Devouring Time

Flummoxed as I am by my investigation of collaborative v. individual composition in the early 18th century and the respective connections of each method to contemporaneous concepts of comprehensive completeness (the alliteration here is an unhappy coincidence, I swear--except, perhaps, for "coincidence"), I thought I'd take yet another break from thinking about something that doesn't matter to think about something that doesn't matter in a much more interesting way.

It seems to me--and I know I'm not alone in this--that the eighteenth century (or eighteenth-century studies, at any rate) has in the last few years achieved new purchase on modernity. I am probably skewing too much towards a kind of presentism in my own work because of the links (dare I say patterns? No, not until I have tenure--tenure!--probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities) I see between individual, institutional, and disciplinary responses to the proliferation (or re-proliferation, thanks very much to digitization) of print in the eighteenth and our own centuries.

Modern technology holds out the promise of advances in learning forestalled by the limitations of print technology, but some of the old obstacles that shaped or altered the course of knowledge production during the Enlightenment have once again been "wired" into new technologies by the limitations of our still untranscended humanness. In short, mortality continues to get in the way of everything I'd like to accomplish--ie., complete knowledge. When faced with the opportunity to surf through an expanding sea of texts, it seems that our first response is the application of some method that will help us to account for less of it. Encyclopedists, system-makers, magazine editors, even novelists and poets have spent centuries applying methods designed to serve this function. So have we: canons, syllabuses, periods, etc. You have 14 weeks to teach a survey course of British Literature--what goes, what stays? I recently listened to a very interesting talk the central argument of which depended on an ECCO-wide quantitative analysis of select key words in full-text searches (demonstrating the merit of the method was also part of the point). This accounts for thousands of texts--in a very limited way. Much less of those texts "comes across" to the "reader" -- or, in this example, the auditor. This method mediates the archive in such a way as to make the comprehensive comprehensible, but this comprehensibility requires a narrower, nigh-paradoxical understanding of what "comprehensive" might mean.

And it STILL took months to accomplish. The problems are many, but the first, as always given our mortality, is time. Which leads me, by circuitous route, to my new favorite clock and the real purpose of this post. As usual I come late to the game, but I've only just learned about it:

The Corpus Clock, designed by John Taylor, was unveiled in September by Stephen Hawking. The 24 karat gold-plated clock--the face of which measures 1.5 meters in diameter--hangs outside the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge. I am fascinated by it for several reasons, but the primary attractions are these:

1) The escapement is of the grasshopper variety; in fact, it's the largest grasshopper escapement in the world. The grasshopper escapement was designed by eighteenth-century English clockmaker John Harrison, whose marine chronometers were instrumental in solving the longitude problem; Taylor specifically included the grasshopper escapement as an homage to Harrison's accomplishment.

2) The clock has no hands; instead the time is told by LED lights that shine out through slits in the faceplate. Thus the clock clearly combines eighteenth- and twenty-first-century technologies in order to do the "same thing" (tell time) in a different way. The clock does not keep "accurate" time in the traditional sense of the term. Rather it keeps a kind of "relative" time, slowing down or speeding up to reflect our perceptions of time's irregular passing. Or our irregular perceptions of time's passing. Or our perception of time's passing irregularity. Or something.

3) THE CHRONOPHAGE! Taylor made the grasshopper escapement into a proper, giant, terrifying, monstrous grasshopper beastie with a working jaw that opens and closes with the turning of the wheel. The escapement thus appears to eat the time as it passes--hence the term Chronophage. That grasshopper has swallowed up my twenties; it's now nibbling on my thirties; and if I don't get a move on with this dissertation it'll have eaten up all my best years and left me nothing to show for it. Taylor meant his monster to be disturbing, and it is.

So I suppose I should get on with it. I take much more solace in the Clock of the Long Now, which reminds me that my life is one in a very long series of lives lived by other people. It depersonalizes the passage of time a bit by reminding me of time's scale. So now I have clocks at both ends of the spectrum--one, a 10,000 year clock suggesting that my lifespan amounts to precious little, the other reminding me that every second is precious and is being devoured one at a time.

For an explanation and description of the Corpus Clock by its designer, click here.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I like this post a lot and will come back to comment when I'm not so tired, this cough is killing me.

Marina said...

I want a pet chronophage.

Nice post.