Organic time and the ever-present “now”: Wagnerian temporality in indigenous Mesoamerica.

In Symbols that Stand for Themselves (1986), Roy Wagner makes an elegant distinction between referential time or “clock” time, and what he calls organic time―a form of temporality that, unlike referential time, does not accumulate and cannot be counted in like intervals. A key distinction between these two qualitatively different forms of counting time is that referential time can be conceptualized and represented in terms of space, whereas organic time cannot. In this presentation I examine data from an indigenous culture of Mesoamerica, the Chol Mayans, in light of the Wagnerian notions of organic and referential time. Ethnographic and linguistic data from Chol speakers show that, for them, time may not be conceptualized as a spatial sequence of measurable intervals, but as a multiplicity of “nows”. In other words, in Chol worldview time is organic, rather than referential. Following Wagner, I argue that in this cultural and linguistic context “It is always ‘now’ because ‘now’ is the immediacy of perception, whereas ‘then’ is the alienation of the perceived” (1986:86). Rather than constructing sequences of events as a succession of “nows” that can be arranged in a conceptual timeline, the Chol, as other Mesoamerican cultures, possess a more organic conception of time that is not translatable in terms of space and is unaffected by direction, orientation, and movement.

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