Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Time and time again

We have clocks in our home. There is a battery-powered alarm clock in the master bedroom. There is a digital clock embedded in the i-Pod dock we use to play music, and another on the box that goes into the television. There is another on the microwave, and yet another on the gas oven. Each of us had a phone, and when you open either phone, there is another clock. If I go to the grocery store, the police station, the bank, the local YMCA, or my favorite bookstore, I will find clocks . . . and if I get confused before I arrive, there is a digital clock face lit up on the dashboard of my pickup truck. That one goes out to show me which frequency I am tuning my radio to, then it comes back on when I quit searching. If I can't look down at the dashboard, someone on the radio will remind me of Clock-time in my time-zone every three to five minutes (and I just used clock-time to describe an interval).

Time, in this sense, chronology measured in various increments of one rotation of the earth, has been around for millennia; but it has not always "crossed the frontier between what is real and what is commanded." By that I mean this objectively-measured time has become a kind of task master for many people; and this was not always so. I spent a couple of months once living with Haitian peasants in the mountains halfway between Gros Morne and Petit Bourg, where there are neither clocks nor electricity, and the question is never asked, "What time is it?" They grow beans, cassava, yams, and greens. They raise chickens and a few pigs. They maintain their homes, squabble, raise their children, hike to the market, wash, play games, do each other's hair, sing, suffer illnesses, go to church occasionally, tell stories, and bury the dead, without the assistance or the tyranny of clocks. When someone comes across a watch, as they do from time to time (there's that word again), the actual time indicated on the watch is not understood. It is worn as adornment, and can sometimes create problems with envy.

Our own Western subordination to clocks - speaking here as someone who is predominantly descended from Normans and Celts - began in the tenth/eleventh century. At that time, the majority of my own ancestors lived not unlike those Northern rural Haitians, machineless and untimed, in vernacular cultures that practiced very localized forms of subsistence. The same is true for a great deal of history in most other parts of the world. The Roman Catholic Church, the horse collar, horse shoe, and heavy plow combined in Europe around the time of the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire to inaugurate the tyranny of clocks. The churches served as anchors, as farmers were able to cultivate much larger tracts of land further from their doorsteps, and houses began to cluster nearer the churches. These parishes then saw the installation of a new device on the towers of the churches: clocks.

Increasing urbanity brought increasing reliance on appointment by clock. Scheduling became a regular feature of life in the thickening landscapes of clocked churches.
Some people claim that time is a dimension, one that gets added to height, breadth, and depth (as three polarities imposed on "space"). The attempt to capture reality with geometry gets thrown off by all that troublesome motion and emergence, so we cooked up something to account for it: the dimension of time, that is, of measurable time. We even have master clocks (atomic ones at that) that are employed to keep the schedule of a Chinese factory worker synchronized with my cell phone, your laptop, and the camera on an NSA satellite.

We measure chronological time in everything from zeptosecond (10−21 s) to yottasecond (31.7 quadrillion years, more or less). I can go to the 4:30 PM (1630 for some people, means the same thing) Mass on Saturday, or choose between 8 AM, 9:45 AM, or 11:45 AM Masses (the latter bilingual) on Sunday mornings. When I had a job, I had to be at work by 8 AM from Labor Day to June 1st, and 7 AM during the hot months (we worked outdoors, and temperatures often exceeded 95 degrees in the afternoon). That meant (on the 8 AM days) that I needed to leave the house by 7:35 AM (in case of slow traffic); which meant I needed to get out of bed at 5:45 so I could drink caffeine, go to the bathroom, get dressed, prepare and eat breakfast, then drink more caffeine. This obliged me to go to bed by 9:30 PM, because I knew I couldn't go to sleep without first reading for a while. If there were errands to be run in the afternoon, I did them between 5:30 PM and bedtime, working a supper in there somewhere, because I was so filthy after work that I had to drive home and take a shower after work was over at 4:30 PM. I ate lunch, which I always prepared in the evenings, between 12 PM and 12:30 PM. And our kids were grown. When we were younger . . . well, parents know the deal. Kid stuff is also scheduled according to calendars and clocks. Not only is one's work (for others, to get money, to survive) way across the "frontier between what is real and what is commanded," one's very bodily functions are subordinated to the clock . . . kept in synchronization by an atomic clock somewhere. People eat, sleep, shit, bathe, and even copulate according to schedules. We schedule our recreations, too. Vacations are often determined by airline schedules, event schedules, and check-in/check-out times. Our eyes are always on a clock.

We think of time another way, as a passage. Though in reality - a certain ontological variation at least - each of us always exists precisely now (and spatially precisely here), we divide time on either "side" of now into past and future. Furthermore, we measure past and future along linear timelines, using cyclic measurements. I was born in 1951, and it is now 2014. Even though those "years" (revolutions of the earth around the sun) are cyclical, we have placed them on a linear continuum that suggests time advances along a trajectory, like an arrow that is only ever aimed in one direction. I will never "go back" to 1951. If I am lucky, I will pass through 2015, whereupon I will never "go back" to 2014.

We attach all kinds of meanings and imaginings to "past" and "future." I, for one, can think of several ways that the "past" is associated with regret and the "future" with anxiety. Even in modern, sterilized, suburban culture, where we all get together to pretend that no one dies, the knowledge of death's inevitability certainly penetrates that petit bourgeois denial any time one is confronted with quiet solitude (perhaps this is why we keep looking at the clocks, and running, running, running). Our extended lifespans (there's a peculiar abstraction) and our endless medical interventions and the commercial promises of eternal youth and vigor are still confronted by and by (that arrow moving inexorably as it does in that same direction, entropy still unwinding) with the underlying and progressive decrepitude that eventually turns out the light and locks the door on every one of us.

A friend of mine defined entropy once: you can't win, you can't break even, you can't get out of the game.

And still, we hear all sorts of happy-slappy-talk from advertizers, politicians, and other such bunko-artists about "the future," and how "we" are "building" it. Paradoxically, it is this futurism that gave rise to a fiction about our human past - that we have all been descended from "savages." The term is still applied by some to my aforementioned Haitian hosts. And so as we pursue the "future," we can look at the underlying realities and see that our pursuit of "the future" is now ripping up the material bases of our existence.

"To hell with the future," said Ivan Illich. "It's a man-eating idol."

Each of us carries a past in the form of memories. Each of us plans for the future, even if only for a day or so in advance. But there is a scalar discontinuity between this personal perception of time and these dangerous abstractions of speculative history and haughty futurity. We smile, or cry, or puzzle over our memories, even organize them into a story. And it is stories we try to live into as we step from one instant into the "next." Which stories?  Well, that matters, doesn't it?

In our obedience to clocks, we have abandoned another idea of time. "For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."

In subservience to chronos, do we crowd out our capacity to experience kairos?

I read something a couple of days ago by Ursula Franklin, where she compared what she called the "marketeers," the business class that rules modern society, to an occupying army. She said that one form of resistance that occupied people can always practice is to refuse to use the language of the occupier.

"We too should refuse to speak the language of the occupier," she said, "it is not now German or Russian but the language of the market, where they speak of 'service providers' and clients, of stake holders and of the bottom line."

I wonder if there is a way to refuse to speak the language of clocks, of velocity, of urgency and emergency, of the rush to get this or that done.

When I look at the dismal world of politics, I see both right and left engaging in panic-mongering. This has to be done right now, or everything will go to hell. And so we are off to the races, checking our watches, taking on the next tempo task.

That term, tempo task, is taken from a film critic. It is a device that keeps a story moving fast toward its resolution. Something terrible is about to happen, and our hero is racing the clock to stop it. In politics, the tempo task is also used. If we don't torture the information out of someone on time, they will detonate the nuke in New York City.

On that, I defer to a most excellent article by Ben Kautzer linked here.

The Eucharist transcends and combines past, present, and future in a way that reminds me of God's transcendence, that God is prior to and over time and space. And it relives a story, one that I can live into where death does not have the last word. My body receives the body as part of the body, as it was in the beginning, as it is now, as it will be eternally. Pentecost, Present, Parousia.

Perhaps this is the language of resistance.

"There is a time to every purpose under heaven."

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