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Turning Back The Time

(Written with reference to Chapter 2 of Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. This is how I apprehended Anderson’s apprehensions.)

Anderson contends that the way we understand time is not necessarily how humanity throughout history (and especially not pre-Industrial, or pre-printing press, humanity) has always understood time.

In referring to time as we understand it, he uses the phrase ‘Homogenous, empty time’. ‘Homogenous’ indicates that time is:

1. Unitary: precisely measured/consistent standards are maintained, therefore it is also
2. Simultaneous: it applies similarly across observable space.

‘Empty’ implies that time:
1. Is decoupled from routine.
2. Has a contingent rather than an inherent value.

The idea of simultaneity is central to Anderson’s argument. His basic contention is that our understanding of ‘simultaneity’ is radically different from how a pre-Industrial Revolution (or pre-printing press), rural agriculturalist might understand simultaneity.

Time as apprehended by our hypothetical pre-Industrial rural agriculturalist is bound by the immutability of routine (as compared with ’empty’). The most common routines would have to do with agriculture, which is necessary for subsistence, and religion, which was believed to be such. Time would not run separately from these routines as much as it would have been marked by these things. For imaginings beyond his local experience, he had the conception of a God who transcends the bounds of his time and space.

What led to the decoupling of the passage of time from routine was technology that allowed its passage to be precisely tracked. It was consistently adopted because of technological development and economic forces which made relevant a conception of the simultaneity of time across long distances.

I. Precision & Consistency

Prior to the development of reliable mechanical clocks, timekeeping was an imprecise business. (Lunar or other systems could still be very accurate, but its precision tended to limited to the day.) Time was most readily apprehended in the movement of the sun in the sky, the phases of the moon and the passing of seasons. (Astrologers could also observe patterns of movement of the stars in relation to other celestial bodies and attempt to apprehend the passage of time in that way.) Larger communities might develop mechanisms for coordinating things like communal prayer, economic administration or military activity. However, timekeeping would remain imprecise and largely inconsistent between geographically removed communities.

With the advent of reasonably reliable mechanical clocks and watches, things like clocktowers might become a chronological reference in a town or city. Timekeeping might be consistent within these large communities, or even among a few large communities. In such a case we see a much improved level of precision, as well as some cases of consistency.

I recall an account of one of the effects of the advent of railways in America. Prior to their spread, mechanical watches were already quite common among those who could afford them. However, a man set his watch to his own preference and convenience. Someone’s watch could say two o’clock, and his neighbour might have his watch read four o’clock. The point was that there was no standard time (or at least no Time accepted as Standard). In this case, we have time that is precise, but not necessarily even locally consistent.

This changed with the advent of the railway, because railways did have standard times. These were important because trains needed to meet schedules: if it leaves a station in one part of the country at a certain time, there is an economic incentive to work towards being able to predict its arrival at another station distantly removed, so that, for example, it is possible to arrange for the workers required to load/unload the train of its freight to be present, or, for that matter, to be able to predict and obtain the quantity of fuel needed for the train to make its return journey. Railway time eventually became the reference for standard time, because it was consistent across space.

That time is standard, i.e. it is the same time in this place as well as some place 50 miles north, is something we take as a given, and it informs our idea of simultaneity: the term ‘space-time’ is most probably a familiar one, and when Anderson refers to ‘transverse’ or ‘horizontal’ time, it basically refers to a conception of simultaneity as two events happening in different points in space but at the same point in time.

space
|
|-_  _-A
|  --
|
|   _--B
|_--
|
|------------- time

II. Contingent Value & Decoupling

We are bound by time and space, i.e. we can escape neither. Furthermore, space is time in the sense that any movement in space is accompanied by a movement in time, because it is not yet possible to time-travel or exist in two places at once.

Insofar as our physical bodies require sustenance, and most of us are not directly engaged in agriculture and buy food with currency, something else we are bound by is money. In a sense, time is money, because time is space, and space is money too. With the railway in mind, the main cost of freight is in fuel, and fuel cost is a function of distance travelled, i.e. space. The value of time is therefore contingent on economic factors, like the price of fuel, demand for the good transported, etc.

However, this was not always the case. Such theoretical valuations are useful only because they approximate reality, and that reality is necessarily technologically advanced enough to allow for long-distance travel and precise and consistent timekeeping. (For example, in Paul Krugman’s ‘Theory of Interstellar Trade’, he has to assume the development of sufficiently sophisticated futures markets in his analysis of trade involving close-to-lightspeed travel, where the apparent passage of time is slower for the ship captain; this is a special and, the author avows, not a general case of relativism in academia.) But what if it wasn’t?

In a situation where time is both imprecise and inconsistent, its value cannot be contingent on wider economic factors (or at least not in the same way that we understand ‘economic factors’ in the context of industrial society). The chronological units by which one may be a function of the other are not defined, and would in any case be irrelevant, without the technology for long-distance overland freight. Instead, the value of time would be tied intimately to the routines of the individual and his household, and his local community. These routines would either be relevant in sustaining agriculture (which is necessary for life) or they would be of a religious nature (they were believed to be necessary for life).

The individual’s conception of simultaneity would also be limited to his immediately perceivable reality. Although he would surely be able to conceive of how someone else on his field or on a neighbouring field might be working at the same time he is working, that conception is bound by his local and present experience in a way that ours is not. The bounds of space are defined by how far he can travel on foot or by horse with a load of provisions for the journey, and the cost of such an undertaking relative to staying put (it would be prohibitive). What remains most real is the local present.

In this situation, we see that time is tied to the local present in a way that the post-Industrial conception of time (space-time) is not. Time in its post-Industrial conception is decoupled from the routine of agricultural activity and the local present and attains a status as an abstractly apprehensible parameter in itself by virtue of it being standardized, i.e. precise and consistent. In that sense, it is ’empty’, as compared to time bound by routine in accordance with the natural rhythms of the days, months and seasons. Time in the latter situation has a pre-defined occupation.

Thus far we have been describing the small-ness of our hypothetical pre-Industrial rural agricultarist’s conception of the world as compared to ours, but we would be in error to assume that it follows that his imaginations were comparatively limited; in some ways he lived in a world that was vastly larger, for that which was unreachable or rarely reached was filled with his imaginings. The most comprehensive (all-encompassing), catholic (related in some manner to all) and coherent (Alpha and Omega) of these was God. In imagining his relation to that vastly larger world, he could imagine it in terms of his communion with (or, perhaps, the ability of his soul to apprehend the substance of) God.

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