Saturday, May 2, 2009

Growth of Time and Law in the 17c

David Landes identifies the introduction of the portable timekeeper, watch or clock, as a revolutionary instrument, and the transition from public time to private time that it instantiated in the 17c as a long, revolutionary moment. Increasingly widespread use of the portable timekeeper internalized discipline in time consciousness, as opposed to the obedience to time consciousness that had been maintained by an external imperium, or authority, of time.

In 1370, for example, King Charles V of France issued an ordinance that all public clocks in Paris, including those of the church towers, should be regulated around the timekeeper of the royal palace, the Horloge du Palais. The idea seems to have been that time should emanate from an authority and that that authority in keeping time should be the royal imperium. This was a practical application of the theoretical principle underpinning the monarchic doctrine of traditionalism and immemorial custom.

The idea of an ancient, immemorial English constitution, which was said to have sanctioned a sovereign king, received its unwritten formulation sometime around 1600. By legitimizing its presence as immemorial concretion, the monarchy positioned itself centrally in a timescale of sanctioned perpetuity. Because it had always been it must consequently always be. Pocock argues that, “to describe a timeless existence, a sacred origin or an immemorial continuity, are all ways of conceptualizing the continuous existence of a society.” Continuous existence is indeed legitimated—and with it the chronological anteriority of the monarchy. The monarchy, which theoretically came before time, thus emanates time.

Time is a kind of original property of the monarchy, who alone in claiming ancient ownership of time can claim, by extension, sole rights to contingency and agency in time. In this respect, the monarchy could legitimately militate against the usurpation of time and agency by any other political entity. Within the parameters of such a timescale, the capacity for historical agency indeed is deadened by its dispensability. Historical events, like Marvell’s ‘happy Restauration,’ which I have discussed in an earlier post, will just happen.

Conversely, the appearance of an instrument that could privately claim de facto hold on time was not only associated with a principle of self-regulation, it also brought with it a liberalizing share of legal and political agency for any person that could claim chrono-literacy. John Suckling in 1637:

But as when an authentic watch is shown,
Each man winds up and rectifies his own,
So in our very judgments.

Personal appropriation of accurate, private timekeeping is operatively continuous with the legitimation of common, private adjudication. In the same manner by which each man began to keep his own time, each man began to rectify his own agential relationship to judgment in time.

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