Clocking off

Challenging modern ideas of time

Rebecca Liu





SOCIETY Saving Time Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock Jenny Odell BODLE Y HE AD, £20 Time took on an elastic and sinuous quality during the Covid-19 lockdowns, if it retained any coherence at all. Days bled into each other, as did walks and Zoom catchups and Sopranos episodes. Feeling a sense of “temporal weirdness”, California artist and writer Jenny Odell set up a camera on a tripod facing her window. “Time felt the same in my room, but in the photos, it rained, it stormed, and the fog rolled in from San Francisco,” she recalls. Flicking through the photos, Odell encountered a mysterious emotion that she calls “it”: an experience of being taken out of the present moment, with all that was familiar rendered strange and changeable, and wide vistas of possibility opened up. This feeling of “it” – the sense that everything and everyone could at any moment be made anew – runs through her cultural and political meditation, Saving Time. Odell, who previously critiqued the attention economy in How to Do Nothing, sets the stakes high for her new investigation. Observing that popular attitudes to time – as, say, an unrelenting march towards inevitable climate apocalypse – encourage a self-fulfilling nihilism, she proposes a different model, more attuned to the natural world. To talk about time today is to talk about work, and Odell begins by tracing the roots of our current system – in which time is exchanged for wages – to 19th-century industry and empire. An 1861 letter from a British arrival in South Africa containing the line “we have left time and been launched on to eternity”, encapsulates contemporary beliefs that positioned the time-keeping, industrious “civiliser” against the timeless, idling “other”. (Odell points out that it was not the concept of work that was alien to these communities, who “organised their activities based on different ecological and cultural cues”, but rather the notion of “abstract labour hours”.) Elsewhere, factory workers were subject to harsh temporal discipline, famously embodied by the methods of engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor. A Taylorist chart from 1916 tracks the seconds taken to make a stopwatch, broken down in actions from “loosen nut with wrench” to “remove bolt from slot”. These histories have their echoes in the present day. Saving Time considers modern forms of surveillance in the workplace, in which employees’ movements are tracked in the name of efficiency, the flourishing market for productivity guides that depict time as a scarcity, and the omnipresent belief that time is money. Odell also presents a striking discussion of leisure. Is genuine rest possible in a hyper commercialised world? She writes about the commodified leisure enjoyed by the wealthy – White Lotus-style experiences that don’t so much enrich your understanding of the world as cocoon you from it – and also the hurried approach of the modern worker, scavenging titbits of respite before the next shift. Later chapters turn to the environment. As wildfires burned across her home state in the summer of 2020, Odell read a transcript of an earnings call from BP, in which the CEO reassures analysts that the development of a natural gas field is still on schedule. It is a statement that would be unimaginable in a world temporally organised around the demands of the climate emergency; yet, in one dominated by quarterly earnings reports, it is entirely ordinary. Odell calls for a way of living that is less extractive, less dependent on domination, and less about the human self at all. Watching the plumage of birds change and observing a patch of moss unfurling from her kitchen over lockdown, she appreciates the different timescales at work in nature, and feels her smallness in the universe. It is in these moments of surrender that Odell sees the possibility of meaningful rest, and also a more fruitful approach to time. “Maybe ‘the point’ isn’t to live more, in the literal sense of a longer or more productive life,” she writes, “but rather, to be more alive in any given moment” – to forgo the hurried race against the clock, and sit still in the present, seeing the world, and oneself, as charged with boundless life. Odell makes an affecting case for an elongated present, though I would like to have heard more about the “temporal weirdness” she felt during the pandemic, about how time can not only tick forwards, but also stretch, fall back and speed up. A survey of how different societies have conceived of time felt too brief, given that it fits well with her case for humility in a world that seems to know which direction it is moving in with such confidence. “I live on their clock,” she writes with a little sadness, after reading the BP earnings call; a clock that ticks to the rhythm of the business cycle. Perhaps it is possible to live on another. To buy a copy for £17 go to