Watching the sweeping second hand of the clock, a certain kind of time appears. Smooth, continuous, seemingly inevitable. The clock’s face promises much, yet it reveals little of the work involved in producing time. Look more closely and one is forced to confront time’s precarious materiality. In a classic analogue clock, a quartz crystal, shaped into a small tuning fork, creates countable oscillations used to distinguish ‘before’ from ‘after’. Chosen because of their low response to changes in temperature, quartz crystals are laser-cut and set to vibrate at a frequency of 32,768Hz – such seeming precision, but even so, this material configuration represents a compromise between accuracy and cost. Half a second is lost or stolen from every day. Yet even this is still not precise, it is only an average. Each day brings its own variability – the material chosen because of its lack of ability to respond still responds, after all.
The constant battle to transcend the facility for response, a facility inherent within all materials, leads to ever more intricate methods of fine tuning and calibrating. Behind the illusion of the sweeping second hand, our clocks cannot actually operate like clockwork; they cannot live up to the metaphor they have inspired. Unable to escape contingencies, they make time through particular mediators – ytterbium, caesium, quartz, Earth, Sun – each only providing partial infrastructures for managing the varied relations that make up life. The desire to produce a transcendent method of global coordination continues to be balanced against the contingent qualities and capacities of the materials pressed into service.
In our time of migrations, flows and un/settlements, we supposedly know better than to dream of a single common language, of a universal medium of translation. Yet this is belied by the short set of numbers that grace the multiple screens we touch and watch throughout the day. Here the dream is alive and well. Twice a year this dream is disturbed as we make our concessions to the variations of solar time. Yet even this small reminder of the way we humans make time collectively weakens as our clocks shift from our wrists to digital networks that synchronise our displays. We no longer experience the uncanniness of being responsible for making the clock fall back or spring forward. Even fewer of us are called upon to add the irregular leap second that is needed to keep International Atomic Time in synch with Universal Time. The variable Earth, which gives us the time we hubristically call ‘Universal’, is not obedient to the same laws that caesium atoms are subject to. So a second is added here and there. Unnoticeable, it would seem, except for those responsible for IT systems, for whom a second out of place can cause cascades of server meltdowns. Like the elusive ‘mono’ of monocultural agriculture, our attempts to enforce the purity of the one become coeval with the creation of ever more vigorous interlopers, even while most others are pared away.
Looking more closely at clocks, we find that time is not an inert background. Far from encountering a pre-existing entity, we encounter emergent methods for moving with and through the different processes, speeds, delays, mobilities, repetitions, rhythms and transformations that inhere within beings, objects, networks. What is at the heart of time, then, is not gears and oscillators, but something less tangible: the ability to respond. Time is something we make, as our response to finding ourselves always and already entwined in relations that do not all operate in the same way. Yet the method most often recognised as ‘time’, the clock, has spawned the search for materials that respond less and less to variations in context and circumstance. From these we build devices into which we externalise the work of making time, with the risk that we become less and less able to notice the myriad of sequences and successions and to understand how these relate to each other (see Birth, 2012). Our need to respond has become entangled with the pursuit of freedom from response.
Even so, as I read about the delays, the ‘fast tracks’, the arbitrary cut off dates, the stagnant times of detention (see Griffiths et al., 2013), I look up again at the clock and, for just a moment, the second hand wavers. A vibration runs through it, interfering with its steady sweep. Time washes through time. The hand waits, then resumes, but in that moment something is lost. Faith. Faith that the clock will do as it promises and free us from complicated forms of response. Instead, we find ourselves in worlds where clocks aren’t helping us tell the time of our lives and the lives of those we encounter, in worlds where many are forced to experience paralysing delays overlaid with terrifying swiftness, in worlds where perhaps time itself will be driven to respond, after all.
Birth, K. (2012) Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
Griffiths, M., Rogers, A. and Anderson, B. (2013). ‘Migration, Time and Temporalities: Review and Prospect’, COMPAS Research Resources Paper, University of Oxford.