Friday, November 16, 2012

Monks, Clocks, and Capitalism

In (I think) Living in the End Times, Slavoj Zizek talks about the power of capitalism to absorb everything into itself so that even that which was once anti-capitalist can be transformed into that which sustains capitalism. His example is environmentalism, which has now been embraced by capitalism with the creation of a new market that deals in green products etc.. 

Two weeks ago I linked to a post in which the relationship between marriage and capitalism was under the microscope, with the latter absorbing the former into its logic. If you thought that was a bit weird, then read what Neil Postman has to say about the relationship between clocks and capitalism:

The clock had its origin in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion. And indeed it did. But what the monks did not foresee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. "The mechanical clock," as Lewis Mumford wrote, "made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product." In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favoured the latter.

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