Abraxas. 2001; 18: 19-23

Ceremonial time versus Technological time

Bruce Charlton

…I have come in recent years to accept the primitive concept of ceremonial time, in which past, present and future can all be perceived in a single moment, generally during some dance or sacred ritual.

John Hanson Mitchell. From Ceremonial Time: fifteen thousand years on one square mile (1984).

Ceremonial Time concerns John Hanson Mitchell’s reflections on the 15 000 year post-glacial history of Scratch Flat, a square mile of Massachusetts, USA - not far from Boston and Concord. The book is about many things, here I will concentrate on its exploration of the concept of time. Structurally, Ceremonial time is a literary device which allows the author to range freely across the annals of Scratch Flat, binding it with his own contemporary experiences and speculations. But Ceremonial time is also a challenge to the concept of time which underpins modern civilization.

Mitchell’s attempt to construct a Scratch Flat chronology leads him to befriend some modern day American Indians in order to fill some of the gaps left by the ‘official’ history, archaeology and geology. From these Indians he learns about the concept of Ceremonial time. His friends, such as Tonupasqua the medicine woman and Nompenekit the political leader, talk and behave as if the past may become present - they claim direct knowledge of historical and prehistoric events, and this knowledge is made possible during Ceremonial time.

During dances and other rituals, it seems that a person might become able to have experiences in defiance of conventional, technologically-defined chronology. For instance, late one night after a party, Mitchell’s Indian friends come to visit Scratch Flat, and spontaneously begin a ritual dance which lasts several hours until daybreak. Mitchell, watching from a distance, finds himself ‘transported’ back thousands of years, and feels (albeit for a few brief minutes) as if he is observing a Paleolithic event, perhaps (he is not sure) including the appearance of a Shamanistic animal. He thinks he sees a shape - maybe a bear - joining the dancers (he later discovers that the dancers also had the same experience).

On another occasion, following a snowfall, Mitchell gets lost in the unfamiliar altered landscape, and briefly gets a vivid feeling of being in the glacial era of some 15 000 years before. And when exploring an alleged Indian burial ground on a quiet summer’s day, he has ‘a sense suddenly, not of the past, not a rollback of time, but of the reality of those late Woodland Indians… I felt all at once a sudden sense of sharing with these obscure Indians. They were very like us.’

What is Ceremonial time?

From a subjective and psychological perspective, and leaving aside any questions of whether the ‘content’ of the material is factually accurate, then the term ‘Ceremonial time’ is perhaps a misnomer because this experience of time is not necessarily related to ceremony, dance or any other ritual activity. Ceremonial time is actually how humans naturally experience time, because of the way that memory works.

If we consider humans in detachment from technological means of measuring time, without external or objective calibration of large durations; then we realize that throughout most of human history, and indeed in childhood, time is a product of the human mind, and that human memory is neither linear nor sequential. Where there is no external technology for measuring and recording events, then explicit human comprehension of events is limited to what can be brought to awareness in our active ‘Working Memory’.

So, in actuality Ceremonial time is universal and natural to the human mind and it is the modern idea of time as sequential, linear, regular, universal, equally-segmented and irreversible that is anomalous and alien. Of course, this Newtonian physics is only approximately true; but the approximation is very exact at the human scale of events. Presumably the term Ceremonial time arises because adult modern humans in Western countries are so heavily socialized into the technological definition of time that they can experience Ceremonial time only in the context of extreme emotional states - such as may be induced by dances, sacred rituals, or intoxication.

We are all thoroughly acculturated to the modern concept of time as a uniformly-moving and irreversible linear sequence of segments named seconds, minutes, hours, days, years etc. The modern concept of time is derived from ‘astronomical’ time, which was originally the only ‘objective’ measure of duration - time calibrated against the spin of the earth, the seasons, movements of the heavenly bodies. Astronomical time has been further rationalized over recent centuries by technologies such as calendars and clocks, and the electronic technologies which link these globally.

So, Ceremonial time is something subjective and internal - while technological time is objective and external. Ceremonial time is innate while technological time is a discovery. Ceremonial time is human while technological time is… well, technological. This contrast leads to very different perspectives on the ‘meaning of life’. According to the technological, objective, external measure of time; human life is a bleak business. Scratch Flat is just an arbitrarily defined bit of land, and Mitchell’s life is as just one life among billions. From the perspective of astronomy, geology and physical time, Mitchell at one point has a chilling realization:

It came to me very clearly that morning that it was not simply my own death that walked a few steps behind me; it was the full realization that my own cohort will die, that everyone whom I now know, whom I have known, and whom I will know, is going to die; and that in spite of this horrifying fact, the world, huge and momentous and indifferent, will carry on. There is no escaping this devastating reality.

The human-centred world of Ceremonial time

In a pre-technological world, any passage of time lasting more than a few seconds (a few heartbeats) is measured and recorded entirely through the medium of human memory. The workings of time are constrained by the workings of human memory. Indeed, time is human memory, including the shared memories of humans in social groups.

A common method of measuring large durations would be to construct histories by associating one event with another event - it was that winter when the pond froze solid and the fish died, or it was the winter when the men from the East invaded. This is how memory works - not by stringing recollections like beads, but by associations. So associational time is not necessarily sequential because for each item there may be different associations. And it may not be possible to put all these associations accurately into order and determine whether the winter of the freeze came before or after the winter of invasion, or how far these events were separated.

For instance, when Mitchell’s Indian friends describe events of the past on Scratch Flat there is no scale and sequence by which Mitchell can easily map the events of Ceremonial Time onto the events described by geology, archeology and history. There is no ‘oral history’ of a time when the Indians were not living on Scratch Flat, and when Mitchell tries to probe this area his Medicine Woman informant Tonupasqua replies with a phrase and gesture:

“We have been here” she would say, and then she would drop her words and roll her right hand over and over in a circular pattern, extending her arm outward as she did so. The gesture was time. It said that there is no time; that time goes backward on occasion, forward on others; that it stalls out; that it skips around in a circle to catch you from behind; it is not now, or then, or to come; it simply is.

Humans are always present in Ceremonial time, the past is refracted though active memory. So Ceremonial time is a medium in which we are meaningfully linked with other people, places and times - because the human mind imposes meaning without conscious effort, it is the way the mind works. Life makes sense when lived seen from the inside looking-out, in Ceremonial time; but life does not add-up to more than its components when lived according to the externally-imposed constraints of technological time.

Technological time is an alien medium for thought. However, technological time is factually true - it works. Those who organize their societies by technological time are more productive and powerful than those who do not - as shown by the history of the white man versus the red man. Indeed the whole modern world (especially the economy) is evidence that technological time works, because the whole modern world depends on it. The objective measurement of time, the recording and timing of events against universally-agreed, equally-segmented units, and the rational planning and coordination of people’s lives according to these external calibrations - all this is a glue which binds together international trade and commerce.

Ceremonial time is psychologically true and subjectively valuable, but technological time is also true whether we like it or not. This, in microcosm, is the crux of the psychological malaise of modern man. We live our subjective lives according to one set of rules, yet our external lives are governed by another set of rules.

The options…

How can we reconcile the objective reality of technological time with the subjective reality of human psychology? There are four options:

1. Live purely in Ceremonial time

In the remote past, everybody lived purely in Ceremonial time - there was no other measure. In principle, it might be possible for a small number of people to live ignore technological time by opting-out from the contemporary world - particularly from the economy. If done strictly it would probably also mean adopting a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle, since agriculture requires recording and measurement of the larger units of time.

In Living at the End of Time, Mitchell describes meeting a modern day ‘Green Man’ who briefly lives on Scratch Flat in exactly this fashion - hunting, scavenging and gathering (although the narrative leaves us in some doubt as to whether the Green Man is an imagined possibility, rather than an actual person). But for most individuals the spiritual option of isolation is neither desirable nor attainable. And it is not possible for the mass of humans, since the planet could not support even a small fraction of the current population without agriculture, trade and organized industrial production.

2. Live purely by technological time

In the Western world, almost everybody lives according to the imperatives of external, universal objective time. But although our actions may be regulated by the external calibrations of technologically-defined time, our minds work in a very different way. The human mind continues to resist regimentation to objective measurements that violate its inner rhythms, and we try to escape when possible into daydreaming, unstructured solitude, hobbies, and early retirement from economic labour.

People may try to ignore the endemic conflict between technological time and Ceremonial time, but the conflict remains. The functioning of the human mind has been only superficially affected by the training imposed by modern culture.

The options of living exclusively either by Ceremonial or by ‘objective’ time are prevented by economic constraints on the one hand and psychological constraints on the other. There are two types of compromise. Living in Ceremonial time generates psychological rewards, living by objective time generates economic rewards. Individuals may privilege one or the other.

3. Privilege technological time, encapsulate Ceremonial time

One common solution to the conflict is to live a normal modern life ‘by the clock’ but whenever possible (at times and in ways pretty much dictated by economic constraints) to evoke Ceremonial Time by participation in spiritual and religious rituals. Ceremonial time is set aside and encapsulated. Most of Mitchell’s Indian friends seem to live in this fashion - not least because their economic situation places considerable demands on their time, actions, place of residence etc.

…These people, if you met them on the street, would not seem so very different from any other people in New England, except perhaps that their skin has a brownish colour and their hair is straight and black and relatively long... They are working class people in dress, habit, accent and appearance; but they are also Indians, and they are proud of that fact, and, as far as I can tell, they are deeply religious.

The strength of the Indians’ approach is that as a culture they recognize the importance of Ceremonial time, have developed effective means of ‘inducing’ it, and make the best use of their limited opportunities to invoke it.

4. Privilege Ceremonial time, encapsulate technological time

Encapsulating Ceremonial time does not necessarily allow a great deal of opportunity for spiritual satisfaction. The point is well made by Mitchell’s Indian friend Nompenekit:

“I mean, it’s the same thing for the Indian as it is for the white man. You go to work, get money, come home, drink some beer, go to a few weekend ceremonies maybe. But what’s the difference? We might as well be white people only with a different religion.”
The solution adopted by a minority of highly motivated religious or spiritual people is to privilege the Ceremonial concept of time while making the minimum concession to technological time. Work is minimized, set apart and encapsulated. In other words, such people decide to sacrifice economic gain for spiritual rewards. Near the end of the book, Nompenekit departs for Canada, specifically to seek such a life:
“Too crowded round here. I’m going up to Canada with my people… We’re going to get some land back in the forest. I got some money saved up, and there’s no future for the Indian people round here… Me and my brother got a place. We’re going to take our families up there and start living.”
In practice (except for solitary and asocial individuals) the privileging of Ceremonial time is severely limited by economic and social constraints. Before ‘dropping out’ it was necessary that Nompenekit ‘saved up’ some money, and this implies a period of intense subordination to technological time during which economies are made and savings accumulated. The best hope is for an old age in which Ceremonial time may return to dominance.

Defending Ceremonial time

The superiority of technological time for all practical and social purposes of objective public discourse is the reason why - despite its unnaturalness - it has progressively displaced Ceremonial time. The ‘important business’ of the world is conducted in technological time, and by contrast the need to live in Ceremonial time seems merely self-indulgent. When Ceremonial time is part of a broader culture, as for American Indians, it can be defended along with that culture, and space created for it. The Indians quoted by Mitchell deploy defensive strategies - silence, evasion, and loyalty to their own culture.

For instance, Tonupasqua refers to a white friend of Mitchell’s who is a geologist:

‘“He is a man who has read a lot of books?”. Yes, I said, he read books and even taught geology at a university in the West. “Well he don’t know things. He don’t know everything. I talked to my uncle about this and I can tell you now how that place came to be like it is.”’

Tonupasqua goes on to give a mythical account of how the landscape was formed, a traditional account from her wise uncle which she obviously privileges above the ‘book learning’ of a white geologist. But she offers no rational arguments as to why other people should reject the highly successful and powerful rational perspective. As another example, at one point Nompenekit becomes exasperated by Mitchell’s ‘eternal questions’ and bursts out with what Mitchell believes is the ‘essential Indian view of time and space’:

“You know you’re always so worried about the past” he said. “What does that matter, you know? What is it anyway? We don’t believe our people have ever gone away [from Scratch Flat]. We’re right here now, you know what I mean?”

“No”, I said, “I don’t know what you mean”, although I had an idea then of what he was going to say.

“The Indian people, we’re all this, you see,” he answered, and at this point he lifted his head sharply, indicating the marshes and dark line of the pines on the hillside beyond. “We’re made of this, the marshes here, the trees. No different, see what I mean? You don’t understand this because you look on this world as something that is not you. But Indian people believe that we are no different than a squirrel or bear, just a different form. We’re all the same, squirrel, bear, me. Okay?

Nompenekit does not try to refute the ‘scientific’ perspective - rather he pushes it aside, and changes the subject; Tonupasqua’s phrase ‘We have been here…’ and hand-rolling gesture might be another example.

A more Western way of protecting one’s spirituality is irony. This works by answering questions in such a way that the questioner does not know whether or not to take the answer seriously, or indeed the question. Mitchell is a master of ironic playfulness, the book mixes all manner of offbeat ideas and opinions with the products of objective, rational research - and one is never sure just how seriously Mitchell takes it all. One is meant not to be sure.

Humans need to live by Ceremonial time in order to feel at home in the world. This seems to have the status of a psychological fact. But technological time has the status of an economic fact. Both are true - and incompatible. It is the unavoidable task of each individual to create an answer to this intractable problem, according to their personal needs and social circumstances.

John Hanson Mitchell’s ‘chronicles’ of Scratch Flat and its surroundings include Ceremonial Time: fifteen thousand years on one square mile (1984), Living at the End of Time (1990), Walking Towards Walden: a pilgrimage in search of place, (1995), Trespassing: an inquiry into the private ownership of land (1998), and The wildest place on earth: Italian gardens and the invention of wilderness (2001).



also by Bruce Charlton
Quality Assurance Auditing
The Malaise Theory of Depression
Public Health and Personal Freedom
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Pharmacology and Personal Fulfillment
Awareness, Consciousness and Language
Injustice, Inequality and Evolutionary Psychology
Peak Experiences, Creativity and the Colonel Flastratus Phenomenon