The Reckoning of Time
Or, What's Really Wrong With Modernity
1. The Computus
What is time? One way of beginning to answer this question is to consider what it is we are doing when we keep track of time.
Precise timekeeping as a social practice and as a technology emerged in history largely out of a culturally embedded imperative to anticipate and plan for future days of feasting and fasting. What we have for the past few millennia come to take time to be —a measurable succession of repeating moments, whose repetitions are marked not just by the cycles of the seasons, but also, crucially, by the phases of the moon and by other more irregular astronomical events— has thus accrued upon a deeper need in human culture to position itself through ritual in relation to the divine, to the eternal, the transcendent: in brief, to what does not undergo temporal change.
You might think I’m overgeneralizing, but the historical record is clear enough. In every early culture that has left written traces of its mathematical efforts, we see again and again the refinement of methods of calculation driven by a concern to make the various cycles of the heavens harmonious with one another, and in turn to marshal these newly discerned harmonies for the determination of such earthly questions as when to abstain from meat, olive oil, or sex; when to indulge in them; when to marry; when to invade your enemy’s kingdom. Mathematics, in this respect, grows out of the very cultural practices that much later will come to be contrasted, for their “irrationality”, with the fixed and eternal truths we take to be anchored in quantities and their relations.
Thus in India in the fourteenth century Mādhava of Sangamagrāma developed methods for calculating infinite series, and so paved the way for what would later become calculus, which we usually see as a product of “pure” mathematical inquiry in seventeenth-century Europe. But the principal concern of the Kerala school of mathematics in which Mādhava labored, was, to cite one nineteenth-century British source, with “the Trigonometrical demonstration of the methods by which the Right Ascension, Declination, Longitude, Zenith, Distance and Amplitude of the Asters are determined.” The value of such demonstration, this same source tells us, resides entirely in the fact that the astronomical computations of the Hindus “govern their religious festivals and sacrifices, the expiatory ceremonies for the dead, the agricultural dispositions which depend on the contingencies of the seasons, and, lastly, the endless train of superstitious observances, the epochs of which are determined by the science of Astrology.”
In Europe, likewise, a surprising amount of energy was expended over several centuries in the effort to determine, based on both scriptural and astronomical evidence, the proper date of each year’s Easter Sunday. Most importantly, the cycles of the moon had to be calibrated with the annual cycle of the earth around the sun, and then tabulated in a so-called “lunisolar calendar”. And the solar calendar just by itself already presents significant difficulty, since the earth fails to revolve around the sun in exactly 365 days, always leaving a tiny remainder that needs to be dealt with in some way or other. In our culture we landed on that strangely ad-hoc day —a veritable gift to social constructionists— that gets inserted at the end of every fourth February. My own parents were married on February 29, 1964, and divorced at some point in the early 1980s; my mother would later claim, having celebrated but four proper wedding anniversaries, that she was married to my father for “only a few years”.
By the early Middle Ages the project of constructing the lunisolar calendar, of managing the annual leftover of 0.24222 days (falling just short of one-fourth, the insertion of an extra day every four years does not really solve the problem of the remainder in the long term), and other related tasks, had developed into the full-fledged science known as computus.
A work written in 725 by the Venerable Bede, entitled De temporum ratione and commonly translated as The Reckoning of Time, is perhaps the greatest contribution to this genre. Earlier computists had mostly concentrated on the production of numerical tables. Bede’s own tables are not original with him, but were produced by the sixth-century Scythian monk Dionysus Exiguus. The English author combines his commentary on them with a variety of late-antique encyclopedism somewhat akin to Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, and with some profound reflections on the nature of time, and of the subjective experience of time, reminiscent of the philosophy of St. Augustine. The Reckoning thus provides a template for what will evolve over the next several centuries into the familiar genre of the almanac, which appears to be a collection of merely practical observations on the ephemera of the seasons, the tides, the winds, and so on, interspersed with fragments of popular wisdom — which appears to be mostly practical, I said, but in fact does as much to provide a person with bearings in this world as any focused engagement with the straightforwardly existential questions of philosophy ever did.
While Bede’s work is eclectic, just as the successive iterations of Poor Richard’s Almanac will later be, its unifying concern is with temporality, conceived as the cyclical motion of the days and years. The annus shares its etymology with the anus, for both are rings, as Isidore already noted — one of the rare cases in which his Etymologies actually get an etymology right.
A typical work of computus, Faith Wallis writes in the excellent introduction to her translation of the Reckoning, includes “the two essential tables of the computists’ art: the Julian solar calendar (a perpetual calendar, often accompanied by tables which translated calendar dates into weekdays or lunar phases) and the Paschal table.” But around this nucleus, as Bede’s work shows in exemplary fashion, “gathered a variable halo of other subjects. Some could be considered background materials: mathematics, cosmology, astronomy. Others were associated with the calendar by analogy, like medicine (diagnostics and therapeutics being closely regulated by astronomical time) or even prosody, which is the science of the measurement of speech in time” (xxii).
Bede sometimes invokes the familiar image of time as a “flow”, which recalls the Augustinian interrogation of the subjective experience of time, and which was already revealed by Aristotle to be a fairly inadequate metaphor — if time flows, then we must further ask what it is flowing in, and whether that bed or container of the river of time itself exists in time. But still, as an account of temporal subjectivity, “flow” does seem to capture something of what it is like to be a time-bound being. For Bede moreover the experience of this flow is an experience of helplessness — thus he describes the Reckoning at one point as “our little book about the fleeting and wave-tossed course of time” [noster libellus de volubili ac fluctiuago temporum lapsu].
Yet the computist’s reckoning itself might best be thought of as an attempt to gain the upper hand, to latch onto something fixed and stable, and to begin to discern an order in what otherwise would seem to be a pointless and perpetual flux. This order, once discerned, will show itself in the form of overlapping cycles, periodic repetitions that can be harnessed to order human life. Thus, subjective time is chaotic, while “reckoned time”, time that is ordered in harmony with the cycles of the universe, effectively calibrates human social life, through ritual, with the eternal realm.
Thus computus is nothing less than the “bridging” science linking the human and the divine. Isidore for his part notes that “the Kalends (i.e. the first day of the month) were named after ‘to worship’ (colere), for among the ancients the beginnings of every month were worshipped, just as among the Hebrews”, and that “days (dies) are so called from ‘the gods’ (deus, ablative plural diis), whose names the Romans conferred upon certain astral bodies.” Isidore is wrong, as usual, on both counts.
And yet he is also right: calendrical science, which at first glance appears dreadfully mundane, turns out, like music, like prayer, like anything else grounded in rhythm, to bring us wave-tossed helpless creatures back to God.
2. Like Clockwork
What is modernity? For me, one fairly attractive definition of this nebulous notion is that it is the point in history when the reckoning of time becomes decoupled from significant concern with eternity, and with the ritual processing of our relation to the eternal.
It may not be a mere coincidence that this decoupling happens at the moment when timekeeping ceases to be principally a concern for the computists, ceases to be a rich and autonomous endeavor of human intellect, and instead is outsourced to machines (you will notice here an analogous argument to the one I make in my most recent book about the effects of outsourcing information-processing to computers). Clocks are of course the signature machine of the early modern period, so impressive in their mechanical fine-tuning as to suggest to many in the era that they were an ideal model or epitome of the universe itself.
The horological revolution had a number of well-known consequences. For one thing, it encouraged the spatial representation of time as a geometrical line or arrow on a page (of course, the other great revolution such representation required was the one initiated by Gutenberg). Once time is conceived as a succession of precise —and precisely measurable— units, its analogy to the units with which geometers had already been working for some millennia becomes too obvious to ignore. Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton’s stunning Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, does feature some premodern spatial representations (after all, early Christian historiography, not least Bede’s and Isidore’s, while still grounded in the cyclical rhythms of the cosmos, also presupposed “eight ages” of the world, moving from Creation to Apocalypse). But it is the new chronometry of the seventeenth century that triggers a vast proliferation of visual aids, from left to right or from top to bottom of the page, by which time gets frozen into place as a two-dimensional band.
One might also say, rather more boldly, that seventeenth-century clockworks amounted to an early anticipation of another well-known revolution two hundred years later, as they was effectively the first machine of the industrial era, whose products were the hours and minutes and seconds that would make all the rest possible. You can’t get canned for showing up at the factory five minutes late if the owners don’t have a “minute machine” on hand to inform them of your tardiness. We tend to think today that clocks don’t so much “make” minutes as they do mark them out. But where then were all the minutes before precision timekeeping became a ubiquitous feature of human society? The ancients did not speak of them any more than they spoke of fuel, data, ADHD, or queerness.
Nowhere in the Etymologies does Isidore inquire into the origins of the word modernus. If he had, he might have noticed its similarity to modus (then again, given his record, he probably would have missed the opportunity to get this one right as well). Contrary to a widespread belief, the adjective “modern” was fairly common before modernity, though it was generally contrasted not with “ancient”, but rather with “eternal”. The modern was thus that which is variable, that which is capable of modulation, that which may either be or not be, that which comes and goes.
Although in modern French mode, in the philosophical sense, is a masculine noun, while mode, as in “fashion”, is feminine, the latter term nonetheless is an etymological and conceptual twin of the former. Roland Barthes seizes onto this pairing rather ingeniously in his Système de la mode of 1967. For him, to study the system of fashion is to study something that is subject to endless —and ultimately meaningless— variation. The hemlines of women’s skirts go up and down from season to season. Where they are positioned at any particular time will tell you nothing of significance, but to chart their ups and downs is to begin to discern the system, the static frame within which our ephemeral fashions at least appear to make sense. But unlike the truly fixed frame of the celestial spheres, in the end the system of fashion is just as fleeting as the trends that come and go within it, for it is, like them, a product of our own invention.
As Barthes understood, there is nothing more modern than the study of la mode. It is the culmination of a desire, well articulated already a century before by the dandys, to discover “the eternal in the ephemeral”. But what Baudelaire and Barthes missed when they engaged in this project is that this is exactly what Bede was doing as well when he pored over Dionysus Exiguus’s Paschal tables. The great difference is not that the moderns care about charting ephemerides whereas the premoderns did not, but rather that the sort of ephemerides that preoccupied our ancestors were the ones that could, as I hope I began to show in the preceding section, help us to orient ourselves in relation to what does not change.
Astronomy projects us out of ourselves; fashion reflects us back to ourselves. The dandy’s aspiration to the eternal can at most lead to a long hard look in the mirror. Baudelaire’s stated intention is nothing new, but the objects through which he hopes to fulfill it are vastly less suited to the task than those that preoccupied Bede. This is perhaps another aspect of what Adorno nicely called, in his study of the decontextualized daily horoscopes in The Los Angeles Times, “the stars down to earth”: the effort to derive from ascots and tailcoats what the premoderns knew to look for in the heavens.
Once some years ago we visited the Sihla Monastery in Northeastern Romania, near the Ukrainian border. For a reason I can’t recall, some small forgettable crisis, we found ourselves briefly in the dormitory space of the associated convent, hosted there by a group of young novitiates who, to say the least, were not in the habit of interacting with foreigners, or with men.
My partner showed them some photos she had taken on her phone of the surrounding area, and said she was going to post them to Facebook. The girls did not know what Facebook was. It came up in conversation that I was from Canada (which was true enough at the time, I guess). The girls did not know what Canada was. I had the distinct impression that, if we had pressed further, they would not have known what the United States were, what an airplane was, what century we were in. When we left I was upset. It’s a duty to keep informed about the world! I said to my beloved. What if a war were to break out (which already at the time seemed a looming possibility in these parts)? What would they do, if they had no real knowledge of what the relevant issues are, of who the various parties are to the conflict?
“They would pray,” my beloved said.
That’s absurd! I replied.
In his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Bede describes the plight of King Sigbert, who “became so great a lover of the heavenly kingdom” that he quit the affairs of his own realm, committed them to his kinsman Ecgric, and entered a monastery. He received the tonsure, and “applied himself to do battle for a heavenly throne.” But soon enough the nation of the Mercians, under King Penda, began to make war on the East Angles, who, “finding themselves no match for their enemy, entreated Sigbert to go with them to battle, to encourage the soldiers.” But Sigbert refused, so they dragged him out of the monastery by force. Still, the monk and former king refused to hold any weapon in his hand, but only a wand, and so was swiftly slaughtered. “And the pagans pressed on.”
It would be a mistake to suppose that Sigbert had taken a stand on the particular merits on each side of the conflict between the Mercians and the Angles, or even that he had any views on war as such. He had simply removed himself from the form of life that concerns itself with war and other mundane affairs. This is a move we can barely recognize today.
Yet another way we might understand modernity is as the period in which our conception of duty becomes both universalized and uniformized. The human good is rendered into a one-size-fits-all outfit, and the expectations of a human life are, to the extent possible (to the extent that the reality of the differences between us does not spontaneously resist our efforts), standardized across all cases.
I myself am harshly criticized whenever I insist that there might be a place in the world for people who prefer to withdraw from the daily scrum of issue-mongering, for people who have no interest in electoral campaigns, who do not wish to know what Facebook or Canada is. In truth what makes this universal participation so easy to take for granted in the modern world is not the duty it carries with it, but the perks, not the Sigbertian responsibility for warmaking, but rather the symbolic pleasure of sitting on a throne and drinking from a golden chalice — modernity as the trickling down of royal privilege.
The expectation of at least a fleeting and symbolic share in this privilege was, to be sure, already a powerful force in premodern social relations. Thus, to return to one of my favorite examples, in an Orthodox wedding even the poorest and most provincial newlyweds are ceremonially crowned, as if they had become, for this brief special moment, emperor and empress of the realm. Yet in the modern period such “crowning” becomes, or is expected to be, all-pervasive and permanent.
Thus the suburban tract home becomes a tiny kingdom (and, for the likes of Al Bundy, the toilet of the master bedroom becomes, if only parodically, the “throne”) — indeed the expectation that each nuclear family has a manifest right to such a domain has survived even such pushback from reality as the subprime mortgage crisis. And what is modern liberal democracy, in turn, if not the political arrangement reflecting the philosophical commitment that, as Kant expressed it, each of us is to be our own sovereign law-giver?
Today this trickle-down has reached much further still: not only are we the sovereigns of our suburban domains, and not only are we each our own autolegislators of our respective petits traintrains (as Aunt Léonie said). We are also, today, when we take to social media to share our half-baked ideas about how the world ought to be run, positioning ourselves symbolically as so many little privy councillors, as participants in a society made up entirely of advisors to the tsar. This is conceptualized as a duty and as a perk at once, as a sort of solemn fun, but the cumulative effect of it is fairly obviously untenable.
We have moved from the ideal of universal symbolic participation in the glory of the empire, to universal royalty that is no longer merely symbolic with the rise of mass home-ownership. And now, with the rise of mass-scale interactive media and the universal takesmanship it facilitates, we have arrived in a state where everyone is expected, as a condition of citizenship, to participate in the constant din sustained by the news of the day, which perpetually spits forth new names and new combinations, while always remaining fundamentally the same.
In Andreï Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), the hero, Alexander, wanders the woods near his home in Sweden along with his son, known only as “Little Man”. As far as we can tell, World War III has just broken out, and nuclear holocaust is imminent. Alexander is filled with regret, and bargains desperately with God. He observes, perhaps to Little Man, perhaps to no one, that he could perhaps have saved the world from this fate if only he had committed himself fully to doing something each day, in attentive and loving devotion to the repetition of the act at regular intervals.
What would this act have been? Marching for nuclear disarmament? Writing letters to world leaders? No. Alexander regrets not having committed himself to flushing the toilet at the same time each day. If we had not lost our devotion to ritual, the thought is, if we had not fallen out of rhythm with the world, in music or in prayer or even a sufficiently reverent disposition to the use of modern plumbing, we might just have succeeded in keeping it whole.
That’s absurd! you’ll say, as I did at Sihla. And it is. But so is the situation we’ve brought upon ourselves through our distinctly modern aspirations, and I grow more convinced by the day that more of the same is not going to get us out of it.
Am I sounding too religious for you heathens? Well then let me shift, for the coda, to a more familiar naturalistic register.
It is a fairly common idea among those who study the origins of life that the regular pulsations of nature as we know it on earth —the alternation of the seasons, of day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon and the rising and lowering of the tide— may have provided the crucial impetus to abiogenesis. Even if the chemical compounds necessary for life may be found floating, say, in an interstellar cloud, the absence of cyclical alternations in that environment would likely guarantee that no more complex organic system should ever evolve. We need the pulsations, the gentle rocking, that the circadian, the lunar, and the seasonal cycles provide.
The special circumstances of this our planet, furnished not just with liquid water, but with a moon well positioned to help keep that water sloshing against the shores, may turn out to be the key “Goldilocks” factor that explains all the peculiar developments of the past four billion years. It is significant, in this connection, that as far as we can tell the appearance of life on Earth comes a relatively short time after our moon was torn away from us through the impact of a Mars-sized body with the Earth in its early formation. This is wildly speculative, of course, but it may be that our profound need to process our conscious and culture-bound lives through cyclical repetitions derives from the alternations that gave shape long ago to life on our planet.
Life and time are both, it may be, one and the same rhythmic cycle — which modernity has sought unsuccessfully to straighten out, and to reconceive as an endless parade of events, an infinite succession of ephemerides.
The piece stemming from my discussion with Nick Cave on the poetry of Jerry Rothenberg is out now. Nick tells me it’s “a deep and lovely read”, and I hope you’ll agree with him.
While I have attached myself here to the view of time as a circle, I am also fond of the theory according to which time is money. If this is so, as you have probably discerned, this here is a very expensive Substack, as I spend a great deal of time/money maintaining it. For this reason I am particularly grateful to those of my readers who choose to subscribe.