Our Profane Time
The effects of our conception of time.
We normally don’t think about time as a concept that changes.
Let’s consider some common sayings that give us some insight into Western thoughts about time:
Time is money.
Better not waste time.
Time is slipping away.
In general, we think about time as a resource to be used effectively. Time is a granular thing that exists between two points that we should consume responsibly.
For many, that’s is a helpful way to think about how to spend our days. But this conception of time is rather new. Let’s take a moment to hop back a thousand years and see what we can find.
What year is it?
Walter Ong notes:
Early charters conveying land in England were originally not even dated… Clanchy suggests that the most profound reason was… that ‘dating required the scribe to express an opinion about his place in time’… Was he to locate this document by reference to the creation of the world? To the Crucifixion?… Popes dated documents this way, from Christ’s birth, but was it presumptuous to date a secular document as popes dated theirs?1
So to the average person living in England, dating a document was never a thing that crossed their mind. Their actions were beneath the threshold of importance necessary to justify dating.
Ong goes on:
The abstract calendar number would relate to nothing in real life. Most persons did not know and never tried to discover what calendar year they had been born.2
Our lives are so synchronized by the clock that this seems otherworldly. What changed?
In Ong’s view, the culture that print media brought (more books, more writing, more abstract thoughts) causes us to feel a need to situate ourselves in the narrative that is unfolding around us.
Lest we believe this is only a historic happening, McLuhan notes that this isn’t just a Medieval concept. Expounding on the work of Edward Hall's and his observations of the Hopi Native American Tribe, he notes:
Time for them is not a uniform succession or duration, but a pluralism of many kinds of things co-existing. ‘It is the natural process that takes place while living substance acts out its life drama.‘3
So we find ourselves with this notion of time that is not intended to be mapped on a line (a very abstract and print-based thought, our media ecologists would argue).
So if not a “timeline,” how else have people thought about time? A pare of concepts from Charles Taylor becomes helpful.
“Time of Origins” or “Higher Times”
These are times of the past that, while containing events, are “unplottable" on a timeline. These are the mysterious and mythological underpinnings of ancient society. Think Greek mythology or Star Wars narratives before The Phantom Menace. The “mystical” way the origin story of Middle Earth is presented in The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite ways to imagine this type of time.
Notice, this presentation of time inspires a sense of otherworldliness. While these are events that impact the story that follows, the specifics of their exact time or even precise sequence are of little importance.
This is our time and the way we think about it. We normally think of “profane” as meaning something bad, but in this case, we mean profane in its truest sense:
relating or devoted to that which is not sacred or biblical; secular rather than religious.4
Profane times are then the times we live in and do things that are plottable, mappable, or put on a timeline clearly. In our days, down to the second. These are the times in which we performed our day-to-day actions and, before our modern era, were generally thought to have too little importance to worry about dating.
The Profanity of our Times
While high times are still present in our narratives and stories, today we operate in almost completely profane times.
Modern secularization can be seen from one angle as the rejection of higher times and the position of time as purely profane. Events now exist only in this one dimension, in which they stand at greater and lesser temporal distance in relations of causality with other events of the same kind.5
So in essence, we have moved away from an unquestioned acceptance of “higher times” that anchor us to a grand narrative (a creation myth, God appointing the first King of England, etc.) and towards a purely literal concept of time as a line where things can be plotted.
Ong puts it this way:
Persons whose worldview has been formed by high literacy need to be reminded themselves that in functionally oral cultures, the past is not felt as an itemized terrain, peppered with verifiable and disputed ‘facts’ or bits of information. It is the domain of the ancestors, a resonant source of renewing awareness of present existence, which itself is not an itemized terrain either. Orality knows no lists or charts or figures.6
Or timelines, we might add.
In earlier ages, the understanding was that this profane time existed in relation to (surrounded by, penetrated by; it is hard to find the right words here) higher times.7
McLuhan himself notes:
…great cultural changes occurred in the West when it was found possible to fix time as something that happens between two points… From our division of time into uniform, visualizable units comes our sense of duration and our impatience when we cannot endure the delay between events. Such a sense of impatience, or of time as duration, is unknown among non-literate cultures. Just as work began with the division of labor, duration begins with the division of time, and especially with those subdivisions by which mechanical clocks impose uniform succession on the time sense.8
So to recap, “time” isn’t necessarily something to be plotted or mapped. It can be the “background” that anchors our reality and gave it substance. As Western Culture moved through literacy and the middle ages, with the spread of reading and writing, time became plottable and we witnessed, with a few exceptions, the full-scale collapse of high times.9
It’s (All) About Time
So, you may be asking yourself, why in the world are we off on this tangent about time? As we’ve been exploring the effects of media, one of the subtler points that I’ve not really drawn attention to is the progression of speed and fidelity in our media.
Speed: How fast a message can get from one person to another.
Fidelity: How much of the original content makes it to the final destination. Think, the game “telephone”.
Laid out in order (and in very simplistic terms):
In orality, moving information across a region is slow and very “low fidelity.” As we’ve talked about, the gist is more important than the details in Oral Cultures.
Written and Print media (and the roads, ships, and other transportation methods that carried them) allow for higher fidelity messages to spread much more easily than before, but still limited in speed.
Electric media allow for both instant transmission and very faithful messages to be communicated.
So far, we’ve traced the effects of our changing views of time through literate cultures. What effects might our complete emergence into instant communication society have on our perceptions and the importance of time?
See you next week as we keep digging.
Further Reading & Notes:
This is a long-form piece that contains some information about Taylor’s concepts of Profane vs. High time, among other things. While I confess I didn’t read the whole thing, it might be easier than getting the book for you so I wanted to offer it.