Cfp: Material Histories of Time: Objects and Practices, 14th-18th centuries


Material Histories of Time: Objects and Practices, 14th-18th centuries

La Chaux-de-Fonds, Musée international d’horlogerie, November 30 – December 1, 2017

The historiography of timekeeping is traditionally characterized by a dichotomy between research that investigates the evolution of technical devices on the one hand, and research that is concerned with the examination of the cultures and uses of time on the other hand. The former engages with the improvement of clocks and watches’ mechanical movements, the biography of prominent clockmakers, the study of technical knowledge and the organization of production. The latter examines the various forms of temporal organization and coordination, and the ways they became internalized. One of the main consequences of this dichotomy has been the scarcity of studies that take into account the influence of sociocultural factors on the layout of the technical devices in question. Contributions that conversely investigate cultures and practices of timekeeping through the analysis of objects are equally rare. Besides, the study of pocket watches and clocks consumption initially emerged from questions surrounding the concept of luxury goods while the gestures, practices and social interactions inherent to the use of these material devices have mostly been neglected.

The symposium will aim at contributing to a dialogue between these two approaches by taking table clocks, portable watches, marine chronometers, carriage clocks, tact watches, alarm clocks, bells and hands, etc. as the starting point of a joint reflection that will get specialists of the history of horology together with scholars studying the social and cultural history of time.

A history of time grounded in the study of objects has the potential of opening up new avenues to understanding the processes of innovation and temporal coordination through the encounters between material devices, individuals, knowledge and institutions. Thus, the project will not be concerned with reviewing each step taken towards social modernization by the diffusion of mechanical timekeeping but rather with pondering the diversity of temporalities. Objects allow for a tangible grasp of the ways in which timekeeping structures daily practices of temporal coordination and informs the observation of natural phenomena; they facilitate the comprehension of the relationships between clockmakers and their customers through the exploration of archival records of production and consumption. Objects also draw attention towards the modes in which time has been internalized and conveyed through the investigation of clocks’ shapes and of the images that ornate them, as well as of the visual, sound and tactile devices that signal time.

We expect the symposium to tackle these questions from a long-period perspective, starting with the apparition of the first timekeeping mechanical systems in the Middle Ages, until the premises of industrialization in the eighteenth century. The ways mechanical devices coexist with other techniques of time tracking will be explored; sundials for example are devices with which interactions may create tensions or generate hybridization. Keeping a global perspective in mind will also be useful in grasping the interactions between different cultures and techniques of timekeeping.

Preference will be given to proposals that seek to integrate technical, cultural and social analyses of timekeeping devices and their use, touching upon themes such as the following :

1) Production and use-value: how is use-value determined and integrated into the conception of watches by clockmakers? How do clockmakers and customers negotiate? How are the usage and properties of watches presented in technical manuals and in the leaflet literature accompanying the marketing of watches?

2) The watch as sensory object: how do shapes, images, sound systems and carry-on modes convey information about the usage and reception of watches?

3) Timekeeping and daily practices: how have alarm clocks, pocket watches and table clocks contributed to the establishment of various forms of temporal coordination? In which practices is the use of timekeeping devices noticeable (working, cooking, traveling, administration, etc.) and how have these practices contributed to elaborating “complications” in clock systems?

Abstracts (max. 1000 characters) along with a CV should be sent to and by April 21st, 2017 at the latest.

Presentations and discussion will be conducted in French or English.
Housing and travel fees will be paid for.
The symposium will lead to a publication.

Organizers: Gianenrico Bernasconi (University of Neuchâtel), Susanne Thürigen (Junior Research Group “Premodern Objects. An Archaeology of Experience“, Elite Network of Bavaria / Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich)

Event organizer: 
Gianenrico Bernasconi (Université de Neuchâtel), Susanne Thürigen (Groupe international de jeunes chercheurs « Objets prémodernes. Une archéologie de l’expérience », Elite Network of Bavaria / Ludwig Maximilian Universität of Munich)
Gianenrico Bernasconi et Susanne Thuerigen
Musée international d’horlogerie
Rue des Musées 29
La Chaux-de-Fonds
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Event cost: 
0.00 CHF