distance. Linear time is both continuous and discontinuous. Continuous: its beginning is absolute, and it grows indefinitely from an initial zero. Discontinuous: it fragments into partial time scales assigned to one thing or another according to a programme which is abstract in relation to time. It dissects indefinitely. Techniques which fragment time also produce repetitive gestures. These do not and often cannot become part of a rhythm: the gestures of fragmented labour, actions which begin at any time and cease at any time.

However, cyclic time scales have not disappeared. Subordinated to linear time, broken into pieces and scattered, they live on. A very large part of biological and physiological life and a very large part of social life remain involved in cyclic time scales. Even if in a few very large cities (but not in France) public transport runs for  hours a day, even if a few very limited groups free themselves from the times conventionally allotted to customs such as resting, sleeping and eating, these customs remain deeply rooted. No matter how highly developed an industrial civilization may be, hunger, sleep and sex are still bound up with customs and traditions linked to cyclic time. And it would appear that emancipation from cyclic time always follows a difficult path, by way of antinature and lived abstraction. It is unnatural not to sleep at night, not to eat at specific hours, etc. How would the complete control of nature, i.e., the complete metamorphosis of everyday life, be expressed? By an arhythmic individual and social time (and also athematic, as in the example of contemporary electronic and concrete music, which shatters rhythmic time scales and traditional cycles) which would render any specific action impossible at any specific moment? By a transitory or durable group freely inventing its own rhythm? By the invention of new rhythms (of which the working day without breaks would be the blueprint)? That is the problem.

Critique of everyday life studies the persistence of rhythmic time scales within the linear time of modern industrial society. It studies the interactions between cyclic time (natural, in a sense irrational, and still concrete) and linear time (acquired, rational, and in a sense abstract and antinatural). It examines the defects and disquiet this as yet unknown and poorly understood interaction produces. Finally, it considers what metamorphoses are possible in the everyday as a result of this interaction.

In this context and in relation to this definition, we can see the everyday life of social groups in a more determined and three-dimensional way. For example, let us take a young farmer. His life is still governed by cyclic, cosmic and social time scales, especially if he is the son of a small landowning farmer in a rather backward region: days, weeks, seasons; seed times, cereal or grape harvests; youth, marriage, maturity, old age; births and funerals. He is aware of this set of cycles and of his place within it, no different from his place within the village (which still contains several features of farming communities) or the house (where the generations live side by side, among latent or violent conflicts). He can still feel more insecure in his links with nature than with society, i.e., markets, technology, urban life (unless the two impressions of insecurity are not brought together in a feeling of profound disquiet or panic). For him, the everyday appears as an organic whole which is in the process of disintegrating, but whose nucleus remains stable. Nothing separates childhood from adulthood, the family from the local community, work from leisure; nothing separates nature from social life and culture. When he is at school, he helps his parents in so far as his strength and the time at his disposal allow. As a child he has a precise and solid status which his village environment confers, a restrictive awareness of his social being which defines and limits him: ‘As the son of so-and-so, he will become this and not that.’ In spite of the symptoms of dissociation and the already backward character of this ‘state’, this young farmer still experiences a certain integration of the everyday with the cosmic on the one hand and with the community on the other. Threatening, fascinating, terrifying, the outside world is the city, it is technology, it is today’s society in its entirety. A multiplicity of prohibitions still protect this young man and the nucleus of the everyday as he lives it from the ever more numerous and effective attacks from outside.

As for the young worker, he is both integrated within (modern industrial) society on a world scale and thrown to the mercy of deeper conflicts. From childhood on, what he experiences is dissociation and creative but painful contradiction. He very soon comes to know insecurity; his life feels dependent and disorganized, because rational forward planning is difficult in a working-class family (fear of unemployment or of the need to move, lack of ready money, inconvenient daily working hours, etc.). The opposition between school life and family life already presents a striking contrast; then comes the brutal transition from the life of a schoolboy to that of a worker. Life at work and life with the family offer a painful contrast. The young worker tends to assert himself in and via work; at the same time he is well aware that work imposes new dependencies upon him. It is only through a greater social dependence than before that he achieves a certain personal independence. However, he does achieve it: he will ‘earn his living’ by working; but soon he must take on new responsibilities, staying in or returning to the social norm, building a family and taking on a twofold dependency, both personal and social. In factory life, the young worker sees himself caught up in fragmented linear time, the time of production and technology. In family life, he will rediscover cyclic, biological, physiological and social time scales. The one enables him to resist and to compensate for the other, but the balance will be a difficult one, and certainly problematic.


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