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V. Time and History

O, gentlemen, the time of life is short!...
An if we live, we live to tread on kings.
— Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I


MAN — THAT "NEGATIVE BEING who is solely to the extent that he abolishes being" — is one with time. Man's appropriation of his own nature is at the same time the apprehension of the unfolding of the universe. "History itself," says Marx, "is a real part of natural history, and of nature's becoming man." Conversely, the "natural history" in question exists effectively only through the process of a human history, through the development of the only agency capable of discovering this historical whole; one is reminded of a modern telescope, whose range enables it to track the retreat of nebulae in time toward the edge of the universe. History has always existed, but not always in its historical form. The temporalization of man, as effected through the mediation of a society, is equivalent to a humanization of time. The unconscious movement of time becomes manifest and true in historical consciousness.


THE MOVEMENT OF HISTORY properly so called (though still hidden) begins with the slow and imperceptible emergence of "the true nature of man," of that "nature which was born of human history — of the procreative act that gave rise to human society"; but society, even when it had mastered a technology and a language, and even though by then it was already the product of its own history, remained conscious only of a perpetual present. All knowledge, which was in any case limited by the memory of society's oldest members, was always borne by the living. Neither death nor reproduction were understood as governed by time. Time was motionless — a sort of enclosed space. When a more complex society did finally attain a consciousness of time, its reaction was to deny rather than embrace it, for it viewed time not as something passing, but as something returning. This was a static type of society that organized time, true to its immediate experience of nature, on a cyclical model.


CYCLICAL TIME was already dominant in the experience of nomadic peoples, who confronted the same conditions at each moment of their roaming; as Hegel notes, "the wandering of nomads is a merely formal one, because it is limited to uniform spaces." Once a society became fixed in a locality, giving space content through the individualized development of specific areas, it found itself enclosed thereby within the location in question. A time-bound return to similar places thus gave way to the pure return of time in a single place, the repetition of a set of gestures. The shift from pastoralism to settled agriculture marked the end of an idle and contentless freedom, and the beginning of labor. The agrarian mode of production in general, governed by the rhythm of the seasons, was the basis of cyclical time in its fullest development. Eternity, as the return of the same here below, was internal to this time. Myth was the unified mental construct whose job it was to make sure that the whole cosmic order confirmed the order that this society had in fact already set up within its own frontiers.


THE SOCIAL APPROPRIATION of time and the production of man by means of human labor were developments that awaited the advent of a society divided into classes. The power that built itself up on the basis of the penury of the society of cyclical time — the power, in other words, of the class which organized social labor therein and appropriated the limited surplus value to be extracted, also appropriated the temporal surplus value that resulted from its organization of social time; this class thus had sole possession of the irreversible time of the living. The only wealth that could exist in concentrated form in the sphere of power, there to be expended on extravagance and festivity, was also expended in the form of the squandering of a historical time at society's surface. The owners of this historical surplus value were the masters of the knowledge and enjoyment of directly experienced events. Separated off from the collective organization of time that predominated as a function of the repetitive form of production which was the basis of social life, historical time flowed independently above its own, static, community. This was the time of adventure, of war, the time in which the lords of cyclical society pursued their personal histories; the time too that emerged in clashes between communities foreign to one another — perturbations in society's unchanging order. For ordinary men, therefore, history sprang forth as an alien factor, as something they had not sought and against whose occurrence they had thought themselves secure. Yet this turning point also made possible the return of that negative human restlessness, which had been at the origin of the whole (temporarily arrested) development.


IN ITS ESSENCE, cyclical time was a time without conflict. Yet even in this infancy of time, conflict was present: at first, history struggled to become history through the practical activity of the masters. At a superficial level this history created irreversibility; its movement constituted the very time that it used up within the inexhaustible time of cyclical society.


SO-CALLED COLD SOCIETIES are societies that successfully slowed their participation in history down to the minimum, and maintained their conflicts with the natural and human environments, as well as their internal conflicts, in constant equilibrium. Although the vast diversity of institutions set up for this purpose bears eloquent testimony to the plasticity of human nature's self-creation, this testimony is of course only accessible to an outside observer, to an anthropologist looking back from within historical time. In each of these societies a definitive organizational structure ruled out change. The absolute conformity of their social practices, with which all human possibilities were exclusively and permanently identified, had no external limits except for the fear of falling into a formless animal condition. So, here, in order to remain human, men had to remain the same.


THE EMERGENCE OF political power, seemingly associated with the last great technical revolutions, such as iron smelting, which occurred at the threshold of a period that was to experience no further major upheavals until the rise of modern industry, also coincided with the first signs of the dissolution of the bonds of kinship. From this moment on, the succession of the generations left the natural realm of the purely cyclical and became a purposeful succession of events, a mechanism for the transmission of power. Irreversible time was the prerogative of whoever ruled, and the prime yardstick of rulership lay in dynastic succession. The ruler's chief weapon was the written word, which now attained its full autonomous reality as mediation between consciousnesses. This independence, however, was indistinguishable from the general independence of a separate power as the mediation whereby society was constituted. With writing came a consciousness no longer conveyed and transmitted solely within the immediate relationships of the living — an impersonal memory that was the memory of the administration of society. "Writings are the thoughts of the State," said Novalis, "and archives are its memory."


AS THE EXPRESSION OF power's irreversible time, chronicles were a means of maintaining the voluntaristic forward progression of this time on the basis of the recording of its past; "voluntaristic," because such an orientation is bound to collapse, along with the particular power to which it corresponds, and sink once more into the indifferent oblivion of a solely cyclical time, a time known to the peasant masses who — no matter that empires may crumble along with their chronologies — never change. Those who possessed history gave it an orientation — a direction, and also a meaning. But their history unfolded and perished apart, as a sphere leaving the underlying society unaffected precisely because it was a sphere separate from common reality. This is why, from our point of view, the history of Oriental societies may be reduced to a history of religions: all we can reconstruct from their ruins is the seemingly independent history of the illusions that once enveloped them. The masters who, protected by myth, enjoyed the private ownership of history, themselves did so at first in the realm of illusion. In China and Egypt, for example, they long held a monopoly on the immortality of the soul; likewise, their earliest officially recognized dynasties were an imaginary reconstruction of the past. Such illusory ownership by the masters, however, was at the same time the only ownership then possible both of the common history and of their own history. The expansion of their effective historical power went hand in hand with a vulgarization of this illusory-mythical ownership. All of these consequences flowed from the simple fact that it was only to the degree that the masters made it their task to furnish cyclical time with mythic underpinnings, as in the seasonal rites of the Chinese emperors, that they themselves were relatively emancipated therefrom.


THE DRY, UNEXPLAINED chronology which a deified authority offered to its subjects, and which was intended to be understood solely as the earthly execution of the commandments of myth, was destined to be transcended and to become conscious history. But, for this to happen, sizeable groups of people had first to experience real participation in history. From such practical communication between those who had recognized one another as possessors of a unique present, who had experienced the qualitative richness of events as their own activity, their own dwelling-place — in short, their own epoch — from such communication arose the general language of historical communication. Those for whom irreversible time truly exists discover in it both the memorable and the danger of forgetting: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents the results of his researches, that the great deeds of men may not be forgotten."


TO REFLECT UPON HISTORY is also, inextricably, to reflect upon power. Greece was that moment when power and changes in power were first debated and understood. This occurred under a democracy of society's masters, a system diametrically opposed to that of the despotic State, where power settled accounts only with itself, in the impenetrable obscurity of its densest point, by means of palace revolutions whose outcome, whether success or failure, invariably placed the event itself beyond discussion. The shared power of Greek communities inhered solely, however, in the expending of a social life whose production remained the separate and static domain of the slave class. The only people who lived were those who did not work. The divisions between Greek communities, and the struggle to exploit foreign cities, were the externalized expression of the principle of separation on which each of them was based internally. Greece, which dreamed of a universal history, was thus unable to unite in the face of invasion from without; it could not even manage to standardize the calendars of its constituent cities. Historical time became conscious in Greece — but it was not yet conscious of itself.


THE REGRESSION OF Western thought that occurred once the local conditions favoring the Greek communities had disappeared was not accompanied by any reconstruction of the old mythic structures. Clashes between Mediterranean peoples and the constitution and collapse of the Roman State gave rise instead to semi-historical religions that were to become basic components of the new consciousness of time, and the new armature of separated power.


MONOTHEISTIC RELIGIONS were a compromise between myth and history, between the cyclical time which still dominated the sphere of production and the irreversible time which was the theater of conflicts and realignments between peoples. The religions that evolved out of Judaism were the abstract universal recognition of an irreversible time now democratized, open to all, yet still confined to the realm of illusion. Time remained entirely oriented toward a single final event: "The Kingdom of God is at hand." These religions had germinated and taken root in the soil of history; even here, however, they maintained a radical opposition to history. Semi-historical religion established qualitative starting points in time — the birth of Christ, the flight of Muhammad — yet its irreversible time, introducing an effective accumulation which would take the form of conquest in Islam and that of an increase in capital in the Christianity of the Reformation, was in fact inverted in religious thought, so as to become a sort of countdown: the wait, as time ran out, for the Last Judgment, for the moment of accession to the other, true world. Eternity emerged from cyclical time; it was that time's beyond. Eternity was also what humbled time in its mere irreversible flow — suppressing history as history continued — by positioning itself beyond irreversible time, as a pure point which cyclical time would enter only to be abolished. As Bossuet could still say: "So, by way of the passing of time, we enter eternity, which does not pass."


THE MIDDLE AGES, an unfinished mythical world whose perfection lay outside itself, was the period when cyclical time, which still governed the major part of production, suffered history's first real gnawing inroads. A measure of irreversible time now became available to everyone individually, in the form of the successive stages of life, in the form of life apprehended as a voyage, a one-way passage through a world whose meaning was elsewhere. Thus the pilgrim was the man who emerged from cyclical time to become in actuality the traveler that each individual was qua sign. Personal historical life invariably found its fulfillment within power's orbit — either in struggles waged by power or in struggles in which power was disputed; yet power's irreversible time was now shared to an unlimited degree within the context of the general unity that the oriented time of the Christian era ensured. This was a world of armed faith in which the activity of the masters revolved around fealty and around challenges to fealty owed. Under the feudal regime born of the coming together of "the martial organization of the army during the actual conquest" and "the action of the productive forces found in the conquered countries" (The German Ideology) — and among the factors responsible for organizing those productive forces must be included their religious language — under this regime social domination was divided up between the Church on the one hand and State power on the other, the latter being further broken down in accordance with the complex relations of suzerainty and vassalage characteristic, respectively, of rural landed property and urban communes. This diversification of possible historical life reflected the gradual emergence, following the collapse of the great official enterprise of this world, namely the Crusades, of the period's unseen contribution: a society carried along in its unconscious depths by irreversible time, the time directly experienced by the bourgeoisie in the production of commodities, the founding and expansion of the towns, the commercial discovery of the planet — in a word, the practical experimentation that obliterated any mythical organization of the cosmos once and for all.


AS THE MIDDLE AGES came to an end, the irreversible time that had invaded society was experienced by a consciousness still attached to the old order as an obsession with death. This was the melancholy of a world passing away — the last world where the security of myth could still balance history; and for this melancholy all earthly things were inevitably embarked on the path of corruption. The great European peasant revolts were likewise a response to history — a history that was wresting the peasantry from the patriarchal slumber thitherto guaranteed by the feudal order. This was the moment when a millenarian utopianism aspiring to build heaven on earth brought back to the forefront an idea that had been at the origin of semi-historical religion, when the early Christian communities, like the Judaic messianism from which they sprang, responded to the troubles and misfortunes of their time by announcing the imminent realization of God's Kingdom, and so added an element of disquiet and subversion to ancient society. The Christianity that later shared in imperial power denounced whatever remained of this hope as mere superstition: this is the meaning of the Augustinian pronouncement — the archetype of all the satisfecits of modern ideology — according to which the established Church was itself, and had long been, that self-same hoped-for kingdom. The social revolt of the millenarian peasantry naturally defined itself as an attempt to overthrow the Church. Millenarianism unfolded, however, in a historical world — not in the realm of myth. So, contrary to what Norman Cohn believes he has demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium, modern revolutionary hopes are not an irrational sequel to the religious passion of millenarianism. The exact opposite is true: millenarianism, the expression of a revolutionary class struggle speaking the language of religion for the last time, was already a modern revolutionary tendency, lacking only the consciousness of being historical and nothing more. The millenarians were doomed to defeat because they could not recognize revolution as their own handiwork. The fact that they made their action conditional upon an external sign of God's will was a translation onto the level of thought of the tendency of insurgent peasants to follow outside leaders. The peasant class could achieve a clear consciousness neither of the workings of society nor of the way to conduct its own struggle, and it was because it lacked these prerequisites of unity in its action and consciousness that the peasantry formulated its project and waged its wars according to the imagery of an earthly paradise.


THE RENAISSANCE EMBODIED the new form of possession of historical life. Seeking its heritage and its juridical basis in Antiquity, it was the bearer of a joyous break with eternity. The irreversible time of the Renaissance was that of an infinite accumulation of knowledge, while the historical consciousness generated by the experience of democratic communities, as of the effects of those forces that had brought on their ruin, was now, with Machiavelli, able to resume its reflection upon secular power, and say the unsayable about the State. In the exuberant life of the Italian cities, in the arts of festival, life came to recognize itself as the enjoyment of the passing of time. But this enjoyment of transience would turn out to be transient itself. The song of Lorenzo de' Medici, which Burckhardt considered "the very spirit of the Renaissance," is the eulogy delivered upon itself by this fragile historical feast: "Quant' è bella giovinezza / Che si fugge tuttavia."


THE TIRELESS PURSUIT of a monopoly of historical life by the absolute-monarchist State, a transitional form along the way to complete domination by the bourgeois class, clearly illuminates the highest expression of the bourgeoisie's new irreversible time. The time with which the bourgeoisie was inextricably bound up was labor-time, now at last emancipated from the cyclical realm. With the rise of the bourgeoisie, work became that work which transforms historical conditions. The bourgeoisie was the first ruling class for which labor was a value. By abolishing all social privilege, and by recognizing no value unrelated to the exploitation of labor, the bourgeoisie effectively conflated its own value qua ruling class with labor, and made the progress of labor the only measure of its own progress. The class that accumulated commodities and capital continually modified nature by modifying labor itself — by unleashing labor's productivity. All social life was by this time concentrated in the ornamented poverty of the Court — in the chintzy trappings of a bleak State administration whose apex was the "profession of king"; and all individual historical freedom had had to consent to this sacrifice. The free play of the feudal lords' irreversible time had exhausted itself in their last, lost battles: in the Fronde, or in the Scots' uprising in support of Charles Edward. The world had a new foundation.


THE VICTORY OF the bourgeoisie was the victory of a profoundly historical time — the time corresponding to the economic form of production, which transformed society permanently, and from top to bottom. So long as agriculture was the chief type of labor, cyclical time retained its deep-down hold over society and tended to nourish those combined forces of tradition which slowed down the movement of history. But the irreversible time of the bourgeois economic revolution eliminated all such vestiges throughout the world. History, which had hitherto appeared to express nothing more than the activity of individual members of the ruling class, and had thus been conceived of as a chronology of events, was now perceived in its general movement — an inexorable movement that crushed individuals before it. By discovering its basis in political economy, history became aware of the existence of what had been its unconscious. This unconscious, however, continued to exist as such — and history still could not draw it out into the full light of day. This blind prehistory, a new fatality that no one controls, is the only thing that the commodity economy has democratized.


THOUGH EVER-PRESENT in society's depths, history tended to be invisible at its surface. The triumph of irreversible time was also its metamorphosis into the time of things, because the weapon that had ensured its victory was, precisely, the mass production of objects in accordance with the laws of the commodity. The main product that economic development transformed from a luxurious rarity to a commonly consumed item was thus history itself — but only in the form of the history of that abstract movement which dominated any qualitative use of life. Whereas the cyclical time of an earlier era had supported an ever-increasing measure of historical time lived by individuals and groups, irreversible time's reign over production would tend socially to eliminate all such lived time.


SO THE BOURGEOISIE UNVEILED irreversible historical time and imposed it on society only to deprive society of its use. Once there was history, but "there is no longer any history" — because the class of owners of the economy, who cannot break with economic history, must repress any other use of irreversible time as representing an immediate threat to itself. The ruling class, made up of specialists in the ownership of things who for that very reason are themselves owned by things, is obliged to tie its fate to the maintenance of a reified history and to the permanent preservation of a new historical immobility. Meanwhile the worker, at the base of society, is for the first time not materially estranged from history, for now the irreversible is generated from below. By demanding to live the historical time that it creates, the proletariat discovers the simple, unforgettable core of its revolutionary project; and every attempt to carry this project through — though all up to now have gone down to defeat — signals a possible point of departure for a new historical life.


THE IRREVERSIBLE TIME of a bourgeoisie that had just seized power was called by its own name, and assigned an absolute origin: Year One of the Republic. But the revolutionary ideology of generalized freedom that had served to overthrow the last relics of a myth-based ordering of values, along with all traditional forms of social organization, was already unable completely to conceal the real goal that it had thus draped in Roman costume — namely, generalized freedom of trade. The society of the commodity, soon discovering that it must reinstate the passivity which it had to shake to its foundations in order to inaugurate its own unchallenged rule, now found that, for its purposes, "Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract was the most fitting form of religion" (Capital). So the bourgeoisie concluded a pact with this religion, an arrangement reflected in its presentation of time: the Revolutionary calendar was abandoned and irreversible time was returned to the straitjacket of a duly extended Christian Era.


THE DEVELOPMENT OF capitalism meant the unification of irreversible time on a world scale. Universal history became a reality because the entire globe was brought under the sway of this time's progression. But a history that is thus the same everywhere at once has as yet amounted to nothing more than an intrahistorical refusal of history. What appears the world over as the same day is merely the time of economic production — time cut up into equal abstract fragments. Unified irreversible time still belongs to the world market — and, by extension, to the world spectacle.


THE IRREVERSIBLE TIME of production is first and foremost the measure of commodities. The time officially promoted all around the world as the general time of society, since it signifies nothing beyond those special interests which constitute it, is therefore not general in character, but particular.

VI. Spectacular Time