The Losing Game of Time

The morning after Christmas, I raised a cup of coffee, turned to my wife, and said, “Congratulations, we survived Christmas.” It was a light-hearted, but not entirely factitious declaration. It did feel like “surviving,” which is not at all what it should feel like, of course. As the words were leaving my mouth, I realized that they regrettably contained more truth than they ought to. (I mean this in a strictly “first-world” sense, of course. There are too many people for whom life as survival is an all-too-real and deadly reality, and it would be obscene to compare my situation to theirs.)

But what’s to be done? It’s not just “the holidays,” rather it seems to be the nature of life as it has come to be for many of us. The problem may feel especially pointed around this time of year because, in one way or another, the contrast between how we believe the season ought to feel and how it actually does is stark to the point of despair if one dwells on it for very long.

I realize it’s a long-standing Christmas tradition to decry the commercialization of the holiday or to bemoan how it has become a consumerist wasteland, etc., etc. For example, a week or two ago (who can sort the days and data out anymore?) a story about the joys of a gift-less Christmas was making the rounds. I caught the author on NPR around the same time, too. This year’s leading entry in the genre, I suppose. Which is fine, but it somehow misses the point.

The question—what is to be done?—maybe that is the problem, or at least it seemed so to me just then as I continued to think about why it must always feel like survival. Without implying that the line is hard and fixed between the two, it may be better to ask “How are we to be?” rather than “What are we to do?” The latter implies a program of action, a method for greater efficiency or productivity, yet another layer of technique and management, a continuing effort to, in one memorable rendering of the language of Ecclesiastes, sculpt the mist: to double-down, it seems, on the very things that have played no small role in generating the situation we’re trying somehow to overcome. At the very least, it seems that we should be able to ask both questions.

There are, undoubtedly, what we think of as structural factors—economic and social and, yes, technological—near the root of our harried, just-in-time way of life. And these structural factors come to a point in each of us; our orientation toward our own experience of the world is calibrated by the combined pressures generated by these structural conditions.

The obvious but obviously difficult thing to do is to somehow reorder these out of whack structures, but, this cannot finally happen without there also being some fundamental re-ordering of our own orientation to the world, perhaps especially our experience of time in the world.

Essentially this is a story about chronopolitics, the imperatives, conditions, and powers that structure the experience of time for societies and individuals. There are any number of ways to think about this. Among the more obvious is to consider how power and wealth tend to yield greater autonomy over our experience of time. But I’m interested not only in how we allot our time, thinking of time as a resource, but also about our internal experience of time, which I’ve described as “the speed at which we feel  ourselves moving across the temporal dimension.”

It seems now that it might be better to put it this way: the speed at which we feel ourselves wanting to move across the temporal dimension. What generates this inner sense that we must rush, speed, dash, careen onward through our days, weeks, months, years? What makes it seem as if we are only just “surviving” each day? Perhaps it is some prior imperative to master time, a game at which we can only ever lose. And one that was both suggested and sustained by tools to measure, divide, save, freeze, and otherwise control time. As Lewis Mumford famously observed, “the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.”

In his study of place, philosopher Edward Casey first considered the triumph of time in the modern world: “‘Time will tell’: so we say, and so we believe, in the modern era. This era, extending from Galileo and Descartes to Husserl and Heidegger, belongs to time, the time when Time came into its own.”

“Scheduled and overscheduled,” he added, “we look to the clock or the calendar for guidance and solace, even judgment! But such time-telling offers precious little guidance, no solace whatsoever, and a predominantly negative judgment (‘it’s too late now’) … We are lost because our conviction that time, not only the world’s time but our time, the only time we have, is always running down.”

More from Casey:

“The pandemic obsession with time from which so many moderns have suffered — and from which so many postmoderns still suffer — is exacerbated by the vertiginous sense that time and the world-order, together constituting the terra firma of modernist solidity, are subject to dissolution. Not surprisingly, we objectify time and pay handsome rewards … to those who can tie time down in improved chronometry. Although, the modern period has succeeded brilliantly in this very regard, it has also fallen into the schizoid state of having made objective, as clock-time and world-time, what is in fact most diaphanous and ephemeral, most ‘obscure’ in human experience. We end by obsessing about what is no object at all. We feel obligated to tell time in an objective manner; but in fact we have only obliged ourselves to do so by our own sub rosa subreptions, becoming thereby our own pawns in the losing game of time.”

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4 thoughts on “The Losing Game of Time

  1. There is industrial, or digital time – the clock and quarterly report, etc. A serial affair. (This can also be described as Judeo/historical time; a narrative with beginning and end.)

    There is Einstein’s time – an aspect of the physical world that emerges from distance.

    There is biological “time” – seasonal, lunar, monstrously, mating, etc…; a cyclical affair without beginning or ending.

    You seem only concerned with the first.

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