Notebook, 1993- APPROACHES

Kern, Stephen. The Culture of time and Space, 1880-1918. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983.

The Culture of Time
and Space

I n d e x


The Nature of Time

The Past

The Present

The Future


The Nature of Space




Temporality of the July Crisis

The Cubist War

E  X  C  E  R  P  T  S      F  R  O  M     T  H  E     T  E  X  T 
As Arthur Lovejoy warned, the historian ought not try to make the thought of an individual, let alone that of an age, cohere "all-of-a-piece" but must try to identify the fluctuations between opposing ideas or the "embracing of both sides of an antitheses." I have identified those opposing ideas and antitheses and reconstructed how they occurred in isolation, in debates, and in the paired clusterings of opposites that appear most clearly only in historical perspective. If, in the interest of literary unity and in defiance of Lovejoy's prudent warning, I were to suggest a drawstring for this multiplicity of developments [1880-1918], it would be [and here technology supplies the metaphor] the miles of telephone wire that criss-crossed the Western world. They carried signals for World Standard Time and the first public "broadcasts"; revolutionized newspaper reporting, business transactions, crime detection, farming, and courting; made it possible for callers to control the immediate future of anyone they wished and intrude upon the peace and privacy of homes; accelerated the pace of life and multiplied contact points for varieties of lived space; leveled hierarchical social structures; facilitated the expansion of suburbs and the upward thrust of skyscraper; complicated the conduct of diplomacy; forced generals to leave their lofty promontaries and retire behind the front lines to follow battles from telephone headquarters; brought the voices of millions of people across regional and national boundaries; and worked to create the vast extended present of simultaneity. [pp. 317-18]

From around 1880 to the outbreak of World War I a series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space. Technological innovations including the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and airplane established the material foundation for this reorientation; independent cultural developments such as the stream-of-consciousness novel, psychoanalysis, Cubism, and the theory of relativity shaped consciousness directly. The result was a transformation [pg. 1] of the dimensions of life and thought. This book is about the way Europeans and Americans came to conceive of and experience time and space in those years. [pg. 2]

No single thesis can explain all of the technological, scientific, literary, artistic, and philosophical currents that shaped the experience of time and space from 1880 to 1918. It is possible, however, to draw some general conclusions about the more important developments and their relation to the larger historical picture.

The introduction of World Standard Time had an enormous impact on communication, industry, war, and the everyday life of the masses; but exploration of a plurality of private times were the more historically [p. 314] unique contributions of the period. The assault on a universal, unchanging, and irreversible public time was the metaphysical foundation of a broad cultural challenge to traditional notions about the nature of the world and man's place in it. The affirmation of private time radically interiorized the locus of experience. It eroded conventional views about the stability and objectivity of the material world and of the mind's ability to comprehend it. Man cannot know the world "as it really is," if he cannot know what time it really is. If there are as many private times as there are individuals, then every person is responsible for creating his own world from one moment to the next, and creating it alone.

Among the three modes of time, the sense of the past was not qualitatively different from older notions, although its influence on the present was given more weight. The sense of the future, largely a reconstruction of past experience projected ahead in time, also resembled older experiential modes. The sense of the present was the most distinctively new, thickened temporally with retentions and pretentions of past and future and, most important, expanded spatially to create the vast, shared experience of simultaneity. The present was no longer limited to one event in one place, sandwiched tightly between past and future and limited to local surroundings. In an age of intrusive electronic communication "now" became an extended interval of time that could, indeed must, include events around the world. Telephone switchboards, telephonic broadcasts, daily newspapers, World Standard Time, and the cinema mediated simultaneity through technology. The sinking of the Titanic dramatized it with S.O.S. messages beamed across the entire Atlantic world. In contrast no new technology transformed the experience of the past or future so fully. In the cultural sphere no unifying concept for the new sense of the past or future could rival the coherence and the popularity of the concept of simultaneity. Psychoanalysis was perhaps the most systematic and collective exploration of the past, but it was limited to a small group of cognoscenti. The Futurists formalized a philosophy of the past, but only negatively with their aesthetic of passeacuteisme--an outlook that was as irresponsible as their affirmation of the future was impulsive. In spite of the bombast with which they proclaimed their love of the future, the subject of their art and the true focus of their manifestos was the present. And in addition to the Futurists, a growing number of playwrights, novelists, critics, musicians, painters, and even sculptors identified their work under the general concept of simultaneity, conceived of it to be [pg. 314] unique to their age, and acknowledged the direct causal impact of recent technology.

As an experience that had spatial as well as temporal aspects, simultaneity had an extensive impact, since it involved many people in widely separate places, linked in an instant by the new communications technology and by the sweeping ubiquity of the camera eye. The cultural effects of the new temporality however, were generally not as extensive as those of the new spatiality, because the private nature of private time limited them to the phenomenal world of the individual and precluded a public or collective restructuring of experience. In contrast the emerging modes of space had extensive social, political, and religious manifestations.

One common theme among the several changes in those modes was the leveling of traditional hierarchies. The plurality of spaces, the philosophy of perspectivism, the affirmation of positive negative space, the restructuring of forms, and the contraction of social distance assaulted a variety of hierarchical orderings. While the plurality of lived spaces envisioned by the geometers, physicists, and biologists and those created by the painters and novelists did not always aim directly at the social structure of the aristocracy, they energized a general cultural challenge to all outmoded hierarchies.

The affirmation of positive negative space rejected the conventional view of space as less important than the objects contained in it. The reconstruction of forms rejected the conventional hierarchical orderings of those objects. Samuel Smiles's homily, "A place for everything and everything in its place," was an apt formulation of the older ordering. It was comforting to know that everything had a right place, even if the rationale for that placing seemed unjust. The challenge to hereditary privileges of class that began in seventeenth century England spread eastward but slowly. The French Revolution of 1789 renewed that challenge, but even in nineteenth-century France the mystique of aristocracy continued to dictate social groupings. In eastern Europe rule by the noble class had the force of law. Up to the beginning of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire preserved intact respect for royalty and the privileges of nobility. An aristocracy of birth set itself above everyone lacking sixteen noble quarterings. Many aristocrats lived secluded in hundreds of castles throughout the empire. They monopolized the higher posts in the army and diplomatic corps, controlled the conservative politics of the empire, upheld the power of the Catholic Church, set fashion in dress and furniture, and dictated proper decorum for the entire [p 315] European world. That overbearing hierarchical world became the target of numerous artists and intellectuals, who challenged its metaphysical foundation and its concrete social, political, and religious institutions.

Dramatic transformations in the sense of distance were created by the new transportation and communications technology. Recognition of the potential threat of that technology to the aristocratic society of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is illustrated by the Emperor's reluctance to allow the newfangled gadgetry into the royal palace. Reared under the rigid formalism of military life and the exacting requirements of one of the oldest surviving royal dynasties, convinced of his divine right to rule, hostile to the incursions of popular government, isolated socially in a circle of high nobility, and contemptuous of every one of low birth, Francis Joseph was an embodiment of the hierarchical world of the European aristocracy. In the Hofburg in Vienna, the favorite Habsburg palace for six hundred years, he allowed no electric lights, and kerosene lamps provided illumination. He shunned the use of typewriters and automobiles and refused to install telephones. The telephone in particular was incompatible with the aristocratic principle that certain persons, by virtue of their position in society --generally propinquity to the monarch--have special importance. Telephones break down barriers of distance--horizontally across the face of the land and vertically across social strata. They make all places equidistant from the seat of power and hence of equal value. The elaborate protocol of introductions, calling cards, invitations, and appointments is obviated by their instantaneity; and the protective function of doors, waiting rooms, servants, and guards is eliminated by the piercing of their intrusive ring. Telephones penetrate and thus profane all places; hence there are none in churches. The ancient frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire [an empire that abounded in both horizontal and vertical frontiers] were incompatible with the universality, the irreverence, and the pugnacity of the telephone.

While the telephone most obtrusively penetrated the sanctuaries of privilege, much of the other new technology had a similar effect, leveling traditional hierarchies and creating new social distances. Already in 1913 the cinema was tagged a "democratic art," as the camera eye penetrated everywhere and as its cheap admission prices and mixed seating arrangements brought the highbrow culture of the [p. 316] theater to the working classes. The bicycle was a "great leveler" that bridged social space and made travel over longer distances accessible to the middle and lower classes who could not afford a carriage or automobile. The democratizing effect of the automobile was recognized immediately, even before it was inexpensive enough for the masses. The crowding of people in cities created a tangible drama of modern democracy. As the status of the rural setting of the aristocratic world gave way to the new status of the urban setting of the bourgeoisie, the value of distance in the maintenance of social prestige was diminished . The bourgeoisie still aspired to get away from the crowd and retire to provincial estates, but the urban crowd remained, dictating values and new social forms as it flattened social hierarchies based on distance.

Modern technology also collapsed the vault of heaven. Never before the age of the wireless and airplane did the heavens seem to be so close or so accessible--a place of passage for human communication and for human bodies in man-made machines. The omnipresence and penetrating capacity of wireless waves rivaled miraculous action and reversed the direction of divine intervention. Planes invaded the kingdom of heaven, and their exhaust fumes profaned the realm of the spirit. Upwards was still the direction of growth and life, but in this period it lost much of its sacred aspect. [p. 3 17]

The very title of Walter E. Houghton's The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 suggests that there was a definite "frame" to the mind of that period. In contrast to those who viewed the mid-Victorian age as one of complete certitude, Houghton shows that leading figures in England were engaged in profound questioning about the intellectual and moral basis of life. But for all their searching they still hoped to find such a basis, and he concluded that they looked at things from a single and unchanging point of view; they tended "to divide ideas and [p. 181] people and actions into tight categories of true-false, good-bad, right-wrong; and not to recognize the mixed character of human experience." [Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 (New Haven, 1957), 10-15, 162.] The conviction that order underlay experience . . . .

In the face of such complacency about the secure scaffoldings of life and thought, a number of leading intellectuals all over Europe reacted to the breakdown of conventional form. in 1905 Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote that the nature of his epoch was "multiplicity and indeterminacy" and that "what other generations believed to be firm is in fact sliding." [Hugo von Hofmannsthal, "Der Dichter und diese Zeit" in his ErzŠhlungen und AufsŠtze [1905; rpt. Frankfurt, 1957), 445. Carl E. Schorske interpreted this passage in "Politics and Psyche in Fin de sicle Vienna: Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal," The American Historical Review (July 1961): 930-946.] In America, in the wake of the explosive Armory Show in New York in 1913, Mabel Dodge wrote that "nearly every thinking person nowadays is in revolt against something, because the craving of the individual is for further consciousness, and because consciousness is expanding and bursting through the models that have held it up to now." [Mabel Dodge, Camera Work [June 1913}: 7. Cited in Bram Dijkstra, Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (Princeton, 1969), 25.] Musil characterized the change as one in which "sharp borderlines everywhere became blurred and some new indescribable capacity for entering into hitherto unheard-of-relationships threw up new people and new ideas." [Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (New York, 1965), I, 62.] What Musil embroidered into a novel, Simmel elucidated in a formal essay of 1914. "At present," he wrote, "we are experiencing a new phase of the old struggle--no longer a struggle of contemporary form, filled with life, against the lifeless one, but a struggle of life against form as such, against the principle of form. Moralists, reactionaries, and people with strict feeling for style are perfectly correct when they complain about the increasing 'lack of form' in modern life." Bergson's vitalism shattered the mechanistic framework of traditional thinking. In older philosophical systems, Simmel argued, there was "a fixed frame or an indestructible canvas" for thoughts and feelings but in Pragmatism truth became "interwoven with life." That same year, on the eve of World War I, Walter Lippmann surveyed the situation in America: "The sanctity of property, the patriarchal family, hereditary caste, the dogma of sin, obedience to authority, -the rock of ages, in brief, has been blasted for us." [George Simmel, "The Conflict in Modern Culture" [written in 1914, first published in 1918), in Goerg Simmel: The Conflict in Modern Culture and Other Essays, ed. and tr. K. Peter Etzkorn [New York, 1968), II-25. Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery (New York, 1914), xvii.] Ortega observed that the goals that furnished yesterday's landscape with "so definite an architecture" have lost their hold. Those that are to replace them have not yet taken shape, and so the landscape "seems to break up, vacillate, and quake in all directions." And Yeats, elaborating [p. 182] on the kind of apocalyptic imagery he used in "The Second Coming." recalled: "Nature, steel-bound or stone-built in the nineteenth century, became a flux where man drowned or swam." [JosŽ Ortega y Gasset, "Signs of the Times" in The Modern Theme [1921-22; rpt. New York, 1961], 79. Oetega wrote it after the war but documented it with examples from the prewar period. W. B. Yeats, "Introduction," The Oxford Book of Modern Verse [New York, 1936], xxviii, cited by Edward Engelberg, "Space, Time, and History: Towards the Discrimination of Modernisms," Modernist Studies: Literature + Culture, 1920-1940, I, 1 (1975); 21]

. . . . In the home every person had his proper room and corresponding rules, and inside and outside were securely and unambiguously divided by solid walls. No telephones existed to enable one to enter a house in an instant without even being in it. Everything had a separate nature, a [p. 209] correct place, and a proper function, as the entire world was ordered in discrete and mutually exclusive forms: solid/porous, opaque/transparent, inside/outside, public/private, city/county, noble/common, countryman/foreigner, framed/open, actor/audience, ego/object, and space/time. These old scaffoldings had supported the way of life and culture of the Western world for so long that no one could recall exactly how they all started or why they were still there, and it took a generation of restless scientists, artists, and philosophers to dismantle them and begin the great Dionysian "yeasaying" to life and art that Nietzsche had envisioned in his final days of lucidity. The breakdown of old forms, together with the affirmation of perspectivism and of positive negative space, levelled hierarchies. These changes in the experience of space contradicted the notion that convention and habit could dictate privileged points of view, places, or forms. Rather, all had to be tested in the processes of life, selected by the eye of an artist, reconstructed in accord with current values and needs. [p. 210]



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