Family Time

Family Time


This text is copyright Steven Connor 1996.

Comments to would be very welcome.

Summary of Argument/Skim-Reading Aid.
1. Introduction: some different senses of `family history’.
2. History is familial.
3. Families are historical; families as mobile archives.
4. Autobiographical interlude; the making of a family archivist.
5. Women as custodians of family time.
6. Relations between family time and industrial time.
7. `Women’s time’ – an unsatisfactory notion; preferable idea of women as `time-keepers’.
8. Historical privatisation of the family.
9. Temporal mobility of each family.
10. The mobility of its archive.
11. Struggles over family memory.
12. Synchronisations of family time and public time(s).
13. Family time and technological time.
14. Increased longevity of the family.
15. `Syncopated contemporality’.
16. Conclusion; the family as `dissipative structure’ (Prigogine) and the importance of thinking the temporality of the family.

[1] My concern in this short paper is to explore the relations between time, memory and narrative as these play across the inside and the outside of the family, and to reflect on some of the changing conditions under which the sense of family history – in all its usages and senses – is currently being built. In the preface to his collection Time, Family and Community, Michael Drake suggests that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between the purposes of the historian conducting a history of the family, as a social form subject to change in historical time, and those of the researcher into their own family history; the one is interested in the answers to general historical problems and the other in more local and personal questions. It is the difference between investigating the place of the family in industrial capitalism and finding out whether great-grandfather Silas served on the town council. I think that this is far from an absolute distinction. In some areas of family history – in oral history for example – the focus is not so much on general historical forces as on the interplay between them and individual lives, while, on the other side, the impulse to establish and lengthen an individual family memory is closely entangled with more general historical imperatives. My main suggestion will be that there appears to be a need for a more generous and precise correlation of individual experiences of time in the family with more general or public temporalities.[Back to Summary]

[2] There are many ways in which historical time recapitulates and amplifies family time. From Aristotle, who defined familial association as the elementary form of society, through an historical tradition running through Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, the family has often been seen as the origin and source of sociality as such. Historical time takes a familial form whenever we construct it generationally; perhaps one of the continuing purposes of the monarchy, in this country and elsewhere in Europe, is to instantiate the analogy between the succession of generations and the succession of epochs. The horrible and obstinate attraction of race theory from the nineteenth century onwards testifies to a close association between historicised theories of national identity and a familial idea of national identity as kinship. In the Christian West, a powerful association has developed between the family and the quasi-autonomous time of religion or the sacred. Unlike Judaism or some Eastern religions, Christianity has never developed a system of home or family rituals; but it appears to compensate for this by the marked centrality of the familial relation within its mythology and doctrine. The intertwining of family time with religious belief and practice is demonstrated by the recurrent concerns over Sunday shopping laws. Whenever the question of extending Sunday opening arises bishops are to be heard warning of the dangers of eroding the last islands of family time; it is as though, with the withering of religious belief and practice, the family has become a surrogate sacred space, a placeholder for a once generalised sense of religious kinship and shared eschatology. [Back to Summary]

[3] But, if history is familial, then families themselves are also historical and historicising institutions. For perhaps the most important function of a family is its capacity to mediate between social and individual time, plotting, parsing and so to speak imparting time. Families are built around functions of recollection and protention; they are temporal metabolisms, which are sustained, prolonged and transformed by their accumulations and exchanges of narrative. A family is characteristically a storehouse for evidences of an individual’s past, in documents, letters and, most particularly, photographs. But, because the family itself passes (both builds and dissipates) through time, it is not merely a mnemonic repository, but also a mobile activity of archivisation, which evolves its own shape and nature out of the production, exchange and custody of memories, evidences and narratives. [Back to Summary]

[4] I offer a personal example of this, which I hope will focus these rather abstract claims without fixating them. My sense is that my own family – consisting of father, mother, older brother, younger sister – was curiously lax or illiterate in the affairs of time. To be sure, we managed to get ourselves up in the morning and usually got to school and work on time, and met necessary deadlines. But we were not good at keeping records, or marking out the future; we had no photo albums, birthdays were forgotten or remembered in the nick of time, festivals stole up on us and were celebrated late or not at all. One of my strangest memories is sitting in a room with the curtains drawn against the sunlight, watching Wimbledon while eating Christmas pudding. Christmas pudding in June became for a while a curious achronic convention in the family. The interesting thing about this achronicity was that it began very early on to be experienced as a malady by my sister, who began at an early age to undertake a work of temporal conservation and reparation. She began to collect and store evidence of everything that was past or passing or to come in our family, first of all in tangible forms, letters, diaries and snapshots, and then, increasingly, in terms of knowledge. By the age of about 7, she was known as the keeper of the archives, who knew the dates of all the birthdays of all the aunts, nieces and nephews we never phoned or visited. With a kind of irresponsible relief, the family came over the years to yield up all its temporal affairs and effects to my sister. Unfortunately, the consensual amnesia of the family was not so much embarrassed as confirmed by my sister’s assumption of the functions both of archive and archivist. [Back to Summary]

[5] We must suppose that is very common for women to assume and perhaps sometimes to feel driven into the role of custodian and manager of family time. It may be that the association of women with the management of time derives from the more general responsibility for the running of domestic economies exercised by women in Britain and Europe, at least until the early 1950s. Running the household depends in the most obvious way possible upon the control and ordering of time. It may also be that the association of women with nurturing functions within the family also associates them with points of temporal transition in a larger sense; with birth, childhood, illness, death. Tamara K. Hareven, one of the few historians to have investigated the social and familial distributions of time in detail, suggests that it is because of women’s traditional nurturing role at such critical points of transition that they also came to have the main responsibility in maintaining relationships between the family and the wider circle of its kin. Women, she suggests `became the “kin keepers”, who maintained ties with kin over the life course and who held kinship networks together across geographic distances’ {1}. [Back to Summary]

[6] In some areas, this maintaining of relations between family and kin has assisted the integration of families into patterns of industrial production, for example by assisting the movement of the continuous flow of labour from rural to industrial areas. Hareven’s detailed work on the relations between family and industrial time in the cotton mills of Manchester, New Hampshire leads her to the conclusion that the historical separation of family and work did not occur evenly through the nineteenth century, and that `familial and industrial adaptation processes were not merely parallel but interrelated as part of a personal and historical continuum’.{2} At the same time, the maintaining of kin relations has also been a way of keeping a kind of second-degree coherence in the face of the disintegrating effects of industrialisation, imperialism and slavery, as has been shown, for example, in Herbert Gutman’s history of the family under conditions of slavery.{3} [Back to Summary]

[7] The close identification of women with the distinctive temporalities which arose from the much-publicised invention of the private family during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and the consequent withdrawal of the family from the central economic functions of society, with their dependence upon the increasingly homogeneous regimes of public time, has perhaps encouraged some of the more exaggerated philosophical accounts of the particularity of `women’s time’, in Julia Kristeva’s phrase. One often hears of a division between male time or experience of time, as linear, purposive and public, and female time, which is cyclical, biological, subjective. In cultural terms, it is a distinction embodied in the quite conscious embrace in the modernist novel of forms of nonlinear temporal experience which are clearly identified as female (Mrs. Dalloway, Molly Bloom), as opposed to the officious clock-watching of earlier realist-masculinist narrative modes. [Back to Summary]

[7] But it would be a mistake to read the experience of family time in these terms, as a kind of matrix, out of which differentiated, lengthened, public time may evolve. This would be to fall in with the model of the family as the `haven in a heartless world’ as Christopher Lasch has put it. But the time of the family is never merely a kind of pretemporal pocket or parenthesis in the regimes of public time. To be the manager of time in the family is to mediate private and public time. For the keeper of archives, the embodiment of memory, can also have a crucial role in making temporal decisions – which would include, for example, decisions about the timing of when to have children, and to stop having them, and decisions about when members leave the family. So, rather than constituting the womb of time, the woman often fulfils the role of time- keeper; managing the relations and exchanges between the inside and the outside of the family. [Back to Summary]

[8] Traditional histories of the family suggest three phases in its relationship to the exterior social world. Before the coming of industrial modernity and in its early period, during what has become known as the proto-capitalist arrangements in seventeenth-century Europe, the family was regarded primarily as a work unit, and was integrated into patterns and processes of economic and cultural production at every level. With the coming of industrial capitalism, families became more and more privatised, giving up one by one their economic functions. In the most recent phase of advanced consumer capitalism, the family is reintegrated into economic patterns, but passively rather than actively. The family becomes thoroughly saturated by, and even constituted by patterns of and processes of consumption, as economic processes reach further and further down into every area of social life. The three stages in this traditional chronology of the family may be called the actively integrated, the privatised and the passively integrated. [Back to Summary]

[9] It is often said or assumed that the incursion of the public world into the private realm of the family – in the form, nowadays, not so much of the demands of work and a production economy as the various solicitations of consumption, spectacle and commodity – has produced or is producing a simple dispersal or evacuation of the private or familial – the `colonisation of the lifeworld’ in Habermas’s memorable but much-buffeted slogan. Much recent work on the history of the family has suggested that these models are too generalising. Above all, they fail to account for the temporal process that characterises the family; the fact that families have not only history, but historicity. It is not just the institution of the family that has changed over time; for it is in the nature of each individual family to undergo changes in time. [Back to Summary]

[10] That time is in this way of the essence for the family is borne out by the temporal mobility of the family archive. For, if a family is in one sense itself an archive, families and familial relationships are increasingly becoming defined in terms of more complex contests and collaborations over the domestic archive. Among the many transitions to be negotiated over time in any family is the passage of responsibility for this archive. A family mediates the passing on not only of mnemic contents, but also of mnemic agency and responsibility. One development in family life in particular appears to have driven this, namely the concentration of family function around the nurture and education of children, or at least the steadily hardening perception that this is the primary function of the family – dating, if we are to believe Philippe Ari├Ęs, from the establishment of the `conjugal family’ in the early modern period. [Back to Summary]

[11] Often this passage is not a smooth one. The growth of children into adulthood can often portend a bitter struggle over memory and narrative, as children begin to challenge and rewrite what tend to be the increasingly repetitive, retentive and self-referential narratives of the family maintained by its senior members. This process is given impetus by the much-increased levels of interference between the interior time of the family and exterior temporalities and forms of remembering. Of particular concern here would be the effects of so-called false memory syndrome, and the highly public struggles for the ownership of and authority over the memory of the family which such cases precipitate. [Back to Summary]

[12] This sense of the mobility of the family archive must be seen alongside the increasingly complex synchronisation of family time with other kinds of temporality, or plotted movement through time – leisure time, educational time, career and economic time, the cycles of sexual maturation and decline (I don’t imply that there is only one in every life), reproductive time, and increasingly what can be called morbid or medical time – the semi-constructed sequences and expectations of illness and mortality. In a society which is unable in any of its public forms and institutions to acknowledge and incorporate the realities of ageing and mortality, it may often fall to the family to integrate a Heideggerean being-towards-death of individual experience with all the other durations, sequences, and cycles of individual and social life. [Back to Summary]

[13] Of particular concern to many recently have been the relations between family times and technological times, with the new configurations of time characteristic of and consequent upon more various patterns both of work and leisure. No better image of the change in the relations between technology and the family form can be imagined than the video-recorder, which allows family time to be stored, split and redistributed, breaking up the synchronicity of the nation-at-its hearth that lay at the heart of programming structures in the early days of television and in a sense defined the very form of television itself. It is tempting to see these kind of development as a further incursion of technology in the service of the commodity into the family. But if the fission of the family allows in one sense for a more refined packaging and refinement of marketing strategies, the splitting of reception from use, the capacity of families and their various subsections to redeploy and even to reinvent the temporalities of their leisure makes it much harder to target the family as such, which still remains the great marketing prize. Increasingly, it is impossible to determine where and when the family is to be assembled and addressed. In Britain, a symbol of this might be the practice instituted about 5 years ago of broadcasting the Queen’s Broadcast at different moments through Christmas Day, testifying to a slightly anxious sense that even on this most ritualised of days, it was no longer possible to predict the traditional semi-comatose convocation of the family at 3.00 pm, stretched out on sofas with their Christmas pudding. (of course, even in the 1960s, catching the Connor family with their Christmas pudding would have meant broadcasting the Queen’s Speech after the Men’s Singles Final in June.) [Back to Summary]

[14] This dual sense, both of the temporality of the family as such, and of its interruption by and interaction with other durations, periodicities and time-scales, may be partly determined by the increased longevity of the family, or the protraction of its life-cycles. Human beings are one of the only species in which grandparents stay around long enough to see and participate in the lives of their grandchildren. Now, there are more four-generation families now than at any other time in history. [Back to Summary]

[15] The increased longevity of the family may also be an important factor in producing those phenomena which suggest to many the breakdown or dissipation of the family; divorce, one-parent families. My point here is that the fact of the family’s disappearance from public view, and the increasing difficulty of generalising about, which is perhaps to say synchronising, the experiences of different family, need not imply the disappearance of the family as such, or the dissipation of family values. I think that the increasing exposure of families to time, in the more protracted, and therefore more complex and interrupted life-cycle of the family, along with the diversification both of temporal experiences within the family and the increasing complexity of the exchanges between family time and other times – a condition which I want to call syncopated contemporality – is resulting, not in the dissolution of the family, but a loosening and multiplication of its forms. [Back to Summary]

[16] Adapting to the fact that families are what the chemist Ilya Prigogine, writing of thermodynamic physical systems, has called `dissipative structures’, which take their always-unfinished shape from time and change themselves has been easier, I think, for families than for family historians.{4} The centralising of the function of reproduction and nurturing of children that really perhaps defines the form of the idealised modern, privatised family has resulted in a curious effect of temporal arrest in our cultural thinking about the family. We tend to think of a family as being in existence only when there are children, and in a sense only for its children. This has the effect of detemporalising the experience of the family, fixating it upon the imaginary, timeless meeting of generations in the nurturing of the young child. Such myths are having to give way to a new sense of the mobility and plurality of family experience; as families, or their different members begin to generate new conceptions of experiences, for example in the new kinds of affiliation and kinship resulting from divorce, remarriage, same- sex and other unorthodox parenting patterns, as well as all many other kinds of quasi- post- or parafamilial arrangements. The family, like everything else, is becoming the kind of thing that cannot be thought outside of its temporality; less than ever is the family available to be grasped all at once, all in one place, all at one time. [Back to Summary]


1. Tamara K. Hareven, `Recent Research on the History of the Family’, in Time, Family and Community, ed. Michael Drake (Oxford: Blackwell/Open University, 1994), p. 33. [Back to Text]
2. Ibid., p. 30. [Back to Text]
3. Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York, 1976). [Back to Text]
4. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue With Nature (New York: Bantam Books, 1984). [Back to Text]