Political Constructions of Time and History

24 April 2018 Written by   Edward Swenson
 A pentagonal gnomon made of pointed adobes discovered in the northeast zone of the monumental sector of the Moche site Huaca Colorada in the Jequetepeque Valley (AD 650–800). The central point aligns with the sunrise on the winter solstice (June 21). The peculiar shape of the installation, forming multiple lines of sight with prominent features of the surrounding topography, suggests that it functioned in rituals related to astronomy, time-reckoning, and communion with sacred landscapes. Photograph by Edward Swenson. A pentagonal gnomon made of pointed adobes discovered in the northeast zone of the monumental sector of the Moche site Huaca Colorada in the Jequetepeque Valley (AD 650–800). The central point aligns with the sunrise on the winter solstice (June 21). The peculiar shape of the installation, forming multiple lines of sight with prominent features of the surrounding topography, suggests that it functioned in rituals related to astronomy, time-reckoning, and communion with sacred landscapes. Photograph by Edward Swenson.

The French sociologist Henri Lefebvre devoted much of his scholarly career to exploring how power is realized through the production of space. He also expressed interest in how the material world regulated experiences of time. In his short book Rhythmanalysis, Lefebvre noted that the commodification of time in capitalist societies profoundly shaped the temporalities of everyday practice and the “biological rhythms of sleep, hunger, thirst, walking, excretion” (Lefebvre 2004, 6). In a similar vein, scholars have directly correlated the growing popularity of mechanical clocks with changing relations of production and increased bodily discipline in early Modern Europe.

Traditional Andean social theory resonates with Lefebvrian philosophy, for time was envisioned not as an abstract passage but as a material force that was actively constructed. Authority accrued to those with the power to manufacture, accelerate, or reverse time. Elites further endeavored to regulate temporal rhythms of subject communities by controlling calendars, the timing of seasonal festivals, and ritual movements in space. In the volume I recently coedited with Andrew Roddick, we argue that anthropologists have much to learn from Andean ideologies of time and history. Despite an overarching concern with chronology and process, however, archaeologists have only recently considered indigenous temporalities and modes of historical production. Contributors to the volume demonstrate that alternate materializations of time shaped historically specific constructions of personhood, community, worldview, and place in the Andes.

In fact, archaeological attention to the differing intersections of time, space, and material culture has much to offer the social sciences in understanding historical process and how particular events structured long-term social practices beyond a given event, whether a great festival, a battle, or a pilgrimage to a ceremonial center. These intersections have been surprisingly under-theorized in the social sciences but are relevant to making sense of how time is fundamentally mediated by places and things. For instance, a family may decide to go on a camp-out to escape the everyday grind and simplify life both materially and socially. This temporary escape to nature, however, is usually realized through the mobilization of a cumbersome material corpora of tents, coolers, RVs, fishing gear, outdoor wear, and so forth. The preparation for the camp-out (and the return home) can be particularly demanding and may require an investment of time that rivals that of the brief camping trip itself.

The point is that short-term, ritualized, or infrequent events are commonly defined by an altered material frame, whether intensified, simplified, or reconstituted. The establishment of this frame often requires considerable resources and time and can significantly redirect quotidian routines in anticipation of the event in question. Christmas entails a fleeting day of gathered family, festooned halls, trimmed trees, special meals, and gifts of novel things. The day may pass quickly, but its codification through a recognizable material culture fixes the holiday over a longer period of time, necessitating ample resources and weeks of planning. In the ancient Andes, periodic ceremonial gatherings also functioned as powerful instruments of subject formation by capturing peoples’ time to prepare the special places and to produce the distinct material force field necessary for public celebrations. Communities were immersed in altered material worlds within specially constructed spaces over short durations—this immersion afforded experiences that diverged remarkably from quotidian routines. For example, diverse peoples congregated from throughout the Huánuco region and beyond to the great Inca provincial center of Huáunco Pampa, where they encountered the aesthetic marvels of Inca stonework and feasted on high-quality food and corn beer from the finest ceramics—found in extraordinary abundance at the site. The rousing spectacles, tournaments, and feasts staged at Huáunco Pampa reshaped bodies and mind and powerfully resocialized cultural groups. For instance, different communities could literally become Inca by eating special food, handling state pottery, and engaging in ceremonies within awesome built environments. The effects of Inca ideology transcended the evanescent celebrations by shaping the desires, memories, and deep-seated anticipations of far-flung participants. Therefore, the Inca political regime was at its most effective by regulating subjects’ daily schedules and sense of time.

 

Sacsayhuaman

The massive foundations of the Inca military and ceremonial installation of Sacasayhuaman in Cusco, Peru. The precision-fitted stones of the cyclopean blocks express the Inca valuation of time-consuming, labor-intensive activities. Today, great ceremonies, including the Inti Raymi festival, continue to be staged within this evocative landscape. Photograph by Edward Swenson.

 

Ian Hodder’s classic call that archaeologists need to examine “meaningfully constituted worlds” (in which things are constituted by and constitutive of such of meaning) appealed to a generation of post-processual archaeologists embracing hermeneutic methodologies. However, meaning defies easy definition and became immediate prey to the new materialists who spurned the symbolic and representational. Nevertheless, meaning is not necessarily synonymous with signification or the expressive, for it can also encompass the experiential, embodied, and non-linguistic. I would argue that “meaning” in its broadest sense can be productively inferred by examining how materiality, space, and time variably articulated in different social formations. Many of our activities, choices, and prospects are dictated by global capitalism, from the food we buy, the schedules we work, and the houses we live in. Capitalism then would form a significant structuring principle of the “meaningful world” that future archaeologists will need to interpret to make sense of everything, from the distribution of strip malls to the stratification of rapidly changing electronic devices in landfills. This stratigraphic deposit would express an economics of constant invention and obsolescence and by extension historical ideologies of progress and possessive individualism. For a good number of people, such ideologies are perhaps best understood as hegemonic in the Gramscian meaning of the term; such material deposits of time (and indeed history) remain unquestioned and taken for granted. Therefore, a modern-day landfill conveys profound “meaning” and proves that archaeologists can do much more than simply build chronologies from stratigraphic cuts. However, this approach often continues to serve as the starting—and endpoint—of archaeological analysis.

In the end, sociopolitical transformation is commonly manifested in changes in temporal cycles and the ideological regulation of time itself. If the tempo of culturally specific practices leaves distinct material signatures as discussed above, then the formulation of both relative and absolute chronologies should be attuned to lived temporal rhythms. In other words, stratigraphic and stylistic analyses must consider how past political regimes actively created and managed time itself.

 
Reference

Lefebvre, Henri. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury.


Edward Swenson is associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He holds a BA from Cornell University and an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. He has served as acting director of the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto.

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