A Sideways Look At Time

A Sideways Look At Time is a 1999 book by Jay Griffiths that I find myself referencing over and over again. I thought I’d take some time to re-read the book and pen my notes and thoughts.

There’s more to time than clocks, time isn’t necessarily money, different people mean different things by “five minutes”, linear and cyclical time may be ‘gendered’, Western modernity’s time is ‘coercive, crushing and overwound, and analysis of time should include art, advertising, philosophy, literature, anthropology, history, sociology, music and myth

Speed: fantastic but fatal, exhilarating but frightening, fabulous but fascistic. Western time is a subtle but profound example of cultural imperialism.

BC / AD -> BCE CE (before common era, common era)

“We are so preoccupied with our gridded, subdivided constructions of numbered measurements that we lose sight of the gorgeous, lifeful thing itself. Modernity knows the strut and the fret. But not the hour.”

“Cities more than anything create the clock-time of modernity, constructing a whole world based on the artifice of the clock and calendar.”

“Speed is deceptive and alluring, adrenaline-pounding and cruel, fantastic and fascistic, everything is speeded up, from relationships to ever more temporary jobs, from fast foods to fast clothes and fast knowledge, foreshortening time. But as well as being speeded up, time is broken into ever smaller pieces. Diaries are printed with gridded time in fifteen-minute appointments. A clock squats in the corner of many computer screens, while computers themselves split time and divide it into picoseconds and nanoseconds, far being any human sense of time, or human need, division for long division’s sake.”

Minutes were little used until the Industrial Revolution, which “needed” more exact time measurement.

Childbirth is timed mechanically. A child’s ability to learn is measured not by depth of understanding but by speed of progress. Work is usually costed by hours.

9,192,631,770 oscilations of the cesium atom define a second. 86,400 seconds in a day, and every one of these is officially pipped off, day after day, by the time-measurement division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Boulder Colorado, broadcasting the time.

Roughly every year a leapsecond is added to realign THE time with that of the earth – it is added to ‘accomodate’ the earth’s unreliable time. The earth, you see, is too inaccurate for modernity’s time measurement, because its spin changes by up to a thousadth of a second in some years. A thousandth of a second, indeed, tut tut, how unpunctual the earth. (It is slowed down by the gravitational pull of the moon). But the atomic fountain clock, the NIST F-1 at boulder, “is entirely free from the timing errors created… by the earth’s irregular movements in orbit”.

There are thousands of times, not one. To say any one time is THE time is both untrue and highly political.

To the Karen, the forest over the course of a day supplied a symphony of time, provided you knew the score. […] Birds sag differently at different hours and, whyile the soloists of life are always with us, the whole orchestra of the forest altered, shifting with the sun’s day, all the noisy relations between birds, animals and insects, making chords of time played in all the instrumental interactions. Western time seems a thin, thin reedy peep of a thing by comparison.

The Karen always know where they are and when they are, how far they are from sunset or home – time and distance are connected. Sunset could be expressed as “three kilometers away”, because the only way of travelling is to walk, which takes a known length of time.

Similar indivisibility between social time and action. “When will a wedding take place?” The no-answer-possible smiles repplied. It happens when it happens: the doing of a thing and its timing are indivisible, the action is not jostled into the hour, but the hour becomes the action and the action becomes the hour.

[extensive bit about how different peoples have different times based on the seasonal rhythms of their environment]

“The Leco people don’t use the Roman calendar but nature’s calendar. You an’t use the Roman calendar to know when to fish. It’s imposed on us for registering births and for baptisms, but it doesn’t function for use in the forests. Bats tell us when to fish; when they fly close over the water.”

“For people, we wouldn’t count their ages but their stages of life – childhood or puverty, youth maturity and age. […] Your people are all planification and punctuality. In the cities, everything has to be at the hour. By contrast here in the mountains we give things time, without limits.”

“Most societies seem to have some form of week, though its number of days could be anything from three to sixteen. Babylonians designed a 7-day week, which was adopted by Judaeo-Christianity. The Inca used 8 day weeks. The Maya, for whom time was a deity, considered a 260-day cycle the most important time unit in the calenda,r thought to be because it represented the nine-moons-time between conception and childbirth.”

Navajo mythology – month of Slender Wind, month of Snow Crust, of Eaglets, of Delicate Leaves, of Maturing Vegetation – to each month a heart and a soft feather. Western clock (11:48) or calendar (06/30/05) preoccupied with numbers, numbs any feeling time itself. No heart, no soft feather.


Dakota indians say “the year is a circle around the world”. Th Yokuts say “the world has pased”. “How many times has the Guavira flowered in your lifetime?” “How many Aprils do you have?” “What’s your zodiac animal?”

“I am forty or forty-five, maybe. I have no need for years.” – Kalahari San Bushman

Nuer of Sudan – cattle clock, counted by th tasks of milking, pasturing, moving the cow from byre to kraal. In Rajasthan– the herds returning at evening is “cattle-dust-time”. Cow-time is local, social, embedded in nature’s processes. Clcoktime is global, applical anywhere, cow-time is local to the very udder-hour.

“A migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.” – Aldo Leopold

Cicero recorded that the flesh of oysters at sea waxed and waned with the full moon. Mussels keep in synchrony with the sea tides of the place where they were born, even wen moved to still water.

“In the spring the herring come and they spawn on kelp… it’s a spiritual thing that happens… i want to share what goes on in my spiritual self, in my body, come February. And I feel it’s an important point… my body feels that it’s time to spawn. It gets ready in February. I get a longing to be on the sea. I constantly watch the ocean surrounding the island where the herring spawn. My body is kind of on edge in anticipation. Finally the day ocomes when it spawns. The water gets all milky around it… this wonderful feeling on the day that it happens, the excitement, the relief that the herring did indeed come this year. And you don’t quite feel complete untl you are right out on the ocean with your hands in the water harvesting the kelp, the roe on kelp… and then your body feels right. The cycle is complete.”

The everlasting consolation of the sea is not all will be well, but all will endure. The sea is the source of life. Taoism – the ocea is equate with the Tao, the primordial and inexhaustible source, informing creation without being exhausted. Jainist thought describes an “ocean of years” being hundreds of millions of periods of countless years.

The fullness of time is ever emptied of its grace and generosity by today’s mean and gracelesss accountants-of-time. In contrast to the Native American belief that time is alive, the digital watch doesn’t animate the present but kils it with chronic momentism, emptying time of character as it atomizes it.

Someone is chatting with you and you surrepitiously look at your watch. Why the stealth? Because the glance is a faintly unkined interruption, a small social disjunction. In modern major cities, if you want to catch a bus, you check your watched and a printed timetable rather than ask a person.

No Indian bus driver would be seen dead being ordered to leave by scrappy bits of paper glued up seven years ago. Buses go and people know when, for here time still resides in the human,  not in the abstract, paper world.

“Dear Sir, I am arrive by passenger train at Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just as I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lotah [waterpot] in one hand and dhoti in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man, female, women on platform. I am get leaved at Ahmedpur station. This too much bad if passenger go to make dung that dam guard no wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake.” – letter from Indian man to superintendent of Indian railways in 1909

Modernity’s obsessive measurement of time alienates you from time itself, dividing you from the actual experience of time as measured by your hunger or by the buzz at a cafe. Listening to the pips on the radio, you can’t listen to time en ciel, to a skylark’s jazz riff. Measuring the moment prevents you from feeling its heart or being tickled by its soft feather. Tracking time stops you in your tracks.

Sociologist Barbara Adam in Timewatch notes how clock-based urgency resilts in high blood pressure, a battered immune system and ulcers. Too-frequent deadline times can distort one’s perception of time and can disturb the pace of the human heart. Deadlines, indeed.

The clock is not a synonym for time but the opposite of time. “Clocks slay time… only when the clock stops does time come to life.” – William Faulkner, The Sound at the Fury

Society begins to think in the forms it has structured for itself, linear, artificila, over-fragmented, modelling itself in the image of its machinery. Timekeeping pretends it is describing time more accurately, what it really describes is modernity in a telling self-portrait.

The mono-time of Greenwich mean time offers no sense of time’s generous variety, nor any intrinsic character or color to time, it is an artificial contruction, increasingly standardized, increasingly the same.

It is always mid-morning, mid-May in the shops and offices of the present – the light is the same and the temperature is the same. It is Same oçlock in the month of Same. Jack Frost is dreadfully unpunctual when it comes to showing up for Christmas, fake frost is far more punctually dependable for the window display of modernity. Time is divorced from nature as plastic plants pretend to a perennial summer they never knew.

Food products were once obstinate markers of time – the nut month, watermelon month… A recipe for summer pudding begins “seasonality not being what it used to be, there is no reason why you shouldn’t make this pudding… all year round.”The japanese symbol of beauty, the cherry blossom, is seasonality at its most sublime, representing the aesthetic of the evanescent, but when cherries are forced to blossom all the time, the fragile beauty of fleeting time is void of meaning. To live in a synthetic ever-present present is to live not in the fullness but in the emptiness of time.

The forest is the symobolic opposite of the city – according to Shakespeare there’s no clock in the forest. But the forest is one great big gong of time, as the Karen knew. Apple trees, birds’migration… time is everywhere in nature. While nature knows a million varieties of time, the clock of modernity knows only one. The same one. Everywhere.

The march towards monotime began slowly:

  • 1840, railways in Britain required a standardization of time
  • 1880 – London Time was decreed by law to be the  time for the whole country
  • 1883 – US standardized timekeeping for railways
  • 1884 – greenwhich was made zero meridian and the global day 24hr day began. Opposed by french until…
  • 1912 – International Conference on Time in Paris – though the meridian would be English, world-time would first pip in France (?)

The moment when the gradual spread of one world-time-recknoning became an actual experience of instantaneous time: April 14, 19212 – the distress signal sent from the sinking Titanic. A new sense of world unity, the global present.

Association between the media and present time is so deep that almost every part of the media is named with a time-referent; Paris-Midi, Time Magazine, the New York Times, Tiempo and Epoca, Die Zeit, Asahi Shimbun, Time Out, the Daily Telegraph, the Times of India, Today… Barcelona’s newspaper suggests it is ‘ahead ‘of time, titling itself La Vanguardia.

The use of the telegraph changed newspapers; once places of cultural memory (actually called news history in the ninetheenth century) they became in the eary twentieth century more focused on Change. The new global media tech, because of its mechanics, favored the short over the long. Information became broken and fragmented rather than continuous. Short facts. Bits.

The BBC’s rolling news service is advetised by “This is the Now OÇlock News from the BBC” – Now is always news. Contrast this with 667 and 668, left blank in the Annales Cumbriae, as if to say “nothing happened this year”, a phrase allegedly written one year by a decidedly underwhelmed Welsh chronicler.

The effect can become hypnotic. Modernity surrounds itself with scrolling TV, now now, imploding headlines, today, today, pages of endless newsprint rolling sideways into each other’s gutters, the text’s meaning escaping into a blank postmodern margin, guttering the spectator’s attention too, in its fold. Media-time demands your attention to the extent that real-time in your material world can seem immaterial.

Like the Titanic, the World Trade Center was considered invulnerable, its construction was an expression of national uperbia, of superiority, the towering colossus. People all over the world phoned each other, told each other to switch on the TV only to see the second jet hit the south tower.

Time was used to magnify the tragedy – The Day That Changed The World Forever, The Day The Earth Stood Stilll. The atrocity was named by its date – September 11.

One woman was being filmed as she watched the second tower fall: “Oh my God, my brother-in-law’s in that building.” That’s a soundbite, said the Channel 11 reporter to her producer. Hang on to that soundbite.

Any exaggerated tendency in society will throw up its comlementary opposite. 1913 – Henry Ford’s assembly line swept into action, making a car in 2 hours rather than 14. Picasso’s cubism shattered the idea of linear space in traditional perspective – the present moment broadened, thickened and filled out by the subjective mind. Einstein’s relativity – every frame of reference or moving body has its own  time.

Historian SStephen Kern argues that seven million people were sacrificed in World War 1 because of the manufacture of global time – the instanteniety of the telephone and telegraph let no diplomatic pause for thought, no time for the discreet, virtually Viennese waltz of temps diplomatique. Time compressed too much exploded – the Serbs were given 48 hours to explain the shooting of Franz Ferdinand.

“The human mind will always be unclockable, for in one moment it can flit between a pumpkin and a paper mite, can think of chaos theory, breakfast and the two-toed sloth, can shudder at a bad memory and consider the billion-year nature of star-time. All in a second, so ungovernably, so spledidly myriad-momented is the mind, as Proust knew so well.”

“Asking a small child to wait a few hours for ice cream is like asking yourself to wait a week for a whisky.”

Adults generally have learned clock-time. Children live in the heart of the ocean of time itself, in an everlasting now. The writer R K Narayan describes childhood as “letting the day pass without counting the hours. One existed in eternity.” A child’s eternal present is present-absorbed, present-spontaeneous, present-elastic. Children have a dogged, delicious disrespect for punctuality and an innate dishonoring of the dominant clock of modernity.

Modernity, while losing this marker of common time (nature), has rnonetheless created others in its place. Sports events: The Ryder Cup, the Superbowl, the US Open, La Vuelta Ciclista Espana can be hugely popular, in part because they are shared experiences in common time.

Chronological vs Kairological – Kairos was the god of timing, of opportunity, of chance and mischance, of different aspects of time, the auspicious and the not-so-auspicious. Time qualitative.

In cities, you move into the future, facing forwards, your progress through the day is like an arrow while the day of itself “stays still”, for time is not given by the day but is man-made, culturally given, and defined by the working day or rush hours. In a rural place, days roll over the horizon at you, round and gold as the son, time moves towards you and is nature-given, defined by sun or stars or rainstorms.

The San Bushmen of the Kalahari do not schedule when to hunt, but rather wait for the moment to be lucky, reading and assessing animal patterns, spontaneously and sensitively using the right time.

Social unpredictability has its distinctive tempo, and it permits people to develop timing, coordination, and a knack for responding to contigencies.

“It is a mistake, this extreme precision, this orderly and military progress; a convenience, a lie. There is always deep below it, even when we arrive punctually at the appointed time with our white waistcoats and polite formailities, a rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery rhymes, street cries, half-finished sentences and sights – elm tree,s willow trees, gardeners weaping, women writing – that rise and sink…”  – Virginia Woolf, The Waves

“Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy” – Wittgenstein

Drown your watch.

“You cannot ask who won a ballet”

“In India, the cow is supposedly a sacred animal to which motorists msut give way. Nowhere in the world is the human being similarly sacred.” – Mr Social Control

“English has no positive word for lingering on streets.” – John Whitelegg

“The street as an art of life is disappearing in favor of traffic arteries. People drive through them on the way to somewhere else.”

Skim-talking and skim-reading promotes skim-thinking.

“My client is not a hurry.” – Architect of la Sagrada Familia church

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.” – Milan Kundera

Men have always been the sex organs of the technological world. Pumping gas for their hot rods, speed speaks to men in the language of sexual power. Pump up the speed. In Britain, an advertisement for a high-speed train showed the phallus of the train blasting through round membranes of clock-dails, as if it penetrated the virginity time barrier itself. In October 1997, pump it up in the Nevada desert as the British Thrust Supersonic car penetrates the speed of sound at first 759.333mph and then 766.109mph. One fast car model is the Ferrari Testarossa, meaning in Italian “red head”, while giving overtones of ‘testosterone’ to English ears.

Intended to be a Lads book about cars and speed, MAX POWER: TOP MAD MOTORS, TOP TOTTY, TOP ICE, TOP CRUISES< TOP SPEED, TOP BOOK is a cultural treasure for the way it artlessly illustrates society’s connections between speed, machismo, competitiveness, cars, power, traffic accidents, sexism and sexual assault.

When women involuntarily enter he force-field of speed arenas, they risk being the victims of speed-related accidents and sexual threat. (Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.) Entered willingly, their womanhood is savaged and (as in all male-dominated arenas) they must choose one of two extremes, either to be bimbos or faux-males. Either masculinized like female athletes and the Thatcher-like women in power, whose power is attained only by aping men, deeply damaging feminism and female self-respect in the process. Or taking the fluff-pot bimbo choice: cheerleaders at sports stadiums, trolley-dollies on aircraft, whizzy-lizzies at Daytona, waving at the crash-barries. Women near soldiers must either be butch or Barbie.

“Speed is the essence of war,” according to sun tzu. Speeds vocabulary is voiolent: bullet trains, breaking and shattering and smashing records. The whole history of war has been a history of the speed of firepower, from a javelin which could be dodged, to the 1866 Prusso-Austrian war (prussians could fire 7 shots in the time it took austrians to fire 1)…

Battery vs free-range children

parents increasingly want children’s free time to be spent on organized activities – sports, homework, music lessons. less time spent on sweet, disorganized spontaneous play

modern western society is increasingly characterized by unrelenting adolescence: fast cars, fast food, fast talk, fast bucks, fast war – ignorant of the past, refusing to plan for the future, not respecting the old, not cherishing the young.


Once Upon a Time, Princess Diana. The myth, the legend, Diana the fairy-tale princess, Diana, Her True Story, Diana, the Grade One Listed Narrative Structure. The Diana-story, like all great stories, was structured in time itself, to make a meaningful pattern out of casual time. Born in full summer, married in full summer, died in full sumer. The Blonde in the Black Mercedes. As her “candle” shines brightest, phut, blow it out. At the day’s noon, she was on top of the world, more alive than ever, and at its midnight she was dying, underground, in a tunnel. Narrative time was there in all the details; Diana’s secret ‘last’ words, those who allegedly “foresaw” the accident, including Diana herself. She took a secret ‘to the grave’– was she engaged? Was she leaving England forever? Was she converting to Islam? Was she with child?

Marilyn Monroe was, like Diana, aged 36 and the most photograpphed woman in her world when she died in 1962, just months after Diana was born. Die young, of course, and stay an icon. They never grow old, forever frozen in time, their candles burning out long before their legends ever will.

The media spoke of Diana’s life with a subtext of time – wedding of the century, day no one would forget, biggest television event in history. She was the spirit of our times, ours was the Age of Diana, she was the star of a golden age. Her death was a defining moment, ushed in the week of Diana, it was the end of a chapter. Like all myths she magnified the times, and time was used to magnify her image. Two billion people worldwide are said to have watched her funeral. Time was stopped in a two-minute silence; the streets were still and trading ceased, at least in Britain. “NO SHOPS. NO FOOTY. NO LOTTO,” said the Sun newspaper, its frontpage usually printed in a sunny red, but black for the week of Diana, in a piece of color symbolism– the Sun’s time stopped, a darkness at noon.

Like all subjects of great myths and fables, Diana never chose her meaning, she was the silence at her own storytime. Other wvoices attached meanings; she was Cinderella, the plain little sister who became beautiful. She was Sleeping Beauty, kissed by Prince Charles; she was Snow White at her death, surrounded by seven dwarfs (paparazzi) on seven motorbikes as they take their pics. Buried on an island she became the Lady of the Lake.

Elements of Greek tragedy: The end was bespoken in the very first line of the play: she lived by the image and died by the image. The press – allegedly – gave her her life and took it away. (It spoils the symmetry to deny it; she as actually killed by speed and the car culture, but no matter. The narrative structure, embedded in the human mind, demands that the camera which created her was the camera which killed her. So be it.)

And what of us? The watching world was given something rare – a sense of community in time which myth and ritual have always been provided but which modernity usually despises. All radio stations and TV channels, all newspapers and all conversations were in sync, with normal programming suspended. Strangers – thinking about the same thing at the same time – spoke to each other, all the ordinary traffic of life stopped.

It was as if people wanted to know that the usual trafficky, businesslike time of historical consecutiveness is not all that there is. The hysteria which accompanied her death was a hunger for mythmaking – of people fed too much ordinary history-time and not enough mythic, extrordinary time. Sober commentators bemoaned it – accurately so – saying she wasn’t mythic, she was human. Quite right. And quit wrong. Diana-the-person and Diana-the-phenomenon were always entirely different: the historic person was, at a guess, manipulative, rather-dim-but-could-be-bright; both kind and unkind; unhappy, full-feeling and unpredictable, a silly, funny princess of consumerism, plastic as a charge card. That human-sized historic Diana was not wanted, the mythic phenomenon was what people mourned, and they wanted the myth as they implicitly wanted mythic time.

“Of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this: that a girl given the name of the ancient godes of hunting was herself the most hunted person of the modern age.” – Earl Spencer, her brother

Cinema as myth – myths offer an opening into a culture’s Great Time (when the mythic culture-heroes lived, when the human world was created) and a way of “escaping” the passage of ordinary time. Films, too, urture the escapist desired and have their “openings” into “great time”. For practical and psychological reasons, film screenings begin, usually, at dusk, when stories are traditionally told, the lessening daylight making the legendary past lean nearer the ordinary present. Cinema fantasies are are projected, by actual projectors of light, and by projections of the psyche, escaping the finite time of the self for the infinite time of myth. (See: Mircea Eliade)

“Long ago, in the future” – Inuits

Folktales are often deeply sexual, transcending mortality by being rudely, sexually, alive. Cinderella’s “slipper” has a sexual interpretation and both the Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are “aroused” by the kiss of a prince. The animal-groom cycle of stories (where an animal becomes a husband, such as the Beat or the Frog Prince), as Bruno Bettelheim shows, represents the altering attitudes towards the sexual male – at the beginning the beast is repulsive to the presexual girl, as the sexualiy of the adult is disgusting to the small child, but as she matures, her perceptions of it alter until she can see it as attractive.




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