Gareth Dale notes that narrative time is linked to clock time, with its focus on the control of time in everyday life. This is reported to also be apparent in technological progress, particularly in capitalism’s domination and erasure of nature.

In its own temporality, The Magic Mountain is classically ‘modern.’ Through a protagonist-centred narrative continuum, the present is looped through the past and toward the future. Narrative time is synced to clock time, and a focus on the detailed interactions of everyday life facilitates a tight control of tempo. As a Bildungsroman, it foregrounds processes of development and (self-)discovery.

It represents a late flourish of classical literary realism. The novel’s genre was keyed to a particular social order: bourgeois, individualistic and meliorist; its advent, some 150 years earlier, signalled a profound shift in sensibility. For the first time in literary consciousness, as Mikhail Bakhtin observed, “time and the world” became historical, unfolding “as an uninterrupted movement into a real future, as a unified, all-embracing and unconcluded process.”

The conceptual twin of this ‘modern’ literary sensibility is Progress. It too courses through Mann’s novel. Its champion is the Italian lawyer Lodovico Settembrini, who sees himself as a warrior for freedom, knowledge, transformative action, and ‘Europe,’ in opposition to tyranny, bondage, passivity, and inertia—in short, ‘Asia.’

In Settembrini’s view, time and history are propelled by machines. “As technology brought nature increasingly under its control,” improving communication “and triumphing over climatic conditions,” it also brought the peoples of the world together, driving a global shift from “darkness and fear” to happiness and virtue. Technological progress paves the road to a shining moral order. Through dominating nature, it secures liberation.

In Davos this week, Settembrini’s ghost feels right at home. It laps up the WEF mission statement, “Committed to Improving the State of the World,” and the ubiquitous undertakings to “shape the future of economic progress.”

The Magic Mountain is set prior to 1914, but Mann wrote it between 1912 and 1924, as liberal order crumpled and burned. Its narrative acceleration conjures a society hurtling toward doom. One hundred years on, ecological collapse is provoking a crisis in our perception of the ontological coordinates of human life, including nature and time. I’ll return to these. But first, how did we get here? And what is ‘capitalist time’?

Ringing the changes

The revolution in temporality of the last millennium is conventionally associated with the diffusion of the mechanical clock. By producing minutes and hours in fixed ticks, it enabled the reproducibility and universal standardisation of time. In severing time from the natural and supernatural realms, it helped foster a vision of an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences, the sphere of Newtonian science. Time could now be imagined as a uniform continuum: linear, divisible, and abstract.

But the transformation cannot have been the work of mechanical clocks alone. Clock time is a productive force, enabling the synchronisation of human purposes—but these are under whose command?

In medieval Europe and the Islamic civilisations, clocks were used less to measure time than by clerics to mark it — the call to prayer. (‘Clock’ derives from clocca/klocke: a bell.) But when clock-bells entered the public sphere to coordinate trade and public intercourse, and above all when they entered workplaces to quantify the working day, that changed.

If pre-capitalist systems were visibly kleptocratic — based on the extortion of labour’s product  — in capitalism the goal is labour productivity. Capital is the command of labour time, with the worker appearing as a commodity: personified labour-time. Capitalist rationality is governed by the law of value, the imperative to reduce the labour time of production below the ‘socially necessary’ average required to sell commodities at or below their value—where value is an abstraction of social time.

Put simply, capital’s aim is to increase profit by saving time. This accounts for the core dynamics of ‘modernity’: the systematic disciplining of labour and its segregation from the rest of the human experience, enabling labour time to be demarcated and measured; the endless acceleration of labour processes and of technical and social change; the centrality, and fetishism, of technology (in view of its key role in displacing labour and reducing circulation time); and the systematic derogation of the natural environment. Capitalism eats time, and in the process erases nature (Dale 2019).

Dale, Gareth. 2019. ‘Time Bombs at Davos.’ Brunel University London: News and Events: News. 22 January, 2019. https://www.brunel.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/articles/Time-bombs-at-Davos.


Jane Carroll argues that Jules Verne’s famous book Around the World in 80 Days is set in an era when the natural calendar was being superseded by an artificial time, the latter being conditioned by engineering and other technological developments.

Like all of Jules Verne’s most popular works, the so-called ‘Voyages Extraordinaires’, Around the World in 80 Days (1872) is about a journey. The journey-based narrative is the ‘master story of Western civilization’, and the ‘home-away-home’ pattern structures stories and folktales wherever there is a culture of travel…

Around the World in 80 Days is a novel of its time – and one which could only have possibly been written at that time, scarcely four years after the opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869 and three years after the completion of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. On one level, Around the World in 80 Days reads as a madcap survey of the mechanical and technological developments of the day and of the industrial progress of various states and nations around the world. It is a celebration of Victorian engineering and of the mechanical and industrial powers of the age…In writing a journey from England to England, a journey undertaken by a ‘quintessentially English man’ and ‘fuelled by British coal’, Verne borrows something of the zeitgeist of the late Victorian period in Britain and presents a hero and a narrative that offer a perfect embodiment of ‘all the self-assuredness and extravagance of the British Empire’. The bizarre bet made by Fogg and the gentlemen of the Reform Club perfectly encapsulates the Victorian obsession with time. Also, as William Butcher notes, Verne pulled off an amazing feat of timing in managing to bring the serial publication of the novel to a close on the evening of 22 December 1873, the very same day that Fogg arrives back in London. The novel is a work of great and precise engineering. Like Verne’s other novels, Around the World in 80 Days problematizes the relationship between space, time and the human subject…

Published in a period when ‘human activities became regulated, accelerated and quantified…even the notion of time metamorphosed into a linear and wholly abstract continuum: itself an objectively measured commodity of exchange, the text necessarily picks up on the growing awareness of, and concerns about time. Verne gives voice to these concerns by allowing his characters to express many of the same anxieties and views that were popularly held by his contemporaries. For instance, Latimer Clark’s statement that ‘distance and time have been so changed to our imaginations, that the globe has been practically reduced in magnitude, and there can be no doubt that our conception of its dimensions is entirely different to that held by our forefathers’ is closely paralleled by a claim made by one of Fogg’s whist partners, Gauthier Ralph that ‘the earth has got smaller because you can now travel around it ten times as quickly as a hundred years ago’. The novel is set at a time when the natural calendar was being superseded by artificial time. Whilst midday had once been calculated according to the sun’s position, by the end of the 1850s the midday signal was sent by telegraph from Greenwich. Passepartout is certain that ‘one day or the other the sun would make up its mid to set itself by my watch.’ The fact that he does not care which day it is suggests that all days are identical to him. Furthermore, Fogg makes landfall on 21 December, the shortest day of the year in solar times, but as all days are reckoned as being of equal length by the artificial clock, the day is of little significance. For Timothy Unwin, Verne’s novel ‘epitomises the magic of modern engineering…the triumph of civilisation over nature, the future over the past. It symbolises the taming of wild expanses through the willpower of the engineer.’

Carroll, Jane. 2013. “‘You are too slow’: Time in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days” in Trish Ferguson (ed.) Victorian time: Technologies, standardizations, catastrophes, 77-94. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan.


James Greer argues that given the pervasiveness of time-technologies, primarily involving the clock, humans have domesticated and artificialised time. The result is that increasingly, natural time becomes absent.

In a music recording studio, just like in a Las Vegas casino, there is no evidence of the passage of time. You work in the dark. There are no windows because windows are not soundproof.

In the absence of natural time, artificial time rules everything that happens in that room. Recording sessions can now take place continents away, simultaneously. For example, say a band has recorded a drum part in Los Angeles but the lead guitarist is in London pretending to go out with Kate Moss. He can go into a London studio, connect via broadband using Pro Tools, which is probably the most common recording software in use today, and lay down a guitar solo that will sync perfectly with the drum part.

Pro Tools synchronizes the two sessions using an artificial time code to establish what sound engineers call positional reference. The code is recorded onto one audio channel of whatever recording device the session is using (these days, usually a computer’s hard drive). In effect, it creates its own time. Anything stored on the device can be precisely located and synchronized by time-code reading devices anywhere, at any time.

What might be called the domestication of time is nothing new, but the pace at which it is developing seems to have recently accelerated. For centuries, because the human race was ruled by the “sunup, sundown” method of timekeeping, the sundial provided a sufficient answer to the eternal human question, “Why can’t anyone ever be on time for anything?” (Maybe because it’s cloudy.) During the Middle Ages, monks—required by monk law to know at what hour a particular prayer was to be performed—needed a more reliable system for keeping track of the time. They developed (or stole the idea from the Greeks, whatever) a clock that worked by allowing water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole in a vessel. This was apparently not good enough: Between A.D. 1280 and 1320, the first references to partly mechanical water clocks show up in church records.

From there it wasn’t a huge technological step to the purely mechanical clock, prodded in large part by the twin developments of the Industrial Revolution (factory workers needed to show up on time) and the railroad (it would be nice if 10 o’clock in London meant the same thing everywhere in England). Next came the pendulum, which is more or less how your grandfather’s grandfather clock operates. We have arrived today at the atomic clock, the one to which “official” clocks are linked. As quantum physics develops, we may yet see even more accurate clocks, which will be useful to astrophysicists trying to fix the coordinates and movements of distant celestial objects.

For us ordinary people, though, the clock is a tyrant. The tyranny of the timepiece has burrowed its way into the fabric of our daily lives—flashing on our iPhones, embedded into every e-mail we send, printed on every ATM withdrawal slip. We never do not know what time it is anymore, and this, I think, is a by-product of our appetite for speed. Many readers will remember the first computer modems, which connected us to the Internet at the then lightning-quick rate of 14.4 kilobytes per second. We may as well have carved our messages into stone and flung them across the country, given the 10-megabit rates now achievable by broadband technology. With an outpouring of data from the Large Hadron Collider, a huge particle accelerator starting up near Geneva, we can look forward to something called the Grid, which will make the Internet seem like a very old man walking his broken bike on the shoulder of the highway…

Artificial codes have erased natural time, and distance, too. The speed of sound is irrelevant; time zones are irrelevant; we can implant code on anything, transmit it over a fiber-optic cable or via satellite, and machines at any spot on the globe will be in sync.

The very notion of “on time” has been replaced by the notion of “in sync” (Greer 2008).

Greer, James. 2008. ‘What is the future of time.’ Discover: Science for the curious. 21 October. http://discovermagazine.com/2008/nov/21-what-is-the-future-of-time.


David Prerau describes the international standardisation of time, according to Greenwich mean time, as the first artificial adjustment to natural sun time. This artificialisation of time is said to have been globally systematised via various technologies, including time balls, and the calculation of longitudinal and latitudinal grids. 

Due to the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit and the tilt of its axis, the time from one day’s local noon to the following day’s local noon can be somewhat more or less than twenty-four clock-hours, depending on the day of the year. For example, the time on an accurate clock can be ahead of the local sun time as shown on a sundial by as much as fourteen minutes in mid-February and can lag behind sun time by as much as sixteen minutes in early November. In fact, there are only four days of the year when the clock and the sun completely agree. The difference between sun time and clock time, called the equation of time, was originally calculated in about 1670 by John Flamsteed, Britain’s first royal astronomer.

Given the regularity of the clock and the irregularity of the observed sun, a perfectly accurate clock would have to be reset each day at noon. To avoid this, cities and towns began to set their clocks on the basis of mean time: the length of a meantime day is defined as the average length of all the days of the year. Mean time (or mean solar time) was the first artificial adjustment made to natural sun time.

Guns, bells, and time balls.

Mean time was first instituted in Geneva, Switzerland in 1780, and eventually most cities and towns followed suit. Even after mean local time was generally adopted, however, there was still the problem of keeping the population of a large city or region synchronized. Although more accurate clocks and watches were produced, as the nineteenth century progressed, they still could drift several minutes a day. Mean local time could be determined with the greatest precision by astronomical observatories that tracked clock stars, stars that appeared overhead each night at predictable times. In an effort to keep clocks and watches accurate, observatory time was often announced by firing a gun or ringing a bell each day at a designated hour or by dropping a time ball.

Time balls were large metal spheres that were dropped each day from a prominent building or tower at a precise time, often twelve noon. The exact time was relayed by telegraph from a nearby observatory. Time balls were first used to signal a precise time to ships at harbor, so each ship could set its chronometer accurately without having to send someone ashore. The Royal Greenwich Observatory began dropping a daily time ball as early as 1833. Soon a time ball was in use in many cities, so that at the designated hour observers at numerous vantage points could set their clocks to the accurate local observatory time. Thus the daily drop of the time ball fostered a uniform time for everyone in the area. A vestige of this practice is the illuminated ball dropped in New York City’s Times Square at exactly midnight each New Year’s Eve.

The use of mean local sun time and devices such as time balls allowed residents of each town or city to be synchronized, but there still was no coordination of times between different cities and regions. To understand how such a system might be possible, we need to consider that the relative sun times of two places is determined by their location on the globe. The ancient Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, was the first to imagine superimposing a grid on the earth’s surface; his grid consisted of 360 lines (corresponding to the degrees of a circle) connecting the North and South Poles at right angles to the equator, and 180 equally spaced lines circling the earth parallel to the equator. The lines running between the Poles indicated a location’s longitude, and the lines parallel to the equator indicated its latitude. The lines of longitude were later called meridians, from the Latin meridies (midday), because all places on the same meridian had local noon, when the sun is at its highest point, at the same time.

Latitude is measured north or south from the equator. For longitude, however, there is no obvious starting point. Therefore it is measured east or west from some designated line of longitude, and this is called the prime meridian. Up to the end of the nineteenth century, almost every major nation based its maps for land delineation and ship navigation upon its own defined prime meridian of longitude, usually the meridian through its capital city. Britain’s prime meridian went through London, Portugal’s through Lisbon, France’s through Paris, Russia’s through St. Petersburg, and the United States’ through Washington, D.C. To allow precise determination of longitude, the specific location of the prime meridian was usually located at an astronomical observatory in or near the capital city: the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Greenwich, England, just outside London; the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.; and the Pulkovo Observatory near St. Petersburg.

As the earth rotates, the sun appears to traverse fifteen degrees of longitude in one hour. Thus, each degree of longitude to the west, local noon occurs four minutes later. Consequently, any two cities not on the same meridian would have their clocks set at different times, depending on how many degrees their longitudes separate them. Even though each town determined its time independently, the worldwide system of local times worked quite effectively for several centuries. As long as travel and communications were relatively slow, it didn’t much matter that, for instance, in the United States when it was 12:00 noon in Chicago it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:17 in Toledo, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianapolis, 11:50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:39 in St. Paul, and 11:27 in Omaha. The relaxed pace of travel, the lack of instant communications, the inherent inaccuracy of contemporary clocks, and the less frantic pace of life all made minor time variations unimportant.

But then came the Industrial Revolution (Prerau 2005, 53-57).

Prerau, David. 2005. Seize the daylight: The curious and contentious story of daylight saving time. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.


Robert Coolman traces the historical division of time into minutes and seconds to ancient forms of calculation, as well as to later improvements in the measurement of activity in the sky. The distinction is raised between the constancy of visible celestial movements, versus the technological contingencies underpinning the developing representations of such movements.

For millennia, ancient civilizations looked to the sky to measure the big units of time. There’s the year, which is the time it takes Earth to complete one orbit around the sun; the month, which is approximately how long it takes the moon to orbit our planet; the week, which is approximately the time between the four phases of the moon; and the day, which is the duration of one rotation of the Earth’s on its axis. Dividing the day was not so straightforward, though hours and minutes have their origins in traditions tracing back thousands of years…The use of 60 began with the Sumerians who used different number systems. While you and I write numbers using base 10, or “decimal” this civilization used base 12 (“duodecimal”) and base 60 (“sexigesimal”)…Medieval astronomers were first to apply sexigesimal values to time. The 11th-century Persian scholar Al-Bīrūnī tabulated times of new moons on specific dates in hours, 60ths (minutes), 60ths of 60ths (seconds)…Minutes and seconds, however, were not used for everyday timekeeping for several centuries. Mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe during the late 14th century, but with only one hand, following the design of sundials and water clocks…astronomers of the 16th century began physically realizing minutes and seconds with the construction of improved clocks with minute and second hands in order to improve measurements of the sky (Coolman 2014).

Coolman, Robert. 2014. “Keeping time: Why 60 minutes.” Live science. April 19 2014.  https://www.livescience.com/44964-why-60-minutes-in-an-hour.html


Lewis Mumford posits that mechanical time and organic time are polarised, whereby the former inadequately represents the latter. Mechanical, mathematical time is comprised of separate, superposable, identical instants. Conversely, organic time states are cumulative, and qualitatively differential, in the way that organic functions change tempo.

In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measure back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has it own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion and the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time – what Bergson calls duration – is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction – through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death – and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to he born (Mumford 1934, 15-16).

Mumford, Lewis. 1934. Technics and civilization. New York: Harcourt.