“Ask the Stone to Say”

On February 21, 2017, I published a conversation with artist David Horvitz in Triple Canopy about the standardization of time, space, communication, and the rhythms of our bodies. The conversation began in earnest in the summer of 2014 and was conducted via email, text message, telephone, postcard, and word processor, as well as in person. We cover ancient Egyptian astrology and atomic clocks, the auditory landscapes of nineteenth-century villages and the contemporary landscapes offered by geostationary satellites; we ask how to recover forms of experience and interaction that now seem antiquated or implausible.

What follows is an excerpt; read the entire conversation here.

PROVAN: On April 9, 2015, you wrote to me, “We can say we’ll meet on ‘Tuesday’ but Tuesday can become Saturday! See u Saturday.” You went on to say that you’d been thinking about the battery life of MacBooks, which may indicate that the computer has one hour of life left, but depending on usage—how many browser tabs you open, how bright you make the screen—the computer may shut down in half an hour or two hours.

HORVITZ: This is one of the ways we mark time with technology: There are no fixed units of measurement apparent to us, no fixed durations between each percentage (or even minute). But nevertheless the time is clearly stated.1 You begin to experience time as a countdown, like in ancient Egypt, when the hours were marked by the moments when particular stars happened to rise above the horizon. Astrology is the foundation of the concept of time.

The Egyptian model divided the sun’s route into thirty-six sections, which were marked by stars—also symbols—called decans; the duration between decans varied. Moments in time were defined by whichever celestial event was happening. The title bestowed on Egyptian priests who attended to the zodiac literally translates as “who is in units of time”; it’s typically translated as “astronomer” but might better be understood as “calendarist” or “timekeeper.” To keep time was to watch the sky—which reminds me that Julius Thomas Fraser, in Time, the Familiar Stranger (1987), writes, “What did good Greeks or Romans do when they were inside a templum or observed one of the ‘houses’ in the sky? They viewed, they beheld, they surveyed and reflected. The Romans called that kind of activity con-templatio. (The prefix con- means ‘together,’ ‘with others.’) We now call it contemplation.” To contemplate is to look at the sky.