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Book Review: Modernism and Time Machines

7 December 2020

Alexander Jones, Trinity College Dublin

Charles M. Tung, Modernism and Time Machines (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019)

Time is undoubtedly a central aspect of modernist literature’s depiction of life. Certain modernist texts aspire to the condition of vehicles that move the reader through time, or that overlap chronologies over each other: the backward leaps of involuntary memory in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), say, or Ezra Pound’s statement of historical simultaneity:‘[a]ll ages are contemporaneous.’[1] These implications run through Charles M. Tung’s new study, Modernism and Time Machines: ‘Modernism was itself, in many hitherto-unconsidered senses of the phrase, a time machine.’ (p. 2) What he means by this is that ‘the modernist aesthetic called attention to itself not only as a vehicle for experiencing and moving in time, but also as a technique for rethinking that experience and movement.’ (pp. 1-2) The book explores this dynamic by theorising new ways of understanding the ‘time machine’ as both object and approach.

Traditionally, investigations of modernist temporalities have tended to come back to Henri Bergson’s concept of durée: the idea that true time is contained in our subjective perception of its flow, rather than the discrete sectioning by the hands of the clock. Its ubiquity is neatly summed up by Ann Banfield: ‘Most modernists have been called Bergsonian at one time.’[2] Tung’s intervention is to explore how modernism draws on a technics of time which he sourcesfrom the science-fiction trope of the time machine. These machines challenge the omnipresent clock ‘by revealing or constructing an external multiplicity of material, social and geographical times and histories.’ (p. 3) Furthermore, Tung frames the book’s interdisciplinarity as a ‘“machinic” posture’, moving from analyses of modernist literature to contemporaneous visual arts and science-fiction films in order to ‘create assemblages’ (p. 6) of meaning from these different zones. The term ‘time machine’ therefore performsa lot of heavy lifting throughout. It is at once a popular motif, a frame of understanding for individual texts, and an argumentative structure.

The four main chapters of the book follow a similar trajectory, starting with the explication of a time-travel trope from science-fiction (augmented reality, alternate history, bullet time, and distant futures), reconfiguring it into a framework for understanding the depiction of time in modernist texts, and then applying such a framework to texts from a variety of genres and artistic modes. This strategy allows Tung’s argument to develop loosely and associatively, as it teases out a machinic milieu that includes writers such as T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and H. G. Wells. As noted above, the breadth of material under discussion is impressively wide-ranging, and the structure employed here helps maintain a balance between keeping different texts grouped together under the same key ideas, while also eliding the need to make the connection between them too forcefully.

A certain amount of buy-in is required from the reader to make this work. For instance, Tung argues that, in The Waste Land (1922), ‘the poem’s view of the past is not a simple windowing into modernity’s single line of descent, but rather a walk through London with a strange AR [augmented reality] app or glasses, a traversal across “time worlds”.’ (p. 63) Such formulations appear jarring at first, but the analysis behind is cogent and well-argued. The AR apps to which Tung refers are those such as the Museum of London’s StreetMuseum app, which allows users to overlay archival photographs of London through history onto present-day locations in situ using their phone (p. 35). The concept of AR technology allows Tung to discuss modernism’s heterochronic layering of the past onto the present in a way that moves beyond ‘Bergsonian, ahistorical simultaneity or atavistic recoveries of the deep past.’ (p. 37) From this point, he is able to move into some dynamic re-readings of Robert Delaunay’s cubist paintings of the Eiffel Tower, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Murray Leinster’s short story ‘Sidewise in Time’ (1937), and, as mentioned above, The Waste Land, all via Ernst Haeckel’s (now debunked) evolutionary recapitulation theory. Haeckel, Tung notes, coined the term ‘heterochrony’, a concept that made the modernist body ‘both the literal repository of and a figure for multiple times and differential rates of change.’ (p. 43) From here, Tung challenges current thinking on modernist time as ‘the experience of rupture with the anchoring power of eternity and tradition,’ instead advocating for ‘the much weirder vision and aesthetics of heterochrony.’ (p. 44) Hence, The Waste Land becomes like the experience of a twenty-firstcentury AR app. This is an instructive example of how the book’s argumentation seeks to reflect its subject matter; it moves through time itself with convincing dexterity.

These connections are made possible by the study’s methodological litheness, but sometimes the reader has to stick with them in order to be fully convinced. For instance, in the third chapter, the threads between ‘bullet time’ from The Matrix (1999) (a special effect in which some elements of a scene appear to play out faster or slower than others) and the racialised time-lapses of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) are not immediately obvious. Tung reads The Sound and the Fury through the frame of the racially-charged historical concept of ‘Coloured People’s Time’, as a text that is interested in ‘tracking the lag and differences between wholly different timelines and historical trajectories’ (p. 148) along racial lines. The argument here is that our contemporary ideas of differential pace, exemplified in blockbuster cinema, are useful frames for understanding time-lags that are systematised. Even if The Matrix appears far away from Faulkner, this is a compelling reading that opens up a third way of understanding modernist time, between the standardisation of the clock and the subjectivity of Bergson.

The connections being made here across genres, across time-spans, and the high-low culture divide are important for both the study’s discovery of a time-machine-like milieu, and for its statements about the implication of the past and future in the present. Subtly threaded throughout Modernism and Time Machines is the question of its subject’s relevance to our contemporary situation. At the end, Tung considers: ‘How does one conclude a book about time travel’ at a time when ‘a range of catastrophic arcs, from the social to the planetary, reach into the present from different zones of the future?’ (p. 212). Tung’s alertness to our own present in the discussion of the cultural past and global futures gestures towards a critical position that contributes to the book’s overall success: ‘In the current state of emergency, the brakes must be pulled, but there is more than one track, frame and train. In concurrent domains, the acceleration lever must be pushed.’ (p. 215) In its wide, polytemporal remit, its interdisciplinarity, and its methodological ease, Modernism and Time Machines is a study that provides exciting new angles for thinking about modernist temporalities and opens avenues for further scholarship along machinic lines.


[1]Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1910), p. vi.

[2]As Banfield goes on to note, this is in spite of the fact that both Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf, sometimes regarded as two of modernism’s arch-Bergsonians, never read his work directly. See Ann Banfield, ‘Remembrance and tense past’, The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel, ed. by Morag Shiach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 48-64, (pp. 48-49).


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