In The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of TimeAnthropologist Edward T. Hall entitles his first chapter “Time asCulture. ” An extreme stance perhaps, especially given the potency ofnature’s rhythms, but it is instructive of the extent to which experiences andconceptualizations of time and space are culturally determined. Unlike the restof nature’s animals, our environment is primarily man-made and symbolic inquality.
As Bronowski observed in The Ascent of Man, instead of being figures ofthe landscape, like antelopes upon the African savanna, we humans are theshapers of it. Geographical space and natural time are transformed into socialspace and social time, around whose definitions human beings orient theirbehaviors. For instance, instead of being governed by the natural rhythms of thesun and seasons, our behaviors are governed by such cultural temporalities aswork schedules, age norms, and by the “open” hours of shopping malls. Culture is a shared system of ideas about the nature of the world and how (andwhen) people should behave in it. Cultural theorists argue that culture createsminds, selves and emotions in a society as reliably as DNA creates the varioustissues of a living body.
Culture also creates the rhythms of a society thatecho within the very biology of its members. Observes Irving Hallowell(“Temporal Orientation in Western Civilization and in a Pre-LiterateSociety, American Anthropologist 36, 1955), “It is impossible to assumethat man is born with any innate `temporal sense. ‘ His temporal concepts arealways culturally constituted” (pp. 216-7). A 1974 study by William Condonand Louis Sander showed that within a few days, infants flex their limbs andmove their heads in rhythms matching the human speech around them. By the time achild is three months old he has already been temporally enculturated, havinginternalized the external rhythms (called Zeitgeber, meaning “timegiver” in German) of his culture.
These rhythms underlie a people’slanguage, music, religious ritual (the Buddhist mantra, for instance, is notonly one’s personal prayer but one’s personal rhythm), beliefs about post-mortemfate, and their poetry and dance. These rhythms also serve as a basis ofsolidarity: humans are universally attracted to rhythm and to those who sharetheir cadences of talk, movement, music, and sport. Thus socio-cultural systemscan be likened to massive musical scores: change the rhythm– such as putting afuneral dirge to a calypso beat–and you change the meaning of the piece. Cultures differ temporally, for example, in the temporal precision with whichthey program everyday events (ask any American businessman trying to schedule ameeting in the Middle East) and in the ways various social rhythms are allowedto mesh.