Subjective Versus Objective Time

08Sep06

I thought that I’d quote at length the book I’m currently reading (W.J. Harvey’s 1965 Character and the Novel), in which he quotes at length Lewis Mumford (an American historian of technology and science who wrote the following in his 1947 Technics and Civilization:

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 belief in common human experience: throughout the year the days are of uneven duration, and not merely does the relation between day and night steadily change, but a slight journey from East to West alters astronomical time by a certain number of minutes. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lunch, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time […] is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock of the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction — through the cycle of borth, growth, development, decay, and death — and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born. (quoted on page 104 of Harvey’s book).

There are a number of reasons I quote this passage. First, I like how beautifully a historicn of science and technology can write about time and about human development. Second, I find it so true that our subjective (as in viewed from inside ourselves) view of time can be strikingly different from the objective view of time (how long 110 minutes of Kill Bill, Volume One feels in comparison with 110 minutes of Pulp Fiction).

But I also quote this here and now for two additional reasons:

First, I just love this time of year. For me, fall is the real new year. Maybe it’s because I’m an eternal student and fall brings quite literally the new year in the scholastic sense. But it also always feels like summer is this time of stagnation and heat and oppression (which, don’t get me wrong, I love and indeed crave each year) and then comes fall and there’s all this change and I get to wear blue jeans and long sleeves and my favorite sweaters. And apple pie! Apple pie just by itself is cause for fireworks and balls being dropped from towers and other joyous celebrating. What’s so special about the calendar turning from December 31 to January 1? How can that compete with leaves turning from green to red?

Second, because I am interested in (and studying quite intently) the ways in which physical settings influence our reading of fiction and literary nonfiction, I have special reason to want to rethink subjectivity in terms that go beyond the sequential passing of time.

Yes, in fact: I think that stories are interesting not as much for the events (temporal little things that they are) that unfold but for the experience of fiction. This experience, I think, takes place at various levels: there are the characters’ experiences, and our vicarious experience of those experiences, but then there’s also our experience of reading: the wonderful experience of sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee and a fleece blanket over your lap, enjoying the way this author or that one tells the story. It seems there’s so much more to reading than just getting from the beginning to the end.

And indeed, some books feel longer than others their same length because of how well we enjoy them, and some books actually take longer to read because of lots of factors: length, density, texture, complexity, enjoyability. (Up till the end of that list I was starting to feel like a scientist myself. What is dissertating coming to?!)

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One Response to “Subjective Versus Objective Time”

  1. 1 Julie

    Oddly, the very same day I posted this particular entry, Brian and I went to see the film The Illusionist, in which Edward Norton’s character (the main character) has a brief soliloquy on just this very subject: the changeability and subjectivity of time. Weird.


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