The Pendulum Swings
Christine Wertheim and Margaret Wertheim

Time it seems is running out. The question is, will we fail it or will it fail us?

In the opening hours of the new millennium Jem Finer launched Longplayer, a thousand-year-long musical score calibrated to end precisely on December 31 2999. Composed of six gradually differentiating Tibetan bell-chants, Longplayer loops spirals through its musical elements "like planets around the sun."[1] Indexing a tension generated by the loss of meaning in our temporal experience and a consequent fear of time's demise, Longplayer might be read as an artist's response to a peculiarly modern anxiety. What we are to make of this knot?

To unravel the knot of millennial angst we must address ourselves to the question of time. Throughout history, time has been deified, reified, numerified, and finally in the modern West, it has been metrified. With each conceptual prism time takes on different meanings, lends itself to different applications, and arouses different concerns. The Maya, one of the most temporally obsessive of all cultures, lived in a perpetual state of temporal terror, ever afraid the gods would abandon their burden of months, and time would literally cease. For Jews and Christians anxiety has catalyzed round the opposite pole, the idea that time might "not" end and that we are forever trapped in its flow, never escaping to the a-temporal Paradise promised in Biblical scripture. On the other hand, the modern combination of science and capital has now produced practices of micro-time-management whose effects concern not annihilation and salvation, but alienation and automatism, as clocks, alarms and timetables slice life into ever more precisely measured beats. But if each temporal technology provides a different source of fear, it also releases otherwise unimaginable potentialities, for a system of time is not just a method of counting, but a multifaceted assemblage involving semiotic codes, material techniques and social ideals. Along with history, the alarm clock, and the time of the Big Bang, contemporary western temporal experience includes mythical time, advertising time, the time of the unconscious, and the time of evolution. All this in addition to the ongoing influence of Judeo-Christian time, albeit now shorn of a redemptive end. In attempting to understand the fear to which Longplayer alludes we need to comprehend at least some of this complexity.

Myth Time

We who are riddled with the ways of linear time, take a beginning for granted, but the time of myth requires no such assumption.

The structure of myth-time is not a progressive line. It is a spiral composed of ever winding cycles, none ever expanding beyond the opening move, each merely transforming itself into another variation on the same theme. According to the anthropologist Levi-Strauss the function of myth is to articulate the process by which humans become distinguished from animals – the "time" of myth is the time of this becoming. Mythopoetically speaking, however, man does not come into being with the generation of a mere bodily form. Humanity is, from its inception, an animal flesh entangled with the tools and techniques that constitute it as armed, primed, organized, decorated, familiar, scripted and (ac)counted for. Amongst these of course is the art of myth itself. The mythical origin of man is the story of how these techniques come into being; a story neither singular nor unified, for it is constituted by the multiple becomings of "all" human technics. As none of these is primary, the time of myth has neither an absolute beginning, nor a final conclusion, but constantly circles round the point of its own origin.

Critically, says Levi-Strauss, there is no original or "correct" version of a myth. Each is a highly complex arrangement composed of the sum total of all its variants. The overall structure is one "of multidimensional networks of bisecting axes of transformation, an endless criss-crossing of stories,"[2] each variation linked to others not at the level of its manifest content, but at a deeper structural level that functions much like music. A gifted musicologist, Levi-Strauss analyzed these verbal scores into a horizontal and a vertical axis – the horizontal for melodies or basic themes, what he calls "the key signatures", the vertical for the variations in the different local performances. For Levi-Strauss, this analogy between myth and music is no mere metaphor. A myth, like a piece of music, is a score whose silent executors are the audience. To mythologize is to play this score, performing for oneself the structures of the myth. As every such performance necessarily differs, myths grow and change as they move through generations and locals. Nonetheless, Levi-Strauss insists that we do not learn anything about a culture's belief systems by studying the structures of its myths. What we learn here are the general forms of (mythopoeic) thought itself.[3] Indeed, the time of myth is the time of thought, the Ur-time of that continually traversed and spiralling passage in which men continuously become (aware of) themselves through their capacity to tell tales.

Calendrical Time

Yet, if myth embodies a time, it is not, in itself, a record of time's passing. It is not a calendar. A calendar appears only when the flow of time is divided into regular repeating segments, or "years". Such units may be based on the earth's rotation round the sun, or they may not. Introducing the idea of "recording", this new temporal devise allows recurring or significant dates to be marked in advance for remembrance and celebration.

No culture has embraced the idea of calendars more ardently than the Maya, a people whose temporal imagination is almost staggering in its fecundity. Obsessed with record-keeping, the Maya had at least five separate calendars; the Haab or civil calendar, based on a 365-day year, the Tzolkin or sacred calendar with a 260-day "year," a lunar calendar, and in addition a calender based on the 584-day synodic cycle of Venus. Overarching all these was a temporal construct archeologists have come to call the Long Count, a totalizing calendrical framework within which every day since the dawn of time could be precisely marked. Bizarrely, the Long Count geared itself to no celestial rhythm and was set to the eccentric beat of 360 days – a sufficient deviation from the solar year to ensure the two cycles were virtually never in phase.

Driving this calendrical mania was a crushing fear that time itself would end. For the Maya, anxiety crystallized around the "zero" points when any cycle ended and the cosmic odometers clicked over to nought. Above all the Maya feared those moments when two or more cycles ended together, and several zero days coincided.[4] Any combination of the various calendars would at some point zero out together: for the Haab and Tzolkin this nexus occurred every 18,980 days – every 52 Haab years or 73 Tzolkin years. At some point all the cycles must come into phase; at such a juncture the Maya believed time would literally run out. The only prophylactic was to pile on more cycles, ever more eccentric rhythms of wheels upon wheels, expanding the calendrical space and thereby postponing the catastrophic moment when all zeros would tick over in unison. So complex did the Mayan system become that by one reckoning the Long Count encompassed two billion billion billion years! By comparison, contemporary astronomers calculate that the Big Bang of our culture occurred a mere 13.7 billion years ago. As if this were not enough, the Maya had also to tend to their gods. Each cycle, and each cycle within a cycle had its particular deity whose task was to bear responsibility for the associated temporal period. Such burdens naturally extract a price, and blood was the currency the timekeepers craved. At each calendrical zeroing the Maya offered extravagant sacrifices as incentive to the gods to take up their temporal burden and go through their cycle again. Virgins, children, hearts cut from living victims, these were the price the Maya paid to keep time running.

But if the Maya seem pathological to us, we should also acknowledge an important impulse underlying their approach to time – their recognition of the role of human responsibility in the maintenance of cosmic order. Time for the Maya was not something that simply happened. Neither could it be left to the gods. Human participation was also required. In an age when we have acquired the power to end time for ourselves, Longplayer suggests that we moderns might also consider our responsibility for keeping time going. Like the Clock of the Long Now – a vast mechanical timepiece designed to last ten thousand years – Finer's millennium-long composition indexes a moment of cultural anxiety, a moment when the zeroings of our own cosmic odometer raise fears that we too might not make it through the next cycle. Recording time's passing inevitably led the Maya to the idea of its running out. But time itself, the course of history, had no intrinsic meaning in their temporal system. Nor in any of the other ancient calendrical cultures from the Sumerians and Egyptians to the Chinese and Greeks. To endow history itself with significance, and change time from a cyclic to a linear phenomenon requires that strange complex known as the Hebrew faith.

Time and Eternity

"Time ravages everything, our person, our experience, our material world. In the end everything will be lost. In the end there is only the darkness." [5]

Departing from the Levi-Straussean model, Judaic mythology imposes on the simultaneous becomings of myth a strictly linear order. This sequential unfolding – literally creating order out of nothing – represents a new and unique temporal framing in which time is conceived, not as a multifaceted becoming, but as a progressive line, with a singular beginning and a definite end. Though this model is ingrained in the

Western psyche, it is not innate to human consciousness. The tale of this unique temporal story was first articulated in the book of Genesis, where time unfolds from a First Principle of Divine Love into the ever more complex forms of material being. Firstly, division of light from darkness, then separation of waters, next emergence of land, and finally the creation of plants and animals, culminating in man, or rather woman, with whom degeneration begins. Within this linear scheme the passage of humans from "nature" to "culture" no longer unfolds as a neutral becoming, but is seen now as a Fall. For if the First Principle of Divine Love is creative, It is also narcissistic, prohibiting Its creation from adoring anything but Itself. But curiosity killed the cat and the apple fell – or was plucked – when the created one struck out on its own to pursue another less ideal form of love and knowledge. For this transgression, humanity was cut off, condemned to wander in exile till the day comes when of Its own free-will Divine Love forgives and the term of our suffering ends.

Two historically original temporal motifs distinguish this story.[6] First, it does not simply describe an endless round of suffering and sacrifice, but cuts through the cycles of time with a single unified narrative that transforms the spiral into a line. No longer articulating a multiplicity of becomings, Jewish history prioritizes the Word, rendering the acquisition of language the fundamental human narrative. Second, the end of time is no longer conceived as the end of all being, for the Jews like other non-Amerindian cultures recognize a mode of being which is completely beyond time. Thus where the Maya feared that time would cease, Judaic culture longs for its end, awaiting with anticipation the "Paradise" promised beyond time where Man is reunited with his God.

In common with their historical peers in Greece, the ancient Jews saw time as an enemy, the medium of an abomination. The name of this offense was "Change" – or to be more precise, decay and degeneration. Abhorrence of change emerged from the view that perfection is synonymous with immutability – that which never changes. But with "true" reality equated to the eternal, the very idea of time was rendered heinous. In this respect both Greek philosophy and Jewish theology represent a radical departure from myth, which in effect articulates nothing but change. In ancient Greece this tension between the mutable and immutable presented itself to any philosophers as a division between appearance and essence; to their Judaic counterparts its primary manifestation was the struggle between time and "eternity". Contrary to popular belief, Eternity is not constituted by an everlasting bliss, it is the absolute NOW that has no duration at all.[7] The "time" of Paradise is the non-time of this pure Presence, a mode of being we do not have to endure because it has no terms whatsoever. Thus in Jewish theology, the aim of history is to end time completely by returning us to this a-temporal state.

In Hebraic doctrine man is powerless to redeem himself. Here only God can save us, a favor we can neither earn nor plead, but only, in all humility, await. For some however, that waiting proved unendurable, and inevitably the myth of a redeemer was born. The Christian story also is one of suffering, and time again is its medium. But Christ's resurrection ruptures the flow of temporal endurance inserting a "point" of Eternal bliss. The risen Christ is the living sign of God's forgiveness, a material symbol that suffering will end, that time will end, that time will cease. Christian believers thus subsist in a temporal paradox, living time in the flesh but eternity in spirit. Though God is supposedly dead, this mind-warping duplicity haunts western culture still, promulgating a constant fixation on The End in every region of life. From the scientific and political to the philosophic and artistic, we westerners (believers or not) remain transfixed by the idea that time marches toward a conclusion. Yet where Christians and Jews and Christians look forward to this terminus, as both Longplayer and the Clock of the Long Now attest, the modern secularized mind fears it immensely, seeing at time's demise not an eternal bliss, but an endless expanse of meaningless void. How are we to account for this once more radical shift?

Clock Time

From Judeo-Christianity, modern Europe inherits the time of linear progression. Crucially however it rejects the idea of salvation, subtracting all significance from the temporal flow. This is the meaning(lessness) of God's famous death. Though modern science accords a definite beginning to the universe, and also possibly an end, between these poles no inherent movement of purpose may now be discerned. The time of contemporary secular existence is thus a meaningless span between a Big Bang and a potential Big Crunch, singular events, but without human or eschatalogical significance. Yet if modernity adds Nothing to our understanding of time at the macro-scale, at the micro-scale radical new technics are bought into being, ones that insinuate themselves into every aspect of contemporary life, changing the tenor of human experience through such emblematic items as the alarm clock, the working day and the railroad timetable.

"What is the time?" "Do you have the time?" These questions seem so natural to us, yet they have been learned. Certainly humans have been marking hours through sundials and mechanical devices for hundreds, if not thousands of years, but the modern west has elevated time-keeping to an unprecedented level. Today we mark time in microseconds and nanoseconds – physicists even measure the picosecond. More than a mere increase in accuracy, the technologies of micro-time have brought into being hitherto unimaginable projects, from computers and intercontinental telecommunications to global positioning satellites – to mention only a few. Above all, modern slicing and dicing of time has made possible, indeed necessitated, the creation of a worldwide temporal standard. Thus, where premodern time was an essentially a local and variable phenomena, today time has solidified into a cyrstalline net girthing our planet in a rigid web that both assists and enslaves us.

Simple time keeping has a long history – the sundial being the archetypal technology. Yet most premodern timepieces were calibrated to the daylight hours, marking in equal divisions the period between sunrise and sunset – in Europe these divisions numbered twelve. Since the duration of sunlight varies from place to place and season to season, the length of these "temporary hours" also varied. Whatever the advantages of this method, it was insufficient for the project of modern science, particularly physics, which demands both a universal and unchanging temporal measure. far sighted as always, Galileo was first to clearly articulate what was at stake here. Nature, he said, is a realm of material objects moving according to mathematical laws through time and space. The purpose of science is to determine these laws by observation and measurement of concrete phenomena. But only if the mediums of time and space constitute a constant and unchanging background, having no locally varying properties, can the laws we deduce from our experiments be taken as universal. Euclid had already provided the blueprint for an adequately regular conception of space, the modern pendulum clock with its unvaryingly regular hours provides the required model for time.

But it is one thing to have an intellectual concept of universal time, it is quite another to produce a device that can manifest this to our senses. Successfully realizing the task is one of modernity's most influential achievements. The story begins with Galileo's discovery that a pendulum of fixed length will always swing with the same periodicity. Yet by itself a pendulum does not constitute a clock – to be useful (in modern scientific terms) a timepiece must not only beat time in a regular way, it must also mark and record this beat so readings can be made. The problem of realizing this goal is harder than it appears for the attachment of a recording mechanism to a pendulum inevitably interferes with its swing – an early example of the now famous principle that observation alters phenomena. To build a workable pendulum "clock" requires a construction in which the recording mechanism is as detached as possible from the phenomenon it must record. In large part the history of modern clock-making has been the increasing invention of ever more clever ways to achieve this paradoxical goal of "recording" time without altering the timing device itself. Christian Huyghens began the process in 1657 when he successfully produced the first pendulum clock; today, the most accurate clocks continue Huyghens' revolution by utilizing atomic phenomena.

The development of clock-time is however more than just a technological achievement. Here we encounter a multifaceted arrangement involving not only machinic techniques and scientific ideals but also political and economic practices. The organizing principle of this assemblage is to be discerned in its commitment to "objectivity" – the belief that the time registered by clocks is independent of both the devices which record it and also of the human agents who demand such a technology. It is here that the essential characteristic of clock-time most clearly emerges – the exclusion, or expulsion, from the whole temporal system of the time-keeping subject himself. In "Time and Representation",[8] philosopher Isabelle Stengers and historian Didier Gilles demonstrates that the physical detachment of the recording device from the phenomenon it records in the pendulum clock is the ultimate image of the detached relation modern man has tried to adopt towards his entire world. Not without reason is the clock-keeper still one of modernity's central metaphors. Yet as Stengers and Gilles point out, belief in this "objectivity" can only be sustained if the "motivations" that brought the device into being are obscured. That is if the clock's birth is naturalized as an inevitable product of increasing technological sophistication, rather than, as they assert, the outcome of culturally specific and socially directed aims.

Moreover, the pair insist, belief in time's separation from the subject is not just necessitated by the demands of science, it is also a product of "free-market" economics. For it is not, as Marx pointed out, essentially our labor that we sell on the market; it is our time. Like any commodity, the condition for man's selling "his" time is that it be constituted as something both quantifiable and detachable. Clock time is the mechanism by which this constitution is effected. Objectified, regularized, alienated and automatized, the clockable units of modern man's time are more than just an effect of the free-market, they are its raison d'etre, the principle mechanism by which work is turned into salaried units and men are converted to wage-slaves. Both image and aim, cause and effect, the time of the clock is the time of our exploitation.

Furthermore, modern man's detachment from time occurs, not just on the personal level, but was extended to the wider social scale when the massive expansion of railways in the nineteenth century required a temporal synchronicity on national and ultimately international levels. The final result of this synchronization was a complete uncoupling of time from local conditions and the creation of International Standard Time – a temporal grid that imposes a universal net over the entire earth, its only referent an arbitrary marker in Greenwich, England. Now, "mid-day" no longer registers the sun's apex in the sky, but is an arbitrary point in a system completely abstracted from natural rhythms. To the initial recipients of this shift, the imposition of "foreign time" was far from welcome, disturbing everything from bread making and the production of cow's milk, to bar closing times and the regulation of laws.[9] Though these complaints may at first seem quaint or even ridiculous to us, they were an early index of a growing disease that abstracted time engenders.

But like most technologies clock-time has both its positive and negative sides, for if clocks breed alienation and automatism they also release new potentialities. Regularized time brings into being synchronization at the macro-scale of international timetables; yet at the same time it enables synchronization at the micro-scale, thus making possible digital chips. The triumph of clock-time is witnessed nowhere more clearly than in the heart of the computer, each of which is built round a central timekeeping device instantiated in a pizoelectric crystal – the computer "clock" – that organizes and synchronizes at the nanosecond scale. For the past decade, computer "clock-speed" has been doubling every year: in 1990 the Intel 8088 ran at 4.77 megahertz (4.77 million cycles per second); by the year 2000, when Longplayer was launched, chips were running at more than a gigahertz – a thousand million cycles a second! This infra-thin slicing of time, unthinkable in any prior temporal framework, enables the precise coordination of millions upon millions of transistors calling into being the multifarious fruits of this computer age – the PC's and cell phones, the pagers and PDA's, the CD and DVD players, the GPS positioning devices and our microprocessor-controlled fuel injected engines and more calculating power than prior generations ever dreamed possible.

Weaving a thread through this complex terrain, Longplayer aims to beat the clock at its own game, using micro-time to build macro-time in a brave attempt to reconstitute a meaningful dimension in our temporal experience. The question is, what that dimension might be?


Like all temporal assemblages, clock time becomes a double-edged sword, extracting a price while simultaneously bringing about new possibilities. The technological potential opened by this technique is clearly vast, but perhaps even more exciting are the effects at the psychological level. As Deleuze argues, the excision of the western subject from its central position as both origin and aim of time’s multivalenced flux is not necessarily a bad thing, for with detachment comes liberation. Liberation in particular from the overly individualized and fetishistic ego that is the unhealthy shadow thrown by the secularized Judeo-Christian lens. By introducing universal measures that detach time from the human subject, modern temporal practices shift the focus of history from man and his ego to the whole techno-social complex within which he is embedded. Mechanized time can thus be read as a key weapon in modern humanity's struggle to liberate itself from its ego and return us to an essentially relational mode of being – in a world composed not just of Man and his Word, but all the techniques of his continuous becoming. At the point of our calendrical zeroing, Longplayer too invites us to think in terms of this wider framework, asking that we "get over ourselves" by focusing on our relations to time. For having arrived at this juncture, we must take care that it does not now run out on us. Time, it seems, always brings insecurity – fear of its loss or fear of its continuation, fear it will end or fear that it won't. On this cross the modern world swings.


1. Jem Finer.

2. Boris Wiseman and Judy Groves, Levi-Strauss For Beginners, Cambridge, Icon Books, 1997, p. 141.

3. Claude Levi-Strauss, ‘The Structural Study of Myth,’ in Structural Anthropology, tr. Claire Jacobson, New York, Basic Books, 1963.

4. Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, London, Allen Lane, 1999, p.86.

5. …Gardens of Eden…

6. Karl Lowith, Meaning in History: The Theological implications of the Philosophy of History, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1957, see esp. ch. XI, ‘The Biblical View.’

7. Isabelle Stengers and Didier Gilles, ‘Time and Representation’ in Isabelle Stengers, Power and Invention: Situating Science, (‘Theory Out of Bounds’ series, vol. 10), University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp 177-214.

8. ibid.

9. ibid.


This essay originally appeared in the book Longplayer (Artangel, London, 2003), available from the bookshop page.

In 2003 Margaret and Christine Wertheim co-founded the LA based Institute For Figuring, an organization devoted to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics. The IFF puts on lectures and exhibitions and maintains an extensive website, The IFF’s latest project – the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef – has been shown in New York and Chicago, and during Summer 2008 will be exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London. Christine’s first book of logico-poetics, called +I’me-space, was published in 2007 by Les Figues Press (Los Angeles).

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