For Cultural Ecology 2020 we read Tim Ingold’s, “Work, time and industry” in The Perception of the Environment. We also read chapters by Jens-Christian Svenning on “Future Megafaunas: A Historical Perspective on the Potential for a Wilder Anthropocene” and Andreas Hejnol “Ladders, Trees, Complexity, and Other Metaphors in Evolutionary Thinking” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Ghosts, G65-G102). Note: This material was for Cultural Ecology 2020 and was then featured in an online introductory course in anthropology, Ethnographic Insights Across Cultures. Thanks!

In 2022 I revisited the Ingold chapter in a course on the History of Anthropological Thought:

Work, Time, Industry (Ingold)

In the normal version of this course, during the previous class I ask students to write down how they are feeling every ten minutes. Someone volunteers to have an iPhone timer go off every ten minutes and we interrupt class to “check in” with our feelings. Then, I ask students to do a similar 10-minute check in for 1.5 hours on Saturday night. When we return to the classroom, I ask them about their Saturday night check-ins. Most did not remember, or reported that time “flew by” as compared to the excruciating slowness of class time.

And that’s the point–because for college students a comparison between in-class time and Saturday night time is often as close as we can get to the division in industrial capitalist society between work time and leisure time. Work is what you have to do, and when we tell someone to “get a life,” it almost always refers to leisure activities, where we often feel the most alive. Or as Ingold puts it: “The distinction being drawn here between living and working is really one between what we do, and what we are caused to do; between action that issues from ourselves as responsible social agents, and action that stems from the pressing of various trained capacities into the service of a project that is not ours but is subject to the dictates of an alien will” (326). And that is exactly what happens in the classroom, where sometimes as a professor I can cause students to do something!

Task Time

The division between work time and leisure time is particular and peculiar too industrial capitalist society. When we look historically at European societies or at some contemporary non-Western societies, we find a different conception of time. Ingold labels this “task orientation” or we might call it task time. In this orientation, there is no separation between work, life, and our activities. “For work is life, and any distinctions one might make within the course of life would be not between work and non-work, but between different fields of activity, such as farming, cooking, child-minding, weaving, and so on” (324). In such societies, the conception of time is “inseparable from the everyday round of activities. It is not something objective and external, against which tasks may be measured or on which they can be located, since it has no existence apart from the tasks themselves” (324).

In such societies, there is no such thing as time as something outside of the activities themselves. “If you want to say when something happened, you do so by relating it to another regular activity that took place concurrently–for example, ‘so-and-so arrived in the camp at milking time.’ And if you want to say how long it took for something to happen, you do so by comparing it with how long something else takes” (324). So for short duration tasks you might compare it to cooking an egg, or cooking rice. For longer duration it might be how long to plant a field. And my favorite “in Medieval England, duration could be expressed by how long it took to cook an egg, say a prayer, or (apparently) to have a pee–though this latter time-span, known as ‘pissing while,’ does seem ‘a somewhat arbitrary measurement’ (Thompson 1967: 58)” (Ingold, 325).

While in the West task time is subordinated to industrial capitalism, Ingold makes the case that it persists outside-the-West into more contemporary times. Here, Ingold quotes the “justly celebrated passage” from E.E. Evans-Pritchard in The Nuer:

The Nuer have no expression equivalent to “time” in our language, and they cannot, therefore, speak of time as though it were something which passes, can be wasted, saved, and so forth. I do not think that they ever experience the same feeling of fighting against time or of having to co-ordinate activities with an abstract passage of time, because their points of reference are mainly the activities themselves, which are of a leisurely character. Events follow a logical order, but they are not controlled by an abstract system, there being no autonomous points of reference to which activities have to conform with precision. Nuer are fortunate. (Evans-Pritchard 1940 in Ingold, 324)

Indeed, this is perhaps one of the most famous quotes in all of anthropology. What seems even more amazing is that it was published in 1940, long before the proliferation of electronic and digital time-keeping devices!

Ingold proceeds to enumerate four key attributes of tasks (325):

  1. Tasks are done by people, not machines.
  2. Tasks have objectives which the people themselves set.
  3. People find social identity in their tasks.
  4. Tasks are not accomplished in isolation, but with others.

Following from the last point, tasks are social, following the rhythms of social time. “It is important to emphasize, too, that the rhythmic structure of social time emerges not only from the interweaving and mutual responsiveness of human movements, but also from the way these movements resonate to the cycles of the non-human environment” (325).

How did task time disappear?

Given that task time sounds so natural to human beings, how did it go away? The simple answer is that industrial capitalism killed task time. “With the rise and maturation of industrial capitalist society, the task-oriented time of pre-industrial rural and urban life was gradually replaced by a regulation of production governed by the clock” (328). Time becomes equivalent to money. You can either be making money by working, or spending money, during leisure time. Developments in transport and communications, such as the railroad, were important, but Ingold believes one of the biggest game-changers was the electric light (certainly true for college and studying):

For the goal of modern technology has been to override the constraints of the natural world, to bring its forces under control, so that the rhythms of society can be brought into conformity with an imposed, artificially contrived schedule. Activities can now go on–as we say–“around the clock.” Developments in the fields of transport and communications have had a decisive impact in this regard, though probably no single innovation has been of greater consequence than the electric light. The effect was to install a new kind of time as the dominant regulator of human activity. (326)

In advancing this thesis, Ingold is drawing for inspiration and evidence on E.P. Thompson’s now-classic article Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism (1967). I used to say that if no one has introduced you to this argument by the time you graduate from college, then you should ask for a refund when you cross the stage. But that might be too harsh to say these days.

Is task time really gone?

Until this point in the chapter, Ingold has followed E.P. Thompson’s thesis and most anthropological literature. However, he then asks if task time has really disappeared in industrial society. He details two instances in which task time might survive.

The first place task time persists in the household. Here, domestic work is unpaid and therefore not subject to the time=money equation. Tasks have objectives: kids must sleep, meals must be made, the house must be cleaned, and there are no shortcuts or opportunities to simply cut things off mid-way through. But of course this is the typically gendered time of the “housewife,” and many would speculate that it is a time that is simply an atavistic survival and could easily disappear (if it hasn’t already): “notwithstanding industrialization, task-orientation continues to thrive in the domestic domain, as a kind of survival from the pre-industrial age, albeit one that is destined to disappear in due course” (331).

The second example is one in which task-time not only survives but has been recreated–in the heart of the industrial workplace! Indeed, as we saw in the class on technology, coping with machines involves a number of tasks. “Here, then, we rediscover task-orientation at the very heart of industrial production, in the workplace” (332). It is among the locomotives and railway drivers, who develop skills in the workplace, and a skilled ability to work with the clock:

I believe we misunderstand the railroader’s sense of time if we equate it with the subjection of his movements, while on the job, to the mechanical determination of the clock. Were they so determined, he would have no need to carry a watch. What distinguished the experienced railroader was his practiced ability to co-ordinate his movements with the indications of his timepiece. He had to be able to catch the right moment to accelerate or apply the brakes, or to judge his speed on a stretch of track, so as to arrive or depart safely and precisely on schedule. This was an acquired skill, and one moreover that was highly valued. (335; I would say the same can be said of a great lecturing professor)

And then there is the surprising equivalency between people working 10-15 hours per week in the British Rail and what is considered to be the 10-15 hours per week necessary for gathering and hunting! (337)

Were the 1970s & early 1980s the heyday of industrial capitalism?

Ingold’s description of task time reappearing in the railroad has always made me wonder about the heyday of industrial capitalism. I think about this in relationship to The Styx song “Too Much Time on My Hands”:

Things seem very different in post-industrial capitalism. As I put it from a previous version of this class: Will we ever have too much time on our hands?

Coronavirus Time

One of the things that has always bothered me about this Ingold chapter is that Ingold makes task time sound wonderful. In my own work, artisans and agricultural workers were not so optimistic about task-time. They often preferred jobs where they could be “on the clock” and where they had the “right to rest” when the workday was done. Similarly, when I ask students if they would prefer a task-oriented-class to a clock-governed task, they pause. Surely with some professors a task-oriented-class would be great. But other professors go on and on and on. Fortunately, we have the clock to regulate class time.

And for many of us since April 2020, we found ourselves in a peculiar “coronavirus time.” In some ways, we returned to task time. Clocks are not so relevant. Daily schedules are difficult to construct or enforce. Everything depends upon the task to be completed. But it’s been a pretty harsh experience, in part because so many of these tasks have been imposed upon us. And unlike Ingold’s description of the fourth characteristic of tasks–their sociality–we are now often performing our tasks in isolation. For professors too, the clock can be liberating–you go into class, do your best, then it is over. On coronavirus time, the recorded lecture can always be recorded again; the blog-post is never quite done. (For more in-depth reflections, see Epidemic Times on Somatosphere.)

The most painful time

At the end of the chapter, Ingold provides a profound plea for task time, as well as a fascinating insight into the anthropological endeavor:

In a sense, clock time is as alien to us as it is to the Nuer; the only difference is that we have to contend with it. If we differ from the Nuer, then, it is not because they have a task-orientation and we do not. The difference is rather that we are forced to accommodate this orientation–so fundamental to our personal and social identity, to our knowledge of place and people, and to the practice of our everyday skills–within the straitjacket of a “Western” or commodity-based institutional and ideological framework that seeks at every turn to deny the reality of situated social experience. We are not Westerners, nor are we really non-Westerners; rather, we are human beings whose lives are caught up in the painful process of negotiation between these extremes, between the dwelling and commodity perspectives. In this process lies the temporal dynamic of industrial society, a dynamic which we–including anthropologists, in their writings–have merely displaced onto the relation between our society and the rest of the world. (338)

Ingold makes task-orientation seem to be the basic human condition, while capitalism is imposed upon it. However, from my research and experience, I would say there are advantages to task time if that is the structure of a society. But there can be advantages to industrial or commodity time as well–in some instances, it can even be seen to be “liberating.” And the most painful time is when we are somehow stuck with task time in the middle of capitalist time–as is happening now to so many during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Future Megafaunas, Wilder Anthropocene

I love this chapter! It is full of keen insights and hope for a different kind of future. Svenning discusses “our tendency to imagine that environmental conditions at the edge of our own memories represent the way the world used to be” (G68). But no, there were once megafauna in all of our landscapes.

Svenning’s chapter is not just about loss, but about the idea of trophic rewilding, an “approach that uses species introductions to restore top-down trophic interactions and associated trophic cascades to promote self-regulating, biodiverse ecosystems” (G78). “It is clear that even strongly anthropogenic landscapes have potential to host wild megafauna populations. Furthermore, trophic rewilding has strong potential to remedy defaunation and restore trophic cascades that promote self-regulating biodiverse ecosystems and is highly relevant also in populated areas close to urban centers” (G80).

And although some of the roaming animals during coronavirus videos are fakes, it nevertheless seems a time when we can contemplate more trophic rewilding.

Ladders, Trees, Evolutionary Metaphors

I love this chapter too. It speaks to how I try to teach evolution in Intro-to-Anthropology and how I see Evolution & Natural Selection Anthropologically. In short, Hejnol is discussing how evolution doesn’t proceed automatically from simple to complex, but just as often proceeds from complex to simple. And Hejnol challenges the very idea of complexity: “But what, after all, is complexity? If there is such a thing as “complexity,” it is an adaptation to specific ecological conditions, not the outcome of a teleological process. Furthermore, in any use of the term, complexity should not be defined as morphological or behavioral similarity to humans” (G96).

The chapter is about the use of metaphors, something I blogged about in 2011 as Old Metaphors and New Evolutionary Understandings. Hejnol has an exceptional conclusion that is what I was trying to say back then:

Though there is no way out of metaphors, there are certainly better and worse ones. Ladders and trees–structured around the idea of human superiority and linked to problematic ideas of complexity and hierarchy–have proved particularly discouraging of curiosity. When we manage to notice them, tunicates and sponges show us the need to look for better metaphors, metaphors that move us away from the history of life as the evolution of complexity toward a better appreciation of the complexity of evolution. Biologists are beginning to respond with new metaphors. Some have suggested that a branched “coral” with its many intersecting and multidirectional branches provides a better visualization of the evolution of animal life, past and present. However, for some forms of life, such as bacteria with their horizontal gene exchanges, even the complexity of corals is insufficient. Here a meshlike or rhizomatic network might be better. So, too, is there likely still a place for tree metaphors, read nonteleologically, as a way to visualize particular aspects of evolutionary thinking. Indeed, any one image may always be insufficient. We need many metaphors–rhizomes and corals as well as bushy, gnarly trees–to capture the complexity of evolution. (G100)

This ending also echoes some of the things Ingold has already told us about evolution and is a good way to proceed to the discussion of genetics in the next class.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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