Beh/Exp Readings W8

McLuhan, Marshall. “Clocks: The scent of time.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964) (1964): 145-161.


  1. Smell, a sense that many now-forget used to be considered the root of memory, is a sense that is iconic, subtle, and delicate.  Electric mechanization of tools shaped society into valuing the visual over the audile-tacile-aromatic.
  2. The event of electricity and mechanization is at odds with the standardization of time and space. The world exists in multiplicities, rather than regularities, and our language and our society arguably lacks a guiding philosophy to account for it.
  3. “The clock and the alphabet, by hacking the universe into visual segments, ended the music of interrelation.” Visual media (and that of greater technologies as well) has caused a reliance on regularity and equanimity between man that does not equate to man’s perception of his experiences. “This is the difference between marching soldiers and ballet.”


  • “Such a sense of impatience, of time as duration, is unknown among non literate cultures. Just as work began with the division of labor, duration begins with the division of time, and especially with those subdivisions by which mechanical clocks impose uniform succession on the time sense.”
  • “As a piece of technology, the clock is a machine that produces uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern. Processed in this uniform way, time is separated from the rhythms of human experience. The mechanical clock, in short, helps to create the image of a numerically quantified and mechanically powered universe.”
  • “The sense of smell, long considered the root of memory and the unifying basis of individuality, has come to the fore again in the experiments of Wilder Penfield. During brain surgery, electric probing of brain tissue revived many memories of the patients. These evocations were dominated and unified by unique scents and odors that structured these past experiences. The sense of smell is not only the most subtle and delicate of the human senses; it is, also, the most iconic in that it involves the entire human sensorium more fully than any other sense. It is not surprising, therefore, that highly literate societies take steps to reduce or eliminate odors from the environment.”
  • Mumford does not recognize “mechanization as the translation of society from audile-tactile modes into visual values. Our new electric technology is organic and nonmechanical in tendency because it extends, not our eyes, but our central nervous systems as a planetary vesture. In the space-time world of electric technology, the older mechanical time begins to feel unacceptable, if only because it is uniform.”
  • “Our language derived from phonetic technology cannot cope with this new view of knowledge. We still talk of electric current ‘flowing,’ or we speak of the “discharge” of electric energy like the lineal firing of guns. But quite as much as with the esthetic magic of painterly power, ‘electricity is the condition we observe when there are certain spatial relations between things.’ “

“During the Middle Ages the communal clock extended by the bell permitted high coordination of the energies of small communities. In the Renaissance the clock combined with the uniform respectability of the new typography to extend the power of social organization almost to a national scale. By the nineteenth century it had provided a technology of cohesion that was inseparable from industry and transport, enabling an entire metropolis to act almost as an automaton. Now in the electric age of decentralized power and information we begin to chafe under the uniformity of clock-time. In this age of space-time we seek multiplicity, rather than repeatability, of rhythms. This is the difference between marching soldiers and ballet.”

  • “It is a necessary approach in understanding media and technology to realize that when the spell of the gimmick or an extension of our bodies is new, there comes narcosis or numbing to the newly amplified area. The complaints about clocks did not begin until the electric age had made their mechanical sort of time starkly incongruous.”
  • “Historians agree on the basic role of the clock in monastic life for the synchronization of human tasks. The acceptance of such fragmenting of life into minutes and hours was unthinkable, save in highly literate communities. Readiness to submit the human organism to the alien mode of mechanical time was as dependent upon literacy in the first Christian centuries as it is today. For the clock to dominate, there has to be the prior acceptance of the visual stress that is inseparable from phonetic literacy. Literacy is itself an abstract asceticism that prepares the way for endless patterns of privation in the human community. With universal literacy, time can take on the character of an enclosed or pictorial space that can be divided and subdivided.”
  • “It was not the clock, but literacy reinforced by the clock, that created abstract time and led men to eat, not when they were hungry, but when it was ‘time to eat.'”
  • “Clocks are mechanical media that transform tasks and create new work and wealth by accelerating the pace of human association.”
  • “Long before the industrial revolution of the later eighteenth century, people complained that society had become a ‘prose machine’ that whisked them through life at a dizzy pace.”

“The clock and the alphabet, by hacking the universe into visual segments, ended the music of interrelation. The visual desacralizes the universe and produces the ‘nonreligious man of modern societies.'”

  • “Primitive man lived in a much more tyrannical cosmic machine than

    Western literate man has ever invented. The world of the ear is more embracing and inclusive than that of the eye can ever be. The ear is hypersensitive. The eye is cool and detached. The ear turns man over to universal panic while the eye, extended by literacy and mechanical time, leaves some gaps and some islands free from the unremitting acoustic pressure and reverberation.”

Mumford, Lewis. “The Monastery and the Clock.” Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934) (1934): 12-18.


  1. The regulation of time, and expressions of that regulation, has its origins in the monasteries of the West in the seventh century. The effect was both that of keeping time, as well as the synchrony of man’s actions.
  2. The clock’s technologies overcame maleffects of weather and translated movement in space (hands on a facade) into movements of time. For Mumford, this permitted the clock–rather than the steam-engine–to beceom the “key-machine” of the Industrial Age. Time was now expressed as a resource of the economy.
  3. Time took on the characteristics of space: it can be manipulated, divied, expanded. Time was now abstracted from organic or experiential time, and it dictated human activity and behavior.


  • “The monastery was the seat of a regular life, and and instrument for striking the hours at intervals or for reminding the bell-ringer that it was time to strike the bells, was an almost inevitable product of this life. If the mechanical clock did not appear until the cities of the thirteenth century demanded an orderly routine, the habit of order itself and earnest regulation of time-sequences had become almost second nature in the monastery.”

“[…] for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.”

  • “[…] by the thirteenth century there are definite records of mechanical clocks […] and the new clocks, if they did not have, till the fourteenth century, a dial and a hand that translated the movement of time into a movement through space, at all events struck the hours. The clouds that could paralyze the sundial, the freezing that could stop the water clock on a winter night, were no longer obstacles to time keeping […]”

“The instrument presently spread outside the monastery; and the regular striking of bells brought a new regularity into the life of the workman and the merchant. The bells of the clock tower almost defined urban existence. Time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing.”

  • “The clock, moreover, is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science.”
  • “In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer spans of days, time is measures not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it.”

“To become ‘as regualr as clock-work’ was a bourgeois ideal, and to own a watch was for long a definite symbol of success. The increasing tempo of civilization led to a demand for greater power: and in turn power quickened the tempo.”

  • “To keep time was once a peculiar attribute of music [.] But the effect of the mechanical clock is more pervasive and strict: it presides over the day from the hour of rising to the house of rest.”

“When one things of the thinks of the day as an abstract span of time, […] one invents wicks, chimneys, lamps, gaslights, electric lamps so as to use all the hours belonging to a day. When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence. Time took on the character of an enclosed space: it could be divided, it could be filled up, it could even be expanded by the invention of labor-saving instruments.”

  • “Abstract time became the new medium for existence. Organic function themselves were regulated by it[.]  A generalized time-consciousness accompanied the wider use of clock.”
  • “The modern industrial régime could do without coal and iron and steam easier than it could do without the clock.”

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