Why are we so obsessed with telling the time?
Jean-Michel Johnston is a researcher on the 'Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth Century Perspectives' project at the University of Oxford. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary.
There is something unnerving about "The Clock", Christian Marclay's acclaimed installation, which was recently on display at the Tate Modern in London before moving to Australia where it has appeared in Melbourne to sell-out crowds.
This remarkable piece of contemporary art, which has traveled the world gathering awards and critical acclaim, is a montage of scenes drawn from thousands of films, from Orson Welles' "The Stranger" to James Bond in "Live and Let Die," which feature a clock or timepiece of some kind.
The installation itself also functions as a 24-hour clock, the time displayed in each segment corresponding to that in the "real world" -- at 12 pm, for instance, viewers are treated to the ringing of bells in High Noon. Rarely does the action in one film clip lead logically to the next -- the narrative arc of "The Clock" is simply the passage of time itself. And yet, throughout, viewers remain transfixed, eagerly anticipating the next scene, the next moment in time.
Our incapacity to live in the present is hardly a modern phenomenon. As St Augustine wrote in around 400 AD: "No time is wholly present ... all time past is forced on by the future." What Marclay's installation foregrounds, however, is the degree to which our experience of time has become associated with the means to measure and quantify it -- in a word, with clocks. Few public or private spaces remain today which have not been infiltrated by some kind of time-reckoning device, whether a clock, watch, computer screen or smart phone.
Throughout history and across cultures, of course, humans have developed diverse means of dividing the natural cycles of day into segments to help track the passage of time. Water clocks, sundials, sand-glasses and bells have all been used in various ways to identify, measure and announce the time. And "knowing" the time has obvious advantages -- it allows the members of a given community to coordinate their activities, to pursue their own individual goals while congregating or interacting at particular moments.
Much emphasis has been placed, for example, on the importance Benedictine monks attributed to the strict regulation of time, the division of the day into "hours" of prayer, sleep and work. During the Middle Ages in Europe, the repeated, at times cacophonous, ringing of church and town bells served to structure the daily life of local inhabitants.
With the emergence of mechanical clocks in the 1300s, the time was increasingly displayed in public spaces, providing a focal point for the organization of social life. But the 18th century witnessed an explosion in the manufacture of a different, more personalized device -- the watch. By the late 1700s, it has been estimated, the annual world production of watches stood at between 300,000 and 400,000. Henceforth, time was portable and wealthy individuals could adjust their own personal watches to public clocks, bringing home a more accurate knowledge of the time. The habit of clock-watching had emerged.
During the 19th century, however, this practice turned into a veritable obsession. A number of factors stimulated this phenomenon, among which were the development of industry and new means of transport and communication. Railway timetables, time-stamped telegrams and factory discipline all called for stricter conformity to the time of the clock. And it was during the 19th century that time was standardized across countries and, with the International Meridian Conference of 1884, the globe.
Time was no longer determined locally, in each town or village, according to the position of the sun, but "transmitted" by electric wires, from a specified location -- in Britain, of course, this was Greenwich, which then became the reference point for the world's time zones.
By 1900, Switzerland alone was exporting more than 7 million watches and watch movements every year, suggesting the extent to which individuals were adjusting their personal lives to the structures of public time.
By the turn of the 20th century, punctuality had become the hallmark of modern society. Resistance to the imposition of standard clock time, whether in rural communities or Western colonies, was considered a sign of backwardness, and "keeping up" with time had become a new source of anxiety. In 1881, the American neurologist George Beard listed "clocks and watches" among the causes of what he described as an epidemic of "nervousness": "They compel us to be on time", he wrote, "and excite the habit of looking to see the exact moment, so as not to be late for trains or appointments."
Looking to the future
In the early 20th century, the German historian Karl Lamprecht similarly detected a link between the contemporary concern for punctuality and a widespread, pathological "excitability". Modern society, it seemed, as it does today, had come to depend on a universal effort to be on time. "If all the watches in Berlin suddenly went wrong in different ways," the sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in 1903, "... its entire economic and commercial life would be derailed for some time."
Beard, Lamprecht and Simmel had recognized the Janus-faced quality of the clock as a cornerstone of social life. A well-adjusted clock only ever indicates the present moment in time. But it also situates us in a continuum of events and interactions, inviting us to look ahead, whether with excitement, apathy or anxiety, to our future engagements.
It is this modern paradox that Christian Marclay's installation illustrates so well. Incessantly reminded of the time, the viewer sits in anticipation of the future, experiencing what the French writer Jean D'Ormesson described as a "static precipitation [which] transits as briefly as possible through this paradoxical state which is its aim and its heart, and which we call the present".
For a moment, groups of visitors are invited to experience together the temporally structured present which they share, a present which dissolves when they, as individuals, decide it is time to leave.
Republished under a Creative Commons license from The Conversation.