Mark Smith observes that with the proliferation of clocks and watches during periods of American slavery, plantation owners forced slaves to move from a temporality which naturally revolved around the sun and stars, to an existence governed by the clock. Whilst natural time and clock time are not entirely divorced for Smith, a distinct transition between them is apparent.
Nor should we be misled, as Michael O’Malley has wisely counseled, into thinking that a naturally derived understanding of time (time defined by sun, moon, wind, and a host of other naturally occurring phenomena) necessarily precludes a commitment to clock time. Not only is the dichotomy false, not only is nature itself sometimes as frenetic as the clock (as humans find when planting and harvesting, for instance), but there is evidence suggesting that natural time and clock time are in many respects complementary. Both are largely cyclical in their movements, and the regular, perpetual movements of the clock are to some extent mirrored in the rhythms of the seasons or sun. Naturally derived, task-oriented, and clock-regulated forms of time measurement, in short, coexist in any society, the most modern included…
Under modernity, the clock becomes a fetish: the clock is time itself, and clock time develops an apparent autonomy and hegemony. The dictates and needs of the capitalist mode of production ensure that the clock is used to control workers, measure labor, increase efficiency, and heighten personal time discipline in order to coordinate workers and society generally. Given these imperatives, clock and watch ownership under capitalism tends to increase considerably. Conversely, in pre-modern societies, clock time is usually bound to religion and has little secular significance or function…
Before anyone, whether master, industrialist, or worker, could reduce time to money, however, they had to dilute, or at least modify, age-old Christian imperatives stressing that all time was God’s time. According to Jacques Le Goff, this process began in the Middle Ages, when “[a]mong the principal criticisms levelled against the merchants was the charge that their profit implied a mortgage on time, which was supposed to belong to God alone.” But God was not the only impediment to secular commercial time. According to Le Goff, “Like the peasant, the merchant was at first subjected by his professional activity to the dominion of meteorological time, to the cycle of seasons and the unpredictability of storms and natural cataclysms.” To rationalize time, European merchants used God’s time by recruiting the aural power of his church clocks to coordinate city life and the times of markets. “The same process for the rationalization of time,” Le Goff points out, “was responsible also for its secularization.” Once this rationalization was under way, mercantile activity, while “distinct and, at particular points, contingently similar,” to God’s time, became regulated by the clock. And it was the dual forces of God’s temporal imperatives and merchants’ commercial time that provided the historical basis for the rise of clock consciousness among workers and managers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Slaves remembered the clock and watch and testified that they had come to accept, albeit grudgingly, timed agricultural labor under slavery. Although they originally came from societies where natural time was predominant and that same reliance on natural time remained important to them, southern slaves, like nineteenth-century urban-industrial workers, found their reliance on sun and stars as exclusive arbiters of time attacked and, ultimately, undermined (Smith 1996, 1435-37 & 1461).
Smith, Mark. 1996. “Old south time in comparative perspective. American historical review 101(5): 1432–69.