Decolonize Time by Christopher J. Lee

About the Book

What is “time”? We tend to define time in scientific and mathematical ways, whether through the celestial measurements of Newtonian physics or more recent theories of relativity and space-time as pioneered by Albert Einstein. This book undertakes a different approach. It argues that “time” as we commonly experience it is a colonial formation. The time zones we travel across and the lines of longitude and latitude that we navigate by were first established through Western imperialism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Beyond this global structure of time, the rhythms of daily life we experience today, whether through office work schedules or the respective commodification of time through hourly wages and annual salaries, also have their origins in colonial practices. Not least, how we understand the legacies of time through historical narratives, literature, film, and public monuments has also been deeply shaped colonial pasts.

This book examines these colonial dimensions to time as we know it through a series of short essays that look at the hidden and visible ways we encounter colonialism through time. One chapter, for example, looks at the history of modern timekeeping as tied to concerns over regulating imperial trade and enabling the rise of global capitalism. A second chapter looks at how Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison have resisted histories of enslavement and defied public amnesia toward such pasts through the idiom of fiction in their novels Kindred (1979) and Beloved (1987). A third utilizes the ideas of “the weird” and “the eerie” addressed by Mark Fisher to rethink colonial monuments in our postcolonial present. And a fourth grapples with the colonial biases that underpin the recent concept of the Anthropocene. Figures like Fanon and Marx, Barbara Ehrenreich and David Graeber, Yinka Shonibare and William Kentridge also make appearances, as do films like The Shining (1980), The Witch (2015), and Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Through these and other examples, Decolonize Time! highlights how the colonial past still inhabits in our present through pop culture and daily routine. Indeed, this book evinces how we live in a world defined by “time inequality” where working classes have less time for leisure and other meaningful life activities than the wealthy. Time has become a scarce resource—a situation that started under global imperialism and continues under global capitalism, both of which have sought to extract our time as well as our resources. The only option is to instrumentalize an awareness of this fact, and decolonize time!

  • Christopher J. Lee

    Christopher J. Lee is an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He has published five books including Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives (2010, 2nd edition 2019), Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa (2014), Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism (2015), A Soviet Journey: A Critical Annotated Edition (2017), and Jet Lag (2017). He has two books forthcoming in 2021: an edited volume of previously uncollected essays and stories by the South African novelist and activist Alex La Guma (1925-85) entitled Culture and Liberation: Exile Writings, 1966-1985 (London and Calcutta: Seagull Books) and Kwame Anthony Appiah, a critical introduction to the philosopher for the Routledge Critical Thinkers Series. His teaching and research interests concern modern African history, African literature, decolonization, postcolonial Cold War studies, and radical political thought.