Benjamin on Time

I found a few things from Benjamin’s On the Concept of History while working on my drafts about time and it’s connection to cognition, agency, events, and emergence. The most interesting part for me though was a brief detour in his elaboration of historical progression and struggle. In  a simple single paragraph Benjamin connects revolutionary events with time and history.

“The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera. And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do no measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years. In the July revolution an incident occurred which showed this consciousness still alive. On the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris.” [1]

There’s a few elements here that parallel my own thinking around political struggle and time. He connects awareness, events, and the social construction of time. Part of coming to action is a sense of what remains the same and what is changing. Agents exist in the present, and view the political equilibrium of their situation as part of different continuities and changes. Alongside this experiential time and construction of identities and differences across time is socially shared time. Time in society is constructed in part by the political and economic structures of society. So the railroads brought a kind of universal time that was once relative to the geography of different places (sunlight). Capitalism more broadly rearranged the relationship between the day and time, and with it’s time studies, surveillance, and workday globally revised how people relate to their nights and days, and their experience of the passage of time. Those different frames of time are not well explored as political categories. Still less in their relationship to thought and action. 


Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History.


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