I’ve been seeing a lot of progress reports on social media. In light of this, let me remind you that linear time is a social construct. You do not need to live up to a productivity schedule that follows a linear timeline. Indigenous philosopher Kyle Whyte of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation writes that “linear measures of time have the capacity to generate a sense of imperilment and urgency. What I mean is similar to the difference between playing a game like chess with or without a timer.” In a linear-time culture, you feel like you are always under the clock, like you need to produce a certain amount of work in a certain amount of time, like you have to achieve certain milestones (such as getting married and having children and retiring with a 401K) at certain “life stages.” If you don’t follow this timeline, fulfil these expectations, tick these boxes, then you’re in crisis. (Linear time may be behind the so-called “midlife” and “quarterlife” crises that are so common in the west). Linear time is like “a ticking clock”; it creates “a sense of peril”; it causes stress, anxiety, social comparisons, social hierarchies, and conformity. It produces an efficiently bland and boring society. “When a stop watch is winding down for myself to make a chess move,” says Whyte, “I narrow the focus of my attention and fall back on taken-for-granted strategies without time to question how I got them or whether they are even the best ones.” Linear time increases productivity by decreasing creativity, playfulness, and attention. In contrast, many Indigenous persons subscribe to “kinship time,” which “focuses attention on how responsible relationships must first be established or restored for it to be possible to have [sustainable] projects that respect Indigenous [and collective] safety, well-being, and self-determination.” (Whyte is focusing on climate change, which is seen through a linear-temporal lens as unprecedented and urgent, and this perspective, in turn, justifies quick and easy fixes that further colonise and displace Indigenous peoples. Kinships time, in contrast, supports sustainable, long-term solutions grounded in consent, care, and reciprocity). Kinship time, unlike linear time, isn’t about productivity, efficiency, or expediency. It’s not about finishing a job, getting a promotion, or filling lines on a CV. Quite the opposite: it’s about forming relationships of reciprocal responsibility and respect over the course of many years, reflecting carefully on problems and coming up with solutions that take time and have no end date. Kinship time is slow and meticulous. It is an alternative to the ticking-time-bomb mentality that lends itself to capitalist outcomes and continuous cycles of booms and busts.
The non-linear approach also bears affinities with “crip time,” which Ellen Samuels describes as “a flexible approach to normative time frames, like work schedules, deadlines, or even just waking and sleeping.” Crip time is characterised by discontinuity, disruption, and variability. It “has the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings.” This is the temporal continuum occupied by many disabled people, who may not participate in the labour force or work on the same schedule as an able-bodied person or wake and sleep at the prescribed times. Like kinship time, crip time fosters adaptability, creativity, and attention. It disrupts expectations about neoliberal milestones and allows us to focus on sustainability, respect, and friendship – activities that cannot be done on a schedule. Unlike crip time, linear time is colonialist and ableist. It demands the same investment, the same productivity, the same “progress” from everyone. No one is exempt from the ticking-clock of linear time, no matter how anxious, overburdened, or fatigued they may be. Hence, linear time excludes and punishes chronically fatigued people like me. It penalises departures from the norm, taking time off, staying still, playing instead of producing, daydreaming instead of consuming. Linear time also colonises marginalised groups by denying or dismissing their conception of time and foisting “expedient” solutions on them at their expense. Linear thinkers insist, for instance, that wind turbines must be installed on Indigenous territory without Indigenous people’s consent, and they ignore Indigenous knowledges and technologies that have been proven effective at reducing climate change and enhancing biodiversity for generations. It is in this way that linear-time epistemologies exclude and displace oppressed people while promoting profitable solutions that benefit corporations and the very rich.
Time for Non-linear Time?
In sum, linear time is not the only conception of time, nor is it the most inclusive, sustainable, or decolonial. As someone with chronic fatigue, I cannot easily live up to capitalist norms of productivity and achievement, nor do I want to. These benchmarks have created a society of anxiety, insecurity, inequality, blandness, and corporate domination. They have created poverty, conflict, and injustice. Perhaps this year, we can start thinking about alternative temporalities… maybe not this minute but when we have time.