Metaphysics Is a Piece of Cake

In Mexico City, bakeries have just begun selling pan de muerto [bread of death], which has proven divisive in the baked goods community. A sweet bread, with a fluffy orange and aniseed-flavoured inside and a sticky, confectioner’s sugar-dusted outside, it should only bother your doctor, but this year it has made everyone angry. The pastries first showed up in July, much earlier than usual, and given they’d have to remain fresh until the Day of the Dead that begins on November 1st, with wild hubris. ¿Ya terminó el año? [Is the year already over?],” I heard a woman ask in a pastelería, ostensibly to herself, but loud enough for everyone to hear. A once-unspoken rule said that pan de muerto can’t go on sale before Independence Day, September 16; it’s something to be eaten as you come to the end of the calendar year. But these reckless bakers seem to be changing everything, and when I later brought up the offending bread with a friend of mine, she shook her resignedly, “Every year they go on sale earlier.”

We might recognise a similar sensibility in Australia. When I was younger, I worked at JB Hi-Fi, and we knew that while Christmas decorations could go up in November, if we played Christmas music even one day before December began, we risked being subject to arson. Hot cross buns proved similarly divisive. Despite being a relatively unobtrusive bun, supermarket bakeries that sneak out a few batches in February will be the target of white-hot rage. I distinctly remember visiting my parents a few years back and bumping into my dad in Woolies (an Australian supermarket chain) while I was grabbing a few things for dinner, and he was so gobsmacked by the out-of-season buns that he couldn’t even say hello. He just turned to me, crimson-faced, apparently having already begun his tirade before he realised I was there: “We just bloody had Christmas, Lachlan, and now they’re telling us it’s already bloody Easter?!” (A large part of me also suspects that he bought a packet and ate them in the car.)

In my experience, supermarket managers have little truck with the metaphysical, so my dad’s accusation that they were stealing our time seemed a little off the mark. Part of his outburst might relate to how service and retail industries are often treated as legitimate targets for public aggression (to that end, take a look at Arlie Hothschild’s The Managed Heart, which developed the idea of the emotional labour of service work). It might also be my dad attempting to distract me from a secret highway snack. But when we consider the sociality of time, we might see a little truth to the claim that supermarkets can shift our experience of temporality.

Way back in the 20th century, social scientists developed an interest in how we experience time. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim developed the now-foundational idea of “collective representations”, which held that time and space were the products of religious thought. Durkheim, following Immanuel Kant, who in turn was following Isaac Newton, held that the sense of time at the register of individual experience was distinct from absolute time. For Newton, this absolute time was the void; for Kant, it was the transcendental ideal that made perception possible; for Durkheim, absolute time was the shared temporal concepts of society, codified and known through social rhythms, like festivals, rites, and important dates. 

This idea has proven influential in the social sciences. In The Nuer, Evans-Pritchard extended this to show how social rhythms will be coordinated with natural cycles – in his case, the daily movement of cattle and seasonal changes in the weather. In The Fame of Gawa, Nancy Munn argued that actions – specifically she’s talking about the Kula trade rings – don’t simply happen in time, but rather produce and constitute the spacetime in which they take place. Benedict Anderson suggested that the printing press, and national newspapers that showed the date on the front page, generated a sense of national time that makes people feel like they’re living in the same temporal containers as strangers from their nation. For this reason, the sociologists Pitrim Sorokin and Robert Merton argued that every element of time, even quantitative units – minutes, days, months – were social constructs, none of which had any bearing upon real time.

So what does this all mean? These social scientists, and many since then, teach us that time is not natural: it is a social product. So, for instance, I can say to someone, “I’ll see you in a little bit,” and they’ll understand me, despite “a little bit” not being an objective unit of time. I could also say something that seems more objective, like “Let’s meet at noon,” but this too would not be natural: what we call “noon” isn’t that moment of the day when the sun is directly over our heads, but rather the outcome of a series of meetings in the late 19th Century through which Greenwich Mean Time was instituted globally. “Noon” is not noon. Relatedly, a year might be the duration that has elapsed as the Earth circles the sun, but our planet’s orbital position tends to have little bearing on how I conduct myself as a person. However, a New Year’s Eve party? There you’ll see me reflecting, resolving, disclosing, mourning, celebrating, making amends, taking chances, jumping into new beginnings, and, above all, falling back into the same old patterns. Time is made knowable through the procession of meaningful events that we use to punctuate its abstract passage.

Scholars of temporality have also pointed toward how time has been used as a tool to shape human behaviour. In a foundational work, Marxist historian E.P. Thompson used the term “time discipline” to describe the orientation toward the clock that emerged with industrial capitalism. As each minute of the hour gained productive value, workers became “time-oriented”, rather than “task-oriented”. Carrying a watch, being punctual, and not being idle became moral virtues that helped to naturalise a sense that Time is Money. With the term “time-space compression”, the Marxist geographer David Harvey later described how communications technologies facilitated more rapid circulation of capital and information, which shrunk time and space. Feminist geographer Doreen Massey, in turn, criticised this totalising conception of time as being too beholden to the stories capitalists tell about capitalism – and using a colonial mode of understanding history that erases pockets of resistance and ignores zones sacrificed to speed. In medical anthropology, Matthew Wolf-Meyer showed that the standard medical advice to sleep for eight hours straight at night doesn’t really reflect our species’ long history of napping, and should be understood as a mode of recalibrating sleep into cycles appropriate for labour under capitalism (which, in turn, must be supported by an ever-widening range of supplements and tools that both wake us up and put us to sleep). Jane Guyer made the argument that under neoliberalism, our lives are organised by Christian prophecy: we’re taught to ignore day-to-day and month-to-month economic crises, and orient ourselves toward the mythical moment in the future when markets achieve equilibrium. This meantime, what Guyer calls the “near future” is denied the possibility of meaning. There’s so much more to say – and here’s a great free resource on the anthropology of time – but the thread through these works shows that, in a bid to facilitate production and consumption, the rhythms that mark our temporal experiences can be sped up and slowed down in ways that run against more romanticised and perhaps more natural conceptions of social time.

These scholars show that grocery stores and bakeries carry some metaphysical importance. While they can’t change a date or affect how time passes, they can alter the rhythm with which we encounter seasonal markers. Day of the Dead will always be on November 1, but it can begin a little sooner, and stay a little longer. And as Christmas, Easter, Day of the Dead, and any other important day extends in duration, they can begin to overlap with one another. Now our temporal cycle becomes polyrhythmic, such that we might feel ourselves in multiple seasons and phases of the year all at once. (When I lived in the US, there was a regular conversation about the inappropriate overlaps of Halloween with Thanksgiving – a yearly debate that, too, became part of the punctuation of time’s passage). These events still make the passage of time meaningful, but the gaps between them evaporate, leaving us with all commemorative time and no everyday time, as if we’re lurching – like my dad said – from one bloody thing to the next. 

As anthropologists, we could say that eating a pan de muerto in July (which I did, and by the way, they’re delicious) contradicts some symbolic meaning that the item signifies; we might also more critically point out that people are forced into this contradiction by the forces of capitalism. But we could also show that the presence of these tasty treats at the “wrong” time of year causes the events they mark to clash with other seasons, speeding up our perception of time and blurring the specific seasonal meaning they might have otherwise carried. Where we might imagine time as a gentle current that bears us along steadily from event to event, these baked goods make us feel like we’re leapfrogging frantically from one event to another, a torrent behind us, threatening to swallow us up. No wonder all of us outside the bakery, pan de muerto crumbs on our chins, were so flustered.

[Image of the person working on a laptop in the middle of a brown clock is by Kevin Ku sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the pan de muerto is by Gerardo Covarrubias sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the hot cross buns is by Seriously Low Carb sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the white clocks is by Donald Wu sourced from Unsplash.]

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