In The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918, Stephen Kern sets out to show how the burst of technological, intellectual, and artistic innovation around the turn of the century “created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space.” This challenging task will attract anyone who is interested in modernism, though it is worth noting at the outset that Mr. Kern's “distinctive new modes” of experience are not really new but have their foundation in the revolutionary view of man's relation to nature that Descartes crystalized in the seventeenth century.

The model is the artisan's knowledge of his craft: we really know something when we know how to make it.

Near the end of the Discourse on Method, Descartes notes that his study of philosophy has led him to a “knowledge that is most useful in life.” That knowledge is first of all not contemplative or theoretical but practical. It excludes the traditional idea that the world is a system of final causes in which man's destiny is figuratively writ, and it views nature as material to be grasped and manipulated according to human designs. The model is the artisan's knowledge of his craft: we really know something when we know how to make it. The index of such knowledge is the power and control it affords. Descartes thus envisions the growth of a “practical philosophy” that, unlike the speculative philosophy of the scholastics, can explain natural phenomena by explaining how things work. Hence the famous declaration that his method will render man “the master and possessor of nature.”

The success of modern technology has shown that Descartes's vision was not idle. For in an important sense, technology has remade the world, bringing close what was far away, delivering up the past to the inspection of the present. “All distances in time and space are shrinking,” Heidegger wrote in a late essay,

Man now reaches overnight, by plane, places which formerly took weeks and months of travel. He now receives instant information, by radio, of events which he formerly learned about only years later, if at all . . . Distant sites of the most ancient cultures are shown on film as if they stood this very moment amidst today's street traffic . . . The peak of this abolition of every possible remoteness is reached by television, which will soon pervade and dominate the whole machinery of communication.

It may be, as Heidegger is at pains to argue, that this conquest of time and space brings with it a new sense of distance, one less susceptible of technological abridgement. “Short distance,” he observes, “is not in itself nearness.” In taking charge of reality, man has not yet defeated distance. Instead, the speed and effectiveness with which he manipulates the world make genuine community and intimacy more elusive than ever. The dream of a “global village” remains unrealized.

In taking charge of reality, man has not yet defeated distance.

Nevertheless, technology's assault on distance has transformed the way we live and, if Mr. Kern is right, this transformation reflects itself nowhere more clearly than in our experience of time and space. “My primary object,” he writes, “is to survey significant changes in the experience of time and space, including some for which I am able to identify no specific 'cause.' Hence I do not explain why the telephone was invented or why the stream-of-consciousness novel began to appear.” This extraordinary, though representative, statement is bound to give one pause. In what sense was the invention of the telephone “a change in the experience of time and space”? What would it mean to explain why it was invented? Are there kindred phenomena (the radio, perhaps, or concrete poetry) for which he has been able to identify a “specific cause”?

But one quickly grows accustomed to such mysterious locutions. Contemporary technological innovations, Mr. Kern explains,

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.

Naturally, one wonders in what sense the theory of relativity, for instance, can be said to “shape consciousness directly.” Mr. Kern never exactly says, but it soon becomes clear that his main idea is that such innovations begat both an increasing rationalization of time and space and—what is said to be “more historically unique” (sic)—a revolt against the dominance of this objective, impersonal ordering of the temporal and spatial dimensions of experience. He discerns this movement over the entire range of cultural activity. Thus he adduces the challenge that relativity theory issued to the authority of Euclidean geometry and the importance of Cubism and other “decentering” artistic experiments in the breakdown of one-point perspective in painting. Similarly, he stresses that the establishment of World Standard Time at the end of the nineteenth century was met by a proliferation of interest in “private” or personal time, classically epitomized by Bergson's meditations on durée and Proust's doctrine of involuntary memory, both of which are featured in Mr. Kern's exposition.

In outline, this idea is hardly new. The notion that time and space are infinite, logically undifferentiated continua is a corollary of Descartes's view of nature as extended substance. On it depends the ideal of objectivity. And it is not surprising that with the triumph of scientific rationality an objective view of time and space should also gain currency. Nor is it surprising that the homogeneity of time and space demanded by science should meet with resistance. For such a view by definition does violence to the way we generally experience time and space. It recognizes no holidays, no neighborhoods, no special times or sacred places. Much of Romanticism bears witness to this resistance, as does Heidegger's warning not to equate knowledge or understanding with technological mastery.

It recognizes no holidays, no neighborhoods, no special times or sacred places.

But Mr. Kern wants to exhibit the historical particulars of this dialectic, showing in some detail how the experience of time and space was transformed in the years between 1880 and 1918. This of course is an exceedingly complex undertaking, not least because, as Mr. Kern notes, “it is essential to clarify precisely how technology and culture interact.” A look at the book's chapter titles underscores its ambitious scope. The first section, on time, was inspired in large part by Eugène Minkowski's Lived Time (Le Temps vécu, 1933) and contains chapters on “The Nature of Time,” “The Past,” “the Present,” and “The Future.” There follows a transitional chapter entitled “Speed,” and a second long section, on space, which contains chapters on “The Nature of Space,” “Form,” “Distance,” and “Direction.” The final two chapters, “The Temporality of the July Crisis” and “The Cubist War,” attempt to show how the changes in the experience of time and space detailed in the preceding chapters show themselves in the tangle of events leading up to World War I and in the prosecution of the war itself.

In the course of his exposition, Mr. Kern touches on an extraordinarily wide range of phenomena. Literature, psychology, painting, architecture, physics, philosophy, diplomatic and social history, military strategy, and the history and reception of technology all come under his purview. In his overview of changes in the experience of present time, for example, Mr. Kern discusses the sinking of the Titanic, the wireless, Apollinaire's “simultaneous poetry,” Joyce's Ulysses, Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal return, the theory of relativity, and much, much more. Basically, he discovers two things. First, that advances in technology such as the wireless and the telephone reinforced the dream of “simultaneity,” of collapsing temporal succession into a present in which it would be possible to experience many separate events at the same time. And, second, that many writers began to emphasize that our experience of the present was not limited to experiencing an isolated moment but was “thickened” by memory and anticipation to include the recent past and near future.

Neither point is especially novel, though such unlikely juxtapositions cannot but be startling. Mr. Kern is aware that his procedure may trouble the reader. “It would be outrageous to link the Titanic and Nietzsche directly,” he admits, “but by following the shorter intermediate links we see a coherent matrix of thought emerging.” This brings us to Mr. Kern's central methodological principle, the idea of “conceptual distance.” Designed to cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries, conceptual distance “involves the presentation of diverse sources that are far enough apart to justify broad generalizations about the age without being too far apart to exceed the limits of plausibility.” Leaving to one side the question of what counts as plausible, Mr. Kern explains that

there is greater conceptual distance between the thinking of an architect and that of a philosopher on a given subject than there is between two philosophers, and I assume that any generalization about the thinking of an age is the more persuasive the greater the conceptual distance between the sources on which it is based.

But is this so? Are two philosophers—Heidegger and Carnap, say, or Kant and Nietzsche—necessarily “closer” in the requisite sense than a philosopher and an architect? It may sometimes happen that they are, but this is an empirical question, not a question of principle, and it must be decided case by case, not by fiat.

Moreover, if the idea of “conceptual distance” is dubious in principle, it proves disastrous in practice. Instead of grounding generalization, it licenses superficiality and methodological chaos. Eager to establish relationships among the most disparate fields of inquiry, Mr. Kern seldom pauses to analyze the vast amount of material he has assembled. Further, his few attempts at analysis are sketchy, embarrassingly rudimentary, and scattered piecemeal throughout the text. (“To avoid repetition,” he tells us, “I have dispersed single corpuses [sic] among these chapters.”) This is all the more annoying in light of the pose of interpretive boldness that he strikes:

Prominent figures such as Proust have been interpreted with such uniformity that their contributions to the cultural landscape have tended to become as solid and fixed as a rock. By cracking into such routine interpretations . . . I attempt to expose fresh surfaces and attribute those contributions to the precise modes of time or space that are appropriate.

Unfortunately, though, his interpretations are unremittingly pedestrian. In his treatment of Proust, for example, he merely rehearses the standard line about Marcel and the madeleine, involuntary memory, and the pastness of paradise. There is nothing that anyone even remotely familiar with Proust will find new or thought-provoking.

As is evident in his prose, Mr. Kern has a tendency to let metaphors and analogies get away from him. If he reads somewhere that the electric light transformed night into day, then the transformation of night into day becomes an accomplished fact and the electric light itself is invested as an emblem of the age's attack on time's irreversibility. Perhaps the most egregious example of this misuse of metaphor is his appropriation of Gertrude Stein's comparison of the First World War to a Cubist painting. “[T]he composition of this war,” Stein wrote in her book on Picasso, “was not a composition in which there was one man in the center surrounded by a lot of other men but a composition that had neither a beginning nor an end, a composition of which one corner was as important as another corner, in fact the composition of cubism.” Stein's remark is typically quirky, brilliant, insightful. But for Mr. Kern, the comparison authorizes an interpretation that all but reduces the war to an expression of some perverse Cubist fantasy. He elevates Stein's passing remark to an explanatory principle, interprets battle tactics as “modes of time and space,” and re-christens what results as “The Cubist War.” Again, this is not to deny the aptness of Stein's observation or, more generally, the place of metaphor in interpreting history. Paul Fussell's illuminating use of literary sources in The Great War and Modern Memory is a case in point. But in Mr. Kern's hands, metaphor takes on a life of its own, overwhelming instead of revealing the reality it refers to.

At bottom, the questionableness of Mr. Kern's approach is inseparable from the questionableness of his thesis. “Since all experience takes place in time and space,” he writes,

the two categories provide a comprehensive framework that can include such wide-ranging cultural developments as Cubism, simultaneous poetry, and ragtime music along with the steamship, skyscraper, and machine gun . . . By interpreting the culture as a function of time and space, it becomes possible to compare different ages and different cultures topic by topic with less confusion than would be involved in trying to compare historically and culturally specific interpretative categories such as parliaments, unions, families, or bourgeoisies.

But if time and space provide a “comprehensive framework” for the interpretation of culture, it is a singularly uninformative framework. Precisely because they pertain to everything, they explain nothing. Thus we must question his boast that the categories of time and space are “more essential from a strictly philosophical point of view” than categories employed by writers like Carl Schorske, Roger Shattuck, and H. Stuart Hughes who have investigated the same period. “They did not,” he writes, “attempt to analyze the essential foundations of experience as I have done.”

In Kant's terms, the way we in fact experience time and space in daily life is an empirical, not a transcendental matter.

Mr. Kern appeals here to Kant to justify his claim, noting that his “basic categories derive from two essential philosophical categories—essential in that they are, as Kant argues, the necessary foundation of all experience.” But this is nonsense. Mr. Kern simply conflates two very different senses of time and space. For, as Kant emphasized, considered as necessary presuppositions of experience, as transcendentals, neither time nor space can be said to change, for neither is “an empirical concept that has been derived from any experience.” And just as “space is essentially one,” so Kant stresses that “different times are but parts of one and the same time.” In Kant's terms, the way we in fact experience time and space in daily life is an empirical, not a transcendental matter, and it is solely as an empirical matter that Mr. Kern is concerned with time and space in this book. To invoke “essential philosophical categories” in this context is merely to make an empty rhetorical gesture.

In fact, though, it is quite clear that Mr. Kern is not interested in “the essential foundations of experience” any more than he is interested in “the nature of time” or “the nature of space.” Rather, he is fascinated by the complex interaction of technology and culture, by the way the telephone or Cubism or both together helped shape the modern world. His subject is modernity's confrontation with this aspect of its Cartesian inheritance. This, surely, is enough, and it is a pity that he felt obliged to obscure his topic with so much philosophical posturing and historical trivia. One can imagine a book that marshaled the learning, insight, and patience necessary to address the kinds of problems that The Culture of Time and Space skirts. But that book remains to be written.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 7, on page 76
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