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The Temporalities of Capitalism (Sewell, 2008)

Bus-Stop-by-Max-Ginsburg

by William H. Sewell, Jr

Socio-Economic Review, Volume 6, Issue 3, July 2008, Pages 517- 537 (PDF)

See also: Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation 2005

The temporalities of capitalism are in certain respects unique. The temporalities of social life in general are ‘eventful’, i.e. irreversible, contingent, uneven, discontinuous and transformational. Although capitalist social processes are in certain respects super-eventful, the extreme abstraction that is a signature of capitalist development enables core processes of capitalism to escape from the irreversibility of time and to sustain a recurrent logic at their core. This means that the temporality of capitalism is composite and contradictory, simultaneously still and hyper-eventful. Recognizing this contradiction at the core of capitalism poses important conceptual and methodological challenges for those who study it.

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Spectacular Time

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§154

OUR EPOCH, WHICH PRESENTS its time to itself as essentially made up of many frequently recurring festivities, is actually an epoch without festival. Those moments when, under the reign of cyclical time, the community would participate in a luxurious expenditure of life, are strictly unavailable to a society where neither community nor luxury exists. Mass pseudo-festivals, with their travesty of dialogue and their parody of the gift, may incite people to excessive spending, but they produce only a disillusion — which is invariably in turn offset by further false promises. The self-approbation of the time of modern survival can only be reinforced, in the spectacle, by reduction in its use value. The reality of time has been replaced by its publicity.