The Culture of Time and Space - Stephen Kern (1983)

The book examines how the seismic changes sweeping through Western societies at the turn of the 19th Century impacted on the fundamental concepts of Time and Space, namely:

  • How technological developments revolutionized the actual experience of Time and Space (eg the introduction of World Standard Time and the mass availability of the wristwatch, the telephone, wireless, camera and cinema, the car and aeroplane, along with the bicycle, telegraph and railway)
  • How cultural changes revolutionized ways of perceiving and conceptualizing Time and Space – in physics (Einstein’s theory of relativity), in philosophy (Bergson’s ‘durée’), psychiatry (Freud’s study of the unconscious), sociology (Durkheim’s social relativity of time and space), art (the cubism of Picasso and Braque) and literature (especially Proust’s search for lost time and Joyce’s stream of consciousness)

In a time when many notions and behaviours unquestioned for centuries were dismantled, the author demonstrates the controversies raging around each development, dramatising the views of its proponents and of equally vociferous reactionaries.

The conception of the nature of Time changed in this period

Kern asserts that the most important change during this period was the assault on the hitherto unquestioned conception of ‘public’ time as universal, unchanging and irreversible. This led to the affirmation of a plurality of times and spaces and the recognition of ‘private’ time (influenced by the philosophy of Bergson), which in turn radically interiorized the locus of experience, eroding conventional views about the stability and objectivity of the material world.

Public time gained in uniformity via the introduction of World Standard Time and calendar reform; new technologies such as the telegraph, then the telephone and wireless enabled people to effectively ‘be in two places at one time’.

However, the increased rationalization of time in public life was paralleled by increased questioning of the very nature of time, divided by Kern into three opposing concepts:

  1. Homogeneous versus heterogeneous
  2. Atomistic versus a flux
  3. Reversible versus irreversible

Writers such as Proust and Joyce began to discuss heterogeneous, subjective ‘private’ time, with as many instances as there were lifestyles and reference systems. Kafka viewed public time as arbitrary, even sinister, paving the way for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and his assertion that time is relative to the system which measures it. Sociologists such as Emile Durkheim commented on the social relativity of time.

Artists tried to reflect the new multiplicity of time by capturing different moments (the Impressionists) and differing perspectives (Cubism). The theory that time is a flux and not a sum of discrete units was linked with the idea of human consciousness as a stream, not a conglomeration of separate ideas (William James, 1884).

Freud documented the temporal distortions of dreams and fantasies, and the ‘timelessness’ of unconscious mental processes. Bergson railed against the attempt to contain time in space and the difficulty of expressing the true nature of our existence in time, or ‘durée’.

Developments in cinema influenced thinking about the irreversibility of time, as editing techniques used jumps in time to reverse and move it forward.

Views of the Past, Present and Future influenced the conception of Time

Kern maintains that views of past, present and future differ in and define every age. Many in this generation looked backwards for stability in a time of change, and drew a sense of identity from the historical past. But as innovations such as photography, the camera and cinema brought the past rushing into the present, debate raged over past as burden (as seen by the Futurists, Nietzsche, Ibsen) or past as vital heritage/identity (Proust’s time regained).

Kern charts the growing significance of a ‘personal past’ in the works of Joyce, Freud, Bergson and in modern art, underling the search for freedom and control against the weight of the historical past (eg Otto Wagner’s new style versus the precedent of classical architecture on Vienna’s Ringstraße).

In considering the concept of the present, Kern uses the example of the sinking of the Titanic(1912) to note the important move from experience of the present as sequential (made up of single, local events) to simultaneous (a multiplicity of different events) experienced via technology (telephone, wireless, cinema). He sees simultaneity as one of the most important themes of this period; in other words, the ability to experience many distant events at the same time, as enabled by technology and epitomized by the Titanic, represented a major change in experience of the present. The development of the concept of simultaneity in turn influenced art and literature, for example Delaunay, the Futurists and the simultaneous poetry of Barzun, Cendrars and Apollinaire.

There was much debate around ‘what is now?’ Thinkers came to consider a present that was ‘extended’ both temporally and spatially, ‘thickened’ with retentions and recollections from the past that inform the way we decode experiences. In addition, new technologies changed the dimensions of experience so greatly that the future seemed to rush towards the present, encouraging repudiation of the past and affirming the present as the real location of experience (Joyce’s: “Hold to the Now” and Nietzsche’s philosophy of ‘eternal recurrence’, 1882, the idea that we must continually reinvent the present, defying the past).

Kern asserts that this generation had a strong, confident sense of the future, tempered by concern that things were moving too fast. Such doubts and hesitations were generally ignored, however, and the dominant impetus was full speed ahead, chiming with the first of Minkowski’s two modes of ‘living the future’:

  • Activity, in which we actively move towards the future
  • Expectation, in which we passively await whatever the future may bring

Kern argues that the generation before the First World War was very much in active mode, embracing change and influenced by new technology such that, according to the historian Herbert Casson (1910),“Life has become more tense, alert, vivid”. There was positive glorification in change, for instance a rise in science fiction (eg The Time Machine by H G Wells, 1895), reflecting the hope for technology to accelerate the process of change. The Futurists expressed change as the defining mode of the future, with the need for each generation to rebuild its cities anew (Marinetti and Sant’Elia).

However, the devastating experience of conflict crushed many hopes, quelling the positive flow of energy towards the future and switching the mode from activity to one of passive expectation.

The new speed generated both positive and negative responses

Kern highlights the compulsive ‘need for speed’ of this period, evidenced by a drive for ever-faster ocean liners and culminating in the Titanic disaster. The influence of several inventions is seen to drive the acceleration of modern life, from the watch to the car.

The desire for speed and efficiency also affected journalism and language via the telegraph and manufacturing via the adoption of Taylorism (time and motion), with its consequent depersonalization of the workforce.

Cinema reproduced the mechanization, jerkiness and rush of modern times with its quick-cut technique; Fernand Léger identified its effect and that of technology in general on the sensibilities of artists, perhaps most eloquent in the depiction of motion and speed in works by Balla and Boccioni (Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912 and Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913). In music, ragtime and jazz not only increased the pace, but also mixed syncopation and new percussive textures to give an impression of modern hurry and unpredictability.

Many writers welcomed the collapse of the old ways and viewed the new speed favourably as a symbol of vitality, a magnification of possibility, or an antidote to provincialism. However, others voiced concern over the consequences of the increased tempo of life. George Beard publishedAmerican Nervousness in 1881, introducing the concept of nervous exhaustion, followed by John Girdner’s new disease of Newyorkitis in 1901 and Gabriel Hanotaux’s L’Energie Française in 1902, which warned that man was in danger of exhausting natural resources. Perhaps the most interesting negative critique of speed was Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, set in Vienna in 1913. He rails against a society which, for all the hurrying, is going nowhere, without a future, where people dream of living elsewhere. Whilst this work is specifically a caricature of early 20thCentury Europe speeding out of control, heading towards war, the parallels with our own generation are evident.

In sum, despite the allure of increased speed, the new pace of life created tension and suspicion of potentially nefarious effects, and palpable (if sometimes unrealistic) nostalgia for days gone by.

July 1914 and the First World War

Kern maintains that changes in the sense of Time were most tangible in the pace of diplomacy in July 1914 and the fighting that followed. He exposes the short-termism of the sheer rush of events that catapulted Europe into war, asserting that a new sense of temporal precision, brought about and made possible by new technologies (telegrams, telephones, press releases), governed diplomacy in this period and shortened timeframes attached to crucial ultimatums and responses. The speed at which communication took place between the powers was out of synch with the traditional machinery of diplomacy, and made the disastrous recklessness of short-term ambition possible.

Kern also sees the embodiment of transformations in Time and Space in the actual fighting. War imposed homogeneous time, as remote generals relayed battle plans by telephone and thousands at the front-lines coordinated attacks by means of wristwatches. Vast mobilizations required a public synchronicity that reversed the growing primacy of private time pre-war, yet the conflict increased both the sense of time as atomistic (in highly-planned manoeuvres) and of temporal flux for men in the trenches, for whom time became surreal and intangible.

Kern argues that speed also reached its apotheosis in war. The pace of diplomacy, mobilization, military advance and annihilation was unprecedented, creating a definitive break with the past and focusing attention on the horrific events of the present. Kern points again to the influence of technology, which played its part in changing the world forever, both on the battlefields and for the civil millions: “Europe became a communications network that processed more information than ever before about more people involved in more events in widely distant places at the same time. World War I was the simultaneous drama of the age of simultaneity.”


Stephen Kern is professor of History at Ohio State University in the USA. He taught at Northern Illinois University for 32 years, completing his tenure as a Distinguished Research Professor. He was Honorary Research Fellow at Harvard University and visiting professor at the University of Michigan, Northwestern, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

He specializes in modern European cultural and intellectual history, with particular interest in psychoanalysis, phenomenology, the body and sexuality, time and space, love, vision (the gaze), causality and murder.

Other major publications:Anatomy and Destiny: A Cultural History of the Human Body (1975); The Culture of Love: Victorians to Moderns (1992); Eyes of Love: The Gaze in English and French Paintings and Novels, (1996); A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought, (2004).

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