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  • Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World by Jason Farman
  • David Zvi Kalman (bio)
Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World
By Jason Farman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. Pp. 217.

First you do something, then you expect a response. Sometimes the response comes quickly and sometimes it doesn't—and when it doesn't, you experience a phenomenon called "waiting." This book, meant for non-specialists, is a meditation on that waiting experience: how it is wrapped in the ever-shifting historical boundary between "timely" and "untimely," how it is used to assert power, how it is signaled (or not), and how it affects our work.

In highlighting the act of waiting and its causes, Jason Farman attempts to argue that this activity should be seen not just as an object of study, but also as a good that is being overlooked by a contemporary culture obsessed with speed and instantaneous communication. The meaning of "now" is socially determined; at the moment, communications are perceived as delayed if responses do not come in a matter of seconds (or less), but this was not always the case. Delayed Response highlights the existence of other experiences of "now" while portraying some of them as useful counterbalances to the fast pace of modern life.

Farman's book, which is structured as a series of vignettes, reviews a wide variety of contemporary and historical contexts in which waiting occurs. Farman begins by describing how he visited Japan to investigate cultural expectations about punctuality; he also interviews a number of people who could not immediately contact their relatives after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. Then, he describes the widespread use of pneumatic tubes to transmit messages within metropolitan areas in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, and puts the speed of pneumatic communication in conversation with other developments in information transmission (chapter 2). Next, Farman examines the function of what might be called "wait signaling," using traffic lights and wait cursors on computers (like spinning beachballs, hourglasses, and stopwatches) as primary examples (chapter 3). He then explores the role of waiting in astronomical research, where the development of a space probe and its journey can play out over years, or even decades (chapter 4).

The following three chapters describe various types of message transmission: [End Page 1226] correspondence from the American Civil War, during which letters sometimes took months to reach their destinations; the use of seals and other forms of document authentication, like the Japanese hanko, which were necessitated by delays in message transmission; and Aboriginal Australians' use of message sticks to supplement long-distance communication (chapters 5, 6, and 7). The book concludes with Farman making a case for the importance of tolerating, if not loving, the experience of waiting.

Farman's range of subjects is impressive, his examples are thought provoking, and the work is an invitation for further investigation into the cultural significance of waiting, delays, lags, and so forth. On several occasions, Farman emphasizes the relationship between waiting and power, a subject which could surely fill a book on its own. However, Farman's research emphasis is on his case studies, rather than on theoretical analysis of his subject, and the connective tissue between his examples and the book's central idea is often quite thin. As a result, Farman's choice of research subjects comes across as somewhat arbitrary, since it is not clear what larger argument he is making beyond the thesis that waiting comes in all shapes and sizes.

As a first stab at a new subject, Delayed Response suggests that waiting requires a great deal of further study and that two kinds of systematic analyses are particularly in order. First, there is a need for a good, modern historical investigation of waiting—one that sets the subject within the already rich history of timekeeping and temporality. Second, there is a need for a synchronous, theoretical examination of waiting that understands it as an important new frontier in the philosophy of time. Both are major projects and would take years to complete. In the meantime...


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pp. 1226-1227
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