This is the second week of my new thematic mini-series called Literary Time Consciousness. In this series, I’m looking at various ways that literature can challenge or disrupt the way we think about time and quantified narrative experience. Today I’ll be focusing on vocabulary. For this post, I draw lightly from my undergraduate philosophy thesis on time, and as such I owe much of my understanding to the professors who guided me.
Looking up the definition of the word “temporal” is a deeply unsatisfying experience. The definitions given are vague and referential, or else negative in their definition. The two most common definitions are: 1) “of or relating to time rather than eternity” and 2) “relating to secular or earthly life”. “Time” is a little more obvious – it’s the measure of the succession of moments, a way to quantify our narrative passage from the past to the future in a uniform way.
The two are often taken as synonymous and used interchangeable, but that’s not quite accurate. Although the two relate, they’re not the same thing. Temporality is subjective progression through moments, while time attempts to objectively measure and mark that progression. Time is necessarily temporal, but temporality can exist plainly without time – a slow clock still measures temporality, even if it doesn’t do so in a timely fashion.
Because of this, we can measure temporality in other, more flexible ways. We use grade levels, rituals, pay grades, progress reports, to-do lists, credit requirements, and more to mark the passage of time. Instead of asking a person how old they are (referencing time markers), we often ask “what grade are you?” or “where are you in your studies?” We’re still making a temporal judgement, even if it has nothing to do with clocks or calendars.
A bit of a tangent – I don’t think it’s a good thing to force the two notions together in respect to the judgement of success. Grade levels are tied to age, as if learning is something that *must* happen in a specific amount of time, people take average age for life events very seriously, and we force ourselves to eat at certain times (I’m always, always, always hungry at 10:30am – I never make it to lunch). Sometimes when I’m stuck in line waiting for something, I day dream about an educational system that allows people to learn at their own pace, moving forward to the next grade level of a subject when they’re ready to do so – it just seems absurd to expect everyone to learn every subject at the same rate. I know I could have used a lot more time in some classes and moved much more quickly in others.
I like to think of the difference between time and temporality in terms of how we determine the length of sporting events. Basketball is both timed and temporal – its broken into segments, which are treated temporally (with breaks in between and a certain number of time outs and interjections) but each segment is timed by a clock. When the seconds tick down to zero, the segment is over, regardless of what has happened. Time marches on, irrespective of the events of the game.
Baseball is almost strictly temporal. The passage of the game is utterly dependent on the events of the game – if certain things don’t occur, then the game does not move forward, no matter how much time passes. One inning could last 3 minutes, and the next 3 hours – what moves the game forward are the number of outs, which depend on exactly what happens at bat, or on base. What I love about baseball is that in each stage exists a potential infinity. If you don’t get three outs, the inning keeps going. If you don’t get three strikes or hit the ball in play, the at bat keeps going. Your team could be down 10 runs at the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and two strikes, and you still have as much “time” as you need should you do everything else right. And when things get moving, you have to keep plugging until the job is done – there’s no running out the clock.
So there you have it – time is an objective measure of subjective experience, and temporality is that subjective passage of time. You can’t have time without some kind of temporal measure (which is why the idea that God exists outside of time is so important to Boethius, and why “temporal” also means “secular” and “earthy”) but temporality can be measured in a number of different ways.