Measuring Time, Making History

Measuring Time, Making History

Measuring Time, Making History

Measuring Time, Making History

Synopsis

"Time is the crucial ingredient in history, and yet historians rarely talk about time as such. These essays offer new insight into the development of modern conceptions of time, from the Christian dating system. (B. C./A. D. or B. C. E./C. E.) to the idea of "modernity" as a new epoch in human history. Are the Gregorian calendar, world standard time, and modernity itself simply impositions of Western superiority? How did the idea of stages of history culminating in the modern period arise? Is time really accelerating? Can we - should we - try to move to a new chronological framework, one that reaches back to the origins of humans and forward away or beyond modernity? These questions go to the heart of what history means for us today. Time is now on the agenda."

Excerpt

“Time grows dim. Time that was so long
grows short, time, all goggle-eyed,
wiggling her skirts, singing her torch song,
giving the boys a buzz and a ride,
that Nazi Mama with her beer and sauerkraut.
Time, old gal of mine, will soon dim out.”
Anne Sexton, First stanza of
“For Mr. Death Who Stands with His Door Open” (1974)

Time, as Sexton's lines so forcibly remind us, requires metaphor. It flows like a river, accelerates like an engine, flies like a winged chariot, freezes like instant ice, stands still like a heart between beats, or, in Sexton's words, grows short, and then dims out as death opens his door. Without the metaphors, whether “that Nazi Mama” wiggling her skirts, or the more venerable arrow of time, the fourth dimension would be exceedingly difficult to grasp. Linguists have noted that it is virtually impossible to talk about time without invoking motion (wiggling skirts, engines, chariots, arrows) and spatial content (short, long). a clock face, for instance, provides both motion, the moving hand, and spatial content, the space traversed . . .

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