Monday, September 01, 2014

Circular Time, Julian Jaynes, Greg Cochran

Back to Circular Time again.  Briefly, most peoples in the world even now, and all of us to some degree, organise ourselves in cylces of hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years.  Christmas 1946 and Opening Day 1963 continue to have some connection to Opening Day and Christmas 2014, though nearly all the participants are different.  Primitive tribes have almost no experience of time going forward, except that people age. 
Those who work with Borderline Personality Disorders notice that they have some oddity in experiencing time. Part of this is the inability to delay gratification, so that everything is occurring either now or not-now, but there are other puzzles as well.  They are very aware of anniversaries, especially tragic ones, such as the death of a mother or a friend - or even a pet.  Holidays take on enormous negative value because of who is not there.  Most people do this, especially the first few years after a death, but the remembering of the exact date and the destabilising around an anniversary are characteristic of those with BPD. Additionally, they are bad at estimating time, often no better than children, as if that facility stopped developing very early. 
I wonder if there is something modern about experiencing time linearly that they don't have.  While it is possible to posit narratives of how they missed critical periods in their development because of their often-chaotic upbringings, some genetic factor ( or yes, sorry to be so fashionable, epigenetic factor about whether a particular bit gets turned on or not), seems a more compact answer.  There has been some evidence of heritability of the illness for decades, and other cognitive distortions also seem to be part of that problem. 

I have said (following I-forget-who, but the idea is not original to me) that the Jews and especially the Christians  were the first to add in a concept of time moving forward.  The world had a beginning, we are proceeding toward some end.  Folks blithely say that all cultures have their creation and origin myths, but I think that is suspect.  We cannot tell how important those were.  After Western Europeans, who considered the Genesis accounts important, arrived to speak with them they brought them out to be recorded.  The Europeans unconsciously assumed these would be of similar importance in other cultures.  I seriously doubt that.  Some go into considerable detail and tie the creation stories into current understandings and behavior, but not many.  Most just have a single folktale in several versions.  In their current cultures they stay mostly in seasonal, circular time. 
It may be that other Mediterranean cultures also developed an enhanced emphasis on the progression of time, and I in my nescience am simply not aware of it.  But Eastern religions from Zoroastrianism east to Shintoism have cyclic and seasonal time much more strongly than Greeks, Canaanites, or Romans, let alone Jews.  And that is, frankly, a lot, as all of those had a fair bit of agricultural focus.
I mentioned that I am rereading  Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness In The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  It is going slowly, partly because I grow lazy and stupid as I age, but also because I want to give a fair chance to ideas I dismissed so rapidly before.  I noted with amusement apropros this topic that Greg Cochran mentioned Jaynes theory in his 2006 Edge answer to "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?"  His take at that time was that it still sounded crazy, but just maybe there is something to it, because we do seem to be different from ancient peoples cognitively, and Jaynes offers some interesting evidence of a change 2000-3000 years ago.   (Note:  Breakdown suggests that areas of the brain turned off from language functions to go do other things, rather than claiming that some new thing got added in to the brain creating consciousness.)

Even if the change started in the Mediterranean, it blossomed most fully in Northern Europe over the last 1000+ years which ordinarily would make a genetic explanation dicey.  Both waves into Europe, farmers in the south and herders in the north, came much earlier.  However there is one interesting escape hatch. The linguist Theo Venneman believes that the Germanic languages have a Semitic superstrate.  Not many linguists think his evidence is all that solid, but neither do they outright reject it.  It looks possible.  Phoenicians, likely via their Carthaginian colony, are known to have traded as far as Great Britain for tin and copper before the times Jaynes highlights, and trading even farther up into the North Sea is considered likely.  If you are wondering how much amber did they really need in the Mediterranean that they would keep wandering up to Jutland to get it, know that the area also has very good flint and worked stone.

I know, I know, it is politically correct to say that those battle-axes were status-objects, not implements of war.
Anyway, even really useful genes are going to be difficult to spread widely from just a few traders. Yet over a thousand years, much more possible.


Texan99 said...

John McWhorter finds convincing the evidence for a Phoenician impact on English, doesn't he?--if I remember correctly.

I was just reading this morning somewhere, on Phenomenon or AEI, about different visions of time, such as tribes that think of the future as "uphill," or "behind." I always think of time as a sort of racetrack, representing the cycle of the year. I suppose it's really a spiral, but it's the oval shape of the track that sticks out in perception.

Jonathan said...

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the old trope that Christianity's liturgical year (and appropriation of pagan holidays) is just proof that it's a continuation of that cyclical model and means we're not all that special.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

We grew up out of that seasonal time. It is quite prominent in the OT, though there are hints right from the beginning that those are the shadow of something more eternal. The Gospels are awash with reinterpretations and fulfillments of the earlier holidays, but the Epistles don't much mention it. They have moved to linear time.

However, folks is still folks, living in agricultural (and other) seasons, and they still respond to that. School years, sports seasons, political cylcles - dozens of these things remain. They still have power because we live here. It wanes, but slowly. While it lasts, no home in drawing power (as well as a heckuva lot of fun) from it, so long as we see it for what it is, tied to this earth.