Zeitgebers, Pacemakers and Objects of Time

Charles Stewart, UCL Anthropology

timeThis being athletics season, I was watching a major European track event on the television when the pacemaker caught my attention in a middle distance race.  The announcer was excoriating him for running too far ahead of the pack, thus becoming an irrelevance. Pacemakers, also referred to as ‘rabbits’ (but never called ‘pacesetters’ in the running world) are paid to run laps at a clip that puts runners in position to break records. They may be compared with an apparently more dependable species of ‘rabbit’, the mechanical ones used at dog tracks; fluffy little dolls suspended from an iron bar, motorized to speed ahead of the greyhounds, luring them to chase.  At many American dog tracks races begin with announcements such as ‘here comes the bunny.’

Kevin Birth’s rich and insightful new book, Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality, prompted me to see these rabbits in a new way.  Unlike clocks or calendars they do not provide absolute measurements; nor are they autonomous environmental cues (zeitgebers), such as sunrise, the sound of birds or the feel of diurnal temperature fluctuations, which influence our internal circadian rhythms.  Rabbits are zeitgebers (literally ‘time givers’) of another sort: they regulate time to achieve relative targets such as a world record or a fast-enough dog race.  As Bachelard pointed out, temporal rhythms are fundamental to existence.  We all have phases of being hungry or sleepy, for instance, and we intimately know ourselves to be enmeshed in multiple, overlapping rhythms.  Happiness, according to Bachelard, rests in awareness of these rhythms and the ability to live in harmony with them.  Ideally we would work exactly when we felt most energetic and rest when tired.  The problem is the tyranny of ‘superimposed time’. Reference to yet one more pacemaker illustrates this bind – the cardiac pacemaker, which overrides the lazy or inconsistent heartbeat of the individual.  Beneficial and life-saving, yes, in many circumstances, but until recently, anyone switching these devices off could be accused of murder as Katy Butler explains in her heart-rending account of her father’s declining health (‘What Broke My Father’s Heart’).  Pacemakers can superimpose lifetime on bodies that have otherwise run out of life-sustaining rhythms.

Colonization involves the superimposition of time on a different scale. Methodists setting a clock in their mission church among the South African Tswana inculcated a new consciousness of time, prayer and work according to the Comaroffs.  Standardized Western temporal templates were foisted onto people around the globe who had generally told time according to social and environmental rhythms. Nuer time reckoning according to the cycle of activities involved in cattle raising, or Balinese time regulated in relation to kinship are two classic examples.  Into these worlds barged clock time.  Birth convincingly demonstrates that these absolute time scales predicated upon homogeneous units (e.g. days, hours, seconds) did not arise with nationalism as Benedict Anderson asserted, but rather as accompaniments to centralized power more generally. This takes us back at least to the Roman Empire, and it is no coincidence that months bear Roman names, while the division of the day into 24 units comes from ancient Sumer.  For these reasons Birth considers modern time to be necromantic in its dependence on the inventions of the dead, which we follow without understanding the underlying principles.  I liked the imaginative resonance of that assertion, although I remained unpersuaded at a pedestrian level.  For one thing, every complicated cultural tradition transmitted to the present would be necromantic.  And in any case, it depends on what one understands necromancy to be.  My association was with using the physical remains of the dead for magical purposes, or as objects for divination or musing such as when Hamlet holds the skull in his hand while reflecting: ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…’

Objects of Time ranges over matters of time and time keeping historically, with fascinating examples from Roman and Medieval times.  It is also deeply informed by Birth’s ethnographic experience of life in Trinidad, where he has conducted field research resulting in an earlier book Anytime is Trinidad Time.  What he can show is that people live according to a multiplicity of temporal cues in the course of an average day.  They make only occasional or oblique reference to clock time, and clock time is often subordinated to their system of reference. If a regular ball game in the park opposite one’s house normally ends at 2 p.m. then, whenever the sound of play stops is 2 p.m. – whether or not the clock agrees. Trinidadians have a multitemporal, cross-cutting system of time reckoning based on all manner of sonic, social and solar cues. The advent of clock time and the power we may suppose it to have established through colonialism (or modernity in general), has not been decisive and overriding like the heart pacemaker, but rather creolized into local repertoires of time telling. The clock is only a facet of Trinidad time. Like distance runners they can choose to ignore the pacemaker.

The cover of this book shows a timepiece from the French revolutionary period with two dials. One displays the newly introduced, hyper-rational revolutionary time (10-hour day) and the other the traditional 24-hour day.  It is an object that reveals how difficult it is to translate time systems; so difficult in this instance that a mechanical calculator was needed.  This illustrates one of Birth’s key insights, that clocks have a ‘formal completeness’ that allows them to inform experience very powerfully and fundamentally; map IS territory.  Furthermore, clocks, together with all other chronometric objects and environmental cues, form part of an extended mind, a distributed cognition whereby humans and objects prop one another up in a system of relations.  Different time keeping systems, or bodies of experience such as those found on Trinidad, are thus immensely difficult to translate into one another since they exist as sedimented sets of experiential logic.  Local multitemporal timekeeping is the stuff of Bourdieu’s habitus; a body of knowledge that comes and goes without saying.  Birth compares the situation with language relativity, and observes that we can generally translate languages and understand one another across language barriers.  With language we can always resort to saying the same thing using different words to convey the basic concept.  As artefacts, timekeeping objects cannot gloss one another; their inner experiential worlds cannot be translated.  In the Middle Ages a spacium was the unit of time it took to walk a particular circuit. A monk might be instructed to eat for no longer than one half spacium. The Western clock requires no experience of walking in order to tell time in agreement with others.  Time keeping objects woven into multitemporal repertoires are, we might say, ontological and it is considerably more difficult to translate ontologies into one another than it is to translate words or concepts. One has to live into them.