Tag Archives: temporality

Time and Technics

Christopher Pinney, UCL Anthropology

Salman Rushdie once suggested in an interview that in India you can traverse several centuries just by crossing the road.  Perhaps another way into the same question was provided by Malraux, (inevitably) more poetically in his Anti-Memoirs (“…in war, in museums real or imaginary, in culture, in history perhaps, I have found again and again a fundamental riddle, subject to the whims of memory which […] does not recreate a life in its original sequence. Lit by an invisible sun, nebulae appear which seem to presage an unknown constellation…Often linked to memory [certain scenes] sometimes turn out more disturbingly to be linked to the future too”).  I’ve always understood Rushdie’s observation to be an affirmation of Kracauer’s argument about diverse materially embedded temporalities which was difficult to reconcile with, for instance, Appadurai’s argument about modernity being simultaneously present, everywhere. Appadurai, I imagine was responding in a Saidean mode to those Orientalists for whom the several centuries that co-exist outside EuroAmerica positions certain regions, if not outside of history, then in a different kind of history. But Appadurai’s assumption was vulnerable to the argument Bhabha makes against the (originally Herderian) claim for a stable national time.

Bhabha’s questions about time-lags and disjunctures, and the manner in which temporality might be materially and technically embedded, and hence fragmented and disseminated, came to mind recently in central India. An old photographer friend was discussing the history of his studio and assembled all his old cameras on his studio front desk as concrete embodiments of passing time. His first was a Yashica 120, then a (now battered) Nikon 35mm analogue camera and then his current working kit of two digital Nikon SLRs. These were all placed together on the desk and manipulated as though they were actual slabs of time. Later that same day I visited Prakash Talkies one of the two remaining cinemas in Nagda Jn, a town which now has a population of about 200,000. When I first started to work here in the early 1980s its population was less than 50,000, four cinemas thrived and it was in Prakash Talkies that fell in love with Reena Roy and Sridevi while I ate freshly roasted peanuts, throwing the shells on the floor.

Prakash Talkies is the local fleapit. It specialises in action movies and when full can seat 600 people. The 6pm show at Prakash Talkies had been cancelled because of lack of customers but this did not prevent the manager, Mr. Porwal from putting on a private test screening.  The cinema was built in 1965 but has a peculiarly ancient and well-cared feel to it, stained with the friendly patina of small-town dreams. Design-wise it is very art-deco and if you didn’t know it was built in the 60s you would think it was a survivor from the 1920s. He was keen to show me the latest cinematic technology, a direct satellite link with his distributor in Mumbai. But to get to that you first have to negotiate two vast hulking machines in the projection room which also seem radically out of time. They were made in 1981 (not 1931 as I first imagined). Mr Porwal knows this because they formerly belonged to another cinema, Kiran Talkies, and he personally installed them in their current location. These vast impressive beasts, having something of the colossal majesty of huge steam locomotives, take up almost the whole of the projection room. It is clear that they are later imports into a room originally designed to house much smaller equipment. To the right side of the room is a wondrous space where film spools hang from the wall like fossils suspended in blue lias, coiled remnants of an ancient epoch. A hand-winder sits, long neglected, on a thin table, like detritus from a Dutch still life, barely illuminated by the bare electric bulbs that hang down from the ceiling.

Counterpoised with this sheer machinicity, the fantastic corpulent image-delivery apparatus of the steam-engine projectors, on the other side of the room, is a tiny air conditioned cubicle measuring about two and half feet by two feet. In this sits a new digital projector together with two servers and satellite equipment, all of which hums efficiently. This tiny intrusion is the end point of a digital superhighway down which the Mumbai distributor, UFO, streams satellite content directly to dusty, crumbly, ancient, Prakash Talkies, hallway between Mumbai and Delhi. Everything that the vast lumbering dinosaur projectors once did is now delivered with superior fidelity by this minute, cool, space.  Here in this tiny room, at the top of a deserted provincial cinema, was something like Rushdie’s street, something akin to my photographer friend’s materialisation of time. Cinematic ammonites glinting in the light cast by the latest, quietly purring, UFO.

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.

CFP: “A Matter of Time: Temporalities of Material Culture”

9th Visual and Cultural Studies Graduate Conference University of Rochester April 5-7, 2013

Deadline: Submit a 250-word abstract for 20 minute paper presentations and CV via vcsconference@gmail.com by no later than January 15, 2013.

As cultural critics have noted over the past thirty years, we seem to be living in an age of dematerialization. Increased information transfer speed, the disintegration of boundaries between private and public, and the commercialization of image networks have provoked anxiety regarding the control of objects and images. Yet, taking a critical stance toward the temporal thrust of this thinking—its teleology, its faith in progress—we seek to historicize this anxiety as merely another renegotiation in a continually evolving relation of time and matter. Has our relationship to material objects ever been fixed?

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Symposium: The Secret Life of Objects – Materialities, Medialities, Temporalities

The International Symposium “The Secret Life of Objects: Materialities, Medialities, Temporalities” will take place in Rio de Janeiro, between August 1st and 3rd. Promoted by the State University of Rio de Janeiro, along with several other academic institutions (such as the Vilem Flusser Archiv and Universität Wien), the event is intended to debate the emergence of new paradigms, epistemologies and intellectual scenarios within the
Humanities (see below). The keynote speaker will be the French sociologist Bruno Latour and several other participants have already confirmed their presence (Graham Harman, Siegfried Zielinski, Joachim Paech, Richard Grusin, Steven Shaviro, Ian Bogost etc.).

Overview: There are strong indications that a significant transformation is underway in the so-called “human sciences” (Geisteswissenschaften, sciences humaines, Humanities). After a period of intense crisis and uncertainty, in which human sciences have frequently sought to mirror or approach the hard sciences, the beginning of the twenty-first century seems to witness a broad renewal of disciplines, approaches and methodologies. From the questioning of its traditional foundations, humanities are reinventing themselves by a broad reconfiguration of its borders and even of the notion of “humanity” that served as its cornerstone. One of the areas where the wealth of this new scenario is most clearly displayed is that of media studies. Spurred by the impact of new digital technologies, media studies cleverly learned to appropriate the epistemological principles and major theoretical issues that have come to characterize the contemporary cultural scene. The objective of the Seminar “The Secret Life of Objects: Medialities, Materialities, Temporalities” is to sketch a systematization of this scenario from a transdisciplinary perspective, but with a decisive focus on communication studies and culture. The three axes that structure the Seminar represent articulating knots that cut across different disciplines in the humanities, from sociology to philosophy, but acquire special meaning in the context of new media studies. The underlying assumption is that we need to radically rethink the notion of epistemic agency in a context where the action and the impact of the objects, media and technological materialities become increasingly important. Thus, it is not only necessary to investigate the place of human actors in a world enriched by the life of polymorphic objects, but also to highlight the issues that the strong tradition of hermeneutics of the humanities have often obscured: what, without constituting meaning per se, contributes nonetheless to the production of meaning? What is a medium and how mediation processes unfold? In what ways does technological materiality inform cultural worlds and determine forms of cognition? What new models of historical research of techniques and culture are emerging within the current epistemological paradigms? In what ways is the material dimension of experience combined with the intangible dimensions of culture? What does it mean to purport an “object-oriented” philosophy? In what sense does the category of the human reconfigure itself in light of our new relations with objects and nonhuman entities? How important is the legacy of the genealogy and archeology of knowledge (Nietzsche, Foucault) to a perspectivization of the impacts of “new” digital culture? By means of interdisciplinary panels, in which philosophers, anthropologists and scientists will discuss with experts in media studies, we intend to address these issues in order to elaborate a preliminary cartography of an epistemological territory still in its early stages of exploration.

The event is free and open to the public. Enrollment is possible trough our website
vidadosobjetos/inscricao. The form is in Portuguese, but it’s very easy to fill out:

Nome (name)

CPF (ID Number, if known)


Profissão (Profession)

Instituição (Institution)

Cidade/Estado (City/State)

Link para Redes Sociais (Link for social networks)

The event is organised by Erick Felinto (President) – UERJ, Adalberto Müller – UFF/Letras, André Lemos – UFBA, Fernanda Bruno – UFRJ, Lúcia Santaella – PUCSP, Maurício Lissovsky – UFRJ, Simone de Sá – UFF and Vinicius Andrade Pereira – UERJ.


On premature aging


Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber, PhD, Department of Anthropology, Washington State University Vancouver

In a couple of remarks collected from costume designers in the course of my research on the making of popular Hindi films (“Bollywood”), I was told that a challenge for the designer wanting to create “real” (as opposed to glamorous or overstated) costumes was that there was no interest in or knowledge of how to age them. By aging they meant what is sometimes termed “breakdown” or “distressing” in other theatrical and film industries, or treating the finished costume so as to appear to the viewer that it had undergone anything from days to weeks to years of wear. Considering this question has led me to discussions with ager-dyers and costume designers in contexts where aging is expected and therefore conventional, and the examination of aged costumes and the settings in which they are made.
Aging ranges from more florid forms, creating torn and ragged garments, crusted with dirt, blood and so forth that are called for in specific dramatic contexts, all the way to subtle uses that barely draw any attention at all. The point of extreme aging is to assert the veracity of the experiences, some of them traumatic, of the film’s characters. Tattered, blood-spattered clothing are demanded by vigorous action scenes; dirty, decaying clothes by scenes of poverty and neglect. They speak too to the emotional drain such experiences exact on the characters. Indeed, the painstaking breakdown of costume in action films seems an essential component of the co-option of the indexicality of film images to act as, as Black puts it, a “realist guarantee for the unreal”. Consider, for example, this thumbnail description of the kind of request an ager/dyer might get from a costume designer: “it’s a late 1800s silhouette, they have caught the plague, they’re on a ship, then the ship was hit and they were burnt, and went to the bottom of the ocean for hundreds of years but then there is a good guy. What do they look like?”

At the other end of the spectrum, discreet, restrained aging of a costume can involve as little as a wash before it is worn. Workforce stipulations in Europe and the US insist on the cleanliness and wearability of costume, and some ager-dyers are unusually, perhaps uniquely sensitive to the fact that the mundane new clothing we buy in shops is not necessarily safe or hygienic to wear. But the ultimate answer to “why” the subtlest of aging is done is that in this way costumes look less fresh from the tailor’s bench, and more fished from the character’s wardrobe. The overriding, taken-for-granted assumption in such a conviction is that the plausibility of a costume emerges from the extent to which it seems even minutely ‘lived-in.’ It is in the unconscious recognition of the worn collar and cuff, the shiny knee on the trouser or elbow in the coat, the softer folds or resilient creases of a washed and rewashed blouse, that realism is confirmed.

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