The Clockwork of our Mind (excerpt)

Excerpt from "The Clockwork of our Mind" by Douwe Draaisma.

Here's a scene from "A Predicament," one of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser-known stories. The main character, one Signora Psyche Zenobia, is taking a stroll through the streets of Edinburgh. For reasons she doesn't understand herself, she obeys an impulse to enter a Gothic cathedral and to climb the tower. After climbing a seemingly endless staircase, she arrives at the chamber of the belfry. From floor to ceiling, the gloomy room is filled with "cabalistic looking machinery": wheels, axles, pinions, bars, chains and pulleys. She faces the seemingly motionless cogwheels of the cathedral's clock. The only window in the room is a square opening about a foot in diameter with a thick iron bar in it. Zenobia squeezes herself into the narrow space between the wall and the man-sized wheels and pokes her head through the hole. The view is magnificent. Below her, the church square bathes in the late afternoon sunlight, and in the distance she can see the fields on the outskirts of the town. The aperture through which she sticks her head appears to be an opening in the face of the cathedral clock. She observes the immense size of the hands, made of solid steel, with sharp edges. The minute hand is well over ten feet long. The hour hand points in the direction of the V.

Zenobia is absorbed in the glorious prospect below. She loses all sense of time. Suddenly she feels a cold pressure on the back of her neck. Alarmed, she carefully turns her head. To her horror, she sees that the minute hand has descended upon her neck. She tries to pull back at once, but it is too late: she is caught in the ever-narrowing angle between the two hands. Slowly the sharp edge of the minute hand buries itself in her flesh. It's a quarter past five.

The pain soon becomes unbearable. Her mind starts to ramble. The steel figures on the clock face seem to dance before her eyes. The pressure of the bar makes her eyes begin to protrude. The tick-tock, tick-tock of the clock behind her beats ever louder. A little later, one of her eyes tumbles from its socket. It rolls down the steeple into the rain gutter and stares up at her with contempt. At twenty five minutes past five ("precisely"), the inevitable happens. Like a huge pair of scissors halfway between heaven and earth, the hands sever Zenobia's head from her body. A few moments later, her head plunges into the middle of the street.

In Poe's stories, clocks spell death and disaster. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," perhaps his most famous, the murderer hears the heart of his victim, dead and buried under the floor of the room he's in, as it continues to beat - "a low, dull, quick sound - much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." In "The Masque of the Red Death," a giant clock of ebony produced from its brass lungs a sound so peculiar and sinister that when its chimes rang, "it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation."

In Poe's writing, clockworks tick, strike and chime - like the day's residue in a dream - and they sounded increasingly louder in everyday life as well. He wrote his stories in the mid-nineteenth century, at a time when an essential quality of clocks was becoming increasingly obvious: clocks create the conditions of their own proliferation. Every punch clock that was installed, whether at a factory or an office, forced laborers and clerks to buy clocks or pocket watches so they wouldn't be late at the punch clock. From the moment that the railway companies implemented a strict timetable, punctual to the minute, travelers were obliged to keep an eye on the clock if they wanted to catch their trains. This miraculous self-proliferating mechanism ensured the establishment in the nineteenth century of the chronocracy we now live in. In Poe's day, time discipline, the natural obedience to clocks, now second nature to us, still had to be forced upon people.

It is easy to understand why punch clocks in particular, nicknamed Tell-Tales, found their way into the literature of those days as a sinister metaphor for an inescapable coercion: punch clocks were both the symbol and the executive power of this new regime. Punch clocks have always been associated with discipline, supervision and inspection. The first punch clocks were designed to check on watch guards. In order to prove that they had made their rounds, the guards had to push down pins at clocks located at various places in the factory. They could only do so if at that specific time - say 2 a.m. - they were at the clock. If they let the hour pass, the 2:00 pin remained as it was and their negligence would be discovered the next day. Such clocks were often referred to as "Tell-Tales." And though later registration clocks usually time-stamped cards, the term punch clock stuck.

By the end of the 1880s, several types of punch clocks were being mass-produced, and within a few years "punching" became un unquestioned routine for factory workers and office clerks. This is not to say that the introduction of punch clocks didn't meet with opposition. The punch clock's disciplinary nature was resented, and not everyone wished to resign themselves to its authority. The introduction of punch clocks is also the story of how a central and hierarchical authority managed to establish itself. The fact that a popular punch clock model was called 'The Autocrat" illustrates this nicely: clocks had become self-willed machines.

The proliferation of registration clocks was connected to technological inventions like master and slave clocks, telegraphic time signals and the distribution of standard time, but also with processes like industrialization and urbanization. All these inventions and social processes meshed like so many cogwheels - the end result was a smoothly operating control system that forced every citizen to be punctual. Advertising campaigns for punch clocks pointed out that accurate time registration was beneficial to both employers and employees.

A 1911 advertisement by the International Time Recording Company (later IBM) claims its machine treats workers fairly because it makes them master of their own time - they can always use the card with their data on it to prove their presence. Whether the average employee was very appreciative of these benefits is doubtful, to say the least. Most punch clocks were used to punish latecomers, for instance by withholding one hour of pay for being five minutes late. Punch clocks were seen as instruments that reinforced the powers of company management, and this was in fact their intended use. The same advertisement, published in a magazine for managers, features a long row of employees with a couple of figures in black: the "unprofitable employees," who set out to be on time every morning but are always late. "The only way to make employees appreciate the value of lost time," the ad explains, "is to let them pay for it themselves." This will also serve efficiency, for "late-coming and early leaving are twin-brothers to inefficiency." The machine featured a two-colored ink ribbon device: green for "punctuals" and red for "irregulars."

The time the punch clock indicated was the standard time. This time was centrally imposed and distributed to clients via a hierarchy of instruments. The punch clock was one of the contacts between this central time and those that had to comply with it. The fact that the punch clock developed into an unquestioned part of a normal working day is the best proof of how the time regime, which at first had to be forcibly imposed, gradually became internalized. Nowadays we are automatically punctual, seemingly of our own volition. We have become model citizens of the chronocracy we live in.


© Douwe Draaisma

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