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?