August 29, 2002

The Inner Workings of Time

Category: Anthropology — Biella @ 10:58 am

Time seems so timeless. And that is precisely the problem with empty, equal time as we have come to experience it in the modern industrial world. Equally spaced out, each unit supposedly the same as the next, we experience our time as if it were the universal, that is the only, means by which to move ones life through that hard-to-pin-down, yet very real, very durable concept of time. Yet, there are times, moments in your life, when the emptiness and equality of time crumbles down, making it known that our most commonsense categories like time and space are to some degree socially constructed. The last few months have been a series of photographs resulting in a montage of different ways that I have experienced time (and all amazingly enough without the aid of any hallucinogenic substances).

Although the calendar as we know it has existed for a long time, the application of coordinated time across space in which minutes, hours, days, and now seconds are the same across space and really matter for socio-economic reasons, did not truly emerge and solidify until the rise and use of new technologies and institutions like the factory, railroad, and the telegraph. For example, before the railroad, each European city kept its own time while the pace of business and other related activities were slower than they are today because information traveled much more slowly through space and time. Conceptions of time and space don’t simply vary across cultures but have varied within our own society, in our case I think, marching towards an ever more rigid

I have been traveling around lately, going up and down the west coast, then back east, back west, mixed in with a lot of time on irc and late nights. Time measuring labels such Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, morning, afternoon, and evening have not seemed to matter much these days as I don’t have to follow any schedule except that which I have imposed on myself. I am moving in a space in which the events of my life are determining the means by which I experience time. It is a daily reminder that not all time is created equal or experienced equally. Travel too denaturalizes our cultural sense of time both by exposing us to places where time is organized distinctly as well as one usually follows a rhythm that is not determined by the routine work week. I think for similar reasons that is why the act of ritual is so compelling and important. Ritual is often though of as being “set in stone” as indeed ritual is usually tightly prescribed usually driving against spontaneous movement and expression. Yet, among other things, ritual activity is one in which there is an explicit recognition of the specialness and especially malleability of time and place, a border put around an activity, marking it off from the routine. The here and now of ritual is meant to be distinct, more special than the ordinary rhythms of daily life. As such, special and unusual events can unfold through ritual space.

I had time and space on my mind more than usual this past weekend in Seattle where I went for a tech activist meeting. This was partly due to lack of sleep which is disorienting, as well as to the nature of my time in Seattle, and because of my introduction to some revolutionary new time system xtime which parses out time in decimal units. I am not sure if I got the gist of the new system of time but I appreciated the desire to come up with a new means by which to undermine the current system of time we live through.

In some sort of overarching level, the meeting in Seattle, reminded me that the supposed unilateral nature of time in which it moves forward in little, teeny chunks [ ----> tick, tick ----> forward into future] is simply not the case, or at least not the way that I would like to conceptualize and feel my time, here on earth. Though the meeting, which was a discussion about federating different tech activist groups under one umbrella, was not very ritualistic (although there were still elements of ritual), the meeting for me collapsed the past, present, and future. Most of the group had met nearly 2 months ago in Northern California during another meeting and there, planned to meet to further discuss ideas about a federation. So, in Seattle, we were together in the present because of what happened in the past, planning for something that we would like have exist in the future. Links between past, present, future abound but I don’t think people often enough experience the continuity and circularity of this cycle and experience what happened before as the past in the sense of having it be gone forever. But maybe it is actually the passing of something that forever lives through the rippling of its effects.

It was really cool to see the unfolding of events through time at the actual meeting that was held on Saturday. The meeting did to some degree have elements of ritualized time and space. Time was parceled out in which to discuss the potential birth of a new organization. People from across the country and the coast flew and drove in to participate. During the meeting we had conventions and structure to facilitate discussion and move along the substance of the meeting. Without the somewhat formal structure for discussion and such, the group might have broken out into play or chaotic discussion which while fun, would not have been all that conducive to reaching at some meeting goals.

There was this one point that it seemed like the whole possibility of having a tech federation almost crumbled to the ground. The room grew silent, my own heart sunk knowing that I did not want to see the project die an early death, and well, at that moment, I felt like time literally froze. The whole movement in which past had brought us there in the present but really to plan for something in the future came to a screeching halt because it seemed like the whole purpose for being there was about to be thrown out the window. But thankfully one participant revived time with a clever solution that seemed to tentatively satisfy everyone. The property of emergence came through, giving breath to time so that the event, the purpose of being there came back to life.

The rest of my time in Seattle was filled with a lot of play and fun which lies on the opposite side of the spectrum as ritual although like ritual it seriously toys with our perception of time and is a serious fight against the emptiness and equality of our current regime of time. Instead of marking of time and space as distinct & special as ritual does, play almost undermines the whole notion of time as self becomes inseparable from the passage of time. The border between self, place, and time is blurred creating the conditions for an almost (though not quite) unmediated interaction between people, surroundings, and time. Deep connections abound which is what makes it in my opinion so fun and feel so good. It is also a time when one can morph ones self into something different precisely because those tight boundaries have been loosened so that one can truly play (which happens with ritual although the taking up of a new self is usually more routinized than that of free play). And then one can do truly crazy things like, uhh you know, mix sweet fried plantains with bitter dandelion greens (don’t knock it till you try it), try out some chi gong in the middle of the night on the porch overlooking downtown Seattle, and sing the Free Software song over and over and over again (audio coming soon).

You see, messing with time is an important activity that needs to be done from time to time to fight against the hegemony of our current system of time. I think one of the reasons that I so love the Muppet Show is because it a public performance that achieves this and mixes the best of ritual with play. Its form is such in which you have a “show” (a ritual of sorts, the theater), with life (in the backstage) and lots of and lots of play on both sides. I guess it is like a form of ritualized play. Just the marking off of real life with onstage life is a recognition that not all time and spaces are created equal. The ritual of the show is meant as something special, out of the ordinary, a time when folks take on their prescribed ritual roles (likea pig in space) and bring it as a gift to the audience. But ordinary life continues backstage (slipping at times in the more ritualized space) and play marks all the different domains of the show. The Muppet Show, shows that with intention we can stretch time to meet our needs/desire and engage in life in a much more enriching way.

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