Theme summary

We live in an age acutely conscious of time: its passing and acceleration, its measurement and regulation, its evolutionary dynamic, its future promise, its own timing. Through this consciousness seems to run a thread of compulsion – a compulsion to master the clockwork of time, understand its rhythms, put it to most efficient use, direct its flow, grasp its provenance. Time has taken on the property of a thing or process that can be grasped and made to work in certain ways. But what exactly is time, and does it have the properties we think it has? What meanings of time have come to prevail in our age, and how do they shape human endeavour, being and aspiration? How does the arrow of time fly, and how has its flight been tracked in the past? Is it possible to imagine a future organised without clock-time as anything other than as a train that is either on track or derailed?

In classical physics, Euclidean space is distinct from a constant and universal time. In modern relativistic concepts of space-time, the passage of time depends on the perception of the observer: space, time and matter are intrinsically coupled. One can conceive of space-times with more than one temporal dimension, where effect can precede cause or time can travel backwards. Can these other space-times exist? Do they exist? What are the implications if they do?

As a first step, and fittingly for an interdisciplinary IAS, this theme could be approached by examining meanings of time and their applications in different disciplines, with a view to understanding the implications of such difference, including what might follow from recovering lost meanings or learning from other disciplines. One might wish to examine, for example, the punctuation of individual disciplines through their history by ideas of time as linear, progressive, durational, recursive, elliptical, or epochal, and assess how these punctuations have informed human practice and organisation. Looking across the disciplines, how might the humanities and the sciences (or their subsets) look if understandings of time as rhythm and performed were opened up to and by readings of time as continuous, preformed, emergent? In turn, how might such a comparative sensibility help us to evaluate the move in the social sciences and humanities towards acknowledging multiple temporalities, the play between ordered and lived time, the end of the epochal, the function of the imagination, the role of aesthetic patterning?

These historicised and comparative disciplinary openings may help to place the temporal orientations of our age in perspective, perhaps also new offer new guides to action; placing clock-time in the company of biological, affective, inhabited or cosmological time-scales, displacing our contemporary urge to master time with an art of living with multiple rhythms of time, developing new technologies to measure and perhaps also integrate these diverse rhythms, learning to moderate time as both finitude and infinity, passed and to come, within reach and always elusive. Might it be possible – indeed of worth – to rethink the future and our place in it by changing what we mean by and expect from time?

This is a theme for scientists and social scientists, scholars in the arts and humanities, historians, theorists and practitioners, artists, and policymakers, politicians and opinion formers.

Time publications



Calendars and festivals: Identity, culture, and experience

Our experience of time in the Western world is based on the interplay of a weekly structure and annual festivals. Its origins lie in religious traditions. Thus, the seven-day week featuring one day that is set apart is Judaism’s lasting contribution to time reckoning. Its ultimate success in the West was mediated through the adoption of the Hellenistic Planetary Week in Rome. Annual festivals are ‘appointed time’; borrowing the language of spatiality, they ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ (so e.g. in Hebrew, Latin or German), or, conversely, can be ‘entered’ (cf. German ‘ein Fest begehen’). Unlike Bank Holidays, each festival has its own particularity that differentiates it from the others.

Experiencing time

This sub-theme will bring together researchers working in a range of disciplines to explore new approaches to the embodied experience of time. Challenging dominant linear approaches to ageing, this sub-theme seeks to further our understanding of everyday experiences of time – from the mundane to the exceptional, the repetitive to the disruptive, the meaningless to the wonder-filled – in the context of transformations in our bodies, identities and social roles. Rather than approach the ageing process in strictly biomedical terms, as a teleological process, or as something that is registered only at the level of the individual, the sub-theme will explore the collective and contextual ways in which people grow up, grow old and go on. Special attention will also be paid to temporal variation in specific states of being, including depression, voice-hearing, stillness, and wonder.

Narrating time

This sub-theme will explore the relationship between ‘time’ and ‘narrative’ in research conducted in the present and the future. Possible topics might include: Narrative Time Travelling, Narrating Lives, Narrating the Past, Narrating ‘Time’, Time and Objects. The sub-theme seeks to address the wider debates about narrative in the sciences, social sciences and humanities – what do we mean when we use the word ‘narrative’? What is narrative’s relationship to time? And what might different disciplines have to learn from each other from our uses of narrative? Other strands to this sub-theme include discussing how particular events, experiences and encounters led scholars’ awareness of time and how the ideas exposed by them became a mesh of expectations from which to embark on further research for those starting later in time. The network of thoughts accepted in particular moments of time have effects in later undertakings.

Reconstructing time

In many areas of life, both within academia and without, people are interested in discovering and understanding what occurred in the past. The driving force behind subjects such as archaeology and history is the impulse to explore the past. This drive to unveil the workings of time is central to our understanding of how the universe came into being. It is a key strand of biology, motivating accounts of evolutionary history of life and relationships between species. Accurate reconstruction of what happened in the past is of immediately practical use: a key feature, for example, of police work. It is of great interest to millions researching their family history and genealogy. The feature common to all these pursuits is that information which was readily available when events occurred is lost as time passes. Time turns into a misty window through which the past is blurred and only some information is transmitted. Is it possible to ever know exactly what happened in the past?

Scaling time

At the heart of this sub-theme lie the following questions: how do we experience time and live in time? How do our life courses assume and consume a temporal span? Does time itself have a ‘living’ quality? Attention to the experiential alerts us to qualitative differences in our perception and sense of time as animate and/or inanimate, as lived and living, as ‘dead’ time, as something that we feel the need to ‘kill’. By allowing us to make non-periodic what is periodic, to make non-secular what is secular, to make non-historic what is historic, the arts help us find our way through the world – to live time by making it dance according to an imaginative rhythm. A further strand of this sub-theme will be a focus on the experience of time through calendars and festivals and how they help shape cultures and identities.

Time and the present

A concept inextricably linked with ‘time’ is that of ‘heritage’. Heritage, in its cultural and natural form, is all around us and has a profound temporal dimension. We experience our life and form our identities through the influence of and reinterpretative engagement with the past and our environment. Personal and community identities are shaped by our interaction with tangible objects and landscapes and intangible legacies: the source of pride and the cause of divisions. Tensions often arise over questions of stewardship and ownership of heritage, with competing claims being made by different ethnic, local and national communities worldwide. These disputes deeply affect the ethical and legal framework of heritage.


Theme fellows

To learn more about the Fellows from this theme, see the 2012/13 Time Fellows page.

Professor Alia Al-Saji (McGill University) Professor Sinkwan Cheng (Chinese University of Hong Kong) Professor Péter Érdi (Kalamazoo College and Wigner Research Centre for Physics) Professor Robert Levine (California State University) Professor David Martin-Jones (University of Glasgow) Dr Simon Prosser (University of St Andrews) Professor Udo Will (Ohio State University) Professor Andy Wood (Durham University) Professor Alison Wylie (University of Washington)
Dr Jonathan Ben-Dov (University of Haifa) Professor Bradley S. Epps (Harvard University) Professor Robert Hannah (University of Otago) Dr Mary Manjikian (Regent University) Professor Robert de Mello Koch (University of Witwatersrand) Professor Jerry Moore (California State University) Dr Caitríona Ni Dhúill (University College Cork, Ireland) Dr Wilf Wilde (Durham University) Professor Liping Zhou (Peking University) Chris Watson (Sound recordist)