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Zero-city: modern work and modernist time

Esther Leslie

Modernists were keen on the zero - it was an appropriate cipher for a cultural practice that claimed to want to begin again, to start from scratch. Malevich’s black square, one of several that he made, and termed by him the zero of form - was first shown at an exhibition called zero-ten in St. Petersburg in 1915. The black square was a full stop on a naturalism-hungry painterly process that the avant-gardists decreed had begun a long time before with primitive man’s attempt to produce a self-image. An end had been put to all this by a future-oriented practice, which hoped to interrupt time itself, the continual flow of ever-same representations. Malevich declared: ‘I have transformed myself in the zero of form and dragged myself out of the rubbish-filled pool of Academic art.’ Zero was the cipher above all others. Zero could wipe out history and memory. The counter could be reset to zero. A letter to the painter and composer Matyushin, written in May 1915, mentions a project:

In view of the fact that we are preparing to reduce everything to nothing, we have decided to call the journal Zero. Later on we too will go beyond zero.

By 1923 Malevich appeared not yet to have moved beyond zero, for his manifesto ‘The Suprematist Mirror’ declared that everything - God, the Soul, the Spirit, Life, Art, Labour, Movement, Space, Time etc. - is infinite and so equal to nothing. Zero is still everything and nothing at once. However, zero’s own currency was on the move. That same year, 1923, zero - the super-sign - had taken on a life of its own - in Germany, in the Great Inflation. Proliferating zeros take on obliterating significance.

The runaway inflation began in the war, because the German government launched a borrowing programme, hopeful of swift military victory and favourable repayment conditions. Victory did not come, and defeat came slowly. The government printed more and more notes. Prices doubled in the war years. This quick-fix solution of mass reproducing notes continued after the war. In 1922 a great inflation kicked in. The inflation reached its peak by the late summer of 1923. One-dollar cost 31 700 marks on 1st May. On 1st July it cost 160 400 and on the 1st August it was 1 103 000. From then every few hours prices doubled. Workers rushed out to spend all their money before it bought only half as much again. Million mark notes - some designed by bauhaus modernists, such as Herbert Bayer - were used more usefully as wallpaper. This episode in German history coincided - not coincidentally - with Walter Benjamin’s turn to Marxism. The book that Benjamin wrote as his turn was taking place was One Way Street. One of its key sections was a piece he had begun during the inflation, called ‘A Tour of German Inflation’. The tract was a cry against the way in which money had taken over, and had become the only theme - a situation that was far worse probably than anything that the money-critic Georg Simmel, who died just before the war’s end, might have imagined possible. In his 1903 essay ‘Metropolis and Mental Life’ Simmel had posited a link between the money economy and domination by clock time. Money and clock time are both numerical measures - these common denominators produce a social organization on the basis of an abstract, impersonal standard. So Simmel puts it bluntly: the modern mind is a calculating one. Benjamin extends this in 1920s Germany, where money inflates and time is rationalised

All close relationships are lit up by an almost intolerable, piercing clarity in which they are scarcely able to survive. For on the one hand, money stands ruinously at the centre of every vital interest, but on the other, this is the very barrier before which almost all relationships halt; so, more and more, in the natural as in the moral sphere, unreflecting trust, calm, and health are disappearing.

People are joined together by paper chains of zeros. Shame marks the bearing of those who have money, and they hand out tokens to beggars in order to both mask their guilt and conceal the sight of inequality. Benjamin writes:

It is impossible to remain in a large German city, where hunger forces the most wretched to live on the bank notes (Scheinen) with which passers-by seek to cover an exposure that wounds them.

Hyper-inflation exacerbates the centrality of money, and as numbers of zeros multiply, life itself seems to become more and more insignificant. All significance drains into the null. Benjamin’s ‘Tax Advice’ notes the following connection between money and lived life:

Beyond doubt: a secret connection exists between the measure of goods and the measure of life, which is to say, between money and time. [The more trivial the content of a lifetime, the more fragmented, multifarious, and disparate are its moments, while the grand period characterizes a superior existence.] Very aptly, Lichtenberg suggests that time whiled away should be seen as made smaller, rather than shorter, and he also observes: ‘a few dozen million minutes make up a life of forty-five years, and something more.’ When a currency is in use a few million units of which are insignificant, life will have to be counted in seconds rather than years, if it is to appear a respectable sum. And it will be frittered away like a bundle of banknotes.

Monetary inflation, then, is connected by Benjamin to the time of experience. Temporality is a crucial dimension of social relations. Its investigation is a critical feature of modernist social theory. In 1928 Hans Richter tried to make political capital of the madness of the inflation years. He made Inflation, an introduction to a UFA feature film, The Lady with Mask. The opening title describes the film as ‘a counterpoint of declining people and growing zeros’. It is a montage of inflation scenes cut across by dollar signs and multitudes of zeros whose multiplication signals the shrinking value of the deutschmark. Commodities flash up, a house, a car, a sewing machine, an ornate clock, shoes, alcohol, a book, a cigarette, burning up as smoke and ash. More and more money buys less and less, as prices depreciate by the hour and $1.00 equals up to billions of marks. Exchange is a dizzying substitution. People stare out, their heads arranged into zero shapes, revealing the nothings that they have become. The people act beneath the superimposed zeros of the superinflated banknotes, constricted by the unbroken link of money. Dollars are the new hieroglyphs, their equivalence value unfixed. Inflation is, at the same time, its opposite, depreciation. These zeros link into history again, for they seem to be signs of the devaluation of human life in the mass mobilizations that had been and were to come, ciphers of thousands of men deployed in war, and the millions who would die. Life reduced to zero - not as a negation of a negation as in Malevich’s zero-formation, but as annulment of human value. Exchange value takes on a life of its own, a life of multiplying zeroes. It becomes effectively a measure of time. And nothing else but a time marker.

Runaway inflation and its crisis of establishing value accentuates - for all, particularly the slightly better off - a principle inherent in capitalism: the discrepancy between use value and exchange value and it throws into relief the question of time. Marx’s discussion of the difference between production time and labour time inaugurated modernist reflection on modern time, whereby time is understood as a variable. Specific types of production (wine-making and agriculture) require longer production time for natural processes to function; therefore, the production time is longer than labour time. Likewise, natural conditions such as fertility of the land and weather affect production time and the quantity and quality of commodities. These processes are relevant in a capitalist economy, as in a feudal one, and yet it seems to commentators as if labour time or the time of capital is the only time. This is an ideological effect. The unity of social production and nature is mystified in capitalism by the domination of exchange value over use value. For example, nature’s contribution to the production of use value is screened out, and labour time becomes the measure of value under capitalism, and so nature - a free gift for capital - becomes a mere object of labour. Nature’s time and capital’s time exist in contradiction. Capital’s time is one of numerical calculation.

Modernist time is the effort to break with calculated, quantifiable capitalist time - in order to return neither to natural time (production time) nor to labour time as measure, but to produce something else - a time that is full, fulfilled, malleable, subjective. Malevich’s zero had been one effort towards that refusal, in resetting the counter. As he wrote in March 1918: " install the new rhythm of time" and "we form our own time, with our time and forms". Malevich’s aesthetic insistence on resetting the counter had become a social insistence in the new Soviet Union, where the question was pertinent: could capital’s domination over time - through wage-labour - be escaped.

It is significant that when Walter Benjamin visits Moscow at the end of 1926 in order to investigate the qualities of the new Soviet everyday, time and tempo are things that expressly concern him. Benjamin recorded everyday scenes of life in a diary. All is in flux still nine years after the revolution, from property laws to the placing of bus stops. New ceremonies for christening and marriage are presented in the clubs and at research institutes. Those who live there are unconditionally ready for mobilization, decampment, transformation – the days are full with meetings, committees, the venues makeshift. Russia and the Russian avantgardists participated enthusiastically in the reinvention of daily life and the remodelling of cityscapes. Various utopias were devised, to match and better the one that had supposedly been instated. Dreamers and planners imagined and implemented spatial reorganization and altered social relations. The Russians had a word for engagement in the world with the intent to change it - byt - a word that meant more than just everyday life but the engagements of material life, everyday life as something to be constructed, manipulated, transformed, something conflictual and changeable. The revolution had brought the concept of the everyday into sharp focus, for the slate was as blank black as a Malevich canvas and everything had to be rebuilt - language, industry, social relations, familial relations, education. And the word byt was used by avantgardists too as a critique of culture and its contents - as Boris Arvatov wrote in Art and Production, from 1927, new Soviet productivism means ‘the melting of artistic forms into the everyday’. Rodchenko, for example, with his sloping camera angles and multi-perspectivism, wanted only that the everyday be seen again, the familiar defamiliarized, in order that it might be consciously known. As he said in 1928: ‘I am expanding our conception of the ordinary everyday object.’ Byt, the Russian word for that strange quality called the everyday, is moulded, provisionalized - all this can be seen, in Moscow in the late 1920s. Benjamin writes:

Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table. And as if it were a metal from which an unknown substance is by every means to be extracted, it must endure experimentation to the point of exhaustion. No organism, no organization, can escape this process. Employees in their factories, offices in buildings, pieces of furniture in the apartments are rearranged, transferred and shoved about.

Moscow has choc-a-bloc streets, with goods bursting everywhere from houses, hanging on fences, on pavements, in little sleighs, sheltered from the snow by colourful woolen blankets. Berlin in contrast is a ‘freshly swept, empty racecourse on which a field of six-day cyclists hastens comfortlessly on.’ Berlin appears as a town of abstract, homogenous and inhuman time. Benjamin defrosts in the icy, slippery Moscow streets where street life reinvigorates his senses and makes his motor functions such as walking or ordinary tasks like riding a bus something to be relearnt, unclouded by habit. And rejecting Kantian schemas, Benjamin searches for meaning crumpled in the contingencies and constellations of experience. Moscow is an excellent hunting ground for that. Such a Kantian fundamental as time is remoulded there too for its unit of measurement is seichas, which means ‘at once’: you hear it a hundred times a day, until the promise is eventually carried out. The life that had been frittered away second by second in the inflation becomes its opposite, a time so fulfilled that boredom is abolished in favour of a catastrophic type of time experience - time catastrophes, time collisions are the order of the day, he notes.

This makes each hour superabundant, each day exhausting, each life a moment.

Vertov’s Man with a Movie-Camera was a formalistic experiment in representing this city-space and the everyday life of flux. Its form was documentary and yet it turned the cityscape into a graphic field of shapes and lines in whirl. In 1929 Siegfried Kracauer wrote of Vertov’s cinematic practice in Man with a Movie Camera:

He glides through the town at dawn, eavesdropping on people’s sleep and the fragmentary existence that is silently moving. The town wakes up, stretches itself. Teeth are brushed, shutters go up. Trams and buses announce the day. It is movement, one huge powerful movement, melting together all the hitherto fragmented elements and forcing them into the rhythm of the whole.

Vertov’s film was a rejoinder to Walter Ruttmann’s city film of Berlin -Berlin, Symphony of a City. It was yet another statement in an ongoing German-Soviet dialogue about the representation of contemporary urban life. According to Kracauer, Ruttmann’s film could only set image next to image, without a strong sense of the connections. For Kracauer, Vertov, as totalist, as Marxist, had invented better ways of representing and interpreting than Ruttmann. From the first years of the revolution, coinciding with the beginning of the Weimar Republic and intermittent soviet republics in Germany, the German avant garde had kept an eye on Russian ambitions to restructure and revolutionise daily life. The German avant garde began to deploy with enthusiasm in their art and art criticism the concepts of Alltag or Alltagsleben, a concept developing alongside knowledge of the Russian idea of byt. But an earlier inspiration was found too in the exploration of daily life as symptomatic in Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life - Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens - from 1901. Benjamin wrote of it: ‘This book isolated and made analyzable things which had heretofore floated along unnoticed in the broad stream of perception’. That unnoticed stream of perception was an everyday made habitual, in a time that flows without interruption. To make the everyday analyzable demanded interruption of that flow, a formalist jolt into visibility. Cameras, recording equipment, the mimetic technologies - that were not only mimetic but also constructive - were a special site for this study that was more than a study and more of a quest - to reanimate reality. This reanimation comes in a short piece by Walter Ruttmann to revolve precisely around the questions of work, time and the everyday. This short piece suggest that by the time the zero returns to a post-war, post-inflation Germany, it has become less than a nought, a counter-resetting, and more a social signifier and site of class struggle.

Painter turned animator turned film-maker Ruttmann made a film in 1930, called WEEKEND. It was an eleven minute and 30 second film without images, ‘a blind film’ as Ruttmann called it, and was in actual fact made to be broadcast on radio. It was recorded onto film ribbon for there was no such thing as audio tape at this time. WEEKEND was a documentary montage of street sounds, an acoustics of ‘jazzy’ end-of-day work noises, the journey home and away, words, sirens, cash registers, and birdsong. Six scenes were recorded over three days - the scenes were either documentary recordings in factories, underground stations, railway stations and so on, or were derived from work with amateurs. The production of the piece is consistent with its subject matter - Ruttmann travelled the city just as did the subjects he represented. He gathered documentary material by riding across Berlin with a mobile recording machine. The piece moves from the end of the working day - what Germans call Feierabend - to Monday morning. The first scene is called Jazz of Work, and the sounds come from typewriters, telephone bells, cash machines, hammers, saws, bosses giving dictation, all syncopated, strongly contrapunctual, and designed to express the oppressive, overbearing nature of machinic work. This scene gives way to ‘Feierabend’. The clock strikes and work is over. Other clocks strike and factory sirens blare out, bringing - through montage form - the conception of time into line with the tempo of labour. Now everything closes, desk lids, shutters, cupboards, key bundles tinkle. Freizeit, free time begins. There is a journey into the countryside, into the open air or ‘freie’ , the free - as the Germans call it. This journey is not one that escapes the mechanisation of the everyday so apparent in work and city life. It is mechanised too - undertaken by car, train, bus and also managed according to external dictation, as railway guards shout ‘climb aboard’ and ‘hurry along’. Pastoral is the next scene - bells are the dominant motif - church bells, cow bells, while in the distance cars pass by, a marching band approaches, children sing. Then work begins again after this short interlude - the church bells are interrupted by factory sirens, calling the workforce to labour. Alarms and telephones ring out and the motifs of the first two scenes Feierabend and Jazz of Work play again.

Ruttmann’s imageless film raised the time of work and the free time (which cannot be translated by leisure), ‘necessity’ and ‘freedom’ as social issues. It was a film committed to direct imprinting of the real world, but it was no mimetic construction. Its orchestration of sounds was part of a conscious, constructivist montage practice. The intensive labour of the piece is not gathering materials but montaging them together rhythmically – attempting to discover the true rhythm of modernity.. Sometimes the connections are of a logical nature – a telephone call is put to the operator: Dönhoff 204 – this segues into a child counting – 4 times 4 is … – and then this gives way to a department store lift announcement – 4th floor ornaments – or again another logical set of connections – a woman implores – please permit me – an outraged man shrieks who gives you permission …. And then a dictation takes place – and we permit ourselves to…. All levels of the social totality are connected.

In the montaging together of the city booty and constructed scenes an interrogation of modern time takes place, which is also a commentary on the available social structuring of time. Incidentally, Ruttmann insisted that acoustic montage demanded greater levels of precision than visual montage. It is a question of time itself. Ruttmann said that faster than visual montage, acoustic montage ‘depended on 1/5th of a second.’ WEEKEND is an attempt to generate a rhythmic pattern of modernity. Tempo increases as work approaches, but the rhythms of free time are not utterly distinct from the rhythms of work - both are subjected to mechanisation and external determination. Of course, this is not just about time, for Ruttmann was keen to express also spatial arrangement through this medium, using closeness and distance of sounds in order to generate three-dimensionality. Film itself is spatial - this one 250 metres long - but it runs through time, or transforms into time. In any case, the film is stuffed with sounds, over one hundred of them - spatialized sounds, sounds that clash and interrelate. It relays a time made full again, exposing banal reality as potentially rhythmic, and it was understood to be the most modern thing. The time it re-presents is mechanized, and not organic, but this proves to b the resource of new rhythms and new experiences. Its modernity, of course, resided in its technological form, which was apt. A technological machine records the noises of other technological machines and represents a reality suffused with technology. But it uses the capacities of the technological recording machine in order to intervene into reality, in order to re-construct reality and engage it in a dialogue that intimates freedom and potential. The battleground is time. The questions include to what extent do machines - work machines, transportation machines - set a tempo for we humans, and how does this differ or mirror the time of free time and the ritual, of the church, of the country walk.

There is work time and there is free time. Other German intellectuals - notably Kracauer - came to realise, at this moment, that one comes to be conceived increasingly in the image of the other. In Kracauer, for example, Taylorization and Fordism occurs also in the cultural sphere. And, for Ruttmann, even if the dash to the countryside for a little pleasure, can escape the determinations of mechanical work time, that moment of leisure is defined by its opposite which exists always as a limit. The title of Ruttmann’s ‘blind film’ may be important in this respect. The English word ‘weekend’ was perhaps to be heard as weak end, prefiguring the final word on the soundtrack:Null, zero. This zero signals the weekend’s end and the beginning - once again - of the working week. The weekend is the interval between work. It is time between. The soundtrack’s concluding zero negates the freedom of the weekend, that is not really a freedom, but a controlled space of recuperation over once business insists it must end.

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