Friday, July 17, 2009

Vanishing Time

It is the essential mystery. Subject of a thousand books, ten thousand papers and an uncountable number of late night conversations among philosopher's, poets, priests and physicists (not to mention just about everyone else).


Since Time, Cosmology and cultural history are the subject of the new book I am working on I have been reading some really wonderful stuff on everything from the development of the modern mind to the history of night. One of the most fascinating arenas for thinking about how human beings' encounter with Time has changed is the history of the clock.

Mechanical clocks, those with escapement mechanisms, did not begin to make a public appearance in earnest until the 1300's. It was in that century that public clocks, often with bells for ringing the hours, began to appear on towers in public squares. The enormity of this change can not be underestimated as it encompasses every aspect of human being, every dimension of human consciousness.

What was the day like for most people before these machines with their resonant bells appeared? Was it guided solely by the natural rhythms of daybreak, mid-day hunger, the long shadows of late afternoon and the gathering stillness of dusk? If so, think of the change in experience, the vital movement through the day, that came with the ringing of the bells and spinning of the clock's hour hand (minute hands do not appear until later). The day is now shattered, broken into metered pieces that can be parsed and sold. The body, both personal and environmental, is exchanged for the machine in the most intimate experience of the flow of time. Before the clock you looked to inward and outward to experienced world to gauge the passing of time. After the clock you wait for the machines' signal to tell you where in the day you stood.

With this change the night also begins its transformation. This clockwork begins to become the dominant metaphor for the Universe entire. The wheel of the sky was, after all, the one place where metered time made sense for millennia even if it was only for an astronomical/priestly elite. The advent of public clocks made everyone's time as rational as the astronomers. And yet, in making this rational (and rationally managed) time the norm, astronomy, physics and eventually cosmology would be transformed. As the first giant clockworks are lifted into place in towers across Italy, the winds whisper Issac Newtons name.

Whose Time do we live now? Where did it come from? Who ordained its manner and its fashion? The character of even this most intimate of experiences is, in some very definite sense, socially constructed even as it reflects the deepest truths of physical law. Is there a tension between these two poles between which we might pull apart some new perspective on our embodied essence?


  1. I'm wondering Adam, how does the externalizing of time at the cultural level, coincide with the pursuit of objectivity as a superior form of human intelligence within the culture of science?

  2. For the last couple of hours I’ve been contemplating the significance of time as one of the things fundamental to existence. In this context I could see time in terms of its quantitative aspects –clock time- and its qualitative aspects –experiencing a given experience.

    And then this thought transpired and caught my attention: “I’m hungry, it’s time to eat.” Something about this just struck me as odd- like seeing something for the first time. One eats because they’re hungry; the need to eat is established by a signal from my body, not some external “flow”. The thought should be, “I’m hungry; I think I’ll eat. When I say, it’s time to eat, I’m using time as an authoritative weight; but what authority do I need from time?

    This odd “revelation” led me to see that time might not be a fundamental at all. Rather, the thing that seems to be fundamental instead of time is activity. Time is a way to talk about activity; in this context, time serves as a form of geometry doesn’t it? This happened after that; then this happened; a heart beats 72 times a minute, and so on. There can’t be any activity as long as a point remains infinitesimal; activity requires space and without activity, space can remain an infinite point. All of a sudden, I’m seeing time as something contingent on activity, something more akin to geometry then to something fundamental. Or if it is fundamental, it is so by way of being another aspect of space- the other side of a coin.

    I’m new to this thought, so I’m new to its implications. One that I’m thinking of is the concept of thermodynamics giving rise to an arrow of time; if time is an aspect of activity, then time has no intrinsic arrow- time merely communicates the syntax of an underlying activity. If an activity can only go one way, then time will have a likewise direction; if an activity can go either way without profound difference (billiard balls) then time can indeed go forward or backward.

    Another thought that I’m considering in the context of your own work is the idea of referring to a “time” as a palpable intuitive sense of a society’s sense of needed change: is this sense derived from something measured chronologically (chronos-logos, hmm) or something measured at an intuitive level having lived with some amount of activity?

    And if a time of change is based on activity and not a clock, then what would we use by way of a metric to mark a change of activity in order to reach a new time?

  3. Mike, this idea of embodied Time you areplaying with is pretty compelling and its what I am looking at in some of the historical studies I am reading. We develop big grand ideas about time in our physics and cosmology. These ideas when tied to experiment become quite powerful in their ability to explain and develop new technologies (think GPS). But our basic experience of time is as embodied minds. As you say - your stomach tells you "Time for Lunch!" What I wonder about is the interplay between the embodied 'felt' time and the shifting views of an objective time. There is a complicated weaving of stories from cultural life to technological development to scientific theorizing and back again in all this.

  4. Adam, As you think about the interplay between felt time and objective time, you are engaging the interest in some of my own work.

    First, I think I get it! The time-space thing that is; if bodies in space move at different speeds relative to any myriad of other bodies, we need an equivalent of a zero coordinate that we make in a the space dimension for xyz. Time is indeed geometrical, and the "zero" that we make is a fashioned "now". Am I correct here?

    But as we consider the felt sense of time, we're talking about experiencing aren't we? As we live with our selves, we not only experience stimulation exterior to us, we more importantly, experience an inner condition or state that has duration beyond some exterior stimulation. Long after experiencing something that excites our physiology, we can feel its inspiration or dread which can condition our interpretation of the world and our way into it: well into the future. It's this quality of duration that allows for meaning to exist, and isn't it from a basis of meaning that we constitute our lives both individually and collectively?

    One thing I would hypothesize here, is that the more that our experience of time within our inner dimension is dis-concerting, the more we will externalize time and therefore our attention. Perhaps we've developed such an intense consumerist culture as a way to continually externalize our attention; as a way to kill time.

    I think what such a hypothesis points to, is that consumerism serves a vital purpose to a person's life without which a person feels they might disintegrate. If such consumerism is the engine behind climate change and such, then we have to develop a myth level pathway that can supplant the myth level consumerism that often serves as one's "lynch pin."

    I think that our culture is out of balance in regard to time; it's weighted way to heavily to its external qualities. We need to find a way for time to be regarded in its character of experiencing; and regard for subjective experience itself.

    Your thoughts?

  5. Mike: I agree that there is a way in which much of our media saturated techno-culture is oriented towards taking us outside of ourselves. Its a culture of distraction where we call people on our cell phones compulsively just because we don't know how to be alone with our thoughts for 5 minutes. The externalization of time as line or an arrow that can metered is useful for many aspects of social organization but the techologies it spawns can then organize mind in a way that keeps us from have the internal experience of time which is... well what is it? Contemplative traditions from Buddhism to the Christian monastics all speak of internal experiences of time within a kind of timelessness, athletes and artists speak of "flow". In all these cases the experience of awareness is different from the objectivication of time for scientific or technical purposes.

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