Brother, can you spare the time?

Many now-defunct public clocks once helped shape shared spaces. Tara Brabazon is delighted that a (digital) website is working to restore function and value to a neglected (analogue) public feature

June 6, 2008




Academic publishing rarely produces moments of surprise. When Robert Putnam released Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community in hardback, there was no sense that a publishing phenomenon had been released. Filled with tables, oblique sources and some politically disturbing “results”, it found an audience within a year. Published in 2000, it grasped its moment as planes slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Centre. After this act of terrorism, a search for meaning, connection, commitment and community resonated in Putnam’s findings. Reinvesting phrases such as “social networks” and “community action” with intellectual and emotional significance spoke to readers’ desire for answers to profound and complex questions about insiders, outsiders, foreigners and identity.

While public institutions – including hospitals, post offices, education and libraries – are under threat of closure and reduced funding, communities of consumers are everywhere. Yet Eric Hobsbawm’s critique about the shallow replacement of unified, organised political action with words such as “community” and “identity” should be remembered. He argued that “we” use the word “community” to describe groups that make “us” uncomfortable. Similarly, Benedict Anderson’s extraordinary Imagined Communities bequeathed to us structures and histories of nationalism and unification that are now re-energised through war, violence, militarism and clocks.

Yes, clocks. The analogue clock remains a (tick-tock-tick-tock) metaphor for subtle, incremental change, movement, life and death. When W. H. Auden commenced his most famous (post-Four Weddings and a Funeral) poem with “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,” he captured the finality of death and the jagged ruthlessness of grief. Even Noel Gallagher borrowed this phrase from Auden (rather than his usual homage to the Beatles) for an Oasis compilation and a famed unreleased song.

Oasis was following a well-trodden path. Time – or more precisely timekeeping – matters in the UK. King Charles II founded the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1675. While the British Empire colonised space, it also organised international time. Greenwich Mean Time still sets the world’s clocks. But timekeeping – time-watching – also enfolds a more repressive history.

E. P. Thompson’s “Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism” showed how the clock moved our working lives from the completion of a task to the completion of a block of time. When time was monitored, it was logged, evaluated and given a value.

Thompson reported that from the 14th century, church and public clocks started to be built in cities and market towns. Their symbolic function in the centuries before the industrial revolution was questionable. The sundial possessed a greater value and often set the clock. The pendulum emerged in 1658 and with it the grandfather clock and greater accuracy, but Thompson realised that the clock meant much more: “Whenever any group of workers passed into a phase of improving living standards, the acquisition of timepieces was one of the first things noted by observers.” Such a purchase increased the synchronisation of time and labour, creating timed labour.

Clocks were part of a strategy to make work central to our identity and discipline bodies through allegiance to external and imposed patterns. But after 9/11, this complex history was lost as we grasped and clawed at any system, structure, history or building that offered a simpler, kinder time when communities would gather to build friendship and – to use Putnam’s metaphor – go bowling.

One of the most fascinating interventions in this desire for community is the Stopped Clocks project. This website, founded by Alfie Dennen in August 2007, collects and presents photographs of stopped public clocks in the UK. The aim is to create awareness so that they can be fixed and also to explore “the themes of disconnect with our recent past, and the move from an analogue to a digital lifestyle/culture”. There is also a related project – Restart Night – a fundraiser to find the money to repair the clocks. The goal is to re-establish civic pride and a connection with communities of the past. Dennen realised that this problem had been caused through the privatisation of public buildings. Responsibility for clock maintenance is secondary to a necessity for profitable efficiency.

Brilliantly, a website is used to re-energise and remember analogue structures and artefacts. Digitisation is protecting its less fashionable, superseded model of organising time. For Dennen, these clocks are a “metaphor for our relationship with our past… stopped clocks are a potent symbol of the loss of our analogue past”. Clearly, he is rewriting and reconfiguring the history presented by Thompson. Instead of linking time to work discipline, Dennen argues that “clocks in the public sphere were once really vital – not everyone had watches, let alone wristwatches until the early ’70s – you needed to be able to see what the time was and so they truly had a public function”. Shared time enabled a shared space.

Although Stopped Clocks ignores the role of the analogue dial in ordering workers for mechanisation and the Industrial Revolution, Dennen’s website is using digital environments to re-energise analogue notions of community in real space and time. Dennen and his user-generated content colleagues, uploading photographs of stationary hands and unwound mechanisms, are right to return accurate time to our public clocks. It may be the start of a wider rejuvenation of public institutions and an Auden-inspired elegy for neoliberal confusions of cost and value.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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