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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Time: A Vocabulary of the Present edited by Amy Elias and Joel Burges

Book Review
Time: A Vocabulary of the Present
edited by Amy Elias and Joel Burges
Published in August, 2016
by New York University Press

   It's true, I like to dabble in what you might call "critical theory."   I'm not a huge fan of French post-modernist philosophers, but there is no denying that they have swayed the majority of people who talk about cutting edge philosophical/social science type theories in the American University system.  So I went into Time: A Vocabulary of the Present expecting to see many, many, many references to German and French philosophers who wrote in the mid to late 20th century.  I was not disappointed.  Time: A Vocabulary of the Present is an up-to-date anthology of recent academic theorizing about the role of time inside and outside the academy, but heavy on theory that is only of interest to people with academic level interest in the subject ("Time Studies.")

  The introduction, Time Studies Today, by the editors, lays out the contours of the time studies field.  It's part French post-modern philosophy, partly a continuation of the post-post-modern "linguistic" and "spatial" turns in cultural studies and partly a product of cultural studies itself.   Time: A Vocabulary of the Present is divided into three parts.  Part I, Time as History: Periodizing Time has five paired chapter.  Each chapter is a different opposition illustrating an aspect of time.  So,  Past/Future, Extinction/Adaptation, Modern/Altermodern, Obsolescence/Innovation, and Anticipation/Unexpected.   Editor Amy Elias' essay on Past/Future, with an informative discussion of "retro futurism" was a stand out in this portion of the book.

    Elias accurately describes the paradoxical impact of the internet, "in the analogue era, everyday life moved slowly...but the culture as a whole felt like it was surging forward.  In the digital present, everyday life consists of hyper-acceleration and near instantaneity...but on the macro-cultural level things feel static and stalled.  We have this paradoxical combination and standstill.  This combination is what I call "techno duration" and in it, the present spreads like a tsunami wave over the past."

    From there, Elias builds up the concept of "retro-futurism" where we imagine an alternative future from an imaginary past.  Retro futurism is at the heart of many cultural trends of the recent past and present, so possessing a theoretical background on the development of retro futurism, provided by Elias in the course of her essay, is well taken.

   Part II of Time: A Vocabulary of the Past is Time as Calculation: Measuring Time.  Here, Time Studies is on the more familiar ground of horology (the study of time measurement with watches and clocks.)   Here, the pairings consciously acknowledge this theoretical pre-history, Clock/Lived, Synchronic/Anachronic, Human/Planetary, Serial/Simultaneous, Emergency/Everyday, Labor/Leisure,  Real/Quality.   The third and final part of Time is Time as Culture: Mediating Time.   This third part if firmly derived from the field of cultural studies.  References to comic books and modern art abound.

  The footnotes and bibliographical essays are both excellent and this book is worth acquiring simply for the up to date reference notes, if you are interested in the field of time studies in any serious way.

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