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The Birth of the 20th Century: On Stephen Kern's The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1914 (Harvard, 2003)

Friday, May 28, 2010

When I was in graduate school in Duke University’s Literature Program from 1987-1991, discussion and study of postmodernism was all the rage. It helped that the Program’s director, Fredric Jameson, was then in the process of composing his own magnum opus on the topic, Postmodernity, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. This focus on postmodernism necessarily entailed study and discussion of modernism, modernization, and modernity as well. One of the books, actually originally published in 1983, that I remember a number of grabbing up and reading at the time was Stephen Kern’s, The Culture of Time and Space, essentially a study of the transformation of the experiences of time and space among Europeans and Americans (from the US) in the period from 1880 to 1918, traced through developments in science, technology, philosophy, the social sciences, and the arts. Recently I returned to Kern’s book in order to regain my bearings in this period, which is a critical one for the book project I’ve resumed on writers of immanence in the River Plate region of South America (Uruguay and Argentina, especially Buenos Aires and Montevideo) in the first half of the 20th century. Unlike many works that circulated in the heyday of the postmodernism debate of the late 80s, I suspect, Kern’s book has aged well. Kern, a historian now at Ohio State University, tells a compelling, readable, and originally and lucidly organized history of a sea change in conceptions of time and space that affected the material and cultural environment as well as everyday consciousness.

Kern organizes his book into two main parts, one devoted to time and one devoted to space. Sandwiched between them, as a transition, is a chapter on speed. The book concludes with two chapters examining first, the July Crisis of 1914 that led to the outbreak of World War I and then the Great War itself from the vantage point of these transformations in time and space. The “Time” part of the book is divided into four chapters: “The Nature of Time,” “The Past,” “The Present,” and “The Future.” The “Space” part of the book is likewise divided into four chapters: “The Nature of Space,” “Form,” “Distance,” and “Direction.” I’m a sucker for neat organizational schemas, though in my own hands they frequently suggest an premature schematization of my materials and thinking, particularly an inadequate attention to the details of those materials that might disrupt the schema. But this isn’t the case, I found, in Kern’s book, where the well thought, informed plan usefully places a great range of heterogeneous materials under a set of illuminating lenses, while helping Kern to avoid repeating discussions of his central concepts.

Within this framework, Kern convincingly shows how inventions in technology (from the telephone and wireless telegraph to the bicycle, automobile, and airplane) and the arts (from modernist narrative to cubist painting and futurist sculpture), as well as discussions in science (biology, and the birth of quantum physics), philosophy (primarily Nietzsche, Bergson, and William James) and the social sciences (especially Freudian psychology, but also anthropology and sociology) at once registered and intensified a transformation in the experiences of time and space. Cinema, as both technological invention and budding art form plays a central role in Kern’s story.

Kern main argument is that, with respect to both time and space, this was a period in which hierarchized notions of time and space as fixed, absolute and, essentially passive backdrops to human activity gradually gave way to more leveled understandings of time and space as relative, heterogeneous, and actively shaping and shapable forces in human life. But Kern’s argument is appropriately nuanced, taking due account of countervailing tendencies of art, thought, and feeling with respect to time and space as well.

Umberto Boccioni, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (1913)
Moreover, Kern, in his Introduction, convincingly sets forth the rationale for giving privilege to these categories and materials, while recognizing that many of these same materials might play a different role in a story told from the vantage point, say, of class struggle, or the history of colonialism and imperialism. The absence of methodological dogma is refreshing.

I’m not sure how original his thesis will appear to be to specialists of any of the fields of human endeavor surveyed by Kern. Certainly, in literary studies, his treatments of Proust, Joyce, Conrad, Stein, and others offer fairly well-established arguments about the techniques and novelties of these writers. I suspect that historians of art, technology, science, and philosophy might feel the same way. But what is original and useful in Kern’s book – and what is marvelously aided by the structure of the work – is his fluid interdisciplinary approach, which brings developments in all these areas together into a single story (or intertwining set of stories) and so gives a thick, rich portrait of the overall feel of life in the era.
Robert Delaunay, "Eiffel Tower" (1910-1911)
And his final two chapters, on the July Crisis and World War I, provide both a gripping narrative and an original perspective on these extensively studied events.

The Culture of Time and Space does not require a Ph.D. or advanced training to be profitably read. His clear prose and, again, intelligent form of organization both of chapters and within chapters, makes the book both easy to read and informative. Kern focuses on Europe and the United States, but the facts of colonialism and imperialism in the period (of which he takes account) make the book relevant for readers with an interest in Latin America or Africa as well. It’s one of those books that perhaps has been lost in the shuffle of academic fashions, but should very much still be essential reading for anyone with an interest, whether general or specific, in this period. Any such reader will find in Kern’s work a superbly informative picture of the birth of the twentieth century.


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