Let’s talk about temporal hours.
In the winter I have trouble making a good start to my day. The main reason for this is that during the time when I try to get up (between 5:30 and 6:00 am; most days I do at least manage to get out of bed by 6:30) it’s still dark. I have a much easier time getting up earlier in the summer, when the brightening of the sky makes it easier.
Yes: it’s obvious that our bodies, attuned to the natural rhythms of the earth and the length of days, should tend to follow those rhythms most comfortably. And leaving aside the requirements of some livestock, for most of human history this arrangement worked and could be followed – without shame.
Recently I read The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin and the first part of the book concerns the divisions of time that people have devised, from keeping track of seasons to days to mastering the flow of time during the day by cutting it into hours. I learned more clearly about the scheme of hours that prevailed before the division of a day into 24 regular hours of equal length, that march along mechanically with cold indifference to the positions of the celestial bodies: what state of light or dark prevails outside. The pairing of regular hours with reliable and ubiquitous means of artificial light “liberated” humanity from living in the dependency on natural day length that kept our poor benighted ancestors in lower stages of civilization…
Which means that, living at about 40 degrees latitude, during December and January I not only have the privilege of coming home from work in the dark, but of feeling guilty for lingering in bed after my alarm goes off, and shame for the weakness of my flesh that is so reluctant to keep in tune with the stricture of a regimen of self-improvement I’ve imposed -
which in turn is necessary to fit with the schedule of my paid employment, locked in along with the rest of the world to the ruthless synchronization of regular hours.
Meanwhile those who live in the arctic region are “free” to order their economic activity (and govern their bodies’ natural rhythms along with it) according to the same structure of time that would make more sense in the tropics.
I take for granted my privilege of being granted some semblance of natural normalcy: the daylight for work and leisure, the night for leisure and sleep. Of course in the earlier days of industrialization the promise of squeezing out every drop of productive capacity from a workforce independent of the old limitations of day and night was so exciting as to wholly win over the affections of the owners of the new machines and those who collected the gains from others’ toil, rolling over the gentle wisdom of humane values with the crushing indifference of a steamroller.
There are few greater revolutions in human experience than this movement from the seasonal or “temporary” hour to the equal hour. Here was man’s declaration of independence from the sun, new proof of his mastery over himself and his surroundings. Only later would it be revealed that he had accomplished this mastery by putting himself under the dominion of a machine with imperious demands all its own.
Through long struggles, those who held onto humane values in some measure succeeded in restraining the hunger of Mammon sufficient to allow enough of us a package of eight or nine hour days with lunch breaks and paid time off and even for some of us yearly salary rather than hourly wage, with all sorts of additional perks distributed here and there so that we feel ourselves making up a fairly stable class of ordinary people who have it better than our ancestors could have dreamed.
And yet, after learning more about the revolution in timekeeping that laid the foundation for all of this, I found myself wishing for a lifestyle marked instead by temporal hours.
In brief, temporal or temporary hours are units of time that divide the day and the night separately. Even if you divide the periods of light and dark – between sunrise and sunset for day, sunset to sunrise for night, say – into exactly equal periods, even if you do this anew each day (and pioneering clockmakers were working towards this), this will still give you “hours” that vary in length through the seasons, if you live outside the tropics.
The “hours” of their daily lives – their temporary “hour” was one-twelfth the time of daylight or of darkness on that day – were more elastic than we can now imagine.
To a modern mind this seems inconvenient, imprecise, messy. But I found myself wondering: if a civilization, if the societies of an entire world, developed sophisticated mechanized means of production, yet kept a scheme of temporal hours, would that have provided enough of a check to prevent the worst excesses of an industrial revolution?
I have staked the history of my fictional setting on that proposition. This was a crucial link to add to the economic history of Koth. Now I have a better idea of how my characters work, how they use their daylight and nighttime hours, how their institutions work, what those institutions demand -
and what they don’t.