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Space and Time Through an Urban-Industrial Hinterland

Atreyee Majumder ( is Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Jackman Humanities Institute, University of Toronto.

Ethnographic accounts have provided vivid accounts of the colonial encounter, and encounters with industrial capitalism. This article argues that space be seen as an encounter of time(s). It concurs with Doreen Massey’s thesis of space as a combination of trajectories and a place as a socio-historical event. A major force that shapes the contours and trajectories of space is capital. This is a preliminary attempt to process theoretically the entanglements of time and space, based on ethnographic research in Howrah. Structures of globally dispersed systems of capital shape a particular slice of landscape on the west bank of a river a little north of the Bay of Bengal.

This article has emerged out of conversations with, and the support of K Sivaramakrishnan, Vinay Gidwani, Erik Harms, Anand Pandian, Abhayraj Naik, Vishnupad, Daniel Schultz, Erin Soros, Jacob Neremberg, and many others. The author’s ethnographic research in Howrah was generously supported by the Yale South Asian Studies Council and American Institute of Indian Studies. All errors remain the responsibility of the author.

A half-pedalling bicycle comes along. With it, a toothy grin. What’s all the stuff in your bag? It looks really heavy. Why, you wanna carry it? I would, but then my cycle … A minute-long dream-run when time is slowed down to an almost-stop. The daily trickle of men, material, and transport rues in the September heat the precariousness of half-pedal love. Blue pyjamas and white kurta, braids and beads of sweat. Blockbuster songs of not-so-known movies blare on the loudspeaker. It is the hangover day after Vishvakarma Puja. Slow movement of cycling desire stretches time out, across a September afternoon. A bit like the slow murky river that had only ever known the route into the ocean.

The river-story begins a century-and-a-half ago. On the landscape that is now a tired, jealous shore looking onto the speed, energy, and expectation of Calcutta from the west bank of the Hooghly. This shore attracted vessel and managing agent, engineer, sailor, and labour to its riparian surroundings. These lands offered shores and riverfronts for those looking to dock ships and repair them, and inland water transport for goods to be freighted towards bigger ships waiting at the Hooghly Sandhead, further down into the Bay. These were lands for the quick conversion of crop to agro-product to feed an anxious and hungry war machine. A pontoon bridge turned into a metallic one. The Grand Trunk Road shows a shrunken, nauseous escape out of this wire mesh. Oilseed turns into oil, flax into jute, ore into metal. A wave of time swept on this shore once, and a nation state was born. With it, a struggling regional state. And, some of its political luminosity was lent to this landscape. Furnaces burnt—layered in soot—for they had only ever known to burn. Ideology and opportunity washed against the riverbed time and time again to give birth to an angry land. This landscape has sought to access wide scales of time and pass through proximity, passing strangers from faraway places. The landscape struggles today from the trauma of these broken connections, as it repeatedly reconstructs the memory of such wide historical connections.

A typical site of industrial defeat, uncoordinated urban effort and related sadness, Howrah is gripped at its crossroads in historical cross-connection. Young boys move around in the neighbourhood of Kadamtala with iron rods and magnets, collecting the scrap iron lining the sides of the narrow alley. A world that is trying to disentangle itself from a historical wire mesh gets more and more bound, even as a now-time is watched floating beyond the river. A wide space—globe/nation/region—and a long time are embraced and distanced across the river. A colonial collision is remembered on this landscape of decadent manufacture, with proud sadness. Deep historical relationships emerge from such encounters. Many such encounters have left their residue on this landscape.

In this article, I argue for space to be seen as an encounter of time(s). Ethnographic accounts have famously provided vivid accounts of the colonial encounter, and by association encounters with forces of industrial capitalism. Often, a canvas of imminent material loot and plunder, or takeover for control through the productive lens of capitalism, makes these encounters legible. I find it instructive to think through this century-long tryst with the material wherewithal of industrial capital, with Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980). Taussig offers a complex and poignant account of the imposition of devil-belief and other ritual categories on the processes of mining, as colonial economic initiatives start making inroads into the lives of a Bolivian indigeneous community. Here, peasants turned into mine workers and plantation labourers attuned to the logic and processes of capitalist accumulation. Taussig (1989: 139) refutes Karl Polanyi’s thesis of a switch to “market mentality” at the onset of market-induced economic practices, arguing that peasant communities participate in processes of capital accumulation without necessarily co-opting the cognitive categories with which such processes are executed in the metropole.

In this case, miners resorted to a concept of devil-worship, to impute ritual meaning and interpret the generation of surplus value, the nature of wage labour and their entrenchment in the mine economy. Here, devil-belief and related ritual meaning was woven into the recently installed wherewithal of colonially driven industrialism. Mass production required peasant communities to switch to modes of wage labour, not practised hitherto in the area, as well as a shift in world view to be able to look at the natural resource base from the point of view of colonial capitalism. They do this, not as a clean encounter between coloniser and colonised, but by transposing ritual categories onto the new structures of colonial capitalism, and reconfiguring the meanings of things in relation to each other.

The interaction of two sign-systems and world views through the colonial encounter has found treatment in many ethnographies, for instance, in Marshall Sahlins’ famous account of the arrival of Captain Cook. In the classic text, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981), Sahlins shows that a historical event emerges out of a battle of sign-systems, as “the structure of conjuncture.” He describes the event of Captain Cook being imbued with divinity of the god Lono so as to internalise his entry into Hawaii as an event in Hawaiian order. The Hawaiian manner of humanisation of the European was through the inclusion of the coloniser in their own ritual order. What is for the coloniser a straightforward account of territorial domination and the beginning of economic control, gets recorded in the Hawaiian register of history as an “event” of the re-emergence of Lono. The Hawaiian societal order, with all its concatenations of power, realigns itself along this new entrant. The chiefs offer gifts to the coloniser to confirm their high status.

Sahlins’ ethnography of the “structure of conjuncture” provides crucial evidence for an argument that encounters between competing temporal registers, such as the ones brought about by colonialism are not always accounts of a conflict; histories often record and remember conflict and subordination in other idioms. The colonist, in the register of the Hawaiian, was an extension of their own order of sovereignty. Captain Cook gets woven into the Hawaiian ritual order. In the debates about the subjects of late capitalism and neo-liberalism (Roy and Ong 2011), I argue that the subjects of industrial capitalism that retain the grammars of earlier (and now failing) capitalisms deploy them in conversation with current economic forces of neo-liberalism.

The Surprise of Space

The spread of capitalism has been a deeply geographical affair, David Harvey (2001) explains, in an elaboration of the Marxian notion of spatial fix. Capital’s ordering of spatial arrangement and a certain set of built environments forms a basis of fixed capital. It remains economically relevant, potent, until the logic of capital turns to a new technological or financial form. As fixed capital, it adopts permanence in terms of physical layout. As the route of capital alters, changing technological, financial and productive foci, the physical environment comes to face the challenge of new demands of capital’s altered foci.

Fixed capital in the built environment is both immobile and long-lived. It expresses the power of dead labour over living by committing the latter to certain patterns of use for an extended time within the particularity of spatial location. From this derives the central tension which we have already noted which forces capital to create a landscape, only to have to overcome the barriers which this landscape contains at a later point in time. (Harvey 2001: 83)

Henri Lefebvre (1991) gives us a different vocabulary of space. Space is conceived, produced and invoked, as much as it exists as a fact. Contingent, particular spatial practice shapes space. Abstract space is generated by a logic of governance that deems these homogeneous, like a kilometre of road. Absolute spaces, Lefebvre argues, were introduced by religion and politics, to separate space as an experiential and contingent entity:

Later, absolute space—the space of religion—introduced the highly pertinent distinctions between speech and writing, between the prescribed and the forbidden, between accessible and reserved space, and between full and empty. (1991: 163)

It is the wrenching of space from realms of perception and conception to political categories which pin space to the “real”—as measures of political containment (nation, region, etc), dispensers of resource and opportunities of accumulation—that is drawn out by Harvey into the narrative of the unfolding of capital. Lefebvre writes:

Neither Marx and Engels nor Hegel clearly perceived the violence at the core of the accumulation process (though Marx did consider pirates and corsairs, the 16th century traffic in gold, etc), and thus its role in the production of a politico-economic space. This space was of course the birthplace and cradle of the modern state. It was here, in the space of accumulation, that the state’s “totalitarian vocation” took shape, its tendency to deem political life and existence superior to other so-called “social” and “cultural” forms of practice, while at the same time concentrating all such political existence in itself and on this basis proclaiming the principle of sovereignty—the principle, that is to say, of its own sovereignty. (1991: 278)

In thinking Lefebvre and Harvey together, I find that categories of abstract workings of capital—scale, movement, accumulation—are seen through intimate modalities of experience: speed, flux, movement, perspective, and orientation. Structures of globally dispersed systems of capital shape a particular slice of landscape on the west bank of a river a little north of the Bay of Bengal.

The ‘Challenge of Space’

Doreen Massey addresses the “challenge of space” somewhat differently. Massey’s argument runs against the grain of perspectives that conceptualise space as horizontalised, coagulated times: spaces as closed, versus time as dynamic and open. Moving away from a “surface” approach to space—on which things happen—she argues for seeing spaces as combinations of trajectories, as open entanglements, rather than closed testimonies of temporal flows. She calls this dynamic property the “chance of space,” “the surprise of space” (Massey 2005: 116). Spaces, and not only seemingly complex ones, contain multiple possibilities and, hence, are necessarily heterotopic. Place is an event (Massey 2005: 140).1 It comes into being through the interaction of historical forces, and is, essentially, temporally shaped. Hence, boundaries that we know to be regions or nations or states come to define only a signpost of the multiple possibilities of time-encounters that might shape what we come to know to be space.

I align with Massey’s thesis of space as a combination of trajectories and a place as a socio-historical event. Keeping alive the significance of the dynamic “surprise” of space, I argue that the possibilities of such interconnected trajectories, the contours of such surprise are configured by historical forces. A major force that shapes the contours, trajectories and surprise of space, as Harvey shows us, is capital.

Massey’s aim is to argue space out of the project of “containing temporality” and “flattening the life out of time.” She writes:

Space conquers time by being set up as the representation of history/life/the real world. On this reading, space is an order imposed upon the inherent life of the real. [Spatial] order obliterates [temporal] dislocation. Spatial immobility quietens temporal becoming. It is, though, the most dismal of pyrrhic victories. For in the very moment of its conquering triumph, “space” is reduced to stasis. The very life, and certainly the politics, are taken out of it. (2005: 30)

An older work must be considered in this conversation; one that looks at the “blind spot” of space, significantly from the perspective of practice: Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984).2 In de Certeau’s register, “A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs. The spectator can read in it a universe that is constantly exploding. In it are inscribed the architectural figures formerly drawn in miniatures and mystical textures” (1984: 91). And,

space thus becomes the blind spot in a scientific and political technology. This is the way in which the Concept-city functions; a place of transformations and appropriations, the object of various kinds of interference but also a subject that is constantly enriched by new attributes, it is simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity. (1984: 96)

Fields of tactics, strategies, systems, and operations, lay out spaces, which de Certeau argues, are “practiced places” (1984: 127). The unpredictability, creativity and contingency with which the navigating body—the everyman—brings about space, is of interest to de Certeau, in his exposition on “practice.” I use this formulation to show ethnographically such “paroxysms” of place, as they come to shape space, spatiality and spatial being in particular responses to historical configuration. I wish further to deflect the discussion from the state–non-state divide and emphasise the possibilities of looking at urban space through flux, movement, rhythm, scale that remain embedded within the material complex of space, but crucially, are animated by the moving body that is “everyman.”

The Marxian perspectives of Harvey and Lefebvre offer predominantly historical readings of how a landscape came to be the way it is, especially via the machinations of production and its many actors. I wish to draw attention (via de Certeau and Massey) to the repertoire of tactics, strategies, and movements which brings about the place-ness of a space, that must also necessarily be inflected by the historical twists and turns that have washed over it; the layers of which it continues to carry as landscape or built environment. The ebbs and flows accounted for by industrial capital’s crisis-overhaul patterns washed across Howrah, to create spatial sensibilities (grammars of how to read space, what to think about space, how to perceive one’s own occupation of and movement through space) that bear close relations with such histories of twists and turns.

I make the case that historically received sensibilities of flux, scale, rhythm, movement, which emanate from long-term exposure to the logic of manufacture play out in the realms of rhetoric, text, and public gesture. Being influenced by Walter Benjamin’s city writings3 and Vyjayanthi Rao’s (2009) formulation of “city as archive,” I argue for a visual–temporal reading of landscape.

A landscape and society that lives between industrial and post-industrial conditions, Howrah confounds the category of the post-industrial. An urban horizon emerges here, having less to do with material markers of the urban, but more in response to long-term intimacy with manufacture, striking in comparison with Calcutta, the colonial capital, across the river, which represents a more complete urbanity. The administrative allocation of landscape in terms of town, country and city, stands aside from my argument about the urban condition of these regions being held together by the common contemplation of an urban horizon.

The character of Howrah as peri-urban, industrial geography, I argue, is deciphered crucially through the actualisation of such command between, and among bodies in varying gradations of motion and stillness. Such command responds to history in recognising and marshalling its embeddedness in a spatial form.


Space is always already congealed time. I speak of temporal components that liven space and make legible the entangled trajectories that it harbours: elements of flux, rhythm, movement, and so on. In such an investigation of temporality, I see my work distancing itself from the anthropological argument around time as we know it (Fabian 1983), that cultures have internal times, and it falls upon an ethnographer to pay attention to time-structures internal to a culture. These are time-makings, time-reckonings that give rise to many intertwined, dependent, contingent, organic times. Their perception and acts making them legible shapes the everyday, especially in the shaping and habitation of space. They do not derive from cultural repertoires, but are historically derived from participation in the logics of industrial capital. In making such an argument, I draw from Henri Lefebvre’s argument of production of social time as rhythm—in Rhythmanalysis (2004)—entreating the theorist or social scientist to be a rhythmanalyst, in paying attention to the temporal morphologies that shape social life.

For there to be rhythm, there must be repetition in a movement, but not just any repetition. The monotonous return of the same, self-identical, noise no more forms a rhythm than does some moving object on its trajectory, for example a falling stone … For there to be rhythm, strong times and weak times, which return in accordance with a rule of law—long and short times, recurring in a recognisable way, stops, silences, blanks, resumptions and intervals in accordance with regularity, must appear in a movement. Rhythm therefore brings with it a differentiated time, a qualified duration. The same can be said of repetitions, ruptures and resumptions. Therefore a measure, but an internal measure, which distinguishes itself strongly through without separating itself from an external measure, with time t (the time of a clock or metronome) consisting in only a quantitative and homogeneous parameter. (Lefebvre 2004: 77)

It is in gleaning the intertwined nature of internal and external temporal markers—rhythms—that I argue for space to be seen as a historical morphology of capital. These temporal elements are historically received from the multiple waves of capital that washed across the west bank’s industrial spread. They congeal as membranes on the physical environment. Sensations of time emerged in Howrah, based significantly, on considerations of the river as a crucial divider in time zones of different origins. The river—a carrier of flow, of historical forces that deposited on both shores—is indexed as a marker of temporal rhythm. Calcutta, on the east bank, is the zone of relevant temporal connections whereby one can access the speed and rhythm of the contemporaneous wider world. The west bank marks an obsolete, slower temporal register. Time-reckonings on each side mark a different now-time, albeit in response to a different relationship with history.

It is important to disaggregate why I use time (especially as time-making, time-reckoning) in a sense that is distinct from, and not as a series-indicator of history. History, emerging out of the coagulative, additive logic of time, renders narrative accounts of moments sutured together as available, decipherable, politically charged capsules of knowledge and discourse. The hierarchies of geopolitical orders that generate such historical registers imbue histories with prominence and obscurity, making legible the domains of Histories 1 and 2, of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s (2000) description. Some time-registers (History 2) come to be seen as existing within the logics of, and as subsets of, primary time-registers (History 1). This political time-reckoning, though, stands apart from the organic making of time. The change of lights at every crossroad between green and red, or brewing of coffee to the measurement of the length of a song, deserves a somewhat different treatment.

Temporal elements of movement, flux, and rhythm come to shape the everyday in terms of location, orientation and perspective. I draw from Martin Heidegger’s text, Being and Time, in making this argument. Heidegger roots the concept of Dasein—being there—in a notion of worldhood, perceived through orientation, perspective and sensation of embeddedness. He writes:

That world of everyday Dasein which is closest to it, is the environment. From this existential character of average Being-in-the-world, our investigation will take its course [Gang] towards the idea of worldhood in general. We shall seek the worldhood of the environment (environmentality) by going through an ontological Interpretation of those entities within-the-environment which we encounter as closest to us. The expression “environment” [Umwelt] contains in the “environ” [“um”] a suggestion of spatiality. Yet the “around” [“Umherum”] which is constitutive for the environment does not have a primarily “spatial” meaning. Instead, the spatial character which incontestably belongs to any environment, can be clarified only in terms of the structure of worldhood. (Heidegger 1962: 94)

Time is at the very root of Dasein, central to the assessment of orientation, perspective, and distance. He writes:

Significance belongs to the structure of the “now.” We have accordingly called the time with which we concern ourselves “world-time.” In the ordinary interpretations of time as a sequence of “nows,” both datability and significance are missing. These two structures are not permitted to “come to the fore” when time is characterised as a pure succession. The ordinary interpretation of time covers them up. … The “nows” get shorn of these relations, as it were; and, as thus shorn, they simply range themselves along after one another so as to make up the succession. (Heidegger 1962: 474)

It is in the everyday act of reckoning in speech, movement, gesture, and affect that shapes space as congealed time. In my view, in readings of de Certeau and Massey, one finds the idea that space is always already time. This is not to say that space does not hold as a distinct category on its own, but to simply show that the layers and complexities of physical environment are temporal membranes. I take it that Heidegger’s invitation is to ignore the datability of the now—as an additive series of before and after moments—but to pay attention to the experience of the now as it embeds into the physical environment, making spaces separate renditions of temporal structures. For instance, the subway in New York at 12 pm on Monday is a certain space. The same seat in the same subway train on Tuesday at 9 am is a different space. Thus, I invite scholars of space, environment and time in India to walk with the invitations of de Certeau, Massey, Lefebvre and Heidegger in looking at space as an endless kaleidoscope containing shards of time arranged and rearranged in an endless sequence.


1 On a discussion of theoretical debates around “place,” see Cresswell (2004).

2 In a consideration of how a vast corpus of knowledges and theories play out in the field of “everyday life,” this work considers the figure of the “everyman” who performs tactics, strategies and operations in actualising enterprises of language and other received skill-sets. Such an “everyman” occupies the philosophical topos of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge that perpetually tries to get at his properties accurately. In manipulating force-relations, applying learnt skills, and projecting an embedded vision at the world, the “everyman” and his navigating propensities produce space through frontiers, bridges, tactics, trajectories, and movements.

3 See, especially, Buck-Morss and Benjamin (1989) for an analysis of Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project.


Buck-Morss, Susan and Walter Benjamin (1989): The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000): Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cresswell, Tim (2004): Place: A Short Introduction, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

de Certeau, Michel (1984): The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fabian, Johannes (1983): Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, New York: Columbia University Press.

Harvey, David (1982): The Limits to Capital, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

— (1989): The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

— (2001): Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography, New York: Routledge.

Heidegger, Martin (1962): Being and Time, New York: Harper & Row.

Lefebvre, Henri (1991): The Production of Space, 1974, Oxford: Blackwell.

— (2004): Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life, London: Continuum.

Massey, Doreen B (2005): For Space, London: Sage.

Rao, Vyjayanthi (2009): “Embracing Urbanism: The City as Archive,” New Literary History, Vol 40, No 2, pp 371–83.

Roy, Ananya and Aihwa Ong (2011): Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sahlins, Marshall (1981): Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Island Kingdoms, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Taussig, Michael (1980): Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Updated On : 21st Nov, 2017


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