Essay: Alex Sutcliffeon micro-time

6:66am, narrow gate

The ruling classes already know we are living through the apocalypse. Billionaires attempt to escape the planet at the same time as they have increased their worth by more than $1 trillion during a pandemic. They acknowledge there is no tomorrow and turn to turning a profit on the next few minutes, milliseconds. The rest of us have entered the apocalypse with diminished agency and diminished imaginative resources with which to articulate any other world. I want to ask why certain recent narratives narrow their focus to the micro-temporalities of late capitalism, and how these narratives might locate agency in our apocalyptic times.

Finance: micro-time in the end times

Though profit seeking necessitates the burning of fossil fuels and production for production’s sake that caused this crisis, the ruling classes’ pursuit of profit has only intensified. With high-frequency trading (or HFT), finance has created more time to trade in the end times. HFT Computers make trades more quickly than any human could. Even here, however, there is a physical limit to infinite growth. As Donald MacKenzie writes, HFT computers take 84 nanoseconds to receive a signal about a stock and make a transaction. Light in free space travels only 25.2 meters in that time. The amount of abstract value a boss or bank can expropriate, however, can be increased. Thus the micro-temporal regimentation of HFT is reflected across the economy: in precarious employment (think of zero-hour contracts), and commercial real estate (think of city skylines built to be leased but not lived in, think of Grenfell Tower or Surfside Condominium or any building going up by the sea).

Micro-temporal regimentation also changes culture – a bar below every song tells you how many seconds you’ll spend on this aesthetic experience – and politics. Even the mainstream left appeals to ‘the economy’ to argue for public spending. ‘What great returns the economy will make on education etc.’ But these returns are always in the distant future, and bankers know there is no future.

Theories of crisis language from the left

Because finance totalises the political imaginary, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi argues, in his 2012 book, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, for the political necessity of poetry articulating other value systems and futures. His focus is on metaphor as a means to counter financial logic, but, beyond metaphor being an imaginative practice to which we all have access, Berardi leaves open the question of what other futures it might articulate, much less how we might put these futures into effect. I want to turn from metaphor to narrative, because, as Jonathon Culler writes, ‘narrative is about what happens next’. In a time of no nexts, narrative is a problematic medium, but this is exactly why a number of contemporary writers have narrowed their focus to minutes and seconds. It’s high-frequency trading on cultural capital. What imaginative surpluses can literary language seize from financialised time?

Benjamin: emergency time

In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Walter Benjamin writes that ‘every second [is] the narrow gate, through which the Messiah [can] enter’ precisely because neither a revolutionary class (nor anyone) can see the future. The thresholds of political agency have always been microscopic, unknowable and numerous. Despite this nod to agentic micro-temporality, Benjamin also counterposes clock time (which marks a uniform progression through homogenous empty time) to calendar time (which remembers moments of historical upheaval and revolutionary agency). If, however, clock time is all we have left, how can we find agency now?

Narrative clocks on

A number of recent texts namecheck minutes, seconds and milliseconds. In Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You?, minutes mark time spent mindlessly scrolling, in Holly Childs’s Danklands, 7:30pm and 20:25 Arabian Standard Time mark moments between waking and dreaming; and Hannah Sullivan’s ‘Repeat Until Time’ names the moment of the first atomic blast to the millisecond. I will treat here Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel, 10:04, and Juliana Spahr’s 2015 poem, ‘Dynamic Positioning’ in That Winter the Wolf Came, which offer two models for de-homogenising clock time. All of these texts self-reflexively question how literature and art might transform our time or our world, but all of them ground themselves in clock time.

10:04: the minute the future appears

In an interview with Lerner, Michael Silverblatt notes that though in the past books have taken years for titles (1984, for starters), 10:04 is the first he’s read that takes a minute. Of course, calendars and clocks are simply two ways of mapping the same dimension, and 10:04 is explicitly set in the 2011 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Still, Lerner focuses on the minute as it collapses and connects crisis and historical time. As his narrator writes at length, 10:04 is the minute in Back to the Future when lighting strikes the clock tower, providing the DeLorean the energy to time travel. It’s not just a case of right place/right time; Marty, if he is to have a future to return to, must also ensure that his parents, then still teenagers, fall in love despite his disrupting their pasts. This models the narrator’s attempts to sustain a future during an apocalypse, but, unlike Marty, he can’t know when lightening will strike, nor what he must do to ensure a habitable future. His narrative revolves around his fumbling attempts to help his friend conceive, aid Occupy protestors, and write this novel – all during a year of two ‘once in a lifetime’ hurricanes.

How can a non-time-traveller know how, or when, to enter the future? Lerner’s tentative answer is to do with the co-existence of the fictional and the actual. 10:04 is an actual moment that falls twice every day, but also a moment in art, in both Back to the Future and other artworks the book references (such as Christian Marclay’s The Clock). The minute cannot transport the narrator to a habitable future, but rather stages the distance between fiction and actuality. The shadow of the fictional on the actual runs throughout the novel: Whitman’s vision of an open and egalitarian America shadows contemporary migration policies and economic inequalities. Fiction, then, not only shows the narrator the conditions of the present, it also offers a spectre of possibility, of how the present could be otherwise. Even if financial time has totalised our political imaginary and precluded certain actual futures, the coexistence of the fictional and actual in each minute reminds us that, even now, (even if this now precludes a next) something else could happen.

Dynamic Positioning: socialism or barbarism?

Hal Foster worries that Lerner’s attempts to ‘charge and change’ the present with fiction only defer agency to a future that never arrives. The poetry of Juliana Spahr, however, shows just how quickly the future arrives.

Spahr’s is a poetics of technical and ecological specificity. Her poem ‘Dynamic Positioning’ names the technologies that caused the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the oceanic zones through which they channel oil. Spahr is also specific about chronology, which licenses my calling her poem narrative. At ‘nine o’clock. The flow / Out from the well increased…. It was then almost close to ten o’ / Clock, still when next a roaring noise… First explosion on five seconds aft- / Er.’ As the poem nears the catastrophe, the units of time become shorter. Clock time, which began by charting the technical specifications of deep-sea drilling (and the markets that drive it) is no longer homogenous empty time. The future, the end of one process of extractivist capitalism, is not deferred here. It arrives catastrophically.

Spahr’s poetics are not fatalist, but historical. The poem ends in elegy, a litany of the names of the dead rig workers. This deeply ecological poem turns, finally, to the human, but it does so to conjure a spectre of agency, and it is the technical and temporal specificity of deep sea drilling that enables this agency. The poem names the minutes the drills could have been shut down and the names of the people who (perhaps under slightly better conditions for workers) could have stopped them. In the millenarian tradition, the moment the Antichrist enters is also the moment of the Messiah – or, in Marxist terms, capitalism ends in either socialism or barbarism. Spahr shows that this moment of barbarism could have been a moment of collaboration, resistance and socialism.

Lerner and Spahr both attempt to find narrow gates of agency in late capitalist micro-temporality. For Lerner, the repeatability of clock time, charged and changed by fictional time, opens the possibility of changed futurity. For Spahr, it is the unrepeatability of certain seconds of productive time that provides this haunting spectre of agency.

Readership in an apocalypse

If these rearticulations of agency enter the political imaginary, it is through their readers. Lerner’s project revises avant-garde ideas of legacy. Avant-gardists refused commercial success (intentionally or otherwise) for future renown – rejected the fallen or alienated readers of their present for readers to come. This already elitist stance becomes totally untenable in the apocalypse. Lerner, instead, addresses present readers in the second person – and, more importantly to my mind, he moved from poetry to the marginally more marketable novel. This is not a rejection of future readers. The spectre of the avant-garde’s future readers haunts the book and becomes an ethical imperative. The avant-gardist idea of redemption is reversed. It is up to you, dear (present) reader to redeem the world, to make it habitable, for the readers of the future.

This paper was delivered as part of the Provocation #3 symposium, The End of The World Has Already Happened, on 17 September 2021. See the full program of the symposium, hosted by the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.

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Published November 15, 2021
Part of Provocations: Selected proceedings from the Provocations Symposium hosted by the J.M Coetzee Centre at the University of Adelaide. All Provocations essays →
Alex Sutcliffe

Alex Sutcliffe is an MPhil student in creative writing at the University of Adelaide...

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