Time’s measurement is everywhere. Leaving London, Berlin, New York, Washington or Paris: at the airport every transaction, each ticket and money exchange is timed. Around Heathrow, as at any other major airport, there are clocks, blinking the date and time, down to tenths of seconds. Urban modernity lives under an assault of clocks. Alarm clocks put the frighteners on sleep: the first thought in so many people’s minds, every single waking day is ‘What’s the time? Am I late?’
Digital clocks with their digitalsecond seem to speed time, relentlessly tightening deadlines.
People speak of the frenetic pace of modern society, everything is speede up, from fast food to fast clothes and fast knowledge.
There are 86,400 seconds in a day and every one is artificially pipped off, day in, day out, by the MSF service of broadcast standard frequency and time on wavelength 60kHz in the LF band. This is the time, since on the first of January 1972 the second was defined as the atomic second, and Co-ordinated Universal Time (abbreviated to UT) was set by international agreement, Roughly every year a leap-second is added to realign the time with that of the earth – it is added to ‘accommodate’ the earth’s unreliable time. For the earth, you see, is too inaccurate for modernity’s time measurement, because its spin changes by up to a thousandth of a second in some years. A thousandth of a second, indeed, tut tut, how unpunctual the earth is!
So the timekeepers of today must tell yje time from outside the earth itself, insisting that there is one time, abstract and universal, mono-time: the time. There is no such thing.
Not just one time
The Karen, a hill-tribe in the forests of Northern Thailand, always know the time. Living with them for six months it became clear to me that the only person with a watch and the only person who could never tell the time was myself. To the Karen, the whole forest was a clock. The morning held simpliity in its damp air, unlike the evening’s denser wet when steam and smoke thickened the air. The Karen, always know where they are and when they are, how far they are from sunset or home: for time and distance are connected in the Karen language: diyi ba – soon – means, literally, ‘not far away’. Sunset, therefore, could be expressed as ‘three kilometres away’, because the only way of travelling is to walk, which takes a known length of time.
Across the world the nature of each moon-month is characterized and, landscape they inhabit. The Natchez tribes of the lower Mississippi valley have months which include the Deer month and the Strawberries month, the Turkey, Bison, Bear and Chestnut months. In India’s Andaman forests, people have a scent-calendar, using the smells of flowers and trees to describe the time of the year. Other peoples characterize time by starscapes. So, see how false is the ideology of Western imperialist time, declaring itself the time. There are thousands of times, not one.
Children and Time
Adults, generally, have learned clock-time. While old people sigh over how fast it goes, children are incapable of patience. How long is an hour to a child? Far, far longer than to an adult; asking a small child to wait a few hours for ice cream is like asking yourself to wait till Wednesday week for a whisky. Children live in the heart of the ocean of time, in an everlasting now.
Gods of Time
the ancient Greeks had different gods for time’s different aspects. One of the most important was Chronos, who gives his name to absolute time, linear, chronological and quantifiable. But the Greeks had another, far more slippery and colourful, god of time, Kairos was the god of timing, of opportunity, of chance and mischance, of different aspects of time. Time qualitative. If you sleep because the clock tells you it’s way past your bedtime, that is chronological time: whereas if you sleep because you’re tired, that is kairological time. If you eat biscuits when you’re hungry, that is kairological: whereas if you eat by the clock, that is chronological time. Children, needless to say, live kairologically until winkled out of it.
Kairological time has a different sense of movement compared to chronological time. For a rough comparison, contrast an urban with a rural day. In cities, where time is most chronological, your progree through the day is like an arrow, while the day of itself ‘stays still’, for time is not given by the day but is man-made, and defined by the working day or rush-hours. In a rural place, time moves towards you and is nature-given, defined by sun or stars or rainstorms. In this more kairological time, the future comes towards you and recedes behind you while may well stay still, standing in the present, the only place which is ever really anyone’s to stand in.