:: Article

A Switch in Time

By Atreyee Majumder.

Seventeen-year-old Mala, whose family I was friends with, and whose village carnival I was visiting, asked me at night if I had a boyfriend—also if I had a Facebook account. She liked to roam around the village on her own, she said. Hence, the mela (carnival) days were good for her. She had a ready excuse to get out of the house and go for a stroll. She said she didn’t like to go anywhere with family, because family people mostly like to sit in one place. Mala roams the spatial confines of the village and frequents the mela, configuring mobility and non-familial modes of being in the otherwise tightly marked walking routes of the village. In her flaneurial walking routines, she makes the unfamiliar out of the familiar. The unfamiliar is the key to exoneration from the finitude of the village. Her penchant for walking around the village creates scalar disturbances within a seemingly stable, bounded space.

I started thinking keenly about the impact of movement, rhythm, timeliness, direction, orientation and pace after this nightly, girlish interaction with Mala. Where she sought to make the bounded open, expand the limited—by walking around and around in it. What did it mean to introduce or change pace, rhythm and orientation in a landscape? Mala was infusing a kinesthesis of walking into the confines of the village. A landscape was shaken up from its usual rhythm by her walking-round-and-round movement. Perhaps it expands a little, in the infusion of this new temporality. I imagined it spinning like a carnival merry-go-round, with the round-and-round-walks.

In Reinhart Koselleck’s vocabulary, time is essentially a spatial sensation. It manifests in zones. Zones co-exist, sometimes conscious of each other, sometimes not, sometimes entangling. Doreen Masssey offers the formulation that space is convened temporally; the freezing of temporal flows invokes a spatial imagination. What Mala was doing was reintroducing temporal flow into the frozen snapshot of the bounded village. She was expanding and contracting at her will a sense of the spatial spread of the village, by positioning and re-positioning herself on it, in a definite rhythm. She was not running away to a city, nor remaining incarcerated in the village—tropes that usually command stories of human movement and stationariness. By switching speeds and adopting new time-cycles, she was introducing rhythms and speeds that would alter the spatiality of the bounded landscape of a village, thereby altering her own location. This fanciful craft of a suffocated young village-girl led me to think about mundane, spontaneous makings, unmakings and alterings of time with speed, rhythm, orientation.

I wish to focus on this making, unmaking, switching, jumping of times. The sensation of a room if it has wifi internet running through it, and if it doesn’t, are quite different. A rocking chair feels different from a similar but stationary chair, which in turn feels different from the stationary chair in the boot of a moving car. Just as a village feels very different if one experiences it in stationariness, than it does in walking down an alley, or walking round-and-round along its boundaries. The activity of ‘holding sway’ or kinesthesis brings a sense of location to the body. The locus of the body brings into being a spatiotemporal configuration of the here, which the body occupies, as oriented to there, that the body can consider in perspective. This business of figuring out the relational placing of things and bodies as here and there, is not without its political underpinnings, especially when assessed from the point of view of nations, states, communities, civilizations.

Our Times, Their Times

I come back from India, after eighteen months of fieldwork, craving the smooth flow of time that my east coast university life offers. The car moves smoothly here, my card swipes smoothly, coffee froths, tea bubbles, kitchen wipes wipe, the wooden floor shines. Smoothly. A moment coalesces into the next. As if there was a wondrous lubricant lining the track of time. Quite the opposite of my daily treks through the hinterlands of manufacturing, in Bengal. It is the smoothness and bumpiness of time that I wish to address.

Time is pulled out of a highway, a shopping spree, a baseball match, and trickled into a two-hour, darkened, carpeted movie. People entering are prepared to switch gear to a different clock. The transition has a clear watershed—walking into the theaters, keeping cellphones away. I used to covet my mornings on the toilet-seat as a child, as they provided a meager window of slowtime before I was thrust into the violent rhythms of productive being—breakfast, schoolbus and so on. My purpose here is to illustrate the straddling of speeds and gears of variant times, in intimate, interwoven domains of everyday life. One didn’t have to move to New Guinea, as the early anthropologists did, to realize the metropolitan wish-image of a different, distant time. Times that were spatially, socially removed. Times that were reminders of modernity’s many pasts. The simultaneous, generative and entangled making and unmaking of many times lies in the everyday.

I was coming back from the zone of many nerve-endings of time coiled and pouring out into a murky river, a bit north of its mouth at the Bay of Bengal. Major colonial installations are housed on the industrial west bank of the river Hooghly—the Howrah Bridge, the Howrah station (a major centre of the Eastern Railways in India) and the Botanical Gardens (built by Colonel Kyd in the 1890s, and accorded heritage status in recent years), the tall and decrepit wagon-manufacturing yard of Burn Std. Co. The dead river Saraswati is remembered to have flown through the Batore area in the city, around which it joins with the Kona Expressway today. These banks of the Hooghly witnessed the advent of manufacture through the dockyards and associated ship repair efforts. The urban planner calls them ‘sunset’ industries. Scrap iron, hammer-and-tong sparks, metallic waste form the prominent component of the industrial geography.

The Shalimar station is hardly a host for mobility—it is a site of stationary trains. Men put their feet up on the seat here, unbutton their shirts. A masculine leisure is mirrored between a stretched-out train and a stretched-out man. This is where the feverish pace comes to a halt. The world is kept at a distance, as one recuperates for the next round. Warehouses and godowns stand guard for cargo and the resting men. Sacks are thrown one on top of the other. Some slipped aside for a quick passage into the grey zone. Its shining, whitewashed, blue-lined walls are awkward. As if they were all geared up for a green signal that never came. A zone of slowtime is jealously encased at the Shalimar station between wagons; goods and men head out into the violent geography of manufacture and movement in the vicinity. It would be wrong for me to name this region a zone of fast-time, reading the speed of trucks along the highway. It would be wrong if I named it by the sedentariness of the unbuttoned men at Shalimar.

Space of Experience

An additive logic of time shapes history—in the recording and knowledge-making that claims to add a minute to the next, a century to the next, thus producing the sensation of a continuous string containing units of time—one merging into the next. In Heidegger’s terms, these are marked and reckoned times, made legible in a public register of time. Orientation of one’s temporal logic and language to outer, farther things and events—deaths of emperors and ends of wars—thus yields a ‘world-historical’ time. Reinhart Koselleck shows, in the book Futures Past, that the emergence of ‘progress’ in the historical domain causes a shift from the Christian determination of time as counting moments left until The End of the World. Koselleck shows ‘prognoses’ in time that maintain a determined geography of movement of time that follows from its earlier flow. A prognosis is a trajectory that a temporal arc, or movement, assumes. We find that some arcs, politically speaking, seek to subsume and iron out other arcs, so that times either synchronize with the significant time-arc, or are erased from the geography of times.

Anthropologists of time—famously Johannes Fabian, in the book Time and the Other—have shown the emergence of our times and their times, coded in culture. Other times of other cultures are viewed spatially, at a distance from those of the west, but visible, legible. I wish to argue for a non-anthropological view of time—one in which the slowtime of movie theaters, the speeding of highways, and the longtime of nations, wars and extinct species coexist. While Fabian points to culture as a key timekeeping instrument, Heidegger writes of a whole range of temporal sensibilities, emerging from and producing location, orientation, rhythm, perspective. I wish to look closely at these temporal sensations as they make ‘time’ emerge in organic, fecund ways in any scenario—irrespective of, yet responsive to, their cultural codings. Orientation is an important coordinate of Dasein—‘being there’. The distance from the rooted ‘I’ marks nearness, distance, perspective, concernfulness about ‘there’, “I” being spatially contained, in holding, or being inside. Spatial environment is measured in the passing of time, as bodies or perspectives move from one point to another— this is ‘environmentality’ as Heidegger would call it.

On the other hand, time itself draws out a geography, a ‘space of experience’, as Koselleck would argue. Each such ‘space of experience’ can emit its own ‘horizon of expectation’, directing the flow of the temporality it generates. An empire marks a ‘horizon of expectation’, or a war, the appearance of a comet, an extinct species, Facebook. The time of development, as marked by the global aid bureaucracy, creates a horizon of expectation of anticipation of roads, electricity, or Coke – in much of the third world. As if they are waiting in line to enter a space of complete habitation of a nowtime that others have already reached. The now is passing them by, as they inhabit the now in waiting. Simultaneity and switching is not as easily accessed if one is politically disempowered. On the other hand, the US undergraduate backpacker can switch time in the summer, inhabit the mysterious time of an Indian village, and switch back to university routine as the fall semester begins. She can even switch time, in the middle of the semester, digging up YouTube videos of sights and sounds of the village she visited. It would be wrong to say that the villager can’t access this time-agility at all. He does so through regional or transnational aspirational mobility. He travels to find work in Mumbai, Qatar and New York. Again horizons of expectation are fed into him, through spatial mobility. Perhaps his wife is not as mobile. But for the migrant worker and the US undergraduate eighteen-year-old, times are truncated, sutured back and available for switching around, primarily through the act of altering spatial location. Such movement may lend times to those not participating in the movement directly. The worker’s wife may hear of stories of Mumbai, and inhabit it through refracted images of Bollywood, or the American student’s grandmother may switch to India, through chats with her grand-daughter.

When one contemplates a series of war photographs in a gallery, their immediacy and violence coalesce with the magic of a ‘wartime era’ that they bring to the time of digital media. One switches between and cohabits different temporalities. Large swathes of time—be it the time of medieval warfare, or of extinct species—are invoked in the modern ritual, in film, art, genre fiction, architecture, design. Such kernels may be coded in terms of large canvases of culture and religion—the lunar and solar calendar, the time of Jesus, the time of American capitalism and suchlike. And then there are organic, fecund eruptions in the daily weave of movement between man and material that emerge as rhythms ordering everyday life. One can check out of a moment, and draw out memories of a song or a film, in the measured time-span of a red light at a crossroad. This jump-out and jump-back-in—or switch—as the light turns green, is a strategy of straddling times (through movements, speeds, rhythms, scales) that does not involve the knowledge-consciousness of historical, whole times that might come to battle with each other across cultural registers.

The fast and the hyper-modern become interwoven with the ruinous and slow. Extinct animals and medieval warriors emerge in the midst of expressways and airports. The munch of cereal or the running time of a song are measured in their bracketed finitude. A song on the iPod runs through to its end. A playlist of songs runs to its end. Cycles of time-reckonings loop inside each other. These bracketed times get sutured onto other cycles—the roaring of a car-engine, speeding, halt, conversation, lull, laughter, forgetting. Concern and perspective shift from an activity to another, to another’s activity, perhaps simultaneously—each running its own cycle of start-finish. Each acknowledging the simultaneity of several other cycles such as itself. Worlds are shaped, reshaped, merged, disaggregated. Time-reckoning, be it counting, clocking, recording, mediating, is carried out in multiple registers, often simultaneously.

That deep time is a key component of the modern nation-state is widely recognized. Much of the postcolonial endeavor of new nations of the twentieth century has concerned the extraction of oeuvres of longtime through heritage, art, architecture, scripture. And the sharp lament about ever-accelerating compressed global time, too, takes cognizance of the production of time-switching within the edifices of hyper-modernity. An entry into a film theater or museum or a simulated World War II show are some such devices. A package of a different time, offered as legitimate enclaves of time-switch within the times, speeds and movements of the hyper-modern. A package of a different time is unfurled as a fast-paced Mumbai life is put on hold, in the invoking of the fire god at a Hindu wedding ceremony. An immediate time-arc is momentarily deserted to amble about in the arc of a longtime. And then return.

Time-Arcs, History, Here and Now

The arguments about time emerging as sensation, orientation, movement, and speed are in a different register than when we say time with a T. That is the time of History. An all-engulfing database that moves along an endless, abstract arc of time. Important things are marked as milestones on this arc. What is important, as we know, is determined by people, institutions, imaginaries that shape the now. The politics of making ‘world-historical’ time in the unfolding of a meta-history, and its many sub-chapters, joins hands with the anthropological project. The histories of rule, power, culture and modernity hence interrogate and also nourish the more conventional project of history, contributing to the expansive and thorough remembering of the making of the contemporary world from the point of view of those that control its grammar. The battle between meta-history (one that emanates from the European historical locus) and many other histories is a trope much discussed in postcolonial studies, significantly in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book Provincializing Europe. It is a certain conception of time and the role that it plays in history that informs this historical reasoning—that civilizations (Europe and others) fill their time with stories they are best oriented towards, to create a history, pull in other histories in a manner that strengthens their political project and orientation towards the locations of these other histories. To this history, according to its geopolitical status, are added sub-chapters of other worlds. The making and preservation of corpora of coagulated time may be at the forefront of Euro-modern historical enterprise, but it is part of any historical adventure, I’d argue. Some may get pushed aside by the political strength of others. Hence, aside from the battles among them, History 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s are all anxiously embracing packages of frozen times, as history. Some may be more fragmented than others. Some carrying greater empirical support. But the additive, inventorizing intervention in time that becomes history, oral or written, subaltern or elite, is common to them all. My purpose is to see these as distinct times—not simply the anthropologically diverse, geographically legible corpora of time—time as sensation, movement, orientation, rhythm on one hand, and time as the parcelized debris of past flows.

To attend to the latter gives us a view of the subject beyond the performative, speaking, acting, mimetic, public, private tropes. A time-making subject arises in all canvases of political being— the Western citizen comfortably ensconced in WiFi environments, or the woman in an Indian village accessing Switzerland through Bollywood song-and-dance. Switches are made possible through movement across space, or in a range of creative moves to adopt the time-arcs of other, distant times—those of dinosaurs, meteors or fire gods. The time-switching, time-making subject is able to carry out an agile habitation of nowtime, trapezing through multiple time-arcs.

Atreyee Majumder is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, Yale University. Her interests lie in historical and political anthropology, and anthropologies of space, time and capital. In a different life, she was a lawyer, activist and legal researcher on issues of land acquisition, indigenous rights, and natural resource management.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013.