What keeps us in line with the time

As much as people may romanticize job security, they probably don’t miss the nine-to-five schedule that typically came with it. Who likes being stuck at a desk, working to someone else’s timetable? The prescribed circadian cycle was always flawed and far from universal, but it was a yardstick of sorts against which a day, and a life, could be plotted. Not only does it bring people to the same time-space to work, it sets up a standard against which you can think about yourself. For those lucky enough to be working hours they liked or had come to like, it brings an extra dimension to identity: morning person, night owl; traditionalist, loner, martyr.

In a world that, in part because of vastly expanded connectivity, has become increasingly subject to unbounded demands for presence, attention, and labor, what might have seemed most reliable — the boundaries of one’s day — is now permeable. The nine-to-five workday feels more like an anachronism than a fact of life. In place of shared schedules is the endless battle to make the most of one’s own time and become ceaselessly productive. Jonathan Crary, in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, argues that “the accelerated tempo of apparent change deletes any sense of an extended time frame that is shared collectively, which might sustain even a nebulous anticipation of a future distinct from contemporary reality. 24/7 is shaped around indi­vidual goals of competitiveness, advancement, acquisitiveness, personal security, and comfort at the expense of others.” We are thereby pressured, in Crary’s view, to seek “confirmation that one’s life is coinciding with whatever applications, devices, or networks are, at any given moment, available and heavily promoted.

Accordingly, “circadian media” — technologies that once helped situate consumers within or without the rhythms of a collective day — are no longer calibrated to one consistent daily rhythm but to countless rhythms at once. TV shows are dumped online for streaming whenever is convenient, Twitter scrolls apace with scattershot timestamps from every time zone, and phones buzz at all hours with requests and demands. Many work on schedules that stretch far beyond the confines of the conventional workday, followed by desert stretches of under or unemployment, and for many more, “nine to five” has always been inverted, or stacked.

Of course, other personal and public technologies have long provided respite from the collective day, with varying degrees of accessibility, for those with varying needs: 24-hour breakfast is as much a circadian technology as the alarm clock; the 24-hour subway evokes a regime beyond the morning commute. Crary argues that these foment a world of homogenized time: “24/7 world is a disenchanted one in its eradication of shadows and obscurity and of alternate temporalities. It is a world identical to itself, a world with the shallowest of pasts, and thus in principle without specters.” Yet at the same time, we’re embroiled in an welter of circadian technologies, struggling to calibrate an abundance of circadian rhythms. Amid the 24/7 glare Crary describes, our days can still take shape in how we connect with others who, for whatever reason, find themselves similarly situated in time. At worst, though, these various media can perpetuate a feeling of personal untimeliness.

This week, Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes about the ways we ritualize our mornings, conceptualizing the time after waking as a liminal space between days and ultimately a space for mourning, where one can hold oneself apart from “the unrelenting present” and make room for its gravity.

Linda Besner writes about evangelists for “off-peak living”: the belief that a life is best lived against the clock, pitted against collective time. (Grocery shopping is best done in the wee hours; step class best attended at two in the afternoon.) While this might seem like quasi-entrepreneurial opportunism, it can also be a way of restoring joy to routine, reclaiming lost hours or taking charge of the shifting schedules imposed on us.

Finally, Adam Fales describes the morning show as a sort of year-round technology that, like a lamp for seasonal-affective disorder, serves to thread each day to the last, no matter how gloomy or precarious the world might seem. Since morning shows are mostly stripped of content, their function is to make one feel “part of the world” — no more and no less.

Clocks have always been technologies of control, but circadian media, in reminding us of collective rhythms, need not automatically serve the purposes of work discipline. They can remind us instead that there are other ways to be in time, rather than merely on time — a synchronization of spirit that is irreducible to matters of milliseconds.


“Already Late,” by Ana Cecilia Alvarez

“After Hours,” by Linda Besner

“Here Comes the Sun,” by Adam Fales

Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life‘s next installment, EXTREMELY ONLINE, featuring getting dressed by the internet and galaxy-braining the galaxy brain meme.