Anthony Aveni observes different ways in which human constructions of time artificially regulate celestial patterns and biological rhythms. This is described as a human intervention to nature’s heartbeat, and a manipulation of something that exists beyond human culture.
Time systems became more complex and ornate as an economy and its attending bureaucracy grew and diversified. In China and Europe, mechanical clocks replaced sundials. We slowly began to manipulate nature’s direct input into the timekeeping process for our own benefit. Intercalation was one of the first steps toward human intervention, an insertion of society’s time into celestial time. Thus, we make the year complete by improving upon nature where we believe it has failed.
In a sense, the Maya did to the Venus cycle what medieval Christendom did to the sun cycle. The Venus table in the Dresden Codex tampers with time and reduces it to a cultural creation based on minor variations in nature’s harmonic heartbeat which can be detected only by careful listening and close observation. In bureaucratic societies, human actors take over both nature’s script writing and directing. The modern mass production of timepieces – with their artificial hours, minutes, and seconds – symbolizes the extent of our singleminded struggle to exercise control over that ghostly mechanical entity we imagine to be jogging alongside us, as close as a shadow but uninfluenced by the way we behave. When you say you are strapped for time, perhaps you are only expressing your frustration at the way you have become enslaved to that oscillating chip you carry about on your wrist.
Human culture emerges as the great processor of time. Like the rest of the biological world, our ancestors began by sensing the orderly biorhythms of natural time-the beat of the tides, the coming of the rains, the on-and-off stroboscopic flickering of the full moon’s light, the comings and goings of swallows, locusts, and the red tide. Unlike the New Haven oysters that relocated in Evanston, somewhere back in the distant past we became impatient and dissatisfied. We grabbed hold of the controls; we changed the order. We manipulated time, developed and enhanced it, processed, compressed, and packaged it into a crazy–quilt patchwork to conform to our perceived needs: greater efficiency in dividing up the day means more earning power for both the corporate head and his workers; greater precision in Olympic timing makes for a better Reebok sneaker; and strategic positioning of daylight-saving time gives us more rest and recreation, and that leads to a longer personal time line (Aveni 1989, 336-37).
Aveni, Anthony. 1989. Empires of time: Calendars, clocks, and cultures. New York: Basic Books.