Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918

Abstract ideas such as time and space serve as crucial characters in Stephen Kern’s intellectual history The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918. The collapse of space, the imposition of time, the destruction of form, and the rapidly increasing importance of the present due to technological advance drove intellectual thought, art, literature and even war in the first decades of the long twentieth century. Kern’s work argues that essential human understandings regarding time, space, direction, and form were radically transformed by technological innovations such as the telegraph, telephone, railroad, automobile and cinema which undermined traditional hierarchies throughout society.

Kern divides his attentions between the abstracts of time and space but divides them between the past, present, the future, speed, form, distance and direction. Moreover, Kern employs the work and ideas of intellectuals/writers/artists such as James Joyce, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, William Carlos Williams and Henrik Ibsen, employing “conceptual distance” to determine the pervasiveness of a belief or idea, “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.” (7) Beginning with time, Kern outlines how the implementation of Standard Time set off a countercurrent that rejected a single monolithic time for the idea of “private time” which was fluid, multiple, and constantly in flux. The concept of ‘simultaneity” emerged among artists and others suggesting that the present was not “a sequence of single local events … [but] a simultaneity of multiple distant events.”(68) Simultaneity depended on “private time” which emphasized the present, reorienting humanity’s relation to the past and future. Ideas of the past and future remained similar to those of earlier eras but the past took on increased importance regarding the present and what came after. Stream of consciousness writing represented the importance of the present such that a single moment in thought, as evidenced by Joyce’s work, might traverse numerous periods and spaces, making individual’s private time transhistorical and potentially transnational.

Though new constructions of time suggesting pluralities and the importance of reference reverberated, the alteration of humanity’s spatiality mattered equally if not more. In terms of transportation, railroads, airplanes, cars and bicycles collapsed physical space, reorienting nations’ ideas of themselves and others. Simultaneously, the telephone, telegraph, and cinema made information nearly instantaneous, surprising, and broad. Additionally, these innovations collapsed spaces more abstractly such as with the cinematic technique of the close up which engaged the audience more directly creating shared intimacy between actor and audience and between audience members. In the world of art, the “affirmation of positive negative space” struck down artistic traditions and hierarchies just as the cinema brought numerous classes in public space together. As with time, concepts such as the plurality of space, “affirmation of negative space”, perspectivism, and the restructuring of forms undermined traditional hierarchies paralleling the collapse of aristocracies and the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Bravely, Kern applies his arguments to the July Crisis and World War I itself arguing that many of the new developments regarding time and space contributed to its outbreak and execution. For example, the speed of communication confounded diplomacy used to deliberative slow negotiative accretions leading to rash decisions by rulers, legislators, and peoples to enter war. Similarly, the imperialistic drive that fueled competition and militarization between European powers arose because of nationalistic beliefs partially shaped by innovations in transportation (and the resulting changes in how people conceived space) that nations needed greater and greater amounts of territory. Small nations or stagnant ones represented sickness and decay, while expanding imperial powers gobbled up space like a healthy individual.

The Culture of Time and Space effectively traces intellectual developments that transformed humanity’s ideas concerning spatiality and temporality. However, Kern’s focus on writers/artists/intellectuals neglects more common voices increasing the difficulty of determining the pervasiveness of such cultural developments. Similarly, though concepts such as “private time” implicitly grant agency to average people, Kern rarely illustrates this outside of examples from literature. Finally, Kern ignores issues of race and ethnicity despite trumpeting the spread of democratization as result of new conceptual developments.

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