When I bumped into Jay Griffiths in between sessions at this years Dark Mountain Festival I got both excited and a bit nervous. Jay has been a big influence on the thinking that has gone into Time culture, her book “Pip Pip” opened up a lot of insights into how our experience of time is structured in modern industrial societies. What is more, her sense of “wild time” and her effort to bring the subversive, playful and carnivalesque to our experience and embodiment of time was also an inspiration in working with my personal understanding of timescapes. Slightly starstruck I plucked up the courage to say hello and ask if she was willing to speak to me a little about time. I was interested in talking more about her idea of wild time and its connections to how we can break away from the experience of lack of time, hurriedness and fragmentation in the networked society. With about fifteen minutes until the next session, we jumped into a conversation which covered wild time, progress, capitalism and ended with an unexpected turn.
JDG: The time culture project started because my friend noticed that we tend to look at art in a different way than other objects. It’s not necessarily right that it is so but there seems to be an acceptance that when we stand in front of an art piece we give it a level of attention that we don’t always give other things in our surroundings. So he proposes that we can learn something from art and the attention we pay to time and the different temporalities in an art piece. If we bring that attention to the surrounding world, and especially to the time of the Earth, to its seasons, years, and all of the earthly cycles, we might learn something about how we can deal with abstract, networked, industrial timescapes which are causing such destruction of the natural world.
JG: That’s right because it’s saying that there is not one time: there is not such thing as the time, there are times plural. And also that the mind has different times. That the human mind has moments of enormous attention and concentration, which may last in measured duration and quite short amounts of time, but it has a longer kind of time shadow, which is what happens if you look at a painting that you are really struck by. You may only actually be there in front of it for five minutes but the intensity of the mind’s experiences has got a greater psychological duration.
The other thing that I’d say about that, in terms of wild time, is that to me the best definition of what is wild is what is self-willed. In early Teutonic and Norse languages the root of ‘wild’ is in ‘will’, something wild is self-willed, uncontrollable: the will and the wild are connected right from the beginning. And so you could almost say that when something is allowed to live fully in its own time it is in a wild time as in a self-willed time. So that’s the time, for instance, of crops to grow in their own time and not the force fed crops of industrial agriculture. And it is what people talk about as mountain time, it’s got its own self-willed time and crucially an integrity which is different from the self-willed time of something else.
JDG: Yes, so I work within the environmental sciences and have come into thinking about time from an ecology-sustainability angle, and I’ve really struggled with the concept of sustainability to make it mean something. If anything, I think it is what Wendell Berry said in his Jefferson Lecture this year: the challenge of sustainability really is to re-discover cultural cycles and a sense of time that maps onto the Earth’s time with all of its different temporalities. And so with time culture we are interested in exploring what does that process actually entail?
There is a quality of attention that we need to bring to the world and how we look at the world. But seeing that we live in this abstract network time which is instantaneous and where communication travels near the speed of light, we easily end up with our attention fragmented and diffused. So, how can we come back to refocussing our attention? In your book [Pip Pip] you suggest that we need to come back to a sense of wild time. What can we do to make that change?
JG: I think some of it is implicit in what you were saying – that it is attention to, and respect for, the otherness of time. That happens when good parents try to adjust to the time of their child, in the self-evidently kind parenting where a mother or father notices what the child needs at different times and responds to it. But also that sense of attention can be apparent in a wider way, beyond the personal. That sense of respect – for a system to be sustainable – has to include not countermanding the life cycle of crops with a regime of force feeding. Or, for example, the treatment of cattle and chickens where a lifetime which should last a much longer time is foreshortened. I don’t just mean because they are killed, it is actually that their lifetime is squashed by manipulating their lives in order to compress their time so it fits the industrial human feeding system.
In a sense you could say that the opposite of wild time is the industrial model but it is also the brutality of capitalism in the sense that capitalism at its worst disrespects workers’ time and disrespects the time of the materials that it is using. There a film called “Last Train Home”, directed by Lixin Fan, which is absolutely heartbreaking, about Chinese workers in the textile factories who work so hard all year around except for the Chinese new year when they can go home and spend time with their families. And what’s completely heartbreaking is the social disjunction as a result of all this time which they spend away from home, working in order to make money for their families, for their children who are left in rural villages. The children suffer because they don’t have their parents with them for most of the time and the parents suffer because the work is so abhorrent and inhuman. There is this sense that their lifetimes have been stolen from them. So industrial time is theft of the idea of time and the integrity of the tree, the time of the mountain, but it is also a very brutal theft of lifetime at the cutting edge of capitalism.
JDG: In my research I explore the narrative of the Dark Mountain Project and it seems to me like time and narrative go hand in hand in the way that industrial time is tied up with a progressive, linear narrative of the world…
JG: And also the story that later is always better. This post-enlightenment society despises the past so intensely in its fixation on the idea of progress and what it doesn’t ask is whose progress is being created and at whose expense? Because what a lot of indigenous people are saying is “we are being sacrificed for this thing that you call progress”, you know, it’s the progress of a minority of people and it is bought at the expense of the majority. But this is ignored in the narrative of progress which has become so powerful that if you try to argue that there is anything good about the past it immediately puts you in an intellectually embarrassed position because it’s de rigueur to think the future is automatically more positive than the past. The intellectual laziness that some people use is a form of “past-ism”… like when people say “we’ve moved on since then” or “you can’t turn the clock back” and all these things which are meant to disparage other and older ways of thinking, which are often kinder.
They’re very brutal lines of argument which completely dismiss the past. In all of human history I cannot think of any society which has such contempt and disdain for the past. And actually it’s really peculiar, our society is really peculiar in many ways. Throughout all of the years of the existence of humanity there has been a sense that there is wisdom in the past, there is experience in the past, there is beauty in the past and it is actually really weird and slightly insane to have a society which has got this prejudiced and disdainful attitude towards the past.
JDG: And what is lost in that… This is a personal story, but I’ve had a strange week because my grandmother died last week and I went back to Denmark for the funeral and then came here afterwards. She was from Greenland and had quite a particular story but one which I’ve felt enormously enriched by. So I was thinking about that and about time in terms of my own life and my family. And coming here there have been moments where I feel I have really been allowed to sit with her story in a way that I don’t always feel I am allowed in other places. I had a strange encounter with a friend this summer where he dismissed this part of my life story by referring to “this thing” I have for indigenous cultures, my “Greenland thing”, and accused me of being romantic and idealist. It’s a total dismissal which is really strange but it makes it a struggle to bring past stories into the present.
JG: Yes. I’m sorry about that. When my last grandparent died, it really hit me but it was very important partly because it was the first time I’ve not felt frightened of death. Because she was so ready to go, she was a huge character who had this idea that she was going to live until she was a hundred and then two weeks before she died she seemed to say: “I’m ready now, it’s fine.”
JDG: It was the same with my grandmother. I think she was ready for it but she also took just the right time that we could prepare for it. When she did die those of us in the family had also come to at point of accepting that she was going to die.
And here our conversation came to its end, the next sessions had already started. My grandmother showed up unexpected in a lot of the conversations I had that weekend. It felt right that I should get the opportunity to make sense of this summer’s strange confrontation in a conversation about temporal otherness because the accusation of romanticism and idealism is rooted exactly in the progressive narrative of the world. It also seemed strangely appropriate that the topic of death came up because the dismissal of the past is also a dismissal of death and a fetishisation of youth. Perhaps one of the most difficult things we face in our effort to break out of the progressive narrative and embrace a wilder time is the disciplining sneer of “you can’t turn the clock back”. Difficult until we see it for what it is, the echo of an ageing and breaking narrative rather than a statement about how we can or can’t live our lives.