Lapham's Quarterly: Time

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Lapham's Quarterly 7.4 (Fall 2014): "Time."

Among much else, the issue deals with clocks and the movement through time and marking of time by humans and other creatures. Several of the many brief entries provide a good introduction to time and mechanism, and other issues in or in the background of relevant SF.

• "Marking Time" (pp. [10-11]): Includes a time-line for Earth from the Big Bang to the present — necessarily not to scale and greatly compressed — along with a brief time-line for the development of time-measuring devices (in a wide sense of "device") from a lunar calendar of twelve pits from the Mesolithic period through an ancient water clock to the mechanical clock to the atomic.


• "Captain Clock" by Lewis H. Lapham (pp. 13-[21]) is important for time and mechanism vs. organism as organizing principles. Latham notes that "Only a small fraction of mankind's time on earth (maybe 800 or the last 200,000 years) has been spent in the close company of mechanical clocks, remanded to the cursory of a machine unrelated to anything other than itself. That the association has not proved to be a happy one is the conclusion drawn by Jay Griffiths [...] from her researches among peoples native to" a wide varieties of homelands, and as Lapham sees suggested in the ancient history of the West (pp. 15-16).

The perfecting of mechanical clocks in Europe takes place over the five centuries encompassing the Italian Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the scientific and industrial revolutions, their [...] authority established by the seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler ("The celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism, but rather to a clockwork"), and by [...]Isaac Newton [...] ("Absolute, true, and mathematical time [...] flows equably without relation to anything external"). French Jesuit missionaries bring Christianity into the seventeenth-century North American wilderness taught the Huron to recognize the will of God in the face of "Captain Clock"; so in nineteenth-century Europe, while the universal and uniform time shifted from the biosphere to the technosphere, the Captain's coercive omnipresence facilitated the transfer of political power from the landed aristocracy and the cloistered clergy to the bourgeois captains of industry and finance. ¶ Money and time on the clock are both inanimate abstractions, nowhere to be found [...] in the living body of time that is the existence of man and nature. (p. 17)

The essay goes on to discuss briefly Frederik W. Taylor as "'the father of scientific management,'" though without mentioning his Scientific Management book. And then notes Lewis Mumford's naming of "the clock, not the steam engine or printing press, as 'the key machine of the modern industrial age'" and how clocks "'dissociated time from human events'" (Lapham, quoting New York City, p. 71; Wikipedia citing Technics and Civilization [1934: 14-15]; see below).[1]

[...] Taylor's template for an efficient workplace appeared during the same few decades around the turn of the twentieth century that also vastly extended the powers of machine-made time to levy taxes, amass capital, declare war. The speeding up of time by telegraph and telephone, on radio and film, with fast-moving automobiles, airplanes, and artillery shells depended for its supremacy on Newton's conception of absolute, true, mathematical time [...]. (p. 18)

— An arguable assertion of that dependency, but an introduction to Lapham's section on the challenge to Newtonian mechanical time by the works of Albert Einstein and succeeding philosophers and artists in various media (Henri Bergson, Marcel Proust, Picasso et al.).


• 1903: Philadelphia / "Time-Management Skills" (pp.27-28), excerpt from Frederick Winslow Taylor's Shop Management (we assume 1903).

Boxed text at the end notes the 1911 Principles of Scientific Management and how (italics removed), "In the 1870s and 1880s Taylor rose from machinist to chief engineer at the Middle Steel company, where he first developed what he termed 'time study,' using stopwatches to determine the most efficient uses of men and machines." The brief article itself alludes to the stopwatches of time study but in itself mentions no mechanism more complex than a wheelbarrow. See, though, for Taylor's concentrated concern for — arguably contempt of — "The natural laziness of men" and what can come across as total dedication to the interests of management as opposed to what Taylor barely recognizes as the interests of laborers. This adds credence to the view that in his desire for "the most efficient use of men and machines," he did not differentiate much between the two.

• 1910: Cambridge, MA / "William Faulkner Listens to the Ticking of a Watch" (pp.65-68), excerpt from The Sound and the Fury (1929).[2] Excerpt climaxes with a brief meditation outside a watch/watch-repair shop: on time and a broken watch.

I went out, shutting the door upon the ticking. I looked back into the window. [...] There were about a dozen watches in the window, a dozen different hours and each with the same assertive and contradictory assurance that mine had, without any hands at all. Contradicting one another. I could hear mine, ticking away inside my pocket, even though nobody could see it, even though it could tell nothing if anyone could. ¶ And so I told myself to take that one. Because Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life. 

Note for mechanism vs. organism, the mechanical watch or clock vs. (figuratively) living time.


1934: New York City / "Lewis Mumford Disassembles the Clock" (pp. 71-72). Again, from Technics and Civilization (1934: 14-15])[3]

The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age. For every stage of its development the clock is both the outstanding fact and the typical symbol of the machine: even today no other machine is so ubiquitous. [...] There had been power machines, such as the water mill, before the clock; and there had also been various kinds of automatons to awaken the wonder of the populace in the temple, or to please the idle fancy of some Muslim caliph: machines one finds illustrated in Hero of Alexandria and al-Jazari. But here was a new kind of power machine, which the source of power and the transmission were of such a nature as to ensure the even flow of energy through the works and to make possible regular production and a standardized product. In its relationship to determinable quantities of energy, to standardization, to automatic action, and finally to its own special product — accurate timing — the clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics; and at each period it has remained in the lead: it marks a perfection toward which other machines aspire. [***] 
The clock, moreover, is a piece of power machinery whose "product" is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. There is relatively little foundation for this believe in human experience [...]. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign. [...] [W]hile mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time — What Henri Bergson [Clermont-Ferrand, page 96 <note in LQ>] calls duration — is cumulative in its effects. (p. 71)

Moving into what has been called the Renaissance and, more recently, the Early Modern, clock became common and fashionable and then necessary, and "Abstract time became the new medium of existence," determining when one ate and slept, and people's ideas of history (p. 72). Note in fiction clock time in Harlan Ellison's "Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman," in film, Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS.


1895: London / "H. G. Wells Explains Time Travel" (pp. 144-46).

Excerpt from Wells's The Time Machine giving The Time Traveller's description of his trip initial into the future. Note in the sequence — and a cinematic term works here — the machine-ness of the time machine, with such details as how "one of the nickel bars was exactly one inch too short" and needs to be replaced (Lapham's p. 144). With due recognition of Jules Verne and others, if one takes 1895 and The Time Machine as a good place to start looking at "the human/machine interface in SF," and the rise of SF as a self-conscious genre or mode — then Wells's relatively flat realism here, the insistence on mundane details in a fantastic context, is both decorous and significant.


1953: Toronto / "The Here and the Now" (p. 162). Brief excerpt from Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 1964.[4]

Opening sentence and thesis of excerpt: "Perfection of the means of communication" — clearly, as the piece develops, by means of modern technology — "has meant instantaneity. Such an instantaneous network of communication is the body-mind unity of each of us."

RDE, Initial Compiler, 6Mar20 f.