Here’s the poem with hyperlinks to sections commenting on each line.
Lots to say, I’ll be a bit abbreviated. I’ll start just working through a reading of it on a phrase-by-phrase level, trying to puzzle through what’s going on. Maybe later I’ll try to say something about the aesthetics.
“Numbers in Time of Trouble.” What “Numbers”? What “Time of Trouble”?
Time is going to be a big thing going forward. In the title time is just the when in which events happen.
A time standard is a specification for measuring time. So for example, by local standard time, “3:32 PM 2020-13-3” specifies the time it is now, “4:32 PM 2020-13-3” the time it is in an hour. Time standards include but are more general than time zones: for example there are time standards used in astronomy that have nothing to do with the Earth’s rotation. Some relevant facts about time standards.
This last observation is part of the evidence for the titular trouble being or including The Troubles. It is also a clear indication of contemporary colonialism: even if the Irish succeed, as they would do, in escaping direct colonial political control, one cannot so easily escape from the economic mesh of colonial capital.
Okay, having started to deal with the time standard, let’s talk about the “we”. Who are we? As per the title, I think we are the numbers, that is the body politic. But I think the poem can be quite slippy with this we: at times we are the colonized (the most obvious positions here, given that the question of what time standard we’re on is presumably live here) but at others we are the colonizers.
This phrase is meant to capture that generality. “Whichever time standard we’re on” and, hence, whichever we who are on a time standard.
What question? Well, there are two: how fast? is it worth it? Deal with them in turn.
Note that this phrase is included in the “Whichever,” that is what is about to be asserted applies however one answers the questions.
The phrasing here is very deliberate. What it means is just that we, whoever we are, have beneath our feet the Earth’s mantle, which is in motion. But it’s phrased so that what we are underlaid by, what we have “laid or placed under or below” us is the motion itself, the drift, which happens to be being performed by the mantle.
What is being contrasted here is two different axes of motion. There is the revolutionary motion of the Earth about its axis, the motion which gives us days/nights, which our time standards measure (time, Aristotle tells us, is the measure of motion), which assumes such chief social, cultural and economic import, this manifest motion. But then there’s the hidden motion of the mantle about the core. This motion, of course, is hugely consequential: this is the motion that has shaped the Earth, defined the geography on which all of this is happening. But it is not a purposeful, regular motion in the way rotation is. Rather it is a drift something continual, fluid, aimless.
Why the emphasis on mantle? It’s the part of the Earth that is doing the drifting, but it is a play on also the broader, figurative meaning of “mantle” as any sort of covering. The Earth’s mantle covers its core (and the habitability of the Earth comes both from the heat and light of the sun but also the residual dark heat of its core) and is in turn also covered by the crust. I’ll return to this when we talk about the word “dismantle”, but I think in part in casting our attention to what is hidden, subterranean, and yet still a source of energy, a source of motion, Prynne is gesturing towards a prelapsarian, Arcadian sphere. The mantle, itself covered from the sun and divorced from the motions above the crust, cannot be said to be on any time standard itself.
Hence we, whichever (different) time standards we’re on and how that’s working out for us, have this primordial unification: we’re all living and working atop this world which is apart from all that.
This is what I was just pointing towards: this commonality should be taken as a start, a starting point. What it’s a start of or a start towards we’ll see later, but to prefigure it’s not a return in any straightforward sense. The mantle isn’t a place anyone could live. What is a start towards dismantling the time standard is coming to see some domain as lying outside of it, and so to start to imagine some space for ourselves outside of it.
Alright, time for sentence 2.
This isn’t supposed to be an aesthetic evaluation, but I can’t quite help but mention how delicious the enjambment after “woman” is. In general, enjambment creates a moment of tension or wonderment: “If the woman”; if the woman what? If the woman gets up in the morning.
Which woman? We won’t get much help from the text. Any woman, perhaps. (But then why “the” woman?) Or the woman itself, the form of woman. (If Platonic forms could have need of sleep.) The textual puzzle we’re in is the following: the woman, to be “the” woman, has to be distinguished from others and yet there is no given distinguishing feature. Indeed, we have no clear class from which she is to be distinguished.
I suggest reading “the woman” as we read the “we”, the woman could be anyone who is suitably distinguished to us: distinct enough, perhaps, that we might notice when she gets up in the morning. Obvious question: is this noticing meant to be romantic or sexual in some way? (Watching someone get up often or paradigmatically requires some sort of intimacy.) Likely yes, and then there is perhaps a hint towards a heterosexual positioning of the “we” the reader/speaker (as default male). This glimmer will be further brought out deeper into the sentence, so hold that thought.
Finally (with respect to these first eight words) there’s the “If” and there’s the getting up in the morning. Let’s talk about the getting up first. I spent the treatment of the first sentence going on and on about time and the measurement of time. Getting up in the morning marks the start of our habitual (one will want almost to say “ritual”) activity. (We were just talking about, in the end of the last sentence, a start to a grand political/revolutionary project, here we have a much more mundane, if more hallowed, sort of start.)
But while getting up in the morning, as an event, initiates our daily relation to time, to acting in it, it is not naturally brought under a time standard. After all, one does not always get up at the same time each day, the morning and one’s getting up in it drift when (relative to mean time) they occur. Getting up in the morning, conceptually, on its own, is something that belongs to a more informal, humane relationship to time. This suggests a different prelapsarian past, not the pre-human or un-human one I discussed with respect to the mantle but a pre-industrial one.
But the sluggish looseness of “getting up in the morning” is itself threatened and taken over by industrial capitalism. When one works, one works almost always at specific times, where those times are specified in relation to a time standard. Nine-to-five (if you’re lucky). As a result, one’s getting up takes on a relation to the time standard (usually with the mechanical aid of an alarm clock). So this prelapsarian, romantic image is, sadly, already lapsed.
Which brings us, finally finally, to the “If”. We, the reader, are here to suppose that the woman gets up in the morning. Why “If”? Why suppose? Is there, perhaps, a danger of her not getting up? Should we be worried about this woman dying in her sleep?
I don’t think so. In part this gets back to what we were discussing with respect to “the woman” as a general, hypothetical figure. Suppose, dear reader, there were a woman. Now (or, in the sequence of the text, already) we are given a further supposition, take your hypothetical woman and further suppose that she gets up in the morning. This imaginary nature is at once strange (surely there are actual women getting up in the morning, one needn’t imagine them) and crucial: our woman is to get up swaddled in morning, a bird, perhaps, rather than an alarm chirping.
“you could say it was” is a bit complicated, we’ll skip it for a moment. Let’s talk about the big thing, the anointment. We have our (hypothetical) woman, she’s (hypothetically) getting up, to (you could say) be anointed. What is it to be anointed? Consult our handy dictionary: “Smeared or rubbed with any unctuous [oily or greasy] matter; esp. having had oil poured on, as a sacred rite.” (OED “anointed, adj.”, 1) So, going as we always do backwards, let’s start with the esp. Our hypothetical woman is doing this daily, habitual thing, getting up, with the purpose of participating in a sacred ritual. This would be a distinct linking of the habitual and the hallowed: the human sphere outside of standard time is simultaneously something divine.
Okay, we’ve seen that, I’ve wittered on about it. But just as getting up can involve alarm clocks rather than birds, not all ointments are oils. One can anoint oneself with soap, with moisturizer, with, particularly, makeup. Are these activities disbarred from being “sacred rites”? A certain Pop Art sensibility might liken the daily application of L’Oréal to Extreme Unction, but this is not a position the text seems to have any time for, as we’ll see. But I do think the text invites us, through the use of the term, to consider the possibility of the sacred becoming, degenerating, being echoed in the profane.
One note is the purposiveness of “to be anointed”. The woman is getting up for some purpose, she has something to do. This is, already, a funny way to put it. Getting up isn’t fully a purposive activity. It’s not like, when asleep, you deliberate about whether to awake (although you might decide not to go back to sleep having woken up). But what these sorts of locutions mean is that this thing, whatever it is, is the or is among the main goals of the day. This ritual, then is not merely sacred but central, what one arises to do. (Which either thwarts or further arouses one trying to understand these more mundane actions as ways of being anointed.)
Returning, what’s the function of “you could say it”? There’s a subtle ambiguity in the construction of the sentence. Here are two readings: (a) “if the woman gets up in the morning, she might do something (dab oil on her forehead, soap up, apply foundation, whatever) and you could call that thing anointment” and (b) “if the woman gets up in the morning, you could say that what she’s doing is being anointed [after all, she’s your imaginary woman, you can imagine her doing whatever]”. When considering ambiguity we have to think not only of the meanings of the various possibilities of resolving that ambiguity but also the meaning of the text’s having all of those as possibilities.
So in (a) what is emphasized in how we think of certain actions. Do we allow ourselves to call this X—an application of this oil, this soap, this makeup—“being anointed?” That is, do we permit ourselves the application of this concept, and, concomitantly, do we thereby permit ourselves to see the glimmer of the holy in this earthy X? (Spoiler: no.)
In (b) instead the implicit question is whether we even allow ourselves to even imagine this (again, probably hypothetical) woman to do something that could count as being anointed? (Where we are holding fixed the extension of “anointment”.) Again, no, but the difference is between what we can conceive of as real possibilities and how we conceive of (how we describe) what are to us real possibilities.
In permitting itself to be ambiguous between the two readings, the text invites us to consider ourselves as having both a readerly and writerly agency: a freedom to interpret a situation and a freedom to act within that situation. Applied to this circumstance, the ambiguity is between conceiving of a certain archaic purity as being (or not being) a possibility for some future, potential situation and between conceiving of our actual situation as already containing (or not containing) that purity. This ambiguity is entertained, as we will see, so that it can later partially closed off.
Let me quickly talk about the grammar of the sentence. We have a ingenious syntactic symmetry here, with two “if” clauses abutted. Cognitively, this is a very demanding sentence. We have to imagine this woman getting up, fathom who she might be, what her getting up might be, what our supposing her getting up might entail, how we might think of what she’s doing (both/either de re and/or de dicto), and now on top of all that, we’ve got to take that work we’ve done and stick a big, fat, complicated negation in front of it.
What’s “that”? What “that” is?
Simply, the “that” is our (“your”) calling what the woman wakes up to do “being anointed”. If only, the sentence says, it weren’t so “puny and obsequious” to call what the woman was waking up to do being anointed. To do this, the text suggests, is to think of anointment as a possibility for ourselves. It is to say, no, we could get up and be anointed. Or, more radically, something we do get up and do already counts as being anointed. This is to buy into, it suggests, something we have called quite prelapsarian, enchanted, one might say.
The time of trouble (“this time”) is more hollowed than hallowed. To see the daily and the sacred as (even potentially) in contact, is to adopt quite a retrograde position (which is, I think, why the male, heterosexual positioning is quite apt). It is puny: weak, enervated. It is obsequious. Here, I think Prynne is trying to charge the word with two of its meanings. First, “Dutiful in performing obsequies or showing respect for the dead; appropriate to obsequies. Obsolete.” (OED “obsequious”, 1b) Second, “Unduly or servilely compliant; overly submissive; manifesting or characterized by servility; fawning, sycophantic.” (OED “obsequious”, 2a) So to be romantic in this way is to be overly dutiful, servile, in one’s devotion to the dead. (The dead what? The dead, disenchanted, archaically patriarchal world. As a further tangent, what is important is not that the past at any particular time did have these qualities—the family has always been an economic unit—but we can, in imagining something as past, imagine it as being possible, even if not possible for us now.)
Here’s where we start linking the first two sentences. The “wrong [time] standard” makes it the case that one cannot honestly conceive of someone (the beloved, perhaps) waking up to be anointed.
I’ve discussed a bit already why that might be the case. Part of what is involved in or rather around the time standard is the regimenting of the workday: one is to clock in and clock out at certain times, to show up to appointments at given times, etc. One gets up, in this time, under this time standard, to go to work. One anoints oneself, if you can call it that, perhaps with makeup, but one does that in turn for work (or for the bit of life which is outside work).
Here, “the time standard” is a metonym also for the time (the industrialized present) and the standards of those time: the broader norms, broader ingrained expectations.
It’s interesting here that it’s the “wrong” standard that does it. This suggests or at least leaves tantalizingly open that there might be a right standard, one that does not have this brutalizing effect. What would this be?
One thing I’ve previously mentioned is that we can think of this more natural, more sacred, more whatever, way of living one thinks of in thinking of this woman getting up, as being on a time standard. It’s an informal time standard, one where you measure times by mornings and afternoons and getting ups and going to bed rather than by hours, but it is still a way of measuring, of parceling up time. So, the text might be saying, if there is a right time standard, it’s that one, the one we lost (if we ever had it). This raises a puzzle when we get to the proposal to go off the standard that we’ll have to deal with in a minute.
The point about metonymy is just to say that it’s obviously not a specification for measuring time that caused this, whatever this is. This is important as “wrong” applied to time standards is something like a category mistake: time standards just tell you how to count time. As mere conventions they can’t be wrong in themselves, but they can perhaps be wrong for us (i.e. bad for us to use), which is the sense intended. (This is “wrong” in the same sense as we can say “I put on the wrong sweater”; it’s not that the sweater is itself wrong but that it’s wrong for us to wear it, perhaps given our sense of style.)
That this time standard (and the system that foisted it on us) is wrong for us is no matter of opinion. I spent a bunch of words a couple of posts back about a way of understanding the previous sentence as considering and rejecting the possibility of reaching paradise by mere interpretation: take the woman and interpret whatever she’s doing as sacred. Except you can’t; the age has sapped all such possibilities. The time standard is wrong and its being wrong is something objective: not a matter of mere opinion.
That’s fairly straightforward. I’m a bit stuck on brutal. My first instinct is that it means “Very bad or unpleasant” but the OED says this is chiefly North American, so I’m not quite sure this is meant. But similarly we might have “Inhuman; coarsely cruel, savage, fierce.” That inhumanity might be the key here: after all the wrongness of the time standard has nothing much to do with us, with our opinion. So what is brutal is, in part, the limit of our interpretive powers: we can’t wish our way back to Kansas.
Here I think by entailment we mean “Philosophy. [compare entail v.2 5] The strict or logically necessary implication of one proposition by another.” (OED “entailment n.2”, 2) That the time standard is wrong is entailed by, follows necessarily from, some other fact? But which fact?
This is one of the most discussed question in ethics: what are the moral facts (including the fact that this is the wrong standard) entailed by? The speaker here is playing a coy here.
I would note that entailment is also a legal term. To entail is “To convert (an estate) into a ‘fee tail’ (feudum talliatum); to settle (land, an estate, etc.) on a number of persons in succession, so that it cannot be bequeathed at pleasure by any one possessor.” (OED) Under this reading the wrong of the time standard (and the time standard itself) is something already passed down, something we are not at pleasure to bequeath. This fits nicely with the discussion of history to follow.
I’ve already suggested, with mantle, that we should understand the emphasis as sometimes indicating that the word in question is supercharged with meaning, so we should take both of these as permitted readings and then we have to make sense of what the ambiguity means. Both of these readings give the wrongness of the standard a certain solidity, whether it is some sort of robust, philosophical mind-independence or the superstructural solidity of the law. I think the poem is concerned with the question of how solid any of these institutions are. Might they just “melt into air”? Could we make them? (Could we come off the time standard?)
I want to broach in this connection the Kantian conception of time. Kant, insofar as I understand him (hint: not much), holds that time is not a mind-independent feature of the world but something added by the mind. Temporal relations are not subjective in the sense of being under our control, there is an intersubjective robustness there, but we might imagine different beings (particularly God) who do not have the same form of inner intuition, the same time, as we do. (It’s worth noting that for Kant our a priori intuition of time is at the foundation of mathematics and our construction of numbers.) I don’t think there’s an explicit reference here, but Kant at least provides an interesting model for this intermediary solidity: where something is not a mere matter of opinion but neither is it something noumenal, outside the realm of our experience.
Let’s start with the glowing tail. There’s obviously the comet metaphor to come, history as something that blazes across the sky, the time standard nipping at its heel. We’ll get back to that image, I first need to say something about “history”.
History is both the sequence of events in time (in the sense that something can be an historical event) but also the study of and narratives about those events (in the sense that I could enter the history department or read a history of industrialization). I think we’re meant to think of both, but the scare quotes ask us to focus on this latter understanding, in which “history” can come apart from, being both different from and misrepresenting, history. In this sense “history” rather than history is the comet: “history” is what we can see (history, having already passed, being now inaccessible), it is glowing, and “history” rather than history has an arc, is moving in some definite direction and so has a tail.
The idea that history has a direction has a long, well, history. Some Enlightenment figures (Kant, Hegel) thought of some sort of republican maybe cosmopolitan state as the direction in which history heads. (Kant—and probably Hegel but I know nothing about him—is more complex here and closer to how I read this poem. He thinks of history having a direction as a regulative principle of “history” as a form of inquiry: that is in order to think of the events of history intelligibly we sort of can’t help but think of them as having an order, but this, perhaps, says more about us than it does about the events.) Some Marxists, probably not Marx, thought of Communism as the end point of history (put a pin in this). Recently you have the Fukayama “End of History” / Thatcher “No Alternative” conception of neoliberal capitalism as the endstate of history. This view is often a bogeyman and this poem seems to agree, it’s “history,” not history, that has a tail.
(Funny thing about comets, usually they’re in orbit and reappear, e.g. Halley’s comet is on a cycle of something like 72 years. Another historically popular, more recently unpopular view is that history itself is circular. Put the same pin here, we’ll talk about this in a second.)
Note that we have not only the lovely sonic repetition of “tail” from “entailment”, but perhaps also quite a meaningful one, as the legal sense of “entailment” comes from a legal sense of “tail”.
The limitation or destination of a freehold estate or fee to a person and the heirs of his body, or some particular class of such heirs, on the failure of whom it is to revert to the donor or his heir or assign. (OED “tail, n.2”, 3a)
So to entail some estate is to leave it to a series of inheritors who are not free to further bequeath that estate. The tail seems to be related but a bit different: it’s the limited giving of an estate to some folks where it might revert to its giver’s hold should we fail. If “history” has a glowing tail, then, it means we are the inheritors of “history” (a common thought) but that further we might lose that inheritance should we not behave. (Though this might not be all that bad.) I can’t quite make sense of “glowing” on this reading, but it might be available as a secondary meaning.
Finally (for these eight words) I want to say something about the relationship of the time standard to history, or rather to “history”. Time standards are of course of deep relevance and interest to historians. Historians want to place events in a single order in time, but the accounts they have to work with are generally given with some particular time standard. So they also have to work with those standards, figure out how to convert between them; this can be nontrivial. Further, the institution, adoption, use of time standards are themselves events in history. I think it is in part this sense in which the wrongness of the standard “follows into the glowing tail of ‘history’”, as both part of the subject matter of “history” (history, particularly when we are thinking of the time standard as metonymic for a larger system) and part of the construction of “history”.
Marxism is both a part of “history” and history. Often it is a counter- or revisionary “history,” as Marxists offer their own telling or at least their own explanations of the events of history. It is in this sense where there could be a (mainstream) “history” comet and a separate Marxist comet.
Marxism is of course part of history (salient events: student riots in France in May 1968, obviously the background of the USSR and other communist or socialist countries around the globe). As such it is “flaring,” i.e. “shining brightly and fitfully” (OED “flaring, adj” 4), coming up in the occasional revolution or riot, and lovely.
It is a tricky matter to decide how lovely the comet here is supposed to be. There is a certain textual distance, the Marxist comet is just an example of an “history” and in this context then is something that is followed by the wrongness of the time standard. We might think that Marxism defines itself in opposition to the time standard and its wrongness, broadly construed. The poem is allied with it insofar as it also seeks the destruction of the standard (hence its loveliness), but I suspect it is seeking to transcend “history”, to get off the standard, in a way that it, perhaps, it does not view the Marxist comet as capable of.
It’s worth bringing back in the observation that comets are cyclical events to note that this applies to Marxism and the occasional, fitful nature of its interventions into history.
Lastly, we should note in astrology, historically speaking, comets are signs of disaster; there being then a nice confluence with some Marxist rhetoric (communism as the specter haunting Europe).
I’ve hopefully said enough to make sense of why the speaker would here be proposing that one comes off the time standard. But what I do need to talk about what that proposal involves.
In this context, we should understand “coming off the time standard” as ending the economic system that the time standard was created to facilitate: industrial (global) capitalism. So we’re talking about envisioning the end of capitalism. In general there are a couple of models for the end of capitalism: going outside of capitalism and going through capitalism. In the first model, one imagines some event (the Russian Revolution, at this time with any hope May 1968), some definite intervention into history that (1) disrupts/breaks the economic system and (2) replaces it with something else. In the second, one imagines instead the end of capitalism as not some intentional, collective achievement, but instead something that happens “from the inside”. This is the “(left) Accelerationist” vision, though already prefigured in the Marxist idea of the “internal contradictions” of capitalism. One imagines that the capitalist economy becomes even more productive but hence less regulated, more prone to breakage until it does and then (somehow) something else, better, replaces it.
Now, what’s imagined here is very likely in line with (1). After all, this being a proposal, something we could do intentionally, speaks of this as being conceived of as an intervention into history rather than an unfolding of history. But, because I can, I want to ramble a bit about (2) as it feels too of the moment to let pass (and no one can stop me).
When we think of an intervention or any deliberative action we tend to think of it as this two stage process: first you deliberate, then you act. Here deliberation is essentially computational: you think of what the various possible actions are, what possibilities might follow from those actions, how probable those possible outcomes are, how desirable those outcomes are, and then you weigh them all up and come to some decision about what to do. Then you go ahead and do the darn thing. There’s all sorts of ways to do this better or worse (you can miss a possible action, misevaluate the likelihood or desirability of an outcome, misweigh things, be akratic and fail to do what you decide to do), but the reason we care about this model is that it describes a sort of ideal of decision making. When a person does this correctly and fully, they’ve made the best decision they could make.
Importantly, though, in our vision of this process, deliberation happens outside of time, or at least takes no time at all. This ideal deliberation then is a form of rational activity, but its the rationality of angels, i.e. of beings who can think infinitely fast. But human deliberation takes time, it is itself an event preceding action, and the amount of time it takes can be extremely salient. If you don’t decide which way to turn in time, you will crash. Less dramatically, if you take hours each morning deciding what to wear, you’ll never get anything done. So what we have to do is this actual, nonideal, bounded deliberation, it is still a rational activity, but it is a form of machine rationality. Plausibly, nonideal deliberation would converge on ideal deliberation, if you gave the machine (or person) infinite time to deliberate.
Sometimes, when we have oodles of time to deliberate, we can gloss over this distinction, we can pretend to be mediocre angels. But, and this is something that Accelerationists stress (e.g. Nick Land talks a lot about this), when everything is going fast and will go faster we don’t have time to think. We can less and less pretend to be angels (and at certain speeds even the machines break down). (This is part of the Accelerationist critique of the old model: the acceleration itself makes deliberate intervention less and less possible.)
Why this feels important to think about now is that the coronavirus and its global effects play interestingly with both models. The logistic spread of an infectious disease is its own unpolitical, supereconomical accelaration. This ensures that we are firmly in machine time, worried not only about what responses to the virus will be effective, but how fast we can make the decisions themselves (every delay is costly and itself changes the deliberative space: South Korea’s response of mass testing is perhaps possible early on, when there are few cases, but is insufficient as the pace picks up). But, at the same time, capitalist acceleration is coming to a screeching halt, as lockdowns and social isolation bring economic activity to a crawl. For many of us, then, with our economic lives halted or slowed down, we now have nothing but time for reflection, for deliberation (the plague has made angels of us all).
Note I said “logistic” rather than “exponential”. This is another tangent, but let’s roll. The “Accelerationist” rhetoric is focused on exponential, or at least super-linear growth. But this isn’t how any growth actually works. For all actual growth is always bound by some underlying resource (for the virus, uninfected persons; for animals, food, water, etc.) and growth slows and caps out as the resources get used up and access to the resource becomes more difficult. Since resources can be exhausted, this growth reverses itself as resources begin to be used up (e.g. people develop immunity or die). These produce the “boom” and “bust” of the epidemeological curve (the one we’re supposed to flatten). Of course, not all resources are permanently exhausted and you can get subsequent booms and busts as the population dies out, resource-use thereby lets up and so resources stockpile again (in the virus case, you get a whole new set of resources when the virus mutates past immunity; this also accounts for the cyclical boom and bust of predator-prey populations). So although our rhetoric has capitalist growth as always accelerating, it is of course still resource bound with resources that regenerate to different degrees, so, unless something radical changes (basically, an apocalyptic scenario happens, or we enter some utopian paradise where, e.g., we manage to achieve zero-growth) human population and all economic activity will follow this basic pattern. So even if you buy the Accelerationist idea that some part of the curve will destroy capitalism you might well disagree where on the curve we could reach. Here are some broad options.
Then of course there’s the capitalist realist option that the system somehow survives all of this. This sort of inquiry towards what might happen is essentially passive, it asks “What will happen?” But one can also think about the future not in a merely investigative, passive way, but actively, asking “What is to be done?” (Though, if one thinks of oneself as an angel, these are two ways of asking the same question.)
Now, I described this time of slowdown as a time of deliberating, but part of what motivates Accelerationists (particularly non-left ones) is the thought that the intellectual class who at least partially are investigating the future, who (very partially) understand some of these dynamics, and particularly the bourgeois, leftist intellectuals who would want something else to happen are ultimately powerless with respect to how things will go. To the extent they are asking “What is to be done?” they are deluding themselves. We are condemned to the actual. Indeed Accelerationism (particularly in Land’s writing) has a post-humanist streak: part of the way in which the economy is transformed is that it is fully mechanized, as the deliberative computer comes to outperform the deliberative human, one no longer uses machines to answer “What will happen?”, “What is to be done?” but the machines answer these themselves. In this sense, the useless, anxious seeing and foreseeing which is the lot (perhaps) of the academic left, the present lock-downed, will become not the permanent but the final state of humanity as a whole.
So much depends on factors that are extremely difficult to assess. How long does it take for machines to think? (We have a long history of being overly optimistic here. Turing in his original paper thought we’d have human-level intelligence in computers by the 21st century.) How long do we really have of continued development? Given the state of our resources (and a livable climate is a resource), do we really have time to develop it? We might be not on mean time anymore but coyote time, having taken our first few panicked steps into thin air.
All of this is extremely speculative, nothing but speculation. But it gets at the question of agency raised in this passage (oh, yeah, we were talking about a poem, weren’t we?).
Okay, so by my count we still haven’t figured out exactly what this proposal is. But we have made progress by raising another question (reraising an old question), who is this “we” that the proposal is addressed at. (Actually, this assumes that the proposal is addressed to the same “we” who will be coming off the standard.) We’ve already noted that the “we” in this poem is unstable and uncertain. There are a few possibilities.
I think this matters because there are two different features pushing us in two different directions. The first is the global nature of the condition: the time standard governs us all. The second though are the limits on collective agency. That is, when one thinks of some group taking some deliberative action, we think of it as along the lines of individual deliberative action. There is a group consideration of possible actions, outcomes, evaluations, etc., in coming to a single decision. For a group of people then to be a deliberative body it must be possible for them to come to agreements about these things. They need to share or to be able to come to share views about what the options are, what the outcomes might be, how likely they are, and, crucially, how good they would be. The bigger, the more spread out, the more diverse a collection of people is the less sense it makes to talk about them as deliberating.
I think when a speaker uses “we” in this deliberative, political way where the speaker is trying to get the audience to do something, who belongs to the fact is fixed after the fact. The “we” is the largest group who are likely to decide together to do the thing being recommended (even if that recommendation is aimed more generally). This is of course taking “proposal” in its most direct, common sense, that of “An act or (less commonly) the action of proposing that something be done, or of proposing to do something; a suggested or intended plan, scheme, or course of action; spec. one submitted formally for consideration.” (OED “proposal. n”, 2a)
But there is another sense of “proposal” that is also germane here. That of “The action of presenting something to the mind for contemplation; an instance of this; a prospect. Obsolete.” (OED “proposal. n”, 1b) That is, we can understand the proposal of coming off the time standard as here’s a thing we should do (which would require for its success our being in a position to deliberate together) but here’s a possibility (which does not have that requirement).
Is this a viable reading? (Not as a replacement to the obvious, but as a secondary meaning.) Well, why might we be getting a proposal in this, weaker sense? We’ll start with a bit of a detour. Here’s a question leftists have to face: if capitalism is so bad, why does it still exist?
There are of course different and complex answers to this question, but a very common theme here involves ideology: that is, alongside capitalism are disseminated and imposed a set of beliefs, sentiments, attitudes among the populace with the overall result that they, in general and for the most part, view the economic system which is (in general and for the most part) harming them as natural, both in the sense of good, wholesome and organic, inevitable (“there is no alternative”). We’ll come back to this as ideology is a major theme both later on in this poem and throughout Prynne’s work.
If you take the hegemony of the ruling class to be thus in large part ideological, you will think of consciousness raising (the expose of the dominant ideology as, crucially, false, the denaturalization of the current order) as a necessary part of any revolutionary project. One can then view this as the aim of this proposal (where to propose in this sense is literally to raise to consciousness). So the point of the proposal—go off the standard—is to raise to consciousness the (1) possibility and (2) potential desirability of completely changing economic system. This counter-ideological work can be done even if the proposal is not taken up (in the primary sense of “proposal”).
This duality lives also in the adjectives applied to the proposal, “first (and preliminary)”. In the primary sense, we can take this proposal as first (and preliminary) in that it’s partial, it sketches the first steps of a program but doesn’t tell you what to do next. (What follows coming off the time standard?) But in this second sense it is not the object of proposal, what is proposed, but the action of proposing that is first, preliminary (this trades on another ambiguity in “proposal” between proposal in the sense of that which is proposed and proposal in the sense of an act of proposing, e.g. a marriage proposal). That is consciousness raising is the first step in a revolutionary project, we must come to see as possible, to see as desirable a better future before we can start to work towards that future.
This might begin to help us understand the sense in which this is an atypical leftist proposal. We might distinguish the form of an economy (who benefits and how, who has ownership or control) from its matter (what is being produced where). Most leftists proposals center around the former: what we want is worker ownership, worker benefits. Now, the latter is not ignored: concerns about sustainability, the health and safety of workers, desires for shorter hours, these are all things leftists care about that have to do with the matter of the economy. But usually we’re a bit less radical here, insofar as the goal is not to end industrial production.
Going off the time standard, though, does seem to be revolutionary largely in terms of matter rather than form. If the time standard is necessary for global, industrial production, then what can coming off the time standard mean but an end to global, industrial production? Might we even think of it as a turning-back-the-clock (to feudalism, perhaps, or even before)? Understood in this way it sounds almost primitivist.
Think about what I said about the woman getting up in the morning (I know, ages ago). There we were talking about disenchantment and the role the time standard (industrialization) perhaps had to play in that disenchantment. Is this then a reactionary, even primitivist proposal? We’ll have to really bear this in mind, but I don’t think this really fits with the rhetoric. Rather, I will suggest, that this is an even more preliminary proposal than all that, looking not towards a return to history (reaction) or even a future communist state, but looks beyond history: the abolishment of the time standard as an abolishment of time. This is a weird reading, but it’s a weird proposal.
One benefit of this odd, transcendent reading is that it goes some distance towards the question of difficulty of this poem. Why is this poem as inaccessible as it is? (Nowhere near Prynne’s late works but still up there among modernist poetry.) Particularly when it seems to have didactic content. That is, if this proposal is more than merely aesthetic, i.e. if it is in part intended as a sincere proposal (either as a real proposal or a bit of consciousness raising), then it would seem to make sense to make this proposal as clearly as possible. (Of course, it’s always possible that one might drape a fairly commonplace political message in dense, highly aesthetic garb, more concerned with the aesthetics of politics than politics through aesthetics. This practice has a long history. Still, though, it’s a bit peculiar.) If, however, what is proposed is not straightforwardly political, in the sense of being directly actionable, then this tension disappears. Indeed, there may be some reason to encode it in this way, to reach outside the current or, at least, the ordinary.
This proposal (come off the time standard) or maybe rather the act of proposal have nothing to do with some zeal. We’ll get in a little bit what the zeal would be towards in a second, but first let’s talk about it in the abstract. By zeal we mean a passion, usually an excessive passion, religiously or (especially relevant) a politically directed passion. You can have a zeal for your faith or some program. Here we’re declaiming such passion, or, at least, claiming that there is no connection between the passion and the proposal.
Of course, this is some sort of revolutionary, political proposal so this insistence is interesting. In politics, zealotry is usually applied to radical proposals: the person who wants to unmake or remake society is zealous, in the grips of a mad passion and unable to listen to “reason”. Of course, from a leftist perspective, i.e. in reality, this positioning is itself merely ideological: it is the “reasonable”, the “unzealous” centrists, who are most in the grip of a blinding passion. The reasonableness is merely an aesthetic: since the centrist can point to two “extremes”, since she is already politically ascendant, she can claim her proposals to be reasonable, realistic compromises, which amounts only to their similarity to which proposals in the past as opposed to the novelty (in a narrowly defined context) of the radical proposal.
To position, then, this proposal as unzealous is then to further engage in consciousness raising: it is to begin to undo the ideological construction of the actual as natural, as reasonable by positioning a desirable, distant possibility as instead, or at least additionally, dispassionate and thereby realistic. It also fits in with our understanding of the poem as laying outside the ordinary remits of political proposals (much more on which anon).
I admit, I’ve kind of been stuck on “traverse”. It’s sort of a weird noun, you usually expect it as a verb or related words as a noun (“traversal”). But, okay, “traverse” is what we have and we have to make do. For one it has many meanings (the OED has 40 senses for it). Most of the immediately obvious, current senses, have to do with traverse as some sort of movement or passage.
15a. An act of travelling or journeying right through, over, or across a country, region, type of terrain, etc.; a period of travelling through a place or along a route; a journey.
16a. An act of sailing short distances in different directions successively, typically when tacking in order to reach a point to windward; each of the short runs made by a boat or ship sailing in this way. Also: the irregular or zigzag course taken by a vessel sailing in this manner.
17a. A course by means of which an area or physical feature can be travelled or crossed; a route, a path; a pass.
\18. figurative and in figurative contexts. Anything presented as or likened to a journey or act of travelling; esp. a survey, review, or consideration of a subject, argument, body of work, etc.
19a. The action or fact of moving, esp. in a particular direction or course; movement; passage.
Some other senses that seem particularly relevant have to do with conflict and struggle.
\1. Something that thwarts, obstructs, or hinders; an obstacle; an impediment. Cf. sense 6. Obsolete. [As a side note, one of OED’s examples here is a biography of Oliver Cromwell.]
3a. A difference of opinion; a dispute; a controversy. Obsolete.
\4. A contest. Obsolete. and exa
16b. figurative. A change or alteration; a vicissitude; esp. a twist of fate or fortune. Frequently in plural with of. Obsolete.
What are we to do with these? Well, we might think that travel (particularly nautical) and conflict are the two primary activities of colonialism. You first cross the ocean, then you brutalize whomever you find there. But wait. Wasn’t I just going on and on about how the time standard was all about colonialism and capitalism and all that shebang?
If that is right, how can coming off the time standard not have anything to do with all that?
Well, of course, the time standard is in the first case a requirement of industrial production and only thereby connected to colonial capital, as an industrialized economic system. In particular, an industrial socialist/communist society would still be post-time standard, even if they were non-imperial, i.e. post-traverse. This then suggests that the poem is looking further, towards what Marx (in Critique of the Gotha Program) calls a higher form of communism, which is no longer tied to industrial labor. So coming off the time standard could be a proposal that looks further than the end of capitalism.
This is even more difficult. The “double twist” makes one think DNA, and that is certainly what is intended, though with some poetic license as DNA is not a protein, minor or otherwise.
We’ll deal more with how DNA is described. But what is it doing here? This is part of the general move of the poem which is to go beyond politics to something more fundamental (the mantle, which is outside of human perception). DNA is an essential part of all sufficiently complex life. But this proposal is claimed not to have anything to do with that.
It is hard not to see the proposal as neo-Platonic. Presuming the proposal is a proposal for us (humans), but it has nothing to do with our physical existence, then one might take it as directed towards us as nonphysical. For Plato, there is the physical world of becoming, which is essentially temporal and ever-changing, and then there is the nonphysical world of being, the eternal Forms. As embodied creatures, we are involved in this physical world, but as thinking creatures we are in a way part of the other world. Plato further thought that through the right study (philosophy) we could gain access to the forms. We might take the proposal, then, as one involving a kind of spiritual separation from the physical world. (Which is not apolitical; indeed the neo-Platonist Plotinus once sought to found a new city, Platonopolis, which might be a kind of fifth city.)
If we read it in this way, “minor” makes sense. In calling DNA a “minor” protein (in the sense of being of minor importance), we might initially take it in a cosmological sense: DNA is one compound that occurs on one planet out of an untold number of planets. But there is another sense in which it can be taken: DNA is a minor protein even from a human perspective, because our embodied life is only a small and lesser part of our entire existence. (We might also think of “minor” in the sense of minority, suggesting that life itself is still in a relative sort of infancy.)
The word “synchronous” of course is time related, though it is not being used in its primary sense of “Relating to or treating of different events or things belonging to the same time or period; involving or indicating contemporaneous or simultaneous occurrence.” (OED “synchronous, adj” 1b) Instead, I take it to concern the shape of DNA. “Recurring at the same successive instants of time; keeping time with; going on at the same rate as two sets of vibrations or the like.” (OED “synchronous, adj” 2a) DNA’s two strands move in opposing but synchronous vibration. Again, our embodiment is fundamentally defined by time: it is synchronous with itself but also with an external time standard.
Most of this has been talked about, so I will add some scattered thought. The proposal is reiterated. We have talked a bit about “numbers,” but this is an opportunity to re-suggest the literal reading. For Plato, the numbers are forms (indeed, neo-Platonists, branching off Platonic esoteric doctrines, take this even further: everything is derived from “the One” and “the Two”). So a city of numbers could be taken as a place only in a metaphorical sense: as a collection of forms.
In this connection it is worth raising two other meanings of “city,” other than the primary sense of city as municipality.
Finally, we might briefly mentioned the enjambed “to-gether”. Etymologically, this follows the from the Old English “tógædere” with “gædere” meaning something like gathering or companionship. The “we” then is a vague and expansive collective, but it is also being thought of as a political body, a group which is gathered and which can act as such. (The enjambment reinforces that to be gathered is itself a sort of activity).
Perhaps only in connection with the number five we might note the phrase “cities of the plain,”
The question of what the cities are will continue to occupy us. The final half of the poem transitions into a sort of travelogue, approaching each city in terms. This progression itself is linked to the proposal. We might then think of the piece as a whole as “a history of the time standard in four (or five) cities”. It is interesting that the possibility of their being five cities is raised, as in the poem we do not even reach the fourth city, the one in which we seem to come off the time standard. There’s this sense that we know so little as to what it would be to come off the time standard that we cannot even say if there would be anything beyond that.
One more thought about the cities: we usually understand them as a place of residence, something more-or-less permanent. Yet if we are or have been residents of these cities (that is actually not made clear), we are not permanent residents. The poem defines itself in opposition to the idea of residence (more on which anon). If the numbers are the human populace of the cities, it is not even clear that we number among them.
Obviously, the preliminariness of the proposal is importance, but the repitition of the proposal adds a contrasting sense of earnest enthusiasm. I will add that the italicized “is” is very KJV.
“sureties” is likely used in the sense of “Subjective certainty on the part of an individual; confidence, conviction. Cf. sureness n. 1a. Now somewhat archaic.” (OED, “surety,” 5a) We’ll try to decipher what kind of surety is intended in a moment. We are told that these are “sickening and greasy,” and the tentativeness of the proposal is meant to contrast with these certainties.
We should bring back the Troubles for a moment. One use of “greasy” is “Anointed or ‘smeared’ with ‘grease’ or chrism. (A contemptuous term applied to Roman Catholic priests in reference to unction.) Obsolete.” (OED, “greasy,” 2) Is this a subtle anti-Catholic sentiment? This might be troubling on the part of an English writer at the time, though I do not think it is that exactly. Or better, to the extent that the sentiment here is anti-Catholic it is not thereby in favor of English imperialism. Rather, I take the proposal to be defined in contrast with reactionary, religious “sureties.” Howsoever sympathetic with anti-colonial projects, given as ultimately we are aimed towards some utopia (the fourth city) we should likewise be against (conceptually, if not strategically) the traditional elements that might exist within those projects.
We might correspondingly link the “greasy” to the (hypothetical) woman to be (hypothetically) anointed: these sureties likewise represent a reactionary counter-utopia, to which we cannot return (and which may not have existed).
I did not, unfortunately, find a source for “back to our proper homes” or “look after the Golden Rose.” I do not know whether or where these phrases might have been used as slogans. We might think of “back to our proper homes” as expressing a general reactionary sentiment. The retort we can read the poem as implicitly making is that “our proper homes” do not exist. This world is, after all, transitional (involving becoming rather than being) and troubled. The only way through is out (off the time standard).
“[L]ook after the Golden Rose” is more particular. The Golden Rose is a crafted rose-shape golden object blessed on Rose Sunday in Lent and distributed by the Pope (historically to European leaders, but also to churches and shrines). “The beautiful Golden Rose symbolizes the Risen Christ of glorious majesty.” (Wikipedia, “The Golden Rose”) It is this that suggested the (Irish-)Catholic reading to the “sureties,” though I should admit that nowhere in Ireland had a Golden Rose until after the publication date of the poem.
If anyone has a shout on these, I would appreciate this.
Hopefully I can get back and finish this soon.
“Homing instinct” is a phrase typically used in connection with animals (esp. homing pigeons), referring to their instinct to return home. Prynne then links this basic, generally non- (or perhaps sub-)human tendency to the political project of “returning to our proper homes.” The addition of “a great deal else,” suggests that this instinct goes even beyond this political movement. Indeed, we might think that some sort of homing instinct is common and natural: think of one’s nostalgic yearning for a childhood home. This yearning is quickly made reactionary.
When is “then?” As clear by context and further evidenced by “might,” it is presumably after the time standard has been disestablished. Not only is the poem’s proposal contrasted with this homing instinct, but the taking up of the proposal will result in the cracking up of the homing instinct. How though? Well, we might think that this homing instinct is essentially defined by time: it is an instinct to return somwhere we have previously been. We go from home to work and then, instinctively, we come back. But without this movement defined by the time standard, indeed outside of time, there would be no home.