Jay Griffiths characterises Western, hegemonic time, as inherently anti-natural, and as that which is imposed on cultures. A challenge to this dominant form of time is said to manifest through the various time structures of indigenous populations, which are portrayed as being more natural than the time which has developed from the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution created time-owners; the capitalist factory bosses, erecting clock-bound fences of work-time and the sense that employers owned the time of their employees, enslaving their time, enclosing it. Stealthily, nastily, one type of time has grown horribly dominant: Western, Christian, linear, abstract, clock-dominated, work-oriented, coercive, capitalist, masculine and anti-natural: Hegemonic Time. This time, and all the time-values which go with it, have been imposed on numerous cultures across the world. (When missionaries arrived the Algonquin people of North America called clock-time ‘Captain Clock’ because it seemed to command every act for the Christians.)

There is revolt. The challenge to Hegemonic Time has come from the radiant variety of times understood by indigenous peoples; from self-conscious political protest; from children’s dogged insistence on living in a stretchy eternity; from women’s blood and from carnival.

Subversive and mischievous, carnival reverses the norms, overturns the usual hierarchies. Unlike Hegemonic Time, carnival is usually tied to nature’s time; it is ahistoric, linked to cyclic, frequently seasonal events. Carnival transforms work-time to playtime, reverses the status quo. It is frequently earthy and sexual (Griffiths 2002).

Griffiths, Jay. 2002, ‘Boo to captain clock.’ New Internationalist 343(March): 14-17.


Mark Smith observes that with the proliferation of clocks and watches during periods of American slavery, plantation owners forced slaves to move from a temporality which naturally revolved around the sun and stars, to an existence governed by the clock. Whilst natural time and clock time are not entirely divorced for Smith, a distinct transition between them is apparent.

Nor should we be misled, as Michael O’Malley has wisely counseled, into thinking that a naturally derived understanding of time (time defined by sun, moon, wind, and a host of other naturally occurring phenomena) necessarily precludes a commitment to clock time. Not only is the dichotomy false, not only is nature itself sometimes as frenetic as the clock (as humans find when planting and harvesting, for instance), but there is evidence suggesting that natural time and clock time are in many respects complementary. Both are largely cyclical in their movements, and the regular, perpetual movements of the clock are to some extent mirrored in the rhythms of the seasons or sun. Naturally derived, task-oriented, and clock-regulated forms of time measurement, in short, coexist in any society, the most modern included…

Under modernity, the clock becomes a fetish: the clock is time itself, and clock time develops an apparent autonomy and hegemony. The dictates and needs of the capitalist mode of production ensure that the clock is used to control workers, measure labor, increase efficiency, and heighten personal time discipline in order to coordinate workers and society generally. Given these imperatives, clock and watch ownership under capitalism tends to increase considerably. Conversely, in pre-modern societies, clock time is usually bound to religion and has little secular significance or function…

Before anyone, whether master, industrialist, or worker, could reduce time to money, however, they had to dilute, or at least modify, age-old Christian imperatives stressing that all time was God’s time. According to Jacques Le Goff, this process began in the Middle Ages, when “[a]mong the principal criticisms levelled against the merchants was the charge that their profit implied a mortgage on time, which was supposed to belong to God alone.” But God was not the only impediment to secular commercial time. According to Le Goff, “Like the peasant, the merchant was at first subjected by his professional activity to the dominion of meteorological time, to the cycle of seasons and the unpredictability of storms and natural cataclysms.” To rationalize time, European merchants used God’s time by recruiting the aural power of his church clocks to coordinate city life and the times of markets. “The same process for the rationalization of time,” Le Goff points out, “was responsible also for its secularization.” Once this rationalization was under way, mercantile activity, while “distinct and, at particular points, contingently similar,” to God’s time, became regulated by the clock. And it was the dual forces of God’s temporal imperatives and merchants’ commercial time that provided the historical basis for the rise of clock consciousness among workers and managers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Slaves remembered the clock and watch and testified that they had come to accept, albeit grudgingly, timed agricultural labor under slavery. Although they originally came from societies where natural time was predominant and that same reliance on natural time remained important to them, southern slaves, like nineteenth-century urban-industrial workers, found their reliance on sun and stars as exclusive arbiters of time attacked and, ultimately, undermined (Smith 1996, 1435-37 & 1461).

Smith, Mark. 1996. “Old south time in comparative perspective. American historical review 101(5): 1432–69.


Akhil Gupta notes that industrial, capitalist time, is often conceptually separated from the rhythm of natural time. It is added by Gupta that typically capitalist time is characterised as abstract, linear, and associated with Western development and progress, contradistinguished from the cyclical, less-distanced from nature, sense of the time of non-Western cultures.

Whereas time in industrial capitalism becomes abstract, homogeneous, empty, linear, and progressive, shorn of “nature’s rhythms,” and unconnected to the task at hand, historical and cultural Others construe time as concrete, cyclical, closely connected to nature, and experience it in the context of specific tasks…

It would, of course, be foolish to deny that the far-reaching changes that accompanied the industrial revolution permanently and irreversibly altered western notions of time. It is also true that dominant representations of time in the West emphasize its linear, continuous, unidirectional, and progressive character, its preciousness, and its interchangeability with money. What I wish to question is whether the changes that occurred in conceptions of time are best understood as the move from cyclicality to linearity, from task-orientation rooted in concrete activity to an abstract passage disconnected from the flow of everyday life, and from a close synchrony with the rhythms of nature to an alienated homogeneity imposed by work-discipline. Rather than accepting this narrative as a plausible reconstruction of the western past and a powerful prediction about the “Third World” today, rather than acquiescing to the dominant portrayals of the difference between Self and Other that circulate widely in the western world, we need to ask why discursively available representations of time in the West remain oblivious, despite easily observable evidence to the contrary, to features of cyclicality, concreteness, rhythms, and yes, even rebirth. The political importance of this silence lies in the fact that it allows the western narrative of progress to go unchallenged, and enables the continued management and surveillance of the “Third World” in the guise of “development”…

Another major contrast often drawn between industrial and nonindustrial societies is that in the former time is homogeneous, empty, and regular whereas in the latter it is rhythmic and irregular. The (often unstated) basis for this difference can be traced to their respective relationship to nature. Whereas agricultural, pastoral, and hunting-gathering societies are closely at- tuned to the “rhythms of nature,” in industrial societies these bonds are severed. For example, much has been made in pop sociology of the fact that electric lights, three work shifts, all-night radio and television broadcasting, and twenty-four-hour restaurants, grocery stores, and laundromats-what might be called the “Denny’s revolution”-are slowly blurring any meaningful distinction between night and day. Once again, as with the case of cyclical time, we find a troubling set of essentialist dichotomies being constructed in which agricultural (and more generally, nonindustrial) societies are identified with “nature” while industrial societies are identified with technology (Gupta 1992, 195-96, 199-200).

Gupta, Akhil. 1992. “The reincarnation of souls and the rebirth of commodities: Representations of time in “East” and “West.”” Cultural Critique 22: 187-211.


Edward Thompson observes the transition in the relation between labour and time. According to Thompson, labour goes from being connected to the tasks associated with natural rhythms, to the apparently more efficient use of labour time as it is measured by the clock.

It is commonplace that the years between 1300 and 1650 saw within the intellectual culture of Western Europe important changes in the apprehension of time…I do not wish to argue how far the change was due to the spread of clocks from the fourteenth century onwards, how far this was itself a symptom of a new Puritan discipline and bourgeois exactitude. However we see it, the change is certainly there. The clock steps on to the Elizabethan stage, turning Faustus’s last soliloquy into a dialogue with time: “the stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike.” Sidereal time, which has been present since literature began, has now moved at one step form the heavens into the home. Mortality and love are both felt to be more poignant as the “Snayly motion of the mooving hand” crosses the dial. When the watch is worn about the neck it lies in proximity to the less regular beating of the heart. The conventional Elizabethan images of time as a devourer, a defacer, a bloody tyrant, a scytheman, are old enough, but there is a new immediacy and insistence…

However, this gross impressionism is unlikely to advance the present enquiry: how far, and in what ways, did this shift in time- sense affect labour discipline, and how far did it influence the inward apprehension of time of working people? If the transition to mature industrial society entailed a severe restructuring of working habits – new disciplines, new incentives, and a new human nature upon which these incentives could bite effectively – how far is this related to changes in the inward notation of time?

In a similar way labour from dawn to dusk can appear to be “natural” in a farming community, especially in the harvest months: nature demands that the grain be harvested before the thunderstorms set in. And we may note similar “natural” work-rhythms which attend other rural or industrial occupations: sheep must be attended at lambing time and guarded from predators; cows must be milked; the charcoal fire must be attended and not burn away through the turfs (and the charcoal burners must sleep beside it); once iron is in the making, the furnaces must not be allowed to fail.

The notation of time which arises in such contexts has been described as task-orientation. It is perhaps the most effective orientation in peasant societies, and it remains important in village and domestic industries It has by no means lost all relevance in rural parts of Britain today. Three points may be proposed about task-orientation. First, there is a sense in which it is more humanly comprehensible than timed labour. The peasant or labourer appears to attend upon what is an observed necessity. Second, a community in which task-orientation is common appears to show least demarcation between “work” and “life”. Social intercourse and labour are intermingled – the working-day lengthens or contracts according to the task – and there is no great sense of conflict between labour and “passing the time of day”. Third, to men accustomed to labour timed by the clock, this attitude to labour appears to be wasteful and lacking in urgency (Thompson 1967, 56-57, 60).

Thompson, Edward. 1967. “Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism.” Past & present 38: 56-97.