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, “the negative being who is solely to the extent that he suppresses Being,” is one with time. Man’s appropriation of his own nature is at the same time his grasp of the development of the universe. “History is itself a real part of natural history, of the transformation of nature into man” (Marx). Conversely, this “natural history” has no real existence other than through the process of human history, the only vantage point from which one can take in that historical totality (like the modern telescope whose power enables one to look back in time at the receding nebulas at the periphery of the universe). History has always existed, but not always in its historical form. The temporalization of humanity, brought about through the mediation of a society, amounts to a humanization of time. The unconscious movement of time becomes manifest and true within historical consciousness.
True (though still hidden) historical movement begins with the slow and imperceptible development of the “real nature of man” — the “nature that is born with human history, out of the generative action of human society.” But even when such a society has developed a technology and a language and is already a product of its own history, it is conscious only of a perpetual present. Knowledge is carried on only by the living, never going beyond the memory of the society’s oldest members. Neither death nor procreation is understood as a law of time. Time remains motionless, like an enclosed space. When a more complex society finally becomes conscious of time, it tries to negate it — it views time not as something that passes, but as something that returns. This static type of society organizes time in a cyclical manner, in accordance with its own direct experience of nature.
Cyclical time is already dominant among the nomadic peoples because they find the same conditions repeated at each moment of their journey. As Hegel notes, “the wandering of nomads is only nominal because it is limited to uniform spaces.” When a society settles in a particular location and gives space a content by developing distinctive areas within it, it finds itself confined within that locality. The periodic return to similar places now becomes the pure return of time in the same place, the repetition of a sequence of activities. The transition from pastoral nomadism to sedentary agriculture marks the end of an idle and contentless freedom and the beginning of labor. The agrarian mode of production, governed by the rhythm of the seasons, is the basis for fully developed cyclical time. Eternity is within this time, it is the return of the same here on earth. Myth is the unitary mental construct which guarantees that the cosmic order conforms with the order that this society has in fact already established within its frontiers.
The social appropriation of time and the production of man by human labor develop within a society divided into classes. The power that establishes itself above the poverty of the society of cyclical time, the class that organizes this social labor and appropriates its limited surplus value, simultaneously appropriates the temporal surplus value resulting from its organization of social time: it alone possesses the irreversible time of the living. The wealth that can only be concentrated in the hands of the rulers and spent in extravagant festivities is also spent as a squandering of historical time at the surface of society. The owners of this historical surplus value are the only ones in a position to know and enjoy real events. Separated from the collective organization of time associated with the repetitive production at the base of social life, this historical time flows independently above its own static community. This is the time of adventure and war, the time in which the masters of cyclical society pursue their personal histories; it is also the time that emerges in the clashes with foreign communities that disrupt the unchanging social order. History thus arises as something alien to people, as something they never sought and from which they had thought themselves protected. But it also revives the negative human restlessness that had been at the very origin of this whole (temporarily suspended) development.
In itself, cyclical time is a time without conflict. But conflict is already present even in this infancy of time, as history first struggles to become history in the practical activity of the masters. This history creates a surface irreversibility; its movement constitutes the very time it uses up within the inexhaustible time of cyclical society.
“Static societies” are societies that have reduced their historical movement to a minimum and that have managed to maintain their internal conflicts and their conflicts with the natural and human environment in a constant equilibrium. Although the extraordinary diversity of the institutions established for this purpose bears eloquent testimony to the flexibility of human nature’s self-creation, this diversity is apparent only to the external observer, the anthropologist who looks back from the vantage point of historical time. In each of these societies a definitive organizational structure has eliminated any possibility of change. The total conformism of their social practices, with which all human possibilities are identified for all time, has no external limit but the fear of falling back into a formless animal condition. The members of these societies remain human at the price of always remaining the same.
With the emergence of political power — which seems to be associated with the last great technological revolutions (such as iron smelting) at the threshold of a period that would experience no further major upheavals until the rise of modern industry — kinship ties begin to dissolve. The succession of generations within a natural, purely cyclical time begins to be replaced by a linear succession of powers and events. This irreversible time is the time of those who rule, and the dynasty is its first unit of measurement. Writing is the rulers’ weapon. In writing, language attains its complete independence as a mediation between consciousnesses. But this independence coincides with the independence of separate power, the mediation that shapes society. With writing there appears a consciousness that is no longer carried and transmitted directly among the living — an impersonal memory, the memory of the administration of society. “Writings are the thoughts of the state; archives are its memory” (Novalis).
The chronicle is the expression of the irreversible time of power. It also serves to inspire the continued progression of that time by recording the past out of which it has developed, since this orientation of time tends to collapse with the fall of each particular power and would otherwise sink back into the indifferent oblivion of cyclical time (the only time known to the peasant masses who, during the rise and fall of all the empires and their chronologies, never change). The owners of history have given time a direction, a direction which is also a meaning. But this history develops and perishes separately, leaving the underlying society unchanged, because it remains separated from the common reality. This is why we tend to reduce the history of Oriental empires to a history of religions: the chronologies that have fallen to ruins have left nothing but the seemingly independent history of the illusions that veiled them. The masters who used the protection of myth to make history their private property did so first of all in the realm of illusion. In China and Egypt, for example, they long held a monopoly on the immortality of the soul; and their earliest officially recognized dynasties were nothing but imaginary reconstructions of the past. But this illusory ownership by the masters was the only ownership then possible, both of the common history and of their own history. As their real historical power expanded, this illusory-mythical ownership became increasingly vulgarized. All these consequences flowed from the simple fact that as the masters played the role of mythically guaranteeing the permanence of cyclical time (as in the seasonal rites performed by the Chinese emperors), they themselves achieved a relative liberation from cyclical time.
The dry, unexplained chronology that a deified authority offered to its subjects, who were supposed to accept it as the earthly fulfillment of mythic commandments, was destined to be transcended and transformed into conscious history. But for this to happen, sizeable groups of people had to have experienced real participation in history. Out of this practical communication between those who have recognized each other as possessors of a unique present, who have experienced a qualitative richness of events in their own activity and who are at home in their own era, arises the general language of historical communication. Those for whom irreversible time truly exists discover in it both the memorable and the threat of oblivion: “Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents the results of his researches, so that time will not abolish the deeds of men. . . .”
Examining history amounts to examining the nature of power. Greece was the moment when power and changes in power were first debated and understood. It was a democracy of the masters of society — a total contrast to the despotic state, where power settles accounts only with itself, within the impenetrable obscurity of its inner sanctum, by means of palace revolutions, which are beyond the pale of discussion whether they fail or succeed. But the shared power in the Greek communities was limited to the consumption of a social life whose production remained the separate and static domain of the servile class. The only people who lived were those who did not work. The divisions among the Greek communities and their struggles to exploit foreign cities were the externalized expression of the principle of separation on which each of them was based internally. Although Greece had dreamed of universal history, it did not succeed in unifying itself in the face of foreign invasion, or even in unifying the calendars of its independent city-states. Historical time became conscious in Greece, but it was not yet conscious of itself.
The disappearance of the particular conditions that had favored the Greek communities brought about a regression of Western historical thought, but it did not lead to a restoration of the old mythic structures. The clashes of the Mediterranean peoples and the rise and fall of the Roman state gave rise instead to semihistorical religions, which became a new armor for separate power and basic components of a new consciousness of time.
The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, between the cyclical time that still governed the sphere of production and the irreversible time that was the theater of conflicts and regroupings among different peoples. The religions that evolved out of Judaism were abstract universal acknowledgments of an irreversible time that had become democratized and open to all, but only in the realm of illusion. Time is totally oriented toward a single final event: “The Kingdom of God is soon to come.” These religions were rooted in the soil of history, but they remained radically opposed to history. The semihistorical religions establish a qualitative point of departure in time (the birth of Christ, the flight of Mohammed), but their irreversible time — introducing an accumulation that would take the form of conquest in Islam and of increasing capital in Reformation Christianity — is inverted in religious thought and becomes a sort of countdown: waiting for time to run out before the Last Judgment and the advent of the other, true world. Eternity has emerged from cyclical time, as something beyond it. It is also the element that restrains the irreversibility of time, suppressing history within history itself by positioning itself on the other side of irreversible time as a pure point into which cyclical time returns and disappears. Bossuet will still say: “By way of time, which passes, we enter eternity, which does not pass.”
The Middle Ages, an incomplete mythical world whose consummation lay outside itself, is the period when cyclical time, though still governing the major part of production, really begins to be undermined by history. An element of irreversible time is recognized in the successive stages of each individual’s life. Life is seen as a one-way journey through a world whose meaning lies elsewhere: the pilgrim is the person who leaves cyclical time behind and actually becomes the traveler that everyone else is symbolically. Personal historical life still finds its fulfillment within the sphere of power, whether in struggles waged by power or in struggles over disputed power; but power’s irreversible time is now shared to an unlimited degree due to the general unity brought about by the oriented time of the Christian Era — a world of armed faith, where the adventures of the masters revolve around fealty and disputes over who owes fealty to whom. Feudal society was born from the merging of “the organizational structures of the conquering armies that developed in the process of conquest” with “the productive forces found in the conquered regions” (The German Ideology), and the factors contributing to the organization of those productive forces include the religious language in which they were expressed. Social domination was divided between the Church and the state, the latter power being in turn subdivided in the complex relations of suzerainty and vassalage within and between rural domains and urban communities. This diversification of potential historical life reflected the gradual emergence (following the failure of that great official enterprise of the medieval world, the Crusades) of the era’s unnoticed innovation: the irreversible time that was silently undermining the society, the time experienced by the bourgeoisie in the production of commodities, the foundation and expansion of cities, and the commercial discovery of the planet — a practical experimentation that destroyed any mythical organization of the cosmos once and for all.
With the waning of the Middle Ages, 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 still counterbalanced history; and for this melancholy all earthly things move inevitably toward decay. The great European peasant revolts were also an attempt to respond to history — a history that was violently wresting the peasants from the patriarchal slumber that had been imposed by their feudal guardians. The millenarians’ utopian aspiration of creating heaven on earth revived a dream that had been at the origin of the semihistorical religions, when the early Christian communities, like the Judaic messianism from which they sprung, responded to the troubles and misfortunes of their time by envisioning the imminent realization of the Kingdom of God, thereby adding an element of unrest and subversion to ancient society. When Christianity reached the point of sharing power within the empire, it denounced whatever still remained of this hope as mere superstition. This is what St. Augustine was doing when, in a formula that can be seen as the archetype of all the modern ideological apologetics, he declared that the Kingdom of God had in fact already come long ago — that it was nothing other than the established Church. The social revolts of the millenarian peasantry naturally began by defining their goal as the overthrow of that Church. But millenarianism developed in a historical world, not on the terrain of myth. Modern revolutionary expectations are not irrational continuations of the religious passion of millenarianism, as Norman Cohn thought he had demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium. On the contrary, millenarianism, revolutionary class struggle speaking the language of religion for the last time, was already a modern revolutionary tendency, a tendency that lacked only the consciousness that it was a purely historical movement. The millenarians were doomed to defeat because they were unable to recognize their revolution as their own undertaking. The fact that they hesitated to act until they had received some external sign of God’s will was an ideological corollary to the insurgent peasants’ practice of following leaders from outside their own ranks. The peasant class could not attain a clear understanding of the workings of society or of how to conduct its own struggle, and because it lacked these conditions for unifying its action and consciousness, it expressed its project and waged its wars with the imagery of an earthly paradise.
The Renaissance was a joyous break with eternity. Though seeking its heritage and legitimacy in the ancient world, it represented a new form of historical life. Its irreversible time was that of a never-ending accumulation of knowledge, and the historical consciousness engendered by the experience of democratic communities and of the forces that destroy them now took up once again, with Machiavelli, the analysis of secularized power, saying the previously unsayable about the state. In the exuberant life of the Italian cities, in the creation of festivals, life is experienced as an enjoyment of the passage of time. But this enjoyment of transience is itself transient. The song of Lorenzo de’ Medici, which Burckhardt considered “the very spirit of the Renaissance,” is the eulogy this fragile historical festival delivers on itself: “How beautiful the spring of life — and how quickly it vanishes.”
The constant tendency toward the monopolization of historical life by the absolute-monarchist state — a transitional form on the way to complete domination by the bourgeois class — brings into clear view the nature of the bourgeoisie’s new type of irreversible time. The bourgeoisie is associated with a labor time that has finally been freed from cyclical time. With the bourgeoisie, work becomes work that transforms historical conditions. The bourgeoisie is the first ruling class for which work is a value. And the bourgeoisie, which suppresses all privilege and recognizes no value that does not stem from the exploitation of labor, has appropriately identified its own value as a ruling class with labor, and has made the progress of labor the measure of its own progress. The class that accumulates commodities and capital continually modifies nature by modifying labor itself, by unleashing labor’s productivity. At the stage of absolute monarchy, all social life was already concentrated within the ornamented poverty of the Court, the gaudy trappings of a bleak state administration whose apex was the “profession of king”; and all particular historical freedoms had to surrender to this new power. The free play of the feudal lords’ irreversible time came to an end in their last, lost battles — in the Fronde and in the Scottish uprising in support of Bonny Prince Charlie. The world now had a new foundation.
The victory of the bourgeoisie is the victory of a profoundly historical time, because it is the time corresponding to an economic production that continuously transforms society from top to bottom. So long as agrarian production remains the predominant form of labor, the cyclical time that remains at the base of society reinforces the joint forces of tradition, which tend to hold back any historical movement. But the irreversible time of the bourgeois economy eradicates those vestiges throughout the world. History, which until then had seemed to involve only the actions of individual members of the ruling class, and which had thus been recorded as a mere chronology of events, is now understood as a general movement — a relentless movement that crushes any individuals in its path. By discovering its basis in political economy, history becomes aware of what had previously been unconscious; but this basis remains unconscious because it cannot be brought to light. This blind prehistory, this new fate that no one controls, is the only thing that the commodity economy has democratized.
The history that is present in all the depths of society tends to become invisible at the surface. The triumph of irreversible time is also its metamorphosis into a time of things, because the weapon that brought about its victory was the mass production of objects in accordance with the laws of the commodity. The main product that economic development has transformed from a luxurious rarity to a commonly consumed item is thus history itself — but only in the form of the history of the abstract movement of things that dominates all qualitative aspects of life. While the earlier cyclical time had supported an increasing degree of historical time lived by individuals and groups, the irreversible time of production tends to socially eliminate such lived time.
The bourgeoisie has thus made irreversible historical time known and has imposed it on society, but it has prevented society from using it. “Once there was history, but not any more,” because the class of owners of the economy, which is inextricably tied to economic history, must repress every other irreversible use of time because it is directly threatened by them all. The ruling class, made up of specialists in the possession of things who are themselves therefore possessed by things, is forced to link its fate with the preservation of this reified history, that is, with the preservation of a new immobility within history. Meanwhile the worker at the base of society is for the first time not materially estranged from history, because the irreversible movement is now generated from that base. By demanding to live the historical time that it produces, the proletariat discovers the simple, unforgettable core of its revolutionary project; and each previously defeated attempt to carry out this project represents a possible point of departure for a new historical life.
The irreversible time of the bourgeoisie that had just seized power was at first called by its own name and assigned an absolute origin: Year One of the Republic. But the revolutionary ideology of general freedom that had served to overthrow the last remnants of a myth-based ordering of values, along with all the traditional forms of social organization, was already unable to completely conceal the real goal that it had draped in Roman costume: unrestricted freedom of trade. Commodity society, discovering its need to restore the passivity that it had so profoundly shaken in order to establish its own unchallenged rule, now found that, for its purposes, “Christianity with its cult of man in the abstract . . . is the most fitting form of religion” (Capital). The bourgeoisie thus entered into a compromise with that religion, a compromise reflected in its presentation of time: the Revolutionary calendar was abandoned and irreversible time returned to the straitjacket of a duly extended Christian Era.
With the development of capitalism, irreversible time has become globally unified. Universal history becomes a reality because the entire world is brought under the sway of this time’s development. But this history that is everywhere simultaneously the same is as yet nothing but an intrahistorical rejection 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. This unified irreversible time belongs to the global market, and thus also to the global spectacle.
The irreversible time of production is first of all the measure of commodities. The time officially recognized throughout the world as the general time of society actually only reflects the specialized interests that constitute it, and thus is merely one particular type of time.
Chapter 5 of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (Paris, 1967). Translated by Ken Knabb.
This translation is not copyrighted.