Saturday, February 15, 2014

Steven Cassedy's "Connected"

Steven Cassedy is Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego. He has published in a variety of fields, including Russian literature, French literature, philosophy and history of religion, Jewish studies, philosophy, history of science, history of music, history of ideas, and American studies. His books include Dostoevsky's Religion and Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory.

Cassedy applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Connected: How Trains, Genes, Pineapples, Piano Keys, and a Few Disasters Transformed Americans at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, and reported the following:
From page 99:
It’s as if the story went something like this: Zeno’s paradoxes had been around for over two thousand years; the field of mathematics had brought new methods and concepts to aid our understanding of those paradoxes; recent figures, major and minor, had continued to write about them; and so, in the intellectual climate that existed in France in the early 1880s ... Henri Bergson, reflecting on Zeno, came up with his own peculiar approach to the problems of space, time, and motion . . . In this story, everything that happens in the world happens in books and universities. But let’s have a look at something that was going on at exactly the same time that Bergson had his revelation and wrote the Essay.
On page 99, I’m talking about the famous (at the time) French philosopher Henri Bergson, who had decided in the 1880s that time as measured by clocks and watches was not time as we experience it. He used the phrase “real duration” to describe time as we actually do experience it: it ebbs and flows, expands and contracts, its different levels overlapping and blending into one another. Historians always speak of Bergson’s ideas as if they had just sprung up out of nowhere. Bergson said he came to them by thinking about a set of funny paradoxes invented by an obscure Greek philosopher named Zeno. The most famous one has been called “Achilles and the Tortoise.” Fleet-footed Achilles challenges a tortoise to a footrace. Because the tortoise is much slower (let’s say exactly ten times slower), Achilles generously gives him (to put it in anachronistic terms) a 100-meter head start. By the time Achilles reaches the 100-meter mark, the tortoise has traveled another 10 meters. By the time Achilles reaches that mark, the tortoise has plodded on to a meter beyond that, and Achilles never catches up. To Bergson, this paradox showed that time can’t be standardized and measured out as if it were space. Time and motion happen in a single sweep—and Achilles does catch up.

But it can’t be an accident that Bergson stumbled upon his ideas exactly when the world was debating Standard Time. Standard Time was a railroad phenomenon: make sure all the railroad companies agree on a single standard, to keep people from missing trains and to makes sure trains keep missing each other. It came along right when the US was beginning to mass-produce inexpensive and highly accurate watches. The result was an inescapable form of networking. If you wanted to make your train, arrive at the correct time for an appointment, or keep your job, you had to own a timepiece and keep it set to a time that everyone agreed on. The standard was based on the Greenwich Meridian in England. In the US, it was telegraphed all over the country from the Naval Observatory in Washington DC. So forget about “real duration.” Where Bergson really got it right was in describing the deadening, standard form of time (measured out spatially) as a social necessity. He was spot-on. That time bound everyone together.
Learn more about Connected at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue