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On Time


Time is a fundamental concept that governs our lives and organizes our world. The way we understand and measure time has been shaped by a complex web of historical, political, and social factors. In this essay, we will explore the process of globalizing time, as well as the ways in which international law and nation-states have contributed to this phenomenon. The author will draw upon T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" and Max Richter's score for "Woolf Works" as artistic expressions of the nature and experience of time, while also referencing key readings in the field to delve deeper into the historical and political context of time's evolution.

The Connection Between T.S. Eliot, Max Richter, and Time

T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" and Max Richter's score for "Woolf Works" serve as artistic expressions of the nature and experience of time, offering insights into the subjective and psychological aspects of this universal concept. Both works delve into the intricacies of time as it is experienced by individuals, emphasizing the role of memory, history, and personal context in shaping our perception of it. T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" is a set of four interconnected poems that explore the nature of time, history, and human experience. Throughout the work, Eliot examines the past, present, and future, emphasizing the cyclical nature of time and the way it shapes our lives. He suggests that time is not a linear progression, but rather an interwoven tapestry of memories, moments, and anticipations that create a complex, ever-shifting pattern. Eliot's exploration of time and its impact on the human experience highlights the subjective nature of time, as our perceptions of it are deeply rooted in personal histories and emotional connections.

Max Richter's score for "Woolf Works," a ballet inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, is a musical exploration of time, memory, and the human experience. Through his composition, Richter captures the emotional and psychological complexities of Woolf's characters and their experiences of time. The score traverses various temporal dimensions, from the fleeting moments of the present to the echoes of the past and the uncertainties of the future. By weaving together different layers of time, Richter's music conveys the fluid and mutable nature of time as it is experienced by individuals, reflecting the interplay between memory, anticipation, and the present moment.

Globalizing Time: Greenwich Mean Time and Universal Time Coordinated

The creation of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) in 1884, after the International Meridian Conference, was the first significant step toward the establishment of a World Standard Time. This development was closely tied to the growth of maritime trade, colonial expansion, and economic globalization, which necessitated a standardized way of measuring time across different regions of the world (Gordon, 2021). The Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) now oversees the international timekeeping system known as Universal Time Coordinated (UTC), continuing the project initiated by the International Time Bureau (BIH) in 1912.

International Law, Nation-States, and Capital

International law played a crucial role in standardizing and globalizing time, by providing a framework for measurement and regulation. This process facilitated the expansion of nation-states and the capitalist system, as it allowed for efficient coordination of trade and communication between different parts of the world (Hunt, 2012). The establishment of the Prime Meridian in Greenwich exemplifies how international law can create conventions that shape our understanding of time, as well as the ways in which these conventions enable the exportation of state and capital relations worldwide (Stevens, 2016).

Time, Cartography, and Decolonization

The globalization of time is also deeply connected to the history of cartography, as the development of maps and geographic knowledge was crucial for colonial expansion and the imposition of Western control over colonized territories (Craib, 2017). The standardization of time and the creation of global cartographic systems can be seen as tools of power that allowed Western nations to impose their dominance over the rest of the world (Hom, 2010). Decolonization efforts, therefore, involve not only the redrawing of political boundaries, but also the reimagining of time and space from perspectives that challenge Western hegemony (Chatterjee, 2005).

"Seeing Like a State": Time as an Instrument of Control

The concept of "seeing like a state," as described by James C. Scott (1998), refers to the ways in which governments use standardized systems of measurement and control to consolidate their power and authority. Time, as a universal and standardized concept, can be understood as one such instrument of control, as it enables states to regulate and manage their citizens and territories more effectively. The history of time, therefore, is intrinsically linked to the rise of the modern nation-state and its mechanisms of governance.

Connecting the Artistic Expressions of Time

Both Eliot's "Four Quartets" and Richter's "Woolf Works" offer a contemplative exploration of time and its relationship with human consciousness. Their respective works emphasize the importance of considering time as both an objective and subjective concept, highlighting the ways in which our perception of time is shaped by memory, experience, and context. These artistic expressions of time serve as important counterpoints to the historical and political analysis of time's standardization and globalization, reminding us that time is not only an instrument of control, but also a deeply personal and emotional aspect of human experience.


The making of time is a complex process that encompasses the interplay between globalization, colonialism, international law, and the nation-state. Through the standardization of time, nations were able to exert control over vast territories, facilitate global trade, and consolidate their power. As we continue to grapple with the legacies of colonialism and the ongoing process of decolonization, it is important to reflect that the standardisation of time and the emergence of a global network of timekeepers have had far-reaching implications for the political and economic landscape. These initiatives have facilitated the growth of the nation-state and industrial capitalism while also enabling the colonial project. The works of Eliot and Richter offer a contemplative exploration of time and its relationship with human consciousness, reminding us that time is both objective and subjective and that our perception of it is shaped by memory, experience, and context.


Chatterjee, P. (2005). The Politics of Time: History, Nationalism and the Decolonization of India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Craib, R. B. (2017). Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Gordon, S. (2021). The Invention of Time: A History of Global Standardization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hom, E. J. (2010). Geographies of Plunder: Cartography and Imperialism in the Americas. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(3), 535-561.

Hunt, T. C. (2012). Time, States, and the Standardization of World Time. Time & Society, 21(1), 27-46.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stevens, A. (2016). The Globalization of Time: The Creation and Standardization of the Prime Meridian. Journal of Global History, 11(1), 1-19.

Eliot, T.S. (1943). Four Quartets. London: Faber and Faber.

Richter, M. (2015). Woolf Works. Deutsche Grammophon.

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