The Cosmic Time of Empire: Modern Britain and World Literature

The Cosmic Time of Empire: Modern Britain and World Literature

by Adam Barrows

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Combining original historical research with literary analysis, Adam Barrows takes a provocative look at the creation of world standard time in 1884 and rethinks the significance of this remarkable moment in modernism for both the processes of imperialism and for modern literature. As representatives from twenty-four nations argued over adopting the Prime Meridian, and thereby measuring time in relation to Greenwich, England, writers began experimenting with new ways of representing human temporality. Barrows finds this experimentation in works as varied as Victorian adventure novels, high modernist texts, and South Asian novels—including the work of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad. Demonstrating the investment of modernist writing in the problems of geopolitics and in the public discourse of time, Barrows argues that it is possible, and productive, to rethink the politics of modernism through the politics of time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520948150
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/07/2010
Series: FlashPoints , #3
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 831 KB

About the Author

Adam Barrows is Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada.

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The Cosmic Time of Empire

Modern Britain and World Literature

By Adam Barrows


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94815-0


Standard Time, Greenwich, and the Cosmopolitan Clock

One of the "hallmarks of modernity," writes Henri Lefebvre in his 1974 study, The Production of Space, is its "expulsion" or "erasure" of time. Inscribed in spaces and in social relationships in the premodern, time in modernity is subordinated to the economic and expelled from the political. In deliberately violent imagery Lefebvre writes that time in modernity "has been murdered by society" (96). If this separation of time from space was so dramatic and violent, why, Lefebvre wonders, did it not cause an "outcry"? How did it become "part and parcel of social norms"? "How many lies have their roots" in the separation of time from social spaces (96)?

In this chapter I present a reading of the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference, the event at which a world standard time based on the Greenwich prime meridian was internationally sanctioned. Careful analysis of the debates of 1884 reveals the extent to which modernity's "murder" of time did in fact generate prodigious resistance. Dissenting delegates at the conference protested the assimilation of time into an empty, universal value system, asserting the sovereignty of social norms of time within nations and the sociocultural or religious components of temporal relationships on which those norms were based. These protests were not an instance of the familiar modernist gesture toward a valorized primitive time. Indeed the primitive or premodern is nowhere invoked in the debates. Rather they were affirmations of time's social value staged from within the heart of the modern. To recapture and revitalize these arguments, which received no press coverage in 1884 and no mention in the handful of historical accounts, is not simply to register a historical footnote of the feeble protests of geopolitical sore losers. It is to offer instead an opening up of the possibilities of temporal politics from within the modern. In later chapters I argue that modernist literary artists explored dynamic and complex reinscriptions of social time within the spaces of modernity. Speaking the name of Greenwich in relation to the political, the commercial, and the imperial, modernist artists punctured a hole in modernity's edifice of temporal neutrality, in the process reimagining networks of temporal relationships in their prose that were becoming increasingly untenable within the spaces of modern life.


To locate modernity's erasure of social time in a single event in 1884 would be highly specious historical argumentation. Clearly the emptying out of social time was the work of several centuries, involving the detheologizing of time among Enlightenment philosophes, the discourse of immutable physical laws that Newton's Principia Mathematica enabled in the seventeenth century, and the denigration of the artisanal laborer's irregular work rhythms that E. P. Thompson describes in his essay "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism." These are all part of the broader historical canvas onto which a portrait of the suppression of social time would have to be painted. Still, if one wanted an exact date at which the erasure of social time became a global phenomenon (and modernity, as Anthony Giddens has argued, is intrinsically the globalization of organizational institutions [The Consequences of Modernity, 63]), one could do worse than point to Wednesday, October 15, 1884, when one major international conference was well under way and another was in a critical early stage. On that day the reader of the London Times could see on the same page, columns apart, an account of the first major vote of the Prime Meridian Conference and an account of the upcoming Berlin Conference on West Africa, an event England was watching carefully because of the potential threat it posed to the monopoly of trade on the oil rivers of the area later named Nigeria. Here, on one day, were accounts of arguably the two most important legislative events of fin de siècle imperialism: the Berlin Conference, at which the protocols were set for the territorial subdivision of Africa for future exploitation, and the Prime Meridian Conference, at which the protocols were set for the creation of a globally synchronized time that would substantially enable that exploitation.

The proximity of these two events to one another should give pause. One event, universally recognized as the symbol and enactment of European colonial greed and imperial hubris on a grandiose scale, occurred within months of an ostensibly disinterested, scientific, and politically neutral event meant to eliminate "barbarous" time-keeping practices. The one conference legitimated territorial dominance and commercial monopoly under the banner of free and fair trade; the other legitimated the construction of a universal time system dictated from the center of imperial power under the banner of convenience and progress. In both cases national pride and unfair advantage were attributed solely to the continental powers, with England taking up the wearisome burden of the needs of future generations. "Wherever the British flag flies," the Times correspondent wrote of the Berlin Conference, "trade is free to all comers. British commerce seeks only a fair field and no favour." While Germany and France demanded "commercial freedom for all nations on the Congo," their practices in West Africa were marked by a "reciprocal guarantee of advantages." Britain, on the other hand, had come by its monopoly of trade on the oil rivers fairly. If trade on the lower Niger was controlled by "a monopoly of British merchants," the correspondent wrote, "this is due to no favouring tariffs or exclusive privileges, but to superiority in enterprise, capital, and skill." Fair trade was desirable on the Congo, over which England exerted no influence, but not on the Niger. "To place the Congo under an international commission would be a step in advance," the Times reporter continued, but "to put the Niger under the same kind of control would be as clearly a step backwards." Fair trade, in other words, was fine for other nations, but not for England, which was above petty international lobbying for favor. England possessed skill and enterprise as ontological virtues above and beyond the sphere of the political.

Three columns over, in its report of the Prime Meridian Conference, the Times represented England, in a different context, as the marker of apolitical superiority. Here again opposition to England's advantage could be attributed only to petty nationalism: "Nothing but extremely sensitive national feeling could have stood in the way of the adoption of the English line [meridian]." That Greenwich, the site of an observatory and not a national capital, was to be the source of the prime meridian should have been enough to assuage "national pride." England's interests coincide with those of "geography, navigation, and science generally," just as its monopoly on the Niger signaled the triumph of capital and trade generally. To pose the question of political or commercial advantage in the case of the prime meridian was to court absurdity and caricature. In his stage adaptation of The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad would capture this rhetoric of bewilderment in the face of political attacks on the sacrosanct realm of astronomy. "I can't see how [astronomy] can have any connexion with politics," a socialite muses after the botched bombing of the Greenwich Observatory, "those anarchists must be simply mad" (Three Plays, 134).

The need to find political oppression in even the march of scientific progress marked one as a nationalist ideologue or a half-wit, as the correspondent for the Times clearly suggested in his primer on basic astronomy, provided for the common London reader on the eve of the Prime Meridian Conference. In this report the Times, recognizing that "it is a matter of common experience that adult readers may retain but faint recollections of what they knew as schoolboys," provided a capable overview of the rotation of the earth on its axis, the mean solar day, John Harrison's chronometers, and the dominance in terms of tonnage of Greenwich-based navigation. While the need for a universal Greenwich-based meridian is a matter of "schoolboy" logic, a simple syllogism, the role of opposition to such simple logic is assigned, at the end of the article, to a stage Irishman, who sees oppression even in the contours of simple logic: "There is a familiar story of an Irishman who came on business to Liverpool, and was half-an-hour late for an appointment. He exhibited his watch in evidence of his punctuality, and when it was explained to him that he had local time, and that the sun rose half-an-hour later in Ireland than in England, he bitterly protested against the arrangement as another injustice to his bleeding country."

The anecdotal Irishman foolishly sees immutable astronomical relationships in terms of political power, and national oppression in even the most objective of scientific processes. James Joyce, in the "Lestrygonians" section of Ulysses, will echo this Irishman's protests in the context of Irish subordination to England, as Leopold Bloom recalls the half-hour (actually twenty-five-minute) difference between Greenwich time and the time at the Dunsink Observatory in Dublin. Joyce retells this story in terms that make the political manipulation of astronomical neutrality explicit, with Bloom imagining himself forcibly expelled from the Dunsink Observatory for even posing the question of temporal difference. Salman Rushdie in Midnight's Children also dramatizes a debate over the political manipulation of time, as two characters discuss the proposed half-hour difference between India and the newly formed Pakistan:

"It was only a matter of time," my father said, with every appearance of pleasure; but time has been an unsteady affair, in my experience, not a thing to be relied upon. It could even be partitioned: the clocks in Pakistan would run half an hour ahead of their Indian counterparts.... Mr. Kemal, who wanted nothing to do with Partition, was fond of saying, "Here's proof of the folly of the scheme! Those Leaguers plan to abscond with a whole thirty minutes! Time Without Partitions" Mr. Kemal cried, "That's the ticket!" And S. P. Butt said, "If they can change the time just like that, what's real any more? I ask you? What's true?" (86–87)

While Rushdie's characters take seriously the symbolic violence of manipulating national time, the author of the Times article on the anecdotal Irishman mocks the linkage of territorial control with the processes of astronomy. To raise the question of the Irishman is to court absurdity. The elimination of multiple prime meridians is simply an elimination of unnecessary confusion, a view that remains the dominant understanding of the conference. In his report of October 14 the Times correspondent writes that the vote for Greenwich will make the Prime Meridian Conference "memorable to scientific history if it has put an end to one worse than useless diversity."

The reporter's distaste for diversity may strike the twenty-first-century reader as inherently offensive. The notion of temporal diversity, or in more familiar postcolonial terms, hybridity and heterogeneity, has become a favored locus for a liberatory politics of difference. Rather than stage a critique at the level of ontological difference, however, I would like to explore the material and social manipulations of standard time that are obscured by this loaded rhetoric of ontological diversity. As I have been attempting to demonstrate, the Times reporter tries to foreclose any kind of meaningful debate about the politics of Greenwich standard time by marking any opposition as a naïve expression of petty nationalism or cultural diversity. Fighting this rhetoric by championing cultural heterogeneity simply by virtue of its diversity would be to accept the reporter's terms and to miss his key act of rhetorical subterfuge, which asks the reader to equate a British institution with the immutable laws of science, progress, fair trade, and civility, while cloaking the immense material disadvantages that equation will naturalize. Why was there no "outcry" against the murder of time, as Lefebvre asks? Because the terms of the debate were defined in such a way that no rational person could fail to take the dominant view. Battling the rotation of the earth on its axis in favor of inconvenient cultural diversity would, after all, be quixotic in the extreme.

This equation of the needs of British commerce with the immutable laws of Nature is part of a larger narrative of technological determinism, which Merrit Roe Smith has traced back to the Enlightenment, but which reaches its apogee in the period of the fin de siècle, when the belief that "technological developments determine the course of human events" had become "dogma" (7). The Times reporter's castigation of the Irishman for railing against the natural law of British commercial dominance represents what Bruce Bimber has called a "nomological" account of technological development, according to which development is not culturally or socially determined, but proceeds according to "inexorable logic." The progress of technology in nomological accounts, Bimber writes, is "naturally given and independently drives social development" (84). A corollary to the nomological account of technological determinism is that its products (railways, steel-production facilities, etc.) will produce the same social effects regardless of human needs, judgments, or cultural differences.

The question of agency is a crucial problem in accounts of standard time, which, when it makes even a cursory appearance in accounts of time in the fin de siècle, appears as a technologically determined fact emerging inevitably out of the orderly march of scientific laws rather than as the political intervention of a handful of advocates to facilitate the operation of global commerce. As a case in point, Patricia Murphy, in her account of time in the Victorian period, writes that "the railways" responded to inconsistency in local times "by attempting to standardize time" (13). Who does she mean by "the railways"—its engineers, its administrators, or the actual iron rails themselves? This may seem a petty quibble over an otherwise illuminating treatment of the subject, but the use of "the railways" in lieu of any actual person (W. F. Allen, secretary of the Railway Time Convention, who proposed a Greenwich-based North American rail synchronization in 1883, would be a prime candidate) is symptomatic of a larger confusion over the sources of temporal standardization. Allen himself argued that his proposal did not represent the overwhelming needs or opinions of "the railways" in any kind of global sense, but his role in standardization is eclipsed in Murphy's account and others, his individual agency transformed into that of the rails themselves.

The notion that the standardization of global time was a step in the long orderly march of inevitable scientific discovery is clearly argued by one of standard time's chief architects, Sandford Fleming. In the introductory paragraphs of his essay "Time-Reckoning for the Twentieth Century" Fleming represents the process leading from temporal diversity to uniformity as one of order, simplicity, and efficiency. His account disavows any personal agency on the part of the creators or beneficiaries of the standard time system. Yet rhetorical demands to endow his twentieth-century world with actors continually belie this attempt, as "civilization" (345) later becomes "men of business" (347), and "the highest authority" sanctioning the system is revealed to be not God, but U.S. President Chester Arthur (345). This is not to suggest that I am simply advocating substituting individual names for institutions and countries in a kind of microcritique of macro-analysis, a process that, as Thomas Misa argues, simply reinscribes determinism at the level of the individual. Rather my point is that the disavowal of human agency in the social production of time is precisely one of the major outcomes of standard time's replacement of the manipulations of particular actors within institutional settings with an ephemeral entity simply called time.


Excerpted from The Cosmic Time of Empire by Adam Barrows. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Modernism and the Politics of Time

1. Standard Time, Greenwich, and the Cosmopolitan Clock
2. "Turning from the shadows that follow us": Modernist Time and the Politics of Place
3. At the Limits of Imperial Time; or, Dracula Must Die!
4. "The Shortcomings of Timetables": Greenwich, Modernism, and the Limits of Modernity
5. "A Few Hours Wrong": Standard Time and Indian Literature in English

Conclusion: A Postmodern Politics of Time? Negri's "Global Phenomenological Fabric" and Amis's Backward Arrow


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A lucid, thought-provoking study, and will be necessary reading for anyone concerned with the treatment of temporality in literature."—Modern Language Review

"[Barrows] is rarely anything less than lucid. . . . The book is thoughtfully realised and impressively researched."

Oxford Journal

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