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Akhil Gupta notes that industrial, capitalist time, is often conceptually separated from the rhythm of natural time. It is added by Gupta that typically capitalist time is characterised as abstract, linear, and associated with Western development and progress, contradistinguished from the cyclical, less-distanced from nature, sense of the time of non-Western cultures.

Whereas time in industrial capitalism becomes abstract, homogeneous, empty, linear, and progressive, shorn of “nature’s rhythms,” and unconnected to the task at hand, historical and cultural Others construe time as concrete, cyclical, closely connected to nature, and experience it in the context of specific tasks…

It would, of course, be foolish to deny that the far-reaching changes that accompanied the industrial revolution permanently and irreversibly altered western notions of time. It is also true that dominant representations of time in the West emphasize its linear, continuous, unidirectional, and progressive character, its preciousness, and its interchangeability with money. What I wish to question is whether the changes that occurred in conceptions of time are best understood as the move from cyclicality to linearity, from task-orientation rooted in concrete activity to an abstract passage disconnected from the flow of everyday life, and from a close synchrony with the rhythms of nature to an alienated homogeneity imposed by work-discipline. Rather than accepting this narrative as a plausible reconstruction of the western past and a powerful prediction about the “Third World” today, rather than acquiescing to the dominant portrayals of the difference between Self and Other that circulate widely in the western world, we need to ask why discursively available representations of time in the West remain oblivious, despite easily observable evidence to the contrary, to features of cyclicality, concreteness, rhythms, and yes, even rebirth. The political importance of this silence lies in the fact that it allows the western narrative of progress to go unchallenged, and enables the continued management and surveillance of the “Third World” in the guise of “development”…

Another major contrast often drawn between industrial and nonindustrial societies is that in the former time is homogeneous, empty, and regular whereas in the latter it is rhythmic and irregular. The (often unstated) basis for this difference can be traced to their respective relationship to nature. Whereas agricultural, pastoral, and hunting-gathering societies are closely at- tuned to the “rhythms of nature,” in industrial societies these bonds are severed. For example, much has been made in pop sociology of the fact that electric lights, three work shifts, all-night radio and television broadcasting, and twenty-four-hour restaurants, grocery stores, and laundromats-what might be called the “Denny’s revolution”-are slowly blurring any meaningful distinction between night and day. Once again, as with the case of cyclical time, we find a troubling set of essentialist dichotomies being constructed in which agricultural (and more generally, nonindustrial) societies are identified with “nature” while industrial societies are identified with technology (Gupta 1992, 195-96, 199-200).

Gupta, Akhil. 1992. “The reincarnation of souls and the rebirth of commodities: Representations of time in “East” and “West.”” Cultural Critique 22: 187-211.

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Norbert Elias interrogates the conceptual separation of natural time and social time by noting that, contrary to the impression of an autonomous natural rhythm waiting to be discovered, a sense of natural time is shaped via devices that were originally developed for the measurement of human, social time. Natural, physical time, duly manifests, and diverges, from human time concepts.

[N]ever before had human-made time-pieces been used in this manner as a measuring rod for physical processes. The clepsydra, an elaborate version of which he used in his experiments, was traditionally a timepiece employed for timing human affairs. It was a social time-meter. Timing had been human centered. Galileo’s innovatory imagination led him to change the function of the ancient timing device by using it systematically as a gauge not for the flux of social but of natural events. In that way a new concept of ‘time’, that of physical time, began to branch off from the older, relatively more unitary human-centred concept. It was the corollary of a corresponding change in people’s concept of nature. Increasingly, ‘nature’ assumed in people’s eyes the character of an autonomous, mechanical nexus of events which was purposeless, but well ordered: it obeyed ‘laws’…

The significance of this emergence of the concept of ‘physical’ time from the matrix of ‘social time’ can hardly be overrated. It went hand in hand with the emergence of a new function for human-made timepieces; it implied the timing of ‘nature’ for its own sake. Hence it was one of the earliest steps in a process of concept-formation whose results today have become fossilized and are very much taken for granted – steps on the road towards the conceptual split of the universe which has come to dominate increasingly people’s modes of speaking and thinking and which appears as a consensual axiom that no one can doubt. As an autonomous nexus represented by eternal laws, ‘nature’ appears to stand on one side, people and their social world – artificial, arbitrary and structure-less – on the other. Endowed with regularities of its own, ‘nature’ as an object of people’s studies seems to be, in some way not clearly explained, divorced from the world of humans. One has not yet come to recognize that the illusion arises from the very fact that humans have learned to distance themselves, in their reflection and observation, from ‘nature’ in order to explore it – to distance themselves more from ‘nature’ than from themselves. In their imagination, the greater distancing and self-discipline required for the exploration of the inanimate nexus of events transformed itself into the notion of a really existing distance between themselves, the subjects, and ‘nature’, the nexus of objects…

In connection with this wider conceptual divide ‘time’, too, came to be divided into two different types: physical and social ‘time’. In the former sense, ‘time’  appeared as an aspect of ‘physical nature’, as one of the unchanging variables which physicists measure and which, as such, plays its part in the mathematical equations intended as symbolic representations of nature’s ‘laws’. In the latter sense, ‘time’ had the character of a social institution, a regulator of social events, a mode of human experience – and clocks had that of an integral part of a social order which could not work without them (Elias 1992, 114-16).

Elias, Norbert. 1992. Time: An Essay. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell.

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Rita Felski notes that rather than women being restricted to the natural temporality exemplified by maternal cycles, they are actually more preoccupied with a non-natural, cultural time, than men are. This is said to be identifiable in the onus put on women to juggle child-care and work responsibilities.

For example, those who believe that linear time is masculine and cyclical time feminine usually point to the dramatic contrast between the grand narratives of male historical time and the repetitive everyday time of women. This difference then serves as evidence of a vast gendered gulf in temporal experience. Here is an instance of the problem noted by Maurice Bloch: one facet of cultural experience is taken to be exemplary and representative of an entire (gendered) way of life. The part is taken for the whole.

If, however, the daily lives of women are compared to the daily lives of men, the contrast is much more muted. The realm of everyday life simply is repetitive, being largely defined by monotony, routine, and habit. It is the realm of the eternal daily round, of what the French call “métro, boulot, dodo” (metro, work, sleep). The grey-suited commuter waiting for the 6:30 train or the male sports fan glued to the television every Saturday is as much a creature of routine as is any woman. As I argue in chapter 3, the perception that cyclical time is a uniquely female province is highly misleading.

Such a perception arises from the fact that cyclical time is often seen as natural time, and hence the sphere of women. Yet there is nothing particularly natural about the routines through which most people in the West organize their lives: Burger King at 6 p.m., Friends at 8, a weekly trip to Walmart, the church, or the mall. Of course, the idea that cyclical time is natural does contain an important grain of truth. We know that human bodies are programmed to eat, sleep, and get rid of waste at regular intervals and do not cope well with major alterations to these rhythms (think, for example, of the well-documented disorientation of workers required to work irregular shifts). There are clear limits to the adaptability of human bodily rhythms. Yet the organization of such physical needs within everyday life is always an affair of culture, not nature.

Rather than being elemental creatures attuned to natural rhythms, many women nowadays are, if anything, even more preoccupied with time measurement than men. Caught between the conflicting demands of home and work, often juggling child care and frantic about their lack of time, it is women who are clock watchers, who obsess about appointments and deadlines, who view time as a precious commodity to hoard or to spend. Because women’s work at home is unpaid and hence is not translatable into exchange value, scholars have sometimes assumed that it remains outside the modern time economy. Yet the regulation of time pervades all aspects of everyday life and is no longer limited to those engaged in paid work. The housewife who places her cake in the oven for exactly thirty-five minutes, writes down her appointments in her daily planner, and makes sure that she gives her children several hours of quality time each day is as much a creature of modern time measurement as is any male worker (Felski 2000, 20-21).

Felski, Rita. 2000. Doing time: Feminist theory and postmodern culture. New York and London: New York University Press.

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For Clifford Geertz, two different calendars are employed by the Balinese population. These are a lunar-solar calendar, and a permutational calendar which is linked to Balinese cultural processes. Whilst the permutational calendar is said to have its origin in lunar-natural astronomical rhythms, its usage is divorced from such a source.

The two calendars which the Balinese employ are a lunar-solar one and one built around the interaction of independent cycles of day-names, which I shall call “permutational.” The permutational calendar is by far the most important. It consists of ten different cycles of day-names. These cycles are of varying lengths. The longest contains ten day-names. following one another in a fixed order, after which the first day-name reappears and the cycle starts over. Similarly, there are nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and even-the ultimate of a “contemporized” view of time – one day-name cycles. The names in each cycle are also different, and the cycles run concurrently. That is to say, any given day has, at least in theory, ten different names simultaneously applied to it,. one from each of the ten cycles. Of the ten cycles, only those containing five, six, and seven day-names are of major cultural significance, however, although the three-name cycle is used to define the market week and plays a role in fixing certain minor rituals, such as the personal-naming ceremony referred to earlier…

The lunar-solar calendar, though constructed on a different basis, actually embodies the same punctual conception of time as the permutational. Its main distinction and, for certain purposes. advantage is that it is more or less anchored; it does not drift with respect to the seasons.

This calendar consists of twelve numbered months which run from new moon to new moon. These months are then divided into two sorts of (also numbered) days: lunar (tithi) and solar (diwasa). There are always thirty lunar days in a month. but, given the discrepancy between the lunar and solar years, there are sometimes thirty solar days in a month and sometimes twenty-nine. In the latter case, two lunar days are considered to fall on one solar day-that is, one lunar day is skipped. This occurs every sixty-three days; but, although this calculation is astronomically quite accurate, the actual determination is not made on the basis of astronomical observation and theory, for which the Balinese do not have the necessary cultural equipment (to say nothing of the interest); it is determined by the use of the permutational calendar. The calculation was of course originally arrived at astronomically; but it was arrived at by the Hindus from whom the Balinese, in the most distant past, imported the calendar. For the Balinese, the double lunar day – the day on which it is two days at once – is just one more special kind of day thrown up by the workings of the cycles and supercycles of the permutational calendar – a priori, not a posteriori, knowledge.

In any case, this correction still leaves a nine-eleven-day deviation from the true solar year, and this is compensated for by the interpolation of a leap-month every thirty months. an operation which though again originally a result of Hindu astronomical observation and calculation is here simply mechanical. Despite the fact that the lunar-solar calendar looks astronomical, and thus sums to be based on some perceptions of natural temporal processes, celestial clocks, this is an illusion arising from attending to its origins rather than its uses. Its uses are as divorced from observation of the heavens – or from any other experience of passing time – as are those of the permutational calendar by which it is so rigorously paced. As with the permutational calendar, it is the system, automatic, particulate, fundamentally not metrical but classificatory, which tells you what day (or what kind of day) it is, not the appearance of the moon, which, as one looks casually up at it, is experienced not as a determinant of the calendar but as a reflex of it. What is “really real” is the name – or, in this case, the (two-place) number – of the day, its place in the transempirical taxonomy of days, not its epiphenomenal reflection in the sky (Geertz 1973, 192-96).

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays by Clifford Geertz. New York: Basic Books.

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Johannes Fabian critiques the anthropological cultural relativisation of time, in part because it distances the anthropologist’s time from the time of the culture being studied. Fabian further notes that physical time is not referred to in its nakedness in anthropological work, but rather the foci are culturally distinguishable times.

Let us call the first one Physical Time. it serves as a sort of parameter or vector in describing sociocultural process. It appears in evolutionary, prehistorical reconstruction over vast spans but also in “objective” or “neutral” time scales used to measure demographic or ecological changes or the recurrence of various social events (economic, ritual, and so forth). The assumption is (and this is why we may call it physical) that this kind of Time, while it is a parameter of cultural process, is itself not subject to cultural variation…

Physical Time is seldom used in its naked, chronological form. More often than not, chronologies shade into Mundane or Typological Time. As distancing devices, categorizations of this kind are used, for instance, when we are told that certain elements in our culture are “neolithic” or “archaic”; or when certain living societies are said to practice “stone age economics”; or when certain styles of thought are identified as “savage” or “primitive.” Labels that connote temporal distancing need not have explicitly temporal references (such as cyclical or repetitive). Adjectives like mythicalritual, or even tribal, will serve the same function. They, too, connote temporal distancing as a way of creating the objects or referents of anthropological discourse. To use an extreme formulation: temporal distance is objectivity in the minds of many practitioners. This, by the way, is reflected with great accuracy and exasperating predictability in the popular image of our discipline. I am surely not the only anthropologist who, when he identifies himself as such to his neighbor, barber, or physician, conjures up visions of a distant past. When popular opinion identifies all anthropologists as handlers of bones and stones it is not in error. It grasps the essential role of anthropology as a provider of temporal distance (Fabian 1983, 22, 30).

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.