Clocks: caging time. The watch: the manacle on the wrist. Deadlines like barbed wire. Coercive, cruel, crushing speed. Punctuality next to godliness. The work ethic. Efficiency über alles . Western Christian time, linear, dry, masculine and ripped away from nature, exemplified in the clock, tediously ticking you off, count, count, count.
By contrast, picture this. A gibbet, a drawbridge, flags, turrets and oil drums. Made of scrap metal, wit an anarchy; place of white cider and Attitude. Welcome to Fort Trollheim, built by eco-activists who lived in their Fort, and up in treehouses in the nearby trees, opposing a road in Devon, in the mid ‘90s. And they had their manifesto: ‘This is the Independent Free State of Trollheim… we have no allegiance to the UK government… We do not recognize history, patriarchy, matriarchy, politics, communists, fascists or lollipop men/ladies… We have a hierarchy based on dog worship… Our currency is to be based on the quag barter system . We do not recognize the Gregorian calendar: by doing so this day shall be known as One … Be afraid, be afraid, all ye that hear. Respect this State’
Time is a political subject. It is a crucial part of the language of power , between nations, and classes, between men and women, between humankind and nature. Stealthily, nastily, one type of time has grown horribly dominant: clock-dominated, work-oriented, coercive, capitalist and anti-natural: Hegemonic Time .
The Benedictine monasteries first began scheduling time, controlling and ordering time according to Christian dictat. With the sixth century Rule of Saint Benedict, idleness, that impish spirit, was decreed ‘the enemy of the soul.’ Crucially, bells would be rung not only through the day but through the night too, for the night was the time when even the most well-behaved monks could slope off, free in their dream times. By ringing bells through the day, the monasteries commanded the bodies of the monks; by ringing bells through the night, the order of Christian time would get into their very minds.
The Industrial Revolution radically altered the sense of time experienced by the common people, and it created time-owners; the capitalist factory-owners, erecting clock-bound fences of work-time and the sense that employers owned the time of their employees, enslaving their time, enclosing time. This time, and all the time-values which go with it, has been imposed on numerous cultures across the world in a widespread and unacknowledged piece of cultural imperialism.
What’s the time? Dishonest question. A political question. There are thousands of times, not one. But this one mono-time has worldwide dominance. Greenwich Mean Time comes reeking with the language of imperialism and smug with the knowledge that time is power: the chief clock at Greenwich in 1852 was called the ‘master’ clock; it sent out signals to ‘slave’ clocks at London Bridge. All the history of time-keeping and the discovery of longitude enabled Britons to rule the oceans and then build its empires of land. Having built its empires of land, it set about building empires of time, enslaving people’s lives and enclosing other cultures’ times (plural) with the One Hegemonic Time. When missionaries arrived amongst the Algonquin people of North America, the Algonquin, outraged, called clock-time ‘Captain Clock’ because it seemed to command every act for the Christians.
Time has always been allied to power, for revolutionaries, rulers or reactionaries. Calendars and clocks have always been an ideological, political and religious weapon. 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.
Pol Pot declared 1975 to be ‘Year Zero’, marking the beginning of his rule as if it were the beginning of time itself. The Third Reich was to last a thousand years. When the ancient Chinese empire had colonized some new region, the phrase they used was both sinister and telling; the new territory had ‘received the calendar’. In a phrase which I also find very sinister, the ultra-right wing, in power in the USA today, have their project for global domination named by Time: the Project for the New American Century .
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 lands 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 made Year One.
Speed is intimately tied to power. It is an index to status, so waiters, those who wait, putting their time on hold for others, are low-status, low-earning. VIPs, whose time is considered valuable, must never be kept waiting. The entire transport system, from Concorde to a Mercedes to high speed trains, is set up to serve the rich, to serve them fastest. (Oh, what transports of élites.) Italian Futurists wanted to straighten out the Danube so that it would flow faster; the natural rivers of time literally made to run for human speed. There is a nasty, steely connection between speed and fascism. Italian Futurist Marinetti glorified speed and supported fascism. Nazis put money into land speed record attempts and Hitler began a huge road-building project (propaganda films being entitled Fast Roads and Roads Make Happiness).
By contrast, if you look at the notes on politically subversive singer Manu Chao’s CD ‘Esperanza’ it says: ‘This CD was born of much work, many journeys, spliffs and meetings. It was born without hurry , (because speed kills).’ Westernized cultures think speed is automatically ‘good’. This is not a universal understanding: to some people speed is immoral . 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’.)
Where there is Hegemonic Time, there is also subversive time, best represented in carnival, play, the cyclical nature of women, all children, and the cultures across the world who (just about) remember their own sense of time. For every ruler, there has been a rebel, for every power-hungry politician, there has been a carnivalesque protester, for every man too keen on imposing his white, linear calendar, there has been a woman who cyclically bleeds all over it.
Subversive and mischievous, carnival reverses the norms, overturns the usual hierarchies. Unlike Dominant Hegemonic Time, carnival is tied to nature’s time; linked to cyclic, frequently seasonal events. Carnival transforms work-time to play-time, up-ends power structures and reverses the status quo . It is frequently earthy and sexual. Carnival is vulgar: of the common people. And it is vulgar in another sense: drunken, licentious, loud and lewd.
Few festivals are more flamboyantly vulgar than May Day, or Beltane. This was one pagan festival which the disapproving Christian church did not – could not – colonise; it kept its raw smell of sexual licence and its populist grassroots appeal – which was why it was such a natural choice for the socialist movement. Vicarless and knickerless, traditionally lads and lasses went into the forests and woods to get a tree for the Maypole and so doing let rip the glorious fornications of May (May sex led to June weddings – June was the commonest month for marriages, with the full moon of June called the ‘mead’ moon – the ‘honey’ moon.) The May Day ‘Green Man’ or Jack in the Green, dressed in leaves, carried a huge horn (‘nuff said). The Maypole, the phallic pole planted in ‘mother’ earth was the key symbol of this erotic day.
Then came the Puritans, sniffing the rank sexuality and decrying the maypole as ‘this stinking idol’ and in 1644 the Puritans banned Maypoles. In the nineteenth century, Victorians bowdlerised and infantilised May Day, making it a child’s festival to emphasise innocence. Indeed.
Carnival 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 one thing: enclosures, for when rights to common land were lost, so were the common carnivals. And just as land was literally fenced off – enclosed – so the spirit of carnival – broad, unfettered unbounded exuberance – was metaphorically enclosed.
Around the world, Christian missionaries outlawed carnivals and festivities of other cultures; Native American potlatches banned. Australian Aboriginal corroborees banned. South American traditional dances and festivals banned.
But carnival erupts, even today, the deliberate use of carnivalesque costume amongst anti-globalization protesters today, CIRCA, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, seriously playing out the politics of carnival.
One thing which Dominant, Hegemonic Time has insisted on, is the importance of harnessing peoples’ time for work; Time is Money, they say, without quite answering whose money is made out of whose time. When the Industrial Revolution rolled in, it chucked thousands of people into factories working for absurdly long hours. But there was protest. 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. Karl Marx highlighted the exploitation of workers’ time in capitalism. Dickens wrote Hard Times , his blistering portrait of factory time and its deadening character: the ‘deadly statistical clock which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.’ 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!’ and today’s ‘Downshifters’ and assiduous Idlers.
So Let us Play. Play has long been opposed to the work-dominated Western time. Play, that subversive beastie, anarchic, energetic and creative, is still hated by modern day Puritans of corporate capitalism, overworking its employees. All over the world, colonization included insistence on work time: Columbus, on first meeting the Tainos people (San Salvador) was convinced the people should be ‘made to work, sow and do all that is necessary and to adopt our ways…’ The Inuit refer to themselves as ‘rich in knowledge, meat and time’ and anthropologists have referred to hunter-gatherers as ‘the original affluent society’ in that the pleasures and necessities of life could be secured with a minimum of work. Traditionally, many indigenous peoples do not have a designated word for work, and do not work for more than four hours a day; the length of time Bertrand Russell suggested in ‘In Praise of Idleness’ reducing both overemployment and underemployment. He also argues that ‘there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.’ Leisure, by contrast, is ‘essential to civilisation.’
The play ethic is far more, well, ethical than the work ethic. Play is freedom, is creation, is energy, is wicked flirtatiousness, is the helplessly laughing, the leglessly laddered, the god of Things which Brimmeth Over, the pint down the pub, the de trop overflow of excess, the resplendently unnecessary and the one-too-many which make the whole damn thing worthwhile. Play is harvest, is abundance, is generosity, the harvest of pleasure after work, the excess and the gusto, the more-than-enough, the gifts, the spirit of exchange. Take the word ‘giggling.’ A one-word harvest of play’s superfluity, its liquid, lovely over-indulgence, it has g’s to spare, (g, the funniest consonant. You want proof? Gnu. Gneed I say more?) and it fills the gaps with ‘i’ – the quickest, wittiest, lickspittiest, trippiest and lightesthearted of all the vowels.
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 work-time, 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 conventions of time-measurement as if they were concrete fact. 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, personal, idiosyncratic, cyclical time; red, staining. When I’m ovulating, I’m not the same as when I’m premenstrual. At one pole I may well be cooperative, relaxed and nice. A good time to fill in forms and be polite. At the other, I play with fire and know my wildest most feral emotions. I will be intense, difficult, powerful and unpredictable. (Probably.) Pliny the Elder wrote of menstruating women: ‘Hardly can there be found a thing more monstrous than is that flux and course of theirs.’ Well, no. It’s more majestic than monstrous, more mysterious than disgusting and its burning, volcanic energy is more immense than Pliny ever knew. That Pliny died because of just such a burning volcano give me a certain mischievous pleasure. (But only when I’m premenstrual.)
Menstruation gives women an experience of time which inherently subverts Hegemonic Time. It is a critical, cuspish catch of time, time coloured and fluxy, flukey. 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. Weird and exceptional, her time of the month is radically opposed to uniform straight-line neat time.
Patriarchy hates flows – the literal flow of menstruation most viscerally, but hates all things which femalely flow, and does so with moral fervour. What is ‘perfect’ is unflowing, unchangeable, eternal and male. Aristotle thought the male body perfect and the female imperfect. Leonardo da Vinci used the male body to show its supposed mathematical perfection. Aristotle also thought the heavens eternal and male and the earth changeful and female; the superior/inferior statuses not lost on the Christian church. Said Virgil: Women are ever things of many changing moods.
Change less ness is privileged over change ful ness. Jesus Christ, like suburbia, the same yesterday, today and forever. I’m not. We’re not. We’re bloody well changing all the bloody time.
Our time is different. All our times are different. How many months are there in a year? Twelve according to the male public calendar, thirteen moon months, though, for women. The word for menstruation in so many languages is connected to words for moon. The moon, worldwide, represents women, female time and female deities while the sun gods are male. Moreover the characteristics of the sun and moon, nature’s greatest time pieces, are attributed to men and to women respectively and given very different status. The sun does not change, whereas the moon changes completely, from full to new. The changeful attributes accorded to women have negative connotations; we are capricious, fickle, chancy; Lady Luck, we are notorious for changing our minds. Above all, we are cyclical, we turn and turn, we are time changing and returning, and herein is, to me, one of the key aspects of the sexual politics of time; it underlines everything, from the washing up to the triumph of patriarchal religions.
Let’s start with the charladies. (The char in ‘charlady’ is from Anglo Saxon word meaning ‘to turn’; repetitive cyclical and low status ‘chores’ are for women.)
‘Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day,’ Simone de Beauvoir commented. Or: ‘I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes – and six months later you have to start all over again’ as Joan Rivers put it. Traditional women’s work is cyclic, it must be done over and over again. and it reveals a genderised attitude to time; what is cyclical, though it keep life itself flowing, is devalued.
Leave the washing up for a further horizon. For hunter-gatherers or early agricultural peoples, Time was seen as cyclical, moving in the seasons of the year, visible in the cycles of the moon. This idea of Time as a cycle is by far the commonest shape. The Native American Hopi people pictured time as a wheel. In Hindu thought, time moves in the unimaginably long cycles of the Kalpas. The modern western view of time, however, is linear, and one expert on the philosophy of time says this is highly unusual, ‘one of the peculiar characteristics of the modern world.’
The image of linear time was forged by the great patriarchal religions, in particular Judaeo-Christianity. St Augustine argued that the history of the universe is ‘single, irreversible, rectilinear’. Rebirth or reincarnation, with its implied cyclic time, was overruled by the linear descent of father-son genealogies (Salma begat Boaz and Boaz begat Obed and Obed begat Jesse.)
This is the nub of it: religions that saw time as linear – phallic in shape – were those that were patriarchal – phallic in character. Ever since, time has been organised on male lines, rather than in female cycles
The Alcherringa or Dreamtime of Aboriginal Australians is perhaps the most extraordinary of all ideas of time. To western eyes, the Dreamtime looks at first sight like ‘the past’ but it isn’t. Subtle, ambiguous and diffuse, the Dreamtime is past, present and future merged, the Aboriginal ‘now’ porous to the Dreamtime ‘forever’ – the past and the future are like permeable membranes surrounding the present.
In the western view, the past can be discussed as an abstraction. All over the world, indigenous peoples see the past as inextricably identified with – and embedded in – the land. The Harakmbut people in the Peruvian Amazon say, ‘Without the knowledge of history, the land has no meaning and without the land neither the Harakmbut history nor the culture has any meaning.’ In Australia, the Aboriginal Ancestors ‘live’ in spite of death: they disappeared, but did not die. They did not ‘become nothing’ but ‘became the country’. The past is immanent in the land. ‘History,’ says Aboriginal Australian writer Herb Wharton, ‘comes up from the land.’
Perhaps the most chasmic difference between the two is that the western view sees the past as ‘dead’, while the indigenous view sees the past as profoundly ‘alive’. The land is animated with the past, and the past still exists – a different modality of time and one which has a reciprocal relationship with the present. Singing the stories of the Ancestors of the Dreamtime is not memory of time past, but participation in a diffuse, metaphoric depth of time-present. The Dreamtime sustains the present through ‘djang’, the spiritual energy in the land, while the present, in turn, sustains the Dreamtime through myth and ritual. The indigenous view of the past, then, is different from the western in representation, in shape, character, significance and in vitality . But there’s more. The inherently differing notions of the past have direct – and contemporary – political consequences. If the underground past is a source of sacred energy to indigenous people, it is merely a source of literal energy, fuel, to the western mind. Mining companies devastate indigenous land all over the world.
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. 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.
Amongst many peoples, ‘Time’ is a matter of timing . It involves spontaneity rather than scheduling, sensitivity to a quality of time. 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, for example, the Ilongot of the Philippines, is variable and indeterminate and unpredictable. Time is a subtle element where creativity and improvisation, flexibility, fluidity and responsiveness can flourish. People’s responses to timing issues are subtle and graceful. But the dominant culture, far from respecting these socially graceful ideas of time, chooses to refer disparagingly to being ‘on Mexican time,’ ‘on Maori time’ ‘on Indian time.’
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. In Rajasthan a moment of evening is called ‘cattle-dust time’, the Native American Lakota people have the ‘Moon of the Snowblind.’ One indigenous tribe 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’.
For nature shimmers with time; and interestingly, many areas rich in myth and indigenous history are shown to be places of high biodiversity; living history, life at its liveliest. Both past and present equally vivacious, in a vital land.
The clock is not a synonym for time. It is, if anything, the opposite of time. 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 unschedulable 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. Raramuri . Here the dark light, time and feeling.’
For time is not found in dead clocks and inert calendars, time is not money but is life itself: in ocean tides and the blood in the womb, in every self-respecting player, in the land, 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.