Time Compressed and Dilated

This is an outtake from my book in progress. I think it is a good passage in and of itself, but it isn’t needed in the (already rather long) book as a whole.

Time Compressed and Dilated

According to the Marxist geographer David Harvey, “the condition of postmodernity” as we experience it today involves a particularly intense degree of “time-space compression” (Harvey 1989). This is not wrong, but perhaps it is incomplete. Time in the neoliberal era is certainly “out of joint,” in the phrase from Hamlet that Deleuze loves to cite in this regard (Deleuze 1989; Deleuze 1994). But today, this works in the form of a sort of temporal schizophrenia: our experience of time is, all at once, both compressed and dilated.

On the side of compression, the world economy is geared towards just-in-time production, which endeavors to reduce, and ideally to eliminate, the glitches due either to shortages or to excess inventory (Harvey 1989). We only become aware of these lapses in production when supply chains are disrupted, as happened at the height of the Covid pandemic (Hadwick 2020). Meanwhile, computerized financial transactions are squeezed as close to instantaneity as possible. The success or failure of algorithmically-controlled high frequency trading on financial markets is a matter of milliseconds, or even shorter intervals. Michael Lewis describes in great detail the ways in which financial traders strive to gain competitive advantage by increasing the speed of their transactions — something that is ultimately limited by the speed of light. However, even if you cannot make the buy and sell orders flow any faster, you can still gain precious microseconds by locating your server farm physically closer to the actual stock exchange (Lewis 2014).

In computational devices, sensing and action happen in real time, which is to say in micro-intervals, far beneath the threshold of human perception. They literally happen too fast for us to follow them. In consequence, these events have no phenomenology. As Shane Denson puts it, the processes at the heart of computation today “are themselves discorrelated from human subjectivity — no longer tuned to the frequencies of human sensory access and thus no longer essentially bound to appear at all” (Denson 2020). We are increasingly affected by transformations that we are unable to intuit or to experience as they happen. By the time we become aware of their effects — if we ever do — it is too late to respond: they have already receded into the past. In the words of Mark B. N. Hansen,

today’s media industries have honed methods for mining data about our behavior that feature as their key element the complete bypassing of consciousness, the direct targeting of what I shall call the “operational present” of sensibility. (Hansen 2015)

That is to say, the newer digital technologies — what Hansen calls “twenty-first century media” — shrink the present moment by reducing it to an “operational present” that is irreducibly and “categorically distinct from the present of consciousness” (Hansen 2015).

Contemporary capitalism also dilates time, however, in the sense that algorithmic operations capture both the past and the future, absorbing then into an ever-more-extended specious present. This is itself a result of the relentless monetization of temporal displacements. Remnants of the past take the form of monetary debts, and anticipations of the future take the form of exotic financial instruments such as derivatives. Both claims upon the past and claims upon the future are priced — and thereby bought and sold — in the extended present. Everything is drawn into the actions of buying and selling. Tokens of the past, and guarantees for the future, are alike subsumed within the frenzied and heightened now of the financial markets.

The financial mechanisms that dominate our lives today are best understood as “machines that crystallize time”: in saying this, I am hijacking, and inverting the meaning of, a phrase that I take from Maurizio Lazzerato (Lazzarato 2019). For Lazzarato, this phrase describes the production of video art — to which he attributes a utopian, oppositional role in his account of contemporary social processes. But the phrase “machines that crystallize time” is arguably even more apropos to describe the dystopian actualities of debt and financialization. Modern financial instruments work — or at least, they are supposed to work — to capture the future, by making it commensurable with the present. Derivatives and other arcane financial instruments — which, tellingly, used to be known as “futures contracts” — are ways of calculating and pricing future contingencies. Each potential development, to the extent that it can be anticipated at all, must be priced according to its likelihood as well as its promise of profitability. “Hedge funds,” which buy and sell derivatives, are so called because their ostensible function is to allow economic actors to “hedge” their bets. This ultimately means that wealthy investors come out ahead no matter what happens in the markets, leaving everyone else to absorb the losses. In short, derivatives are machines for capturing and accumulating flows of money — which is eqaully to say, for stockpiling flows of time.

But financial speculation by corporations and the rich is only one side of the way that time is managed in our globalized, neoliberal economy. The other side is consumer and household debt, which is equally an object of speculation. The economy would collapse, were it not for the purchases we all make on credit, living perpetually beyond our means. The debts we accumulate, just in the course of living our lives and reproducing our conditions of existence, are never actually paid off. They are just recycled and endlessly deferred.

The result is that my wages, as well as my savings and assets (if I am part of the minority lucky enough to have any savings and assets) continually “need to be leveraged and put to work in the speculative logic of the asset economy” (Adkins et al. 2020). I am continually compelled to manage, control, and carefully invest my own so-called “human capital,” making sure that I do not waste my potential in unproductive activity. I must subordinate all my future hopes to the need for keeping up with a pressing schedule of monthly payments and repayments. I cannot project or anticipate a future free from debt, but only an indefinite extension of the present, in which I continue to accumulate new debts at least as rapidly as I pay off the old ones. Lazzarato sees this situation as one in which we have no more time: the debt economy “has deprived [most of the population] of the future, that is, of time, time as decision-making, choice, and possibility” (Lazzarato 2011). But Lisa Adkins argues, to the contrary, that the new economy actually burdens us with “too much time” (Adkins 2018). We must scramble to service our debts indefinitely, in an extended future that stretches endlessly, but without ever offering us any sort of qualitative difference from the present.

Where Walter Benjamin worried about the past, “firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious” (Benjamin 2003), today we may well worry instead about the future. We experience futurity as devouring and empty of potentiality. The not-yet-born are already subjected to it, and even death itself offers us no escape from it. One the one side, the American right wing is focused upon the existence of the “unborn” (Cooper 2006); billionaires like Elon Musk are obsessed, against all evidence, with an alleged “underpopulation crisis” (Levin 2022). On the other side, as we approach the end of the life process, we are subjected to ever-greater indignities. K. W. Jeter’s great cyberpunk novel Noir offers us a scenario in which the dead are brought back from the grave as zombies, and compelled to work in order to pay off the debts that they incurred in life. But this is an interminable process. Since interest charges accumulate faster than wages do, the more the zombies work, the more they fall behind, accumulating ever greater debt (Jeter 1998; see my discussion in Shaviro 2003). This is scarcely even an extrapolation from actually existing conditions. Precisely due to “the power of compound interest” — which John Maynard Keynes once hoped would lead to a world of leisure for all (Keynes 1930) — more and more people discover that, even after paying back their student loans for years, they still owe far greater sums than they originally borrowed (Minsky 2021).