Railway Clocks: Temporal Bases of Transnational Law
Jessie Hohmann and Daniel Joyce, eds. International Law's Objects (OUP 2017)
10 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2017
Date Written: January 01, 2016
I propose to explore aspects of time and transnational law by observing the object of the railway clock. What does the railway clock reveal? Typically not the contest that was waged throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century for control of time. Time, as it is told by devices such as railroad clocks, has been standardized. By standardized time, I mean what is also referred to as uniform, universal time, namely common measurement based on seconds, minutes and hours — abstract units organized globally in time zones coordinated to the Greenwich meridian. Railways took a lead in developing and propagating standardized time to their own advantage under law. Railway clocks were instrumental to their program. Time-keeping devices today speak of precision, not a contest for temporal dominance. The time they tell is at once abstract and everywhere felt, an artifact of rationality that has been singularly naturalized and universalized. But the relationship that I will explore here is not just about law creating standardized time. Transnational law and standardized time have enabled one another. Their relationship is co-constitutive: law was mobilized to create standardized time in the 19th century; standardized time has made possible the growth of a particular law globally. As first conveyed by the railroad clock, and affirmed by international law, standardized time is a measurement working constantly and ubiquitously to make networks possible, a universal technology. Those networks are largely transactional in nature — moving for instance commerce or capital, according to contracts — and those contractual transactions have entailed coordinated development and proliferation of a hegemonic legal discourse capable of supporting their validity in series across numerous jurisdictions. Those jurisdictions include national and international legal regimes, encompassing a variety of public and private actors and acts — adding administrative and regulatory law to proliferating rules of capital, commerce, contract and tort — in a way that today is increasingly referred to under the banner of transnational law.
Keywords: transnational law, standardized time, technology, ideology, capitalism
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