Names for Time
From Daylight Savings to the Anthropocene
November 1, 2019
By: Jonee Kulman Brigham
As daylight savings time approaches this weekend, I think of the elusive nature of time, and also how time has lost its innocence for me, and yet I trust it more. From minutes to millennia, the names we give time matter, both personally and collectively.
Moments: Innocent Time Play
In a more innocent age, in 1996, I found myself confused and a bit entertained by the biannual resetting of clocks, and wrote the following from a piece called, “Daylight-Savings Flashback.”
All the clocks in my house tell a different time. I don’t know who to believe anymore. I look in their faces to tell me when I am – “Oh its 10:22 I should be—” Betrayed again! Do I add or subtract an hour? Or does this one run at a different speed?
At 9:00 I thought it was 10:00 so I added an hour to the clock by my bed, but I was wrong. The clock on my dresser says its 9:21, but now the clock by my bed says its 10:23. My watch says its 9:22 ½ even though the second hand is at the top. The bathroom clock says 5:19, but it runs on batteries.
Is it time to go to bed? It depends. On the clock. And I cannot depend on my clocks, so I will not rest.
Now the clock by my bed says 10:32. I know it’s wrong. I made it wrong 2 ½ hours ago. But 10:00 is bedtime and when I see the glowing red numbers “10:32,” I travel to the time called “1/2 hour past bed time.”
When I get the time, I will call the time and temperature number to get the time. I will set all my clocks to the same time, and then I will rest.
One of the things I enjoyed about writing this piece is how the many names for time that my different clocks told, revealed a truth. All the names are false. Or at least they are not true in any absolute way, only by agreement of society. Time existed before we labeled it with numbers. The clocks tell competing stories of time, revealing the one true time that it always is, which is “now.”
Countdown: Time to Panic
When the IPCC report came out about a year ago, in October 2018 the bell tolled, “12 years.” Despite cycles of news and attention toward the urgency of climate change on and off over the decades, it seemed like the idea of a deadline for serious action had never been so strongly stated and acknowledged in the press. The cultural responses came forward – from those that felt it is too late to those with some hope that wanted urgent action, to those that rejected the deadline altogether. In Spring 2019 I was co-teaching an undergraduate course on the power grid and the energy transition. We invited colleagues to host a climate simulation game where students play the role of different countries negotiating toward commitments that should lead to 1.5 degree C rise, but inevitably it seems, don’t. My co-instructor and I integrate artistic ways of knowing into the course and did some role playing. I documented this in a screenplay-inspired poem, where multiple personas of time appear after the unsuccessful conclusion of the game.
From Act 3 of “Acting it Out: Planetary Stage Directions”
[Enter Instructor 1]
“ I need you to make some tick tock sounds, like tic tic tic tic… Keep going…”
She ques the Bloomberg Carbon Clock, a counting graphic floating above a cloud streaked sky
The Players tic while the carbon numbers climb.
414.52, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,
414.61, 2, 3, 4, 5, …
She lets them watch a while as they keep time.
I am time.
Set your alarm.
I am Chronos, Greek god of linear time.
A clock ticking,
Counting down, as
Carbon counts up.
Next image: Bald men in suits adjusting the hands of a quarter clock face
My daughter is Ananke,
Greek God of Inevitability.
She is the Doomsday Clock of the
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
An annual time setting
Counting down to the apocalypse
As climate and nuclear threats stack up.
You can slow her hours, or turn back time,
But her hands always aim ahead to the end of days
She conjures a third image. The naked gears of a clock, protected on a pedestal.
But there is another God of Time.
I am also Kairos, God of the opportune moment.
The right time, the opening of time in which we can act.
The clock of the long now is set to keep time for 10,000 years.
But it needs humans to make it chime.
Will we still be here?
What stories will you tell of time in this moment?
Anthropocene: The Epic Epoch
Where are we in the history of the planet? Perhaps there is no more consequential name for time these days than the “Anthropocene,” the proposed name of our current geologic era. Named for the global influence of the human species on the form and functioning of our earth’s systems, this is not just a scientific proposal describing the planet. With “anthropo” (pertaining to humans) in the name, it is also a story about us. The name has captured the imaginations of many environmental circles and is often portrayed not just as our disruption, but also our dominance. Depending on interpretation, the name can inspire humility or hubris and also certain courses of action. Since we dominate the earth, should we do even more and geoengineer the atmosphere? Or since we’ve disrupted the earth, should we back off and hope systems heal themselves? The name itself is controversial, with many alternate names proposed such as “Capitalocene” or “Technocene” claiming capitalism or technology as the more specific cause of our planetary condition.
So, is it 9:32 or 10:32 or does it matter now? Are we running out of time, or are we in the greatest moment of opportunity we’ve every known? Is the story of our time one in which we are masters of the world, or errant apprentices? The stories and names for time matter. Multiple stories confuse and disorient but also can free us from the blindness of naming, --how the symbols mask the reality of the moment. Time thresholds are at once simplistic and dangerous, but also useful and necessary to convey the urgency of action. We name our era to make sense of where we are in history, but no single name can represent all the stories. Again, the only true name for time is “now.” The time is now.
©Jonee Kulman Brigham