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Contemporary Capitalism and Temporal Control in Sarah Sharma’s In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics

by Duy Lap Nguyen
“The same extension occurs in Sharma’s chronography of flexible capitalism. In her critique of Marx’s quantitative conception of temporal control, the ontology of value determined by labor is never called into question.”

In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Sarah Sharma. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2014. 208 pp. $19.40 paperback 

Sarah Sharma’s In the Meantime challenges what she describes as the prevailing assumption that time in contemporary society is accelerating. Drawing on ethnographic research on the experience of time among workers from various occupations – yoga instructors, guest workers, cab drivers and time management specialists – Sharma contends that time is not speeding up in a uniform fashion. Workers in different sectors of the global economy “do not experience a uniform time but rather a time particular to the labor that produces them.”[1] 

The larger implications of this argument become clear in the third chapter where Sharma insists on the need to go beyond “spatial concept[s] of time control” in order to develop a more nuanced analysis of flexible capitalism. These spatial conceptions of time include the one implicit in Marx’s account of the exploitation of labor, and Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power. According to Sharma, the latter are insufficient insofar as they identify temporal domination exclusively with the expropriation of spatialized time. In both Marx and Foucault, the time extracted from laboring bodies is always a time reduced to “quantifiable units that are measured.”[2]

Given this assumption, practices that resist the spatialization of time can appear to be inherently liberatory. Thus, in Marx’s analysis, the presupposition that capital is only capable of exploiting spatialized time leads, purportedly, to the mistaken assumption that an increase in “free time” as a result of technology “would create the condition for worker’s rebellion.”[3] Because Marx, then, identifies temporal domination with the appropriation of spatialized time, his analysis was unable to anticipate the development of new forms of temporal control that do not depend upon the quantification of labor. What Marx failed to foresee was the emergence of “institutions [that] establish… control through the production and enhancement of people’s qualitative experience of time.”[4]

For Sharma, qualitative experiences, like the amenities enjoyed by luxury air travelers, craft-hobbies and slow food dining, are a defining characteristic of contemporary capitalism. By providing temporary respite from the quantified time of production, these qualitative experiences serve to “recalibrate” workers. They offer meaningful uses of time to those who can afford to purchase the labor required for their production. Under flexible capitalism, workers can escape from the spatialized time of production through the use of techniques of the self that alleviate the alienation of labor, making time appear meaningful.[5]

Sharma’s analysis of yoga provides the most striking example of this new form of temporal control. As a “temporal practice” that seeks to expand the practitioner’s experience of the moment, Yoga embodies “an ethos that defies Western linear conceptions of time, including clock time. In many ways, to practice yoga is already to shift one’s temporal perspective beyond measurable time.”[6] However, just as the presupposition that only quantified time is controllable leads to the mistaken assumption that non-laboring time is inherently free, so yoga “can appear to be a resistant workplace practice [only] if one has an entirely spatial conception of time control.” In reality, “yoga’s resistance to the spatial disciplining of the laboring body in the office is an example of how investments into time incorporate alienation into the flow of production. Alienated labor becomes a place to define the self.”[7]

While such qualitative experiences recalibrate workers to the quantified time of production, the production of quality time depends on the labor of less privileged workers, workers who often cannot afford such qualitative temporal experiences: cab drivers, office assistants and hotel staff.[8] The latter constitute a marginalized “temporal class,” supporting an invisible “architecture of time maintenance:” luxury services, sleep-aids and time-saving devices, which recalibrate subjects of “high temporal worth.” For this temporal elite, the time required to recuperate their laboring bodies is “outsourced” to others.[9]

This “differential chronography of power,” which maps the various forms of temporal control imposed on different subjects of labor, is overlooked or ignored by the “discourse of speedup,” common to both academic theories of acceleration and the corporate culture that they attempt to critically analyze. For Sharma, this “speed up narrative” presupposes a homogeneous and spatialized conception of time, one that is supposed to apply to everyone equally: “A myopic theoretical focus on speedup has obscured the necessity of tracing how differential relationships to time organize and perpetuate inequalities. The concern is less about time than it is about space.”[10] By challenging the spatial conception of time presupposed in the discourse of speedup, the method of power chronography reveals “temporal inequalities” masked by “the dominant way of apprehending time.” Heterogeneous temporalities, rooted in particular forms of labor, can therefore be recognized beneath the appearance of a uniform acceleration of the tempo of life in contemporary capitalist culture.

In its analysis of the control of quality time and the differential chronography of power, In the Meantime claims to provide a new approach to the crucial problem of temporal domination in capitalism. But in the end, one is left with the disappointing impression that the critique of spatialized time, which supposedly represents a fundamental departure from earlier theories, merely provides a more sophisticated-sounding new terminology for an unremarkable set of ideas. Thus, Sharma deploys an elaborate new “bio-political economy of time” in order to demonstrate the obvious point that the slow food movement is not really as radical as it seems. And by transcending the limitations inherent in the spatial concept of time control, the analysis shows, unsurprisingly, that “yoga’s resistance to the spatial disciplining of the laboring body” is not so effective as a form of resistance to capital. Meanwhile, through the use of her differential chronography, Sharma arrives at the self-evident conclusion that, in flexible capitalism, some people, because of their money and privilege (or “high temporal worth”), have more time than others.

This conclusion may come as a surprise to dogmatic adherents to the discourse of speedup, who believe in the fiction that time is accelerating equally for all categories of workers. But does anyone actually believe this? And even if such a myopic perspective were dominant, In the Meantime does not actually challenge it anyway. The fact that workers do not experience a uniform time does not disprove the idea that time is accelerating. It could just as well indicate that it is indeed speeding up, only slower for some and faster for others.

Sharma’s analysis, including her critique of the spatial conception of temporal control, is derived from the Autonomist reading of Marx, and the shortcomings of the analysis have their roots in this reading as well. As I have argued elsewhere, the interpretation, which is presented as a fundamental historical revision of Marx in the era of post-Fordist production, fails to grasp what Marx characterized as the defining historical feature of capitalism itself: the value relation as the “foundation of bourgeois production.”[11]

This failure is evident in the famous Autonomist reading of the “Fragment on Machines.” In the text, Marx contends that, with the development of industrial machinery, science and knowledge displace direct human labor in its primary role in the process of production.[12] Extending this analysis to contemporary capitalism, the Autonomists argue that the shift from direct human labor to the “general intellect” involves a broader transformation, one in which sociality itself (human communication and cooperation) is subsumed as a new a source of value for capital.[13] In post-Fordism, then, the exploitation of a quantified labor time, previously confined to the factory, is extended to qualitative forms of experience and human activity, transforming the whole of society into a “social factory” for the valorization of capital.[14] As Sharma describes, capitalism in its post-Fordist stage is defined by “the expansion of value into the realm of meaning where labor is oriented around making qualitative adjustments to the problem of time.”[15]

But if Marx, in the “Fragment,” fails to develop an account of qualitative forms of temporal control, Sharma’s autonomist critique is based, nevertheless, on a fundamental misreading of Marx’s theory of labor in capitalism. As Robert Kurz has observed, the Autonomist interpretation elides the fundamental distinction in Marx between the process of valorization (the creation of value measured according to abstract labor time) and the material process of production, a difference that follows directly from the distinction between use and exchange value.[16] In the Autonomist account, the contradictory movement between value and material wealth is conflated in the opposition between measure and immeasurability, between physical labor, which alone is subject to quantification, and immaterial labor, which is supposed to exceed every standard of measurement. Because of this conflation, the Autonomists interpret Marx’s account of the displacement of direct human labor in the material process of production to mean that the creation of value (as opposed to the production of material wealth) has shifted from physical labor to the “general intellect.”

For Marx, on the other hand, this transformation in the material process of production does not imply a new immaterial form of value creation. Rather, it invalidates the determination of value according to labor time, and therefore the process of valorization itself. If material production no longer depends on direct human labor, then the creation of value through the exploitation of labor should no longer be necessary. Thus, for Marx, the displacement of physical labor by the general intellect in the industrial process of production does not imply the emergence of a new source of valorization. Rather, industrial production, in which material wealth is produced in large part without labor, reveals the irrelevance of the creation of value (measured according to quantified labor time), while indicating the historicity of the latter as a phenomenon peculiar to capitalism.[17]

According to Kurz, this historically specific feature of capitalism – the determination of value according to labor time – is assumed in the works of Autonomist thinkers like Antonio Negri to be an “ontological given:” the creation of value is identified with production in general, with labor as it exists in all forms of society. As a result, the notion of “immaterial labor” – proposed as a corrective to the historical limitations of Marx’s analysis of the exploitation of labor in capitalism – “ended up as the further extension of the capitalist ontology of labor.”[18]

The same extension occurs in Sharma’s chronography of flexible capitalism. In her critique of Marx’s quantitative conception of temporal control, the ontology of value determined by labor is never called into question. Rather, like the Autonomists, Sharma simply extends this ontology to the production of quality time, which becomes a new form of value creating labor to be exploited by capital. If Marx, then, was unable to see beyond industrial capitalism and anticipate the emergence of immaterial value, Sharma’s critique of flexible capitalism fails to historicize value itself, as phenomena specific to the capitalist mode of production. 


About the Reviewer: Duy Lap Nguyen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at the University of Houston. He has published extensively on critical theory, world cinema and modern Vietnamese culture and history. His first book, The Unimagined Community: Imperialism and Culture in South Vietnam proposes a fundamental reexamination of the Vietnam War from a perspective of the South Vietnamese. His work in critical theory examines the phenomenon of labor apartheid and the creation of surplus population as a product of the accumulation of capital.


Footnotes:

[1] Sarah Sharma In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 8. 

[2] Ibid., 94.

[3] Ibid., 169.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Ibid., 139.

[6] Ibid., 92.

[7] Ibid., 105.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 53.

[10] Ibid., 137.

[11] “Against Autonomy: Capitalism Beyond Quantification in the Autonomist Reading of Marx,” Postmodern Culture, Volume 25, Number 3, May 2015.

[12] Karl Marx Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), 705.

[13] Paulo Virno A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (New York: Semiotext[e], 2004), 55.

[14] Sarah Sharma In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 101.

[15] Ibid., 42.

[16] Robert Kurz “Empire: Le monde en crise comme disneyland de la multitude. Une critique de Hardt et Negri.” Critique de la valuer (werkritik): Repenser la théorie critique du capitalism January 29, 2011. Web. 8/11/2014.  http://www.palim-psao.fr/article-empire-le-monde-en-crise-comme-disneyland-de-la-multitude-hardt-negri-par-robert-kurz-65526746.html.

[17] Karl Marx Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), 705.

[18] Robert Kurz “2009 Interview with IHU Online.” libcom.org. August 25, 2012. Web. https://libcom.org/library/2009-interview-ihu-online-robert-kurz.


References:

Kurz, R (2012). “2009 Interview with IHU Online.” libcom.org. August 25, 2012. Web. https://libcom.org/library/2009-interview-ihu-online-robert-kurz.

“En tanto no consiga cuestionar los fundamentos del sistema, la izquierda seguirá desorientada” Instituto Humanitas Unisinos Online. 

Kurz, R (2011). “Empire: Le monde en crise comme disneyland de la multitude. Une critique de Hardt et Negri.” Critique de la valuer (werkritik): Repenser la théorie critique du capitalism.  January 29, 2011. Web. 8/11/2014.  http://www.palim-psao.fr/article-empire-le-monde-en-crise-comme-disneyland-de-la-multitude-hardt-negri-par-robert-kurz-65526746.html.

Marx, K. (1993). Capital, Vol. I. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, K. (1973). Grundrisse. London: Penguin.

Terranova, T. (2000). “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text, 63 (Volume 18, Number 2), pp. 33-58.

Virno, P. (2004). A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. New York: Semiotext[e].

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