'The light of Enlightenment: The symbolism of the modern and the exorcism of night.', by Robert Kurz

"turned the night into day"

On the tyrannisation of time, in the mean time, between Time. A translation (1) of a text in German by a working class professional philosopher.

Submitted by westartfromhere on February 18, 2024

Still today, more than two hundred years later, we are blinded by the adornment of bourgeois Enlightenment. The history of modernisation revels in the metaphors of light. The radiant sun of reason would penetrate the darkness of superstition and make the disorder of the world visible, to finally shape society according to rational criteria. The darkness appears not as the other side of truth, but as the negative realm of the devil. The Renaissance humanists were already polemicizing against their enemies whom they described as "dark powers". "More light!" Goethe is said to have shouted on his death bed in 1832. As a classicist, he owed a stylish demise.

The Romantics opposed this cold light of reason and turned to a synthetic one way back to religion. In the place of an abstract rationality, they propagated a no less abstract irrationality. Thus, instead of revelling in metaphors of light, they revelled in metaphors of darkness. Novalis wrote his "Hymn to Night." But this mere inversion of Enlightenment symbolism actually ignored the problem. The Romantics could not overcome the suspicious one-sidedness of the Enlightenment; they merely occupied the other pole of modernisation and thus really became the "dark powers" of a reactionary clerical way of thinking.

But the symbolism of modernisation can also be criticised in exactly the opposite way: as the paradoxical unreasonableness of capitalist reason itself. For the enlightened metaphors of light curiously smack of a burnt mysticism. The depiction of an unearthly radiant source of light, as suggested by the idea of modern reason, recalls the descriptions of angelic kingdoms illuminated by the splendour of God. And also from the religious systems of the Far East we know the term "illumination". Although the light of the Enlightenment discourse is worldly, it has nevertheless taken on a rare transcendental character. Indeed, the celestial radiance of an eminently incomprehensible god has become secularised into the monstrous banality of the capitalist end-in-itself, whose cabalistic of earthly matter consists in the senseless accumulation of economic value. This is not reason, but higher madness; and what shines there is the brightness of absurdity, which hurts and blinds the eyes blind.

The irrational reasoning of the Enlightenment wants to make light total. However, this light is by no means just a symbol in the realm of thought, but has a hard socio-economic meaning. Precisely in this respect, it is fatal that Marxism and the historical labour movement have understood themselves as the true heirs of the Enlightenment and its social metaphorics of light. In the "Internationale", the hymn of Marxism, it says of the miraculous socialist future: "Dann scheint die Sonne ohn' Unterlaß." [translates as, "Then the sun shines without interruption."] (2) A German caricaturist took this line literally, showing sweating people in the "realm of freedom", staring up under a glowing sun gazing upwards and exclaiming, "Three years she has been shining now and will not go down".

This is not just a joke. In a way, modernisation has indeed "turned the night into day". In England, which as we know was the pacesetter of industrialisation, gas lighting was introduced early in the nineteenth century before quickly spreading across all over Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century, electric light replaced gas lamps. It has long been medically proven that the reversal of day and night by the ubiquitous cold light of the artificial suns disrupts Man's biological rhythms and leads to psychological and physical damage. Why then this massive planetary illumination, which today dispelled the last dark corner?

Karl Marx, himself an heir to the Enlightenment, quite rightly observed that the restless activity of the capitalist mode of production is "measureless". This measurelessness, however, can in principle tolerate no time that remains "dark". For the time of the dark is also the time of rest, of passivity, of contemplation. Capitalism, on the other hand, demands the swell of its activity to its extreme physical and biological limits. As far as time is concerned, these limits are determined by the earth's rotation around itself, that is, by the full 24 hours of the astronomical day, which has a bright (facing the sun) and a dark (facing away from the sun) side. Capitalism tends to make the active solar side total and occupy the entire astronomical day. The night side disrupts this urge. The production circulation and distribution of merchandise must run "round the clock" because "time is money". To the notion of "abstract labour" in modern commodity production therefore includes not only its absolute extension, but also its astronomical abstractification. This process is analogous to the change of space measure. The metric system was introduced by the regime of the French Revolution in 1795 and spread as quickly as gas lighting. In Germany, the transition to this system took place in 1872. The spacial measures associated with the human body (feet, yard [determined by the length of a staff, hence from the human body], and so on), which were as diverse as human cultures, were replaced by the abstract astronomical measure of the metre which corresponds to the forty millionth part of the earth's circumference. This abstract unification of the space measure corresponded to the mechanical worldview of Newtonian physics, which in turn became the model for the mechanistic economics of the modern market economy, as pointed out, analysed and propagated by Adam Smith (1723- 1790), founder of national economics. The image of the universe and nature as one big machine coincided with the world economic machine of capital, and astronomical standards became a common form of the physical and economic world machine. However, this applies not only to space, but also for time. The astronomical metre, the measure of abstract space, corresponds to the astronomical hour [based on the time the Earth revolves on its axis], the measure of abstract time; and these are also the measures of the capitalist world production.

Only with this abstract time did it become possible to bring the day of "abstract labour" into the night in piloting and pushing away the time of rest. Abstract time could be detached from concrete things and relationships. Most ancient timekeepers, for example the sand or water clocks, did not show "what time it is", but were calibrated to concrete tasks, to show their "measured time". One could perhaps compare them to an egg timer, which with a buzzing tone indicating when an egg is hard- or soft-boiled. The quantity of time is not abstract here, but oriented towards a certain quality. The astronomical time of the "abstract labour", on the other hand, is detached from any quality. The distinction also becomes clear when, for example, we read in medieval charters that the working time of the servants on large estates lasted "from sunrise to noon". This means that the working time then was not only absolutely shorter than today, but also relative, as it varied according to the seasons and was shorter in winter than in summers. The abstract astronomical time, on the other hand, allowed the start of labour to be fixed "at six o'clock" independent of the season and of bodily rhythms.

This is why the age of capitalism is also the age of "alarm clocks", the bells, which shake people from their sleep with a shrill tone, to drive them to the artificially lit "workplaces". And once the start of work could be brought forward into the night, so could the labour end be shifted further into the night. (3) This change also had an aesthetic side. Just as the environment is in a sense "dematerialised" by abstract coporeal rationale. If old buildings sometimes seem more beautiful and comfortable to us than modern buildings, and if we then find that at the same time they seem somehow irregular in comparison to today's "functionalist" buildings, this is because their dimensions are adapted to the body and their shapes are often adapted to the landscape. In contrast, modern architecture uses astronomical space dimensions and "decontextualised" forms, "detached" from the environment. However, this is equally true of time. The modern architecture of time is also deproportionalised and decontextualised. Not only has space become hateful, but also time.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both the absolute and relative extension of working time through the introduction of the abstract astronomical hour were still perceived as torture. For a long time, people desperately resisted the night work associated with industrialisation. Working before sunrise and after sunset was considered downright immoral. In the Middle Ages, when craftsmen had to work at night to meet deadlines, they had to be fed lavishly and rewarded royally. Night work was a rare exception. And it is among the "great" achievements of capitalism that it succeeded in making torture by time the norm of [in]human activity.

The reduction of absolute working time since early capitalism has not changed this. On the contrary, so-called "shift work" has increasingly developed in the twentieth century. With a two- or even three-shift system, machines now have to run continuously, interrupted only by short breaks for adjustment, maintenance and cleaning. The opening hours of shops and department stores must also be pushed as close to the 24-hour limit as possible. In Germany this year, we had a dispute over the legal closing time, which was set at 6:30pm and since 1st November 1996 extended to 8pm. In many countries, such as the United States, there is no legally required closing time at all, and numerous shops display the sign: "open 24 hours a day". Since microelectronic communication technology has globalised the flow of money, the financial day of one half of the world also seamlessly merges into that of the other. "The financial markets never sleep," says the advertisement of a Japanese bank.

The light of Enlightenment reasoning is the illumination of the night shift. To the same extent that the competition becomes total, the external, social imperative also turns into an innercompulsion of the individual. Sleep becomes as much an enemy as night, for as long as one sleeps one misses opportunities and becomes helplessly at the mercy of others' attacks. The sleep of the market-economy man thus becomes shorter and superficial like that of a wild animal, and all the more so the more she/he wants to be "successful". The externally determined labour torment of the mechanical night shift appears at the level of management as a "voluntary" renunciation of sleep. There are even management seminars where techniques of sleep minimisation can be practised. In all seriousness, schools of self-management claim today, "The true businessman never sleeps", just like the financial markets!

The subjection of humans to "abstract time" and its astronomical measure of time, however, is not possible without an equally total control. An all-sided control, in turn, requires an all-sided observation, and observation is needed only in the light: roughly in the same way that the police, during an interrogation point a blinding lamp at the delinquent's face. Not for nothing does the word "illumination" in German have a military connotation, namely "scouting the enemy". And a society in which everyone becomes the enemy of others and of themselves, while all must serve the same secularised god of capital, becomes with logical necessity a system of total observation and self-observation.

In a mechanical universe, man too must be a machine and be machined. The light of the Enlightenment prepared him for this and made him "transparent". The French philosopher Michel Foucault shows in his book "Surveiller et Punir" (1975) how this total "visibility" became an historical trap. Until the early nineteenth century, capitalism still applied total observation through a "policy of the Inspection House", as the liberal "utilitarian philosopher" Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) designed in a sophisticated system of organisation, of punishment and even of architecture for prisons, factories, offices, hospitals, schools and educational institutions.

The market-economy public sphere is not one of free communication, but one of observation and control. This recalls George Orwell's negative utopia "1984". Whereas in totalitarian dictatorships this control was [is] still external, carried out by a bureaucratic state and police apparatus, in democracy it has become internalised self-control, completed by the commercial media, in which the spotlights of concentration camps have been transformed into the lights of a monstrous carnival. Here people are not freely discussing, but mercilessly highlighted. In commercial democracy, this system has become so refined that individuals obey the capitalist imperatives of their own accord and habitually follow the etched path like programmed robots.

Marxism, contrary to its own social claim, became a protagonist of "abstract labour", falling into the mechanistic thinking of the Enlightenment and its perfidious symbolism of light. Everything despotic about Marxism stemmed from the liberalism of the Enlightenment. Conversely, the romantics, who wanted to highlight the dark side of the truth, did not associate themselves with social emancipation, but with political reaction. Only when night, sleep and dream are freed from this reactionary captivity can they become the parols of an emancipatory social critique. Resistance to the total market perhaps begins where people recklessly take the right to get good sleep.

Translator's footnotes:
1. This is a translation into English of the Dutch translation (by Jean Klak) of the German. Translator's additions, aside from this footnote, in square brackets.
2. In the Dutch-language version of De Internationale, strongly and not unreservedly abridged by Henriete Roland Holst, this line does not appear.
3. Coffee plays an integral part in this dematerialisation of time. Coffee is first used by monks, or shepherds, by separate accounts, as a means of lengthening their period of work into the night. It artificially stimulates the human body to work and "play", at the cost of rest.
J. K.