The Passages of Time

These men [and women], subjected both externally and internally to so many ungovernable forces, lived in a world in which the passage of time escaped their grasp all the more because they were so ill-equipped to measure it. — Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, Vol. I, p. 73

Our concept of time — specifically, our mechanical, abstract sense of time — is an artificial (cultural) construct. Time outside of the abstractness brought on by the mechanical, or, now digital or even atomic, clock, should be seen as a different concept altogether. For those looking to develop rich and realistic worlds or universes for fiction, for gaming, or for the sake of passing the time, it is important that one is able to conceptualize time. Not all cultures, even in the modern age with atomic clocks and time-keeping servers, have the same conceptualizations concerning the nature of the passage of time. This has led to a number of cultural conflicts. If you don’t believe me, consider this. When I worked as a tutor at the local university, we had several tutors who were from all over globe — China, India, eastern Europe, and even Japan. Their conceptualizations of time were vastly different than many of the American tutors. Being on time, at least in a U.S. context, is a sign of professionalism and respect. Whereas, in other regions of the world, this isn’t always so.

Inthe West, the development of what I will term abstract time can be linked to the rise of the capitalist economic system of the early modern period. According to Moishe Postone, abstract time was developed to be independent of those external forces or events we all experience living on planet Earth — Think: lunar cycles, seasonal rotations, night and day, etc. The separation of concrete events from time itself created an abstract conceptualization of time that was easier to control, easier to measure, and, if we’re honest, made it easier to exploit the masses through the new capitalist economic system.

It is a frequent circumstance of history that a culture or civilisation develops the device which will later be used for its destruction. The ancient Chinese, for example, invented gunpowder, which was developed by the military experts of the West and eventually led to the Chinese civilisation itself being destroyed by the high explosives of modern warfare. Similarly, the supreme achievement of the ingenuity of the craftsmen in the medieval cities of Europe was the invention of the mechanical clock, which, with it’s revolutionary alteration of the concept of time, materially assisted the growth of exploiting capitalism and the destruction of medieval culture. — George Woodcock, “Tyranny of the Clock

Thus, in the West, the concept of time is bifurcated into abstract and concrete. Abstract suggests a measurability and predictability to time. Moreover, there, in a sense, a feeling of linearity when it comes to abstract time. (However, Postone points out that concrete time, especially among pre-industrial societies like Israelites of the Old Testament, has its own linear measurements of time.) Concrete time — that is, time linked to external, concrete events — is inextricably linked to the natural world and its cycles, phases, and patterns. This bifurcation of time creates a rather interesting disconnect between Westerners and the natural world, as pointed out by Aldous Huxley in “Time and the Machine”:

Acutely aware of the smallest constituent particles of time — of time, as measured by clock-work and train arrivals and the revolutions of machines — industrialized man has to a great extent lost the old awareness of time in its larger divisions. The time of which we have knowledge is artificial, machine-made time. Of natural, cosmic time, as it is measured out by sun and moon, we are for the most part almost wholly unconscious. Pre-industrial people know time in its daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms. They are aware of sunrise, noon and sunset, of the full moon and the new; of equinox and solstice; of spring and summer, autumn and winter. All the old religions, including Catholic Christianity, have insisted on this daily and seasonal rhythm. Pre-industrial man was never allowed to forget the majestic movement of cosmic time.

The disconnection between what Huxley calls “machine-made time” and “natural, cosmic time” have had serious political, cultural, and ecological consequences. To be in tune with the natural reference point of time is to be living in the Dark Ages. Moreover, those who refuse to abide by “machine-made time” are ridiculed, and, in many cases, people are penalized either political, socially, or economically for their laxed attitudes toward the accepted norm of time. Our disconnection from “natural, cosmic time” has led to the severe degradation of the natural world. However, our adherence to “machine-made time” has allowed for rapid urbanization, industrialization, and even globalization. The capitalist world order would not exist without the abstractness of the clock. Thus, without the abstractness of clock time, I wouldn’t be here writing this article on Medium.

One of the many crimes of world-building, for me at least, has been the complete lack of imagination on the part of writers when it comes to a fictional society’s conceptualizations of time. Time is an important factor. It is the marking of natural events. It tells people when to plant their crops, when to sacrifice to their gods, and when to go to war against their enemies. The passage of time is important in that it can help us understand the thinking within a fictional (or even real) culture or society.

When I think of the writing opportunities that come from creating unique time-keeping systems, I see fantasy and science-fiction as being the prime recipients of such thought experiments. In Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, he offers an interesting conceptualization of time toward the beginning of the story. The novel in question offers up, albeit briefly, the counting of seconds for the passage of time. Stross is insinuating a sort of dark, hyper-capitalist economic system, where time is indeed money. This, indeed, is a rather unique approach to time-keeping. Hannu Rajaniemi also offers up a unique economic system that hinges on the passage of time in The Quantum Thief that forces readers to reconsider the nature of time. There are numerous examples of interesting conceptualizations of time. However, it’s the bad examples, the lazy, low-hanging fruit examples, that irk me.

Most of the lazy examples I have in mind come from fantasy, especially fantasy that tries to rip off medieval European history. I argued in “Seeing Colors Again” that fantasy fiction tends to whitewash and distort the true alien nature of the medieval period in Europe. European history shows that there was little, if any, uniformity among the various kingdoms, principalities, and cities of the medieval West. (This same argument of mine runs counter to Marlon James’s assertion that fantasy is too European in flavor. In fact, I have argued that James is oversimplifying the rather complex nature of Europe, especially medieval Europe.) Taking this into account would likely help writers create rich (and exciting) worlds/universes for readers to explore. If we take real history as our guide for fantasy fiction (or even science-fiction), we find that truth is far stranger than any fiction we can fashion together.

I will conclude by paraphrasing Marc Bloch’s wonderful anecdote in Feudal Society (Vol. I) concerning the concept of time in medieval European society. Bloch relays a story about a proposed duel that was to take place at a given time. One duelist showed up, while the other did not. The duelist who showed up asked the convening authorities to call it and have it marked in the record that his opponent did not appear by the agreed upon time. The officials were unsure if the predetermined time had indeed passed. They deliberated and even talked with members of the local church that maintained the bells. After a serious debate, the officials agreed the predetermined time for the duel had indeed passed. What’s the moral of this story? Time is malleable given the different cultural contexts we have to deal with. In world-building, it would be a sin to ignore the richness and the absurdity that surrounds our very real conceptualizations of time. In other words, if we are to fashion fictional worlds or universes, the passage of time will be key in helping us understanding culture, economics, politics, religion, and society itself.

Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico