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Modernism, Time Machines, and the Defamiliarization of Time
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Modernism, Time Machines, and the Defamiliarization of Time

“We do not all of us inhabit the same time.”

—Ezra Pound, “Dateline”

“History is no entity advancing along a single line . . . it is a polyrhythmic and multi-spatial entity.”

—Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times

Modernism and Time Machines

Many works of modernist literature and art aspired to the condition of time machines. While the early phases of modernism’s history contain the first appearance of such a device in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), the aesthetic experiments that we typically associate with the singular noun modernism have not been considered in relation to this foundational science-fiction trope or its numerous offshoots burgeoning through our cultural landscape today. Yet, if we reflect on what many of the most famous texts and paintings were doing in form and theme, it is clear that the modernist aesthetic called attention to itself not only as a vehicle for experiencing and moving in time, but also as a technique for rethinking that experience and movement. Moreover, modernist experiments often sought self-consciously to question and reconceptualize time by foregrounding the ways in which their own devices, often in concert with psychological, social, and historical mechanisms, structured [End Page 93] and produced time. Modernism was itself, in many hitherto-unconsidered senses of the phrase, a time machine.

By reading modernism as a peculiar kind of time machine, I would like to expand our sense of both the well-known obsession with time at the beginning of the twentieth century and the popular trope of the time machine. The fascination with time in canonical works of literature and art should be reframed alongside the rise of time-travel narratives and alternate histories because both modernism and this cardinal trope of science fiction (SF) have been able to produce a range of effects and insights that go beyond the exhilarations of simply sliding back and forth in history.1 Together, these strands of “high” art and “low” popular culture form part of a larger network whose primary function is the defamiliarization of time itself. Running throughout the twentieth century, this network includes not just literary tropes, formal techniques, and SF themes, but also technological, cultural, and historical conditions, as well as disciplinary formations like critical geography and postcolonial historiography. Drawing, in part, on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s sense of the term, this essay envisions a larger machine comprising these disparate components, a heterogeneous assemblage whose “identity” resides in what it does.2 This kind of time machine, which I also refer to as a “heterochrony machine” or “alternate-history maker,” is not just the standard aesthetic artifact featured in our critical narratives—an instrument that symptomatically picks up and perhaps processes the shifting spatiotemporal conditions of modernity; it is rather a set of connections that construct and reveal a multiplicity of nonstandard times and strange timespaces and a variety of ways of imagining history otherwise. [End Page 94]

In studies of literary modernism, the relations among these elements of the network have been construed most often as the familiar oppositions between high and low, aesthetic and historical, internal and external, modernism and modernity. For instance, the heightened preoccupation with time that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is usually treated as a poignant turn away from clock-time in favor of subjectivity and lived experience. In the face of capitalism’s standardization and regulation of time, the acceleration of changes in social life, and the vertiginous elongation of human and planetary history by evolutionary theory and geology, writers and artists are said to have moved inward to explore the workings of memory, the pathos of finitude, and the intensities of fugitive moments. As Adam Barrows puts it in The Cosmic Time of Empire: Modern Britain and World Literature, “the dominant critical tendency has been to treat modernist time as a purely philosophical exploration of private consciousness, disjointed from the forms of material and public temporality that standard time attempted to organize.”3 For Sara Danius in The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics, the assumption that modernism responds to “the growing hegemony...