Bolivia Is Right: There's a Colonial History of "Clockwise"

"Every clock takes a position in a debate about time; every clock is an attempt to shape how people think about time.”

Jun 27 2014, 4:35pm
Image: Rakuten

It's rare to hear someone say that a government “wishes to change the universal laws of time." And yet that's just what the Bolivian government has been accused of.

Opposition lawmaker Norma Pierola made the allegation after the government announced that it was reversing the clock atop the Congress building in La Paz. While it would still accurately measure time, the clock's hands turn now counterclockwise.

As a result, the clock has a bit of an Alice in Wonderland look, but the government's reasoning isn't very whimsical, and it reflects how an ideology can be written onto a timepiece. According to the AP:

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca announced the modification Tuesday. He said it was only logical that a clock in the Southern Hemisphere should turn in the opposite direction of a Northern Hemisphere clock.

The president of Congress, Marcelo Elio, on Wednesday called the reform "a clear expression of the de-colonization of the people" under President Evo Morales, who became the country's first indigenous president when he won office in 2005 and is up for re-election in October.

The story goes on to say that, during an open-air Cabinet meeting, Choquehuanca put a stick in the ground, to demonstrate how the shadow sweeps counterclockwise—which is to say, the opposite direction of the Northern Hemisphere sundials that conventional clocks are modeled on.

This reveals not only that the Bolivian Cabinet gets to meet outside (jealous!), but also how the time pieces we use to mark the present are carrying vestiges of the past, including colonialism.

“Colonialism, post-colonialism, and anti-colonialism are interwoven with time politics are many, many ways,” Dr. Kevin Birth told me in an email.


Kevin Birth: Clocks, Politics, and Changing Times from The Frick Collection on Vimeo.

A professor at Queens College, CUNY, and author of Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality, Birth gave a lecture at the Frick Collection last year highlighting the often subtle political statements you can find in historic clocks. He began the lecture by saying that “every clock takes a position in a debate about time; every clock is an attempt to shape how people think about time.”

While reversing the clock does away with the secretly Eurocentric notion of clockwise, which came from the direction that shadows move in the Northern Hemisphere, even the reversed clock of La Paz carries evidence of conquerors.

“Clock time is a product of a very complicated sedimentation of actions of different empires,” Birth said. “The 24-hour system is Egyptian, the division of hours and minutes by 60 is Babylonian and possibly brought to Europe as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great.”

Measuring the day in two, 12-hour cycles, as the La Paz clock still does, was just one system that beat out others. Astronomical clocks, like the famous one in Prague, ran on “Bohemian” or “Italian” time—they counted out 24 hours, starting at dusk. There were also counterclockwise clocks in Europe—the Münster Cathedral has one, as well as the Jewish quarter in Prague.

Image: esther/Flickr

“The 12/12 system won out because of empire—specifically the French and British empires which were dominant in the late 17th century through the 18th century—a period during which clock/watch technology and mass production of these devices greatly improved,” Birth said.

So even as the counterclockwise clock is a blow to Northern Hemisphere-centrism, totally expunging European colonialism would be much tougher.

“There is nothing natural about the 12/12 system—it is entirely cultural (and one could say Western Imperial),” Birth said. The La Paz clock, then, “retains the system of measuring and counting time distributed throughout the world by colonialism.”

Even mimicking the motion of a sundial and having the hands sweep “counterclockwise” is reflective of a certain kind of geocentrism. Having the hands mimic the motion of the Sun—whichever direction that may be—is a vestige of when the Earth was thought to be the center of the solar system. “A truly Copernican analog clock would have the dial rotate relative to the hands,” Birth said.

Bolivia is hardly the only place where time is a point of contention. Whatever device you're reading this article on is a front in the war between International Atomic Time—an average of several atomic clocks—and Coordinated Universal Time—related to solar motion. The issue seems small—just a few leap seconds here or there—but it points to a flaw in Pierola's objections to the reversed clock in La Paz: There are no "universal" laws of time. It's all up for debate, and it has been for a long time.