Time and the Colonial Difference

By Francisca Ribeiro Bártolo & Lisa Deijl 

This article will serve  as a summary of chapter 4 from Walter D. Mignolo’s book ‘The Darker Side of Western Modernity’. We read this book for one of our sociology classes, and this chapter specifically inspired us very much. It challenges our views on ‘time’ and how these views affect our lives. On a day to day basis, we tend to think of time as a clearly defined entity, which is split up in smaller or bigger units. Our lives are organised around these units, take for example the concept of the ‘9-to-5’ job. We work during the day, and our resting time is during the evening. We base these rules on the clock, which is a very abstract thing. Why do we not base our perception of time on for example the movement of the sun, which is much more physically experienced? The answer is that every perception of time is a cultural construct, instead of a natural phenomenon.

Mignolo identifies two different types of ‘time’. Firstly, there is biological, cosmological or natural time. A better word for this could be: ‘rythm’. The notion of this is inherently present in all organisms on the planet. Plants, animals and humans alike are sensitive to recurring events and movements of the earth: the alternation between day and night, the different seasons, lunar cycles and so forth. These cosmological repetitions have guided the lives of the people around the planet before the clock was invented. At a certain point the need arose to measure smaller units of time than days, months or years; simply experiencing natural units of time was not enough. It is then that the perception of time shifted from an experience to a calculation. Some of the results of this shift have been tremendous for society. Consider for example your own use of time: do you wake up when the sun rises or when your alarm tells you to?

On the surface, there is no problem with using the clock as a tool for orienting ourselves in time. However, it is important, says Mignolo, that we realise that the experience of time through clocks has had great impact on the distinction between nature and culture that we have today. The way we understand time is much more than the measurement of it. There is a whole structure of thinking behind it. As Mignolo says: “A calendar contains not only a way of seeing time, but also codes of knowing, ways of remembering and understanding the present by anticipating the future.” We could exemplify this by looking at the Christian calendar. If we say that we live in 2013, we mean that we live 2013 years after Jesus Christ was born. Apparently, the birth of Christ is such a central event in our timeline, that we felt the need to make it the starting point of our history. But this is not self-evident for every culture and is therefore not the only history. This means that cultures who originally had their own calendar, and were forced to adopt the Christian one, have not only gone through a change in the way they view time, but they have also had to adopt Christian ‘codes of knowing, ways of remembering and understanding the present’.

The Christian calendar is only one example of the larger concept of time that has been implemented through colonialism. Since the start of modernity (and coloniality), the clock has been taken as a piece of evidence that some parts of the world were more advanced than others. ‘Living by the clock’, became a prerequisite for being civilised. Simultaneously,  history is generally understood as  linear, an upwards line representing constant ‘evolution’ and ‘progress’. This timeline represents the evolution of nature to culture and of barbarism to civilisation. Time was used to distinguish tradition from modernity, making it only possible to be modern when the time perception of the West was adopted. From the understanding of time as something linear and constantly progressing, the idea was created that a person or a country can be ‘behind in time’. Because modernity is seen as something everyone needs to strive for, the need to catch up is created: think of the terms development and progress (towards modernity). By placing some countries in the category of underdeveloped, it is implied that there is one right standard that everyone has to reach in order to be included in the current world, undermining the idea that there can be other ways of thinking. The concept of time has been used to universalise the idea of modernity.

The colonisation of time has not been as explicit as the colonisation of space, but time has been used a very effective tool for colonising both in the past and nowadays. The general understanding of time builds on the assumption that the West is the central developed part of the world. If you want a clear-cut example, just think of what we describe as the zero-line of time and think of the place where you can find this.