New Internationalist

Boo To Captain Clock

Issue 343

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Speed-Up / TAKING BACK OUR TIME

Boo to Captain Clock

Jay Griffiths sides with
the agitators and celebrants
who subvert the regulation
of time by potentates
and pencil-pushers.

[image, unknown] Illustration: Margot Thompson

‘We do not recognize history, patriarchy, matriarchy... or lollipop men/ladies... Our currency is to be based on the quag barter system. We do not recognize the Gregorian calendar: this day shall be known as One...’ Thus spake British road protesters in a 1995 manifesto.

[image, unknown] The clock and calendar have long been a locus for power struggles. Potentates, princes and priests, hypnotized by hopes of hegemony, have always stood on the borders of space and looked at time – for time is a kingdom, a power and a glory. When the ancient Chinese empire colonized some new territory, the people of that region were sinisterly said to have ‘received the calendar’. Pol Pot declared 1975 Year Zero in Cambodia. Mayan priests in Central America gained their power over people through accurate knowledge of time. In 1370, Charles V of France gave an order that all clocks were to be set by the magnificent clock in his palace; he was the ruler of the land and now would be ruler of time. But wherever there are clock rulers, there are clock rebels, and in the French Revolution, Charles V’s clock was severely damaged in an act of articulate vandalism. A new time-measurement was announced: 1792 became Year One.

The Benedictine monasteries began scheduling time and ringing bells through the night in the sixth century, controlling and ordering time according to Christian dictat. The Industrial Revolution created time-owners; the capitalist factory bosses, erecting clock-bound fences of work-time and the sense that employers owned the time of their employees, enslaving their time, enclosing it. Stealthily, nastily, one type of time has grown horribly dominant: Western, Christian, linear, abstract, clock-dominated, work-oriented, coercive, capitalist, masculine and anti-natural: Hegemonic Time. This time, and all the time-values which go with it, have been imposed on numerous cultures across the world. (When missionaries arrived the Algonquin people of North America called clock-time ‘Captain Clock’ because it seemed to command every act for the Christians.)

There is revolt. The challenge to Hegemonic Time has come from the radiant variety of times understood by indigenous peoples; from self-conscious political protest; from children’s dogged insistence on living in a stretchy eternity; from women’s blood and from carnival.

Subversive and mischievous, carnival reverses the norms, overturns the usual hierarchies. Unlike Hegemonic Time, carnival is usually tied to nature’s time; it is ahistoric, linked to cyclic, frequently seasonal events. Carnival transforms work-time to playtime, reverses the status quo. It is frequently earthy and sexual. The Puritans hated that, outlawing May Day and other festivals. Carnival also emphasizes commonality; customs of common time celebrated by common people on common land. In Britain, a huge number of these customs disappeared as a result of enclosures: when rights to common land were lost, so were the rites. Carnival is vulgar: of the common people. And it is vulgar in another sense: drunken, licentious, loud and lewd; from May Day’s Green Man’s Horn, to apple-tree wassailing. Just as land was literally fenced off – enclosed – so the spirit of carnival – broad, unfettered, unbounded exuberance – was metaphorically enclosed.

[image, unknown] But carnival erupts, the deliberate use of carnivalesque costume amongst global-justice protesters of today, for example, in Seattle, Gothenburg, London, Genoa, seriously playing out the politics of carnival – and indeed the politics of anti-enclosure.

Workers in Britain in the 1820s and 1830s smashed the clocks above the factory gates in protest at the theft of their time. Trade unions took on first the abuse of time, seeking shorter working hours. British workers staunchly persisted in honouring ‘Saint Monday’ and French workers ‘Saint-Lundi’ (in effect the patron saint of hangovers). Protest continued, from the 1960s’ revolt against work, the refusal to wear watches, the slogan ‘Work less, Live more!’ to today’s ‘Downshifters’.

Play, that subversive beastie, anarchic, energetic and creative, is still hated by modern-day Puritans of corporate capitalism. All over the world, colonization included insistence on work time: Columbus, on first meeting the Tainos people of San Salvador, was convinced that they should be ‘made to work, sow and do all that is necessary and to adopt our ways...’ The Inuit in Canada refer to themselves as ‘rich in knowledge, meat and time’. Anthropologists have recently begun referring to hunting and gathering people as ‘the original affluent society’ in that the pleasures and necessities of life could be secured with minimum work.

One of the most tenacious conceptual threats to work, and to Captain Clock’s Hegemonic Time, is childhood itself. Children have a dogged, delicious disrespect for worktime, punctuality, efficiency and for schooled uniform time. Their time is an eternal present. They live (given half a chance) pre-industrially, in tutti-frutti time, roundabout time, playtime; staunch defenders of the ludic revolution, their hours are stretchy, ribboned, enchanted and wild: which is why adults want to tame their time so ferociously, making them clock-trained, teaching them time-measurement as if they were concrete fact. The school clock is pointed to as the ultimate authority which even the Head obeys.

The school clock is pointed to as the ultimate authority which even the Head obeys

The exterior public clock and calendar of Hegemonic Time is white, clean, regular, predictable, objective, linear, homogenous and male. I’m not. No woman is. It’s in the blood, the inner, private, idiosyncratic, cyclical time; red, staining, alternating between ovulation and menstruation. Masculine society places a high value on people being the same over time, being reliable. But women (notoriously) are creatures of change. I’d gleefully say mea culpa to the charge. When I’m ovulating, I’m not the same as when I’m premenstrual. At one pole I may well be co-operative, relaxed and nice. At the other, I will be intense, difficult, powerful and unpredictable. Probably. Menstruation gives women an experience of time which inherently subverts Hegemonic Time. Masculine society seeks to deny or penalize this time, to mock or scorn or (at best) ignore it. But this is when many women find their power, veering off at a subversive angle from the objective, public line of time. Menstrual absenteeism, deplored by many employers, is rightly relished by many women, for these days are quintessentially her own and do not belong to another.

Many cultures have cyclical ideas of time, essentially opposed to linear time (which, for all its dominance today, is an extremely recent concept). Among the Inuit of Baffin Island, the term Uvatiarru means both ‘long ago in the past’ and ‘far ahead in the future’. In Hindu thought, time moves in the unimaginably long cycles of the Kalpas.

[image, unknown] Opposition to Hegemonic Time is also found in moral values attributed to aspects of time: for example, speed. Although considered a virtue in itself by Westernized cultures, speed is immoral to many others. To the Kabyle people of Algeria speed is considered both indecorous and demonically over-competitive. (The Kabyle refer to the clock as the ‘devil’s mill’.) In Brazil, the Xavante people have a ritual which involves two groups carrying two heavy logs, looking, to Western eyes, much like a race: however, if one group falls behind, the other will slow down for them. To ask who ‘won’ is a baffling question to the Xavante; for this is not a race but an act of beauty.

Slowing down is catching on in the West as well. In France there is the anti-car newsletter Moins Vite!, in Italy a Campaign for Slow Food, and in Austria an Association for the Deceleration of Time. Politically subversive singer Manu Chao’s CD Esperanza notes: ‘Este CD nacio de muchos trabajos, viajes, porros y encuentros. Nacio sin prisas... (porque las prisas matan).’ ‘This CD was born of much work, many journeys, spliffs and meetings. It was born without hurry, (because speed kills).’

Gutenberg’s printing press printed calendars before bibles; Hegemonic Time was mass-produced to go global. In one of the most pernicious lies in history, the Christian calendar and the clock of capitalism insisted that they represented time itself. But the clock is not a synonym for time, it is an opposite of time. The Christian calendar (abstract, numerical and inherently political) has been used to deny the plurality of calendars across the world. Time itself, sensuous, poetic and diverse, is not found in it. The leaders of the Zapatistas insisted their time was not the time of the Westernized Mexican Government. The Zapatistas took their orders from the peasants, and this was a very slow and unscheduled process. ‘We use time, not the clock. That is what the Government doesn’t understand.’ Subcomandante Marcos, in March 2001 in Mexico City spoke to thousands: ‘Tlahuica. We walk time... Zoque. We carry much time in our hands.’

Among many peoples, timing involves spontaneity rather than scheduling, sensitivity to a quality of time which is unclockable. The San Bushmen of the Kalahari do not plan when to hunt, but rather ‘wait for the moment to be lucky’, reading and assessing animal patterns, looking for the ‘right’ time. Timing for many indigenous peoples is variable and indeterminate, optional and unpredictable. Time is a subtle element where creativity and improvization, flexibility, fluidity and responsiveness can flourish.

[image, unknown] What subverts the dead hand of the dominant clock? Life itself. The elastic, chancy, sensitive times chosen for hunting depend on living things: how the living moment smells. There is a ‘biodiversity of time’ imaged in cultures around the world, time as a lived process of nature. There is a scent-calendar in the Andaman forests, star-diaries for the Kiwi peoples of New Guinea and Aboriginal Australians who begin the cultivation season when the Pleiades appear. One indigenous group in Madagascar refers to a moment as ‘in the frying of a locust’. The English language still remembers time intrinsically connected to nature, doing something ‘in two shakes of a lamb’s tail’ or the (arbitrary and sadly obsolete) phrase ‘pissing-while’.

Time in the past, too, ‘dead and buried’ under Western eyes, shimmers with life to many other cultures: the Australian Aboriginal dreamtime ancestors ‘live’ in spite of death: they disappeared, but did not die. Interestingly, many areas rich in myth and indigenous history are shown to be places of high biodiversity; living history, life at its liveliest.

For time is not found in dead clocks and inert calendars, time is life itself: in ocean tides and the blood in the womb, in every self-respecting child, in the land itself, in every spirited protest for diversity and every refusal to let another enslave your time, in the effervescent gusto of carnival; life revelling in rebellion against the clock.

Jay Griffiths is the author of Pip Pip: A Sideways
Look at Time
published by Flamingo, 1999.


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