Can Time Be Tricked?

A Theoretical Introduction

in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

This theoretical introduction develops a conceptual argument stemming from the concept of ‘time-tricking’. Whilst most theories of time in anthropology develop a coherent definition of the nature of time – for instance, as ‘cyclical’ or ‘linear’ – I draw attention to a seemingly common metaphysical distinction in our temporal ontologies, that between the past and the future. This distinction allows me to do two things: first, I present two different versions of time-tricking, one focusing on references to time and particularly to the past, the other conceptualizing effects on the future; and then, second, I present the future as the main object of temporal agency. By developing the notion of ‘future-tricking’, I point to a specific kind of temporal agency which is based on metaphysical commitments heavily embedded in the present in politics, interests and possibilities.

I begin with two related vignettes concerning time and temporal agency: one concerning the work of conservation, the other the effects of fish smells. The FMS Gera is the last German ‘side trawler’. Side trawlers are steam-powered fishing ships that, in contrast to contemporary fishing vessels (known as ‘stern trawlers’), haul their nets in over the boat’s right-hand side – portside, that is, in nautical language. The FMS Gera is just over 65.5 metres long, 10.3 metres wide, and weighs approximately 1473 metric tons. Initially built in 1959/60 in what was then the socialist German Democratic Republic, it was for many years part of the East German high-sea fishing fleet, operated by the Rostock Fishing Combine. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became a museum ship in the home port of former West Germany’s fishing industry, the North Sea harbour city of Bremerhaven. The city’s Historical Museum uses the Gera as an outpost of the tourist hotspot of the fisheries harbour. It now is a vessel of knowledge, depicting the fishermen’s hard working conditions at the time when the city and the harbour were bustling. Back then, after the end of World War II, Bremerhaven was one of the richest cities in Germany; today, it is one of the country’s poorest.

I am aboard the Gera, and the museum’s conservator is giving a tour for the few visitors who have made their way to the harbour in the usual damp autumn weather. The tour is part of the national Open Monuments Day, one of many annual events supporting the touristic and heritage uses of this kind of post-industrial infrastructure. The ship used to be a place of industrial production. However, the bright idea of transforming it into a heritage site in order to inform visitors about the local past has tarnished; twenty-five years after German reunification, it turns out to be quite a burden. The already financially precarious Historical Museum suffers from declining visitor numbers. This decline is made more severe by the recent opening of various popular tourist attractions in Bremerhaven’s newly revamped city centre, including two privately run museums, the Climate House and the German Migration Centre. The Historical Museum lacks financial support from the heavily indebted city, and struggles even to maintain the main building and its comprehensive historical exhibitions. A ship like the Gera, moored in the open air, produces additional problems.

The conservator takes us from the prow of the Gera down into the ship’s hold, and then up to the bridge and finally to the very rear. In great detail, she describes recent conservation projects. Step by step, she reveals the obstacles they have been facing in recent years: financial, technical, chemical and epistemic. Some projects took much longer than expected because her team at first had to find the right colour, fit or tool; others required more funding or a different kind of expertise, all beyond what was available. All undertakings had to be tailored to Bremerhaven’s weather conditions and the Gera’s actual constitution. At the end of the tour, the conservator summarized her team’s efforts in a smiling and (in no way bitter) throwaway remark: once they have completed their work on one end of the ship, they can just about start again at the other.

This contrasts with the claims of the museum’s website: ‘On this 66 metre long outpost of the Historisches Museum Bremerhaven time stood still over 50 years ago. From the trawl net on the fishing deck to the saucepans in the galley and the captain’s uniform in his cabin – everything is in its right place’.1 This is the conservator’s official task: to stop time. However, as she aptly put it: time did not stand still – or rather, certain biological, chemical and physical processes of decay and decomposition did not. The ship’s slow and, in the long run, presumably determinate disintegration at a molecular level is ceaselessly spurred on by the brackish harbour water, salty air, heavy winds and regular rain showers. Conservators will immediately discern the challenges the Gera’s conservation entails, and the particular tricking of time they involve.

Here we see an example in which a certain physical form – an otherwise rather solid, heavy and robust form at first sight – slowly but constantly disintegrates. A few metres down the road, we find the opposite situation. The former auction hall for the incoming fresh catch of fish has also been put to new use. Where once tons of fish were auctioned and sold every day, and thousands of workers earned their living, now either unoccupied emptiness reigns, or some small-scale new businesses have been established, albeit often temporarily. The largest part of the building, a building over 540 metres long and rebuilt in 1982, is used for educational purposes. Two vocational training centres have opened for future workers for Bremerhaven’s currently stumbling offshore wind-farm industry. The future electricians are to benefit from the city’s enormous reindustrialization efforts targeting renewable energy.

These parts of the auction hall have been renovated with the help of the EU, as the many European Social Fund and European Regional Development ‘Investment in the Future’ signs indicate. There is fresh paint on the walls; standard dark grey and blue office carpets have been laid; new seminar rooms, workshops, toilets and changing rooms have been fitted with customary furniture and equipment. Only the kitchen looks old-fashioned. Either it was brought here from another project of the same training company, or it was left by the previous occupant. More generally, there has been substantial investment in this building, at least in these parts. Nonetheless, every morning – and especially on Mondays, after the weekend closure – the two instructors of one of these centres, the Bremerhaven Wind Centre, have a duty first thing in the morning: they have to thoroughly air all the rooms.

As one immediately notices on touring the premises, the walls reek of fish. Obviously, the remaining fish-processing companies in the harbour also – depending on what they produce and the actual wind direction – emit fish odours. But this is different. Even after more than a decade of reuse, the former auction hall is filled with olfactory traces of its past. These almost Proustian traces are working at a molecular level, and it is an awkward feeling to know that, when you smell the fish of old, there must be a substantial connection between your nostrils and, say, the bowels of a freshly gutted herring from the late 1980s. So here time has not done its work properly. The past lingers despite all incitements to move on. Is the instructors’ morning airing procedure the same kind of time-tricking, the same kind of modifying, managing, bending or distorting of time, as the conservators’ preservation work? And what does ‘time’ actually have to do with all this? What is actually tricked at these moments?

These two ethnographic vignettes are used here to point to the kind of analytical and conceptual work that can be done with the notion of time-tricking. It can help us think about some fundamental anthropological problems: time, the future and temporal agency. It does so by forcing us to consider what people believe they are actually tricking when they trick time.

Most scholars working on time, as well as many of my informants, might agree that time itself can be defined as the succession of ‘before’ and ‘after’. As a logical succession, it seems this cannot be tricked (as far as I know, time travel is still confined to fiction). What can be tricked in the practices of my informants’, however, is the construction and contents of this succession. Usually, these contents are defined as events or moments, but the procession of time can also be fairly uneventful. In order to follow my informants’ claims that the contents of time can be tricked, I have to put forward a metaphysical argument. I do so despite my conviction that recent epistemic takes on time (e.g. Miyazaki 2004; Bear 2014a) already offer the space of a solid analysis of the role time plays in human life. A metaphysical distinction between the past and the future is one I wish to draw here, and it is an implicit ontological distinction for my informants. Based on this, I argue that humans, when attempting to trick the contents of time, actually engage in what I want to call future-tricking. And future-tricking, as I hope this Special Section demonstrates, is a worthwhile and often surprising activity.

Tricking Knowledge about Time versus Future-Tricking

The two introductory vignettes underline the fact that time is a tricky issue. Anthropology – along with many other disciplines – has never had an easy relationship with time. Several anthropologists have attested to this difficult relationship, notably Nancy Munn (1992), Alfred Gell (1992), Matt Hodges (2008) and Laura Bear (2014a). Their overviews of the anthropology of time begin at least with Durkheim’s conception of time as social time, and all of them laudably argue for a more complex and explicit approach to time, whose pervasiveness, following Munn, is indeed ‘an inescapable dimension of all aspects of social experience and practice’ (Munn 1992: 93). As she convincingly argues, this dimension needs further analytical and theoretical attention (cf. Dalsgaard and Nielsen 2013). Gell, however, encouragingly states that there ‘is no need to be in awe of time, which is no more mysterious than any other facet of our experience of the world’ (Gell 1992: 314). The idea of time-tricking is to be understood exactly in this vein. Whilst this term immediately raises again the question of temporal agency, which has long lacked specific attention, it also prompts at least two further investigations: first, into our own thoughts about what time actually is (cf. Hodges 2008); and, second, as I argue here, into our metaphysics of the future.

The term time-tricking can be understood in two fundamentally different ways. The first concerns practices that manipulate, coordinate, structure or reorder knowledge about temporal processes. These practices trick time on an epistemic level. (And, importantly, from the presentist position I take here, it does not matter whether the past or future content of time that is referenced was or will be ‘real’ at any point.) The second mode is one where work is actually done on time – that is, on the contents of time – with other temporal metaphysics, particularly of the future, in mind. Whereas the first version seems rather obvious, the second deserves further explication. The central question is, again, what is actually being tricked when people do not trick knowledge about time but its content? I will start by unpacking the first notion of time-tricking.

Much has been written about the many different, creative and often existential ways that human beings operate in and with time (e.g. Hoskins 1996; Orlove 2002; Ssorin-Chaikov 2006; Vigh 2008). They include all kinds of temporal knowledge practices, by which I mean references to, or invocations of, presumed pasts or futures in the present. For example, the Gera’s conservator is concerned with the ship’s immediate and long-term future, and therefore references these more or less probable future scenarios in the knowledge she produces about them. She also produces knowledge about the ship’s past. However, for anthropologists, such references to times past are often important not because they address ‘the past’ but because they tell us something about the present we investigate, and its potential futures. These (re)constructions of the ship’s past are, in this sense, timely, rather than being ‘of the past’. As ethnographic objects, these temporal references are defined by present-day interests, conflicts and negotiations (e.g. Boyer 2006; Ringel 2013).

Knowledge referring to the past is easily tricked. No matter what might be deemed the actual past, one can conceal certain aspects, rewrite history, focus differently or even trick oneself with more favourable accounts and slight adjustments against one’s better knowledge. Whether as actual lies or self-assuring deceptions, what is tricked is a social, contextually concrete reference to the presumed past, often deeply embedded in long-standing social or political conflicts. Anthropologists refer to such practices as temporal politics, describing epistemic clashes, such as the ones that the large body of literature on memory tracks (e.g. Antze and Lambek 1996; Kaneff 2003). We might know that all we are altering here is our present perception of past events, not the events themselves: the Gera’s conservator knows she cannot affect how the ship has been built, used or preserved over the years of its existence, nor can the instructors undo the use of the hall or the gutting of herring in the 1980s. However, we can present a selective account of the past to fit into the genre and format of a certain context – as I did in this case, for this introduction.

Tricking (scientific as much as non-scientific) knowledge about the past strongly links this form of time-tricking to an epistemic approach to time more generally. As Barbara Adam points out, ‘Any reality that transcends the present must be exhibited in it’ (Adam 1990: 38). Still, there is more to what Munn refers to as a ‘temporalization’, the ‘basic sociocultural processes through which temporality is constructed’ (Munn 1992: 116), when it comes to the future.

This takes me to the second version of time-tricking I mentioned – future-tricking – and to what is being tricked differently in this instance. We know that many people implicitly ascribe a different ontological status to ‘the future’ when they try to affect it: the future does not exist, although in some sense only not yet. This does not contradict Adam’s epistemic approach but adds a metaphysical distinction to the debates on what time, for humans, actually is.

In any epistemic understanding of the future, restrictions remain that are heavily embedded in the present, with futures being more or less utopian or dystopian, filled with hope or despair, viciously deceptive, naively optimistic or, in some horribly or wonderfully efficient way, convincing to the extent of becoming prophetically self-fulfilling. Many ethnographic examples from the literature already cited suggest that people assume that past events cannot be altered, and that they can only change their own and others’ perceptions of them. We have seen that the Gera’s curator does not attempt to change the way the ship was dealt with in the past, but she wants to secure the ship’s future existence as a vessel of knowledge about the past. By maintaining the ship, she attempts to change the course and contents of future events, implicitly assuming that actual future events can be altered.

By predicting, forecasting, prophesying, conjuring, evoking or provoking, by dreading, hoping, planning, projecting or envisioning, and by arranging, intending, designing, budgeting, aligning, organizing or coordinating, we attempt to subject the future content of the progression of time to our agency. Much human practice is directed at making one’s desired outcomes more probable, and like the conservator or the instructors, we might actually accelerate, decelerate, interrupt or delay some particular future content of time. Any relation to the future is pregnant with the potential for tricking time, with the ‘real’ content affected. Such practices do not have to result in the emergence of something new (Ringel 2014); they also effect, as recent work on modern time has emphasized (e.g. Bear 2014b), the maintenance and endurance of certain practices, infrastructures and ideas (as we shall see in Part II of this Special Section).

This second version of time-tricking, then, works through specific imagined futures, and has its own ontological foundations and transformative effects. By planning, for instance, we attempt to bring the intended future into existence. This can fail: present predictions of the future can turn out to be either true or false in the future; they might remain ‘elusive promises’ (Abram and Weszkalnys 2013). We can still manipulate temporal processes: we can actually slow down or speed up our own practices in relation to those of others and to alternative expectations and probabilities; we can install specific rhythms, structures, and temporal orders that will coordinate social life in the future. Much insight has been gained from such practices and their distinct effects in the anthropology and wider sociology of time (see e.g. Thompson 1967; James and Mills 2005). But we have to clarify how to ground the possibility of this kind of temporal agency in the first place.

For instance, Captain Cook’s untimely death on Hawai’i, the subject of the famous debate between Sahlins and Obeyesekere (Sahlins 1985, 1995; Obeyesekere 1992), is an effect of the manipulation of the contents of time. But whether we conceptualize Cook’s death as simply stemming from a terrible cultural misunderstanding of the timing of his return (Sahlins’s position), or rather as stemming from concerted and conscious time-tricking efforts by local interest groups (Obeyesekere’s standpoint), makes all the difference. Whether particular Hawaiians really thought that Cook was their god Lono or whether they used this argument to gain an advantage entails the projection of very different ontologies of time by the analyst. The first would explain the (from Cook’s perspective) lethal outcome as an outcome of the ontology of cyclical time presumed to be held by Hawaiians, and perceived to be deeply embedded in their ‘culture’; the second would presume that Hawaiians also have – and deploy – a linear ontology of time. These approaches differ in their understanding of both temporal agency and the succession of time. Whereas the first explanation sounds deterministic in that one understanding of time (cyclical) had to lead to a certain outcome (which is still effected by a specific kind of temporal agency), the second explanation emphasizes, along with a different understanding of agency, the openness of the content of the future: Cook might also not have been killed if other futures had been favoured in the Hawaiians’ debates.

The Gera conservator’s understanding of her own temporal agency mirrors this second explanation. She also has a clear-cut idea of the future, in this case the ship’s future (in a linear conception of time), and she knows that if she did not intervene, the Gera would more or less disintegrate over, say, the next thirty years or more. Through her interventions, however, she pushes this otherwise probable future further back in time, filling the contents of the time before that with different futures. In this ontology of time, she can bring about a future different from the one expected. She has, in this sense, tricked the future, giving it a metaphysical quality different from the past that she presumes she cannot change.

However, the idea of future-tricking also points to the limits of temporal agency, which oddly enough can be described in epistemic terms. What about future contents that become present despite not being previously predicted? Cook’s death, for instance, could also be seen to stem from the workings of time itself: the mast of the ship could well not have broken and thereby forced Cook’s fatal return. This obviously does not constitute a mystical dimension of time. Rather, it shows the fundamental contingency of social life, which we seek to steer in particular directions, and thereby the limits of our attempts at affecting the future. It seems as if time can trick us back – as it apparently keeps on tricking the Gera’s conservator or the vocational instructors in the former fish auction hall, or tricked Captain Cook back in the eighteenth century. Temporal processes, therefore, continuously produce situations in which agency is lacking, and in which agency arguably remains an illusion. Still, the presumed ontological openness of the future, which differs from the metaphysical quality given to the past, allows and invites agency, and at the same time it offers proof of the ideas we have about its nature in each act we direct towards it, whether the attempt at future-tricking turns out to be successful or not. That there is temporal ‘succession’ is the basis for this kind of tricking; the contents of time are tricked because we know that the current present is necessarily changing.

The future’s inherent openness does not always lead to sudden surprise, shock, terror or astonishment (as will be seen in Part I of this Special Section). In less dramatic situations, time slips out of our hands more subtly. However, the future continuously flees our epistemic grip. A moment of crisis, such as the world seems recently to have experienced in abundance, might become extended to periods of chronic crisis (cf. Vigh 2008) where representations of the future can only ever be unconvincing. The individual contributions to this Special Section give plenty of examples in which the future is the target of human practices. The people who appear in these accounts attempt to alter the future so that it does or does not become the present. These efforts underline time’s future contents as subject to agency.

Time and Agency

Recently, there have been widespread ontological concerns in social and cultural anthropology, discussions about what really exists – whether for ourselves or others, or both. This is understandable in many ways. The current so-called ‘acceleration of time’ seems to speed up our ontological imaginaries, and spark new accounts of reality (cf. Dalsgaard and Nielsen 2013).

Such ontological meanderings are obviously not new to the discipline, and have appeared repeatedly. Time as a metaphysical issue is an obvious problem for ontological reflection. In the anthropology of time, we find more ontologically inclined reflections on time appearing in print during and soon after the 1970s oil crises (Geertz 1973; Bloch 1977) and in the emerging post-Cold War world throughout the 1990s (cf. the Sahlins–Obeyesekere debate, above). Both debates raised the question of whether two exclusive positions exist concerning how people conceptualize and live time – either as linear or as circular. In both cases, these concerns were answered with epistemic accounts of how different time constructions are actually not exclusive, and how temporal agency is much more creative and inclusive than the anthropologists expected (Howe 1981; Borofsky 1997). Howe’s and Borofsky’s accounts respectively seem to imply that the construction as well as the personal experience of time remain an epistemic and thereby a much more flexible issue.

Throughout the 1990s, the anthropology of time conceptually proceeded with force. Gell (1992) created an account of time as an epistemic, metaphysical and phenomenological issue, but Munn (1992) and Greenhouse (1996) fused practice theory and phenomenology with concerns about culture. This cultural approach stayed with the discipline, and has recently included the influential work of Guyer (2007) and Orlove (2002). In contrast, Matt Hodges explicitly picked up the issue of ‘temporal ontology’, and provided the most detailed reflection about people’s conceptualizations of the nature of time, proposing a Deleuzian ontology of ‘flux’ (versus ‘progress’), a form of constant emergence as an analytical way out, again, of different implicit cultural and anthropological ontologies of time (Hodges 2008). I agree with Hodges that such ontologies need to be made explicit. However, temporal ontologies, as I have suggested above, should also be specified internally. In most human practices, different ideas exist of what there really is concerning time. With the second time-tricking alternative of future-tricking, which contributes to the currently growing anthropology of the future (e.g. Boyer 2006; Nielsen 2011, 2014; Zeitlyn 2015), we can add to this ontological complexity: tricking knowledge about time works for our informants by presupposing that the past has existed, but cannot be tricked; future-tricking, on the other hand, presupposes that the future does not yet exist in order to be able to trick it. What is being tricked is simple then: the future contents of time. This also allows a new consideration of temporal agency.

Given time’s acclaimed pervasiveness and, subsequently, the ubiquity of temporal agency, there are surprisingly few accounts of that agency. The first prominent account after those of Obeyesekere and Howe is that of Carol Greenhouse (1996), where she links time and agency through concerns about power, empire and cultural change. However, in her case, innovations and reconfigurations of temporal agency remain thoroughly embedded in the concept of culture. As with Guyer (2007), knowledge practices are then conditioned by their cultural contexts, and epistemic relations to time follow that same limiting as well as enabling logic.

In contrast to this focus on culture, both versions of time-tricking that I suggested above underline the multiplicity of temporal agency exhibited in any context. Guyer herself proposed one version of temporal agency that mirrors my first version of tricking with time – which she calls ‘temporal reasoning’ as the ‘reach of thought and imagination, of planning and hoping, of tracing out mutual influences, of engaging in struggles for specific goals, in short, of the process of implicating oneself in the ongoing life of the social and material world’ (ibid.: 408). Temporal reasoning, as she claims, is practised in different times and spaces with different emphases and configurations. These differences still allow for all kinds of temporal agency. I have described one example elsewhere in which the inhabitants of an East German shrinking city managed collectively to carve out new epistemic domains that sidestepped the then dominant post-industrial temporal regime of ‘enforced presentism’ and ‘fantasy futurism’, or rather ‘no futurism’ (Ringel 2012), and they regained an epistemic and thereby practical hold on their near futures. ‘Culture’ did not seem necessary to analyse these efforts. The same goes for Alfred Gell’s (1992: 235–37) version of temporal agency in his idea of ‘temporal maps’, which sidesteps the notion of culture and works between the domains of personal experience and metaphysics. Recently, Laura Bear (2014a: 14–16) has picked up Gell’s idea of temporal maps, and I agree with her critique that we should account for the social manoeuvring on these maps, going beyond Gell’s phenomenological emphasis.2

As we see, there are already a few conceptual propositions which can help us to take temporal agency into account. Time-tricking contributes to these by adding a clear focus on the future as the domain which is most commonly subjected to temporal agency. Although people often occupy themselves with pasts and conflicts about the past, the future is given a different metaphysical quality which allows it to be subjected to human agency.

Conclusion: Time for the Future

‘Time-tricking’ invites us to follow this rugged genealogy of temporal agency and human relations to time. I want to stress in this connection another point made recently by Laura Bear (2014a: 6): the knowledge practices and forms of temporal agency with which we are concerned in this collection of articles do not take place outside specific contexts. Bear’s emphasis on ‘the labour in/of time’ (ibid.) refers to the political economies and power relations in which such temporal practices, indeed all knowledge practices in a Foucauldian sense, necessarily take place. Although the term ‘time-tricking’ facilitates metaphysical focus through a seemingly playful point of departure, it is not meant to be an uncritical, apolitical term. In contrast, the ontological assurance that the future can be tricked, and that experimentation with temporal agency might be a good starting point for this, entails an incitement for further future-tricking. Since both the offshore wind-farm training centres and the Historical Museum I mentioned earlier are threatened with closure because of dwindling funding, the conservator’s and the instructors’ continuous attempts at time-tricking in order to guarantee the reuse of their post-industrial infrastructures are necessarily entangled in a whole bundle of attempts to trick the future in precarious times. Academic interest in this temporal agency is embedded, in turn, in further conflicts and worries about the future.

Notes
1

Quoted from <http://www.museumsschiff-gera.de/?page_id=1079&lang=en> (accessed 22 February 2016).

2

See also Vigh’s idea of ‘navigation’ (Vigh 2008).

References

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Contributor Notes

Felix Ringel is Assistant Professor/Lecturer (Habilitationsstelle) at the University of Vienna, and works on knowledge, time and urban regeneration in mid-sized European cities. His publications on post-industrial shrinkage and the future include articles in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Critique of Anthropology and Focaal.

  • AbramS. & G. Weszkalnys (eds). 2013. Elusive Promises: Planning in the Contemporary World. Oxford: Berghahn.

  • AdamB. 1990. Time and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • AntzeP. & M. Lambek. 1996. Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. London: Routledge.

  • BearL. 2014a. Introduction: Doubt, Conflict, Mediation: The Anthropology of Modern Time. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Special Issue) 20(S1): 330.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BearL. (ed.). 2014b. Doubt, Conflict, Mediation: The Anthropology of Modern Time. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Special Issue) 20(S1).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BlochM. 1977. The Past and the Present in the Present. Man (N.S.) 12 (2): 278292.

  • BorofskyR. 1997. Cook, Lono, Obeyesekere, and Sahlins. Current Anthropology 38(2): 25582.

  • BoyerD. 2006. Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany. Public Culture 18(2): 36181.

  • DalsgaardS. & M. Nielsen. 2013. Introduction: Time and the Field. Social Analysis 57(1): 119.

  • GeertzC. 1973 Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali. In The Interpretation of Cultures (ed.) C. Geertz360411. New York: Basic Books.

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