Commodities bring us into a special relationship with time. That is to say, commodities are at the heart of how we relate to ourselves. For time is the privileged medium of our inner lives; it is the very substance of introspection. As Kant puts it,”time is nothing but the form of inner sense, i.e., of the intuiting we do of ourselves and of our inner state.” And in the world of commodities, this “inner sense” is organized around the rhythms of consumption â€” or, more precisely, of buying. Commodities seem to beckon to us from an eternal now, a perpetual present. The time to buy is always right away. There’s an urgency to it, brooking no delay. “I needed to buy them now” (Scott Westerfeld, So Yesterday) could be the mantra of every shopper.
The whole experience of shopping is focused upon a magic moment,the delirious instant of acquisition. In its splendid isolation, the commodity narrows time â€” and therefore the self â€” to an infinitesimal point. Becky Bloomwood,the heroine of Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, knows this feeling well: “That moment. That instant when your fingers curl round the handles of a shiny, uncreased bag â€” and all the gorgeous new things inside it become yours. What’s it like? It’s like going hungry for days, then cramming your mouth full of warm buttered toast. It’s like waking up and realizing it’s the weekend. It’s like the better moments of sex. Everything else is blocked out of your mind. It’s pure, selfish pleasure.”
So the inner experience of commodity time is that of a perpetual imminence: a pure present, without retentions and protentions, always on the verge of simply fulfilling itself. This “now” marks a rupture from the past, from anything that came before. And it doesn’t really look towards the future,either,since the act of taking possession is itself the point, rather than anything I might actually do with the items that I have just bought. As Jameson puts it, in the world of commodities we experience “a series of pure and unrelated presents in time… the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases the present of time from all the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis; thereby isolated, that present suddenly engulfs the subject with undescribable vividness.” This present is a moment of solipsistic fullness,heavy with a feeling of “just-about-to”; everything trembles on the verge of revelation. Jameson compares this experience to the clinical condition of schizophrenia, with its “breakdown of the signifying chain.” When the commodity stands forth, or shines, duration shrinks to zero,and consciousness contracts to an infinitely dense, dimensionless point.
That’s what it feels like to be a consumer. But in the Age of Aesthetics, the same temporal structure also defines the process of production. The whole point of corporate aesthetic innovation, as we have seen, is really “aesthetic ageing”: to obsolesce and efface whatever came before, to eliminate the trace of the past in the present. And the novelty of the “latest and greatest” isn’t really directed towards the future either; since once a commodity is offered for sale, it is already set to be obsolesced and replaced in its own turn. The punctual present is the ideal state, or the limit, towards which capitalist production always strives, with its continual efforts to reduce circulation time to a minimum, and to accelerate the rate of turnover. In the Age of Aesthetics, just-in-time production and instantaneous communications have allowed Capital to come closer than ever before to this limit, to a pure present purged of all memories of the past and all anticipations of the future.
Of course, such a pure present is impossible. It cannot be sustained; it would not be a “present” any longer, if it were sustained. The absolute instant of production and consumption vanishes in the very movement by which it is posited. Capitalist production never actually attains its limit-ideal, for all that it pushes closer and closer to it. Even in the age of “business @ the speed of thought” (Bill Gates), production and distribution still require a finite, and not negligible, amount of time. And if Becky Bloomwood (or any other consumer) were able to remain in her state of ecstasy, how could she ever be induced to go shopping again? Consciousness itself, as Bergson says, requires a certain thickness of duration: “when one wishes to prepare a glass of sugared water one is obliged to wait until the sugar melts. This necessity for waiting is the significant fact.” Even in the Age of Aesthetics, we still have to wait. We can’t actually inhabit the punctual, schizophrenic present of commodity time. Becky is always being brought down from her shopping raptures by some unpleasant intrusion of the outside world: a voice that “interrupts my thoughts,” or â€” most often â€” a reminder of bills that have to be paid. Becky’s Visa cards and lines of credit are always overdrawn; and this, if nothing else, reintroduces duration into her life of sheer consumption.
The dynamic of commodity time is best captured, I think, in Deleuze’s account of the event. We have seen how difficult it is to distinguish between genuine events of creation (or production), and the “pseudo-events” of advertising and marketing (or consumption). But Deleuze introduces a more useful distinction, one that goes to the heart of the event itself,and that can apply to both production and consumption. An event, he says, is not exhausted by its actualization in the present. There is also â€” and here Deleuze crucially cites Maurice Blanchot â€” “that part of the event which cannot realize its accomplishment.” This is “the future and past of the event considered in itself, sidestepping each present, being free of the limitations of a state of affairs.” The schizophrenic pure present of commodity time is haunted by an unrealized past/future, by a surplus that is superadequate to any possible realization. On the side of production, this is the surplus that capital appropriates, and without which it would be unable to valorize itself, or to expand â€” but whose traces of otherness it is unable to eliminate. And on the side of consumption, this unrealized residue is the source of that sense of displacement, of not coinciding with myself, that I feel sometimes at the mall, even in the midst of my most ecstatic bouts of shopping. This unrealized, past/future dimension of the event introduces a gap into the present: a glitch or a hitch in the smooth process of capital’s self-valorization. Commodity time is riven by something spectral and impalpable, not properly present, a sort of hauntology.