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A Tenth of a Second Review Chris Otter

A Tenth of a Second Review Chris Otter

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A Tenth of a Second: A History, by Jimena Canales Review by: Chris Otter Victorian Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Winter 2012), pp.

314-316 Published by: Indiana University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/victorianstudies.54.2.314 . Accessed: 12/10/2012 14:10
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A Tenth of a second: A History, by Jimena Canales; pp. xii + 269. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, $35.00, $25.00 paper, £22.50, £16.00 paper. the argument that modernity has involved a radical reconfiguration of temporality is not a new one. Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966), for example, argued that in modernity, everything—life, labour, language—assumed a temporal and historical

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dimension. wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1979) contended that the acceleration of experience caused by steam railways produced an entirely new way of perceiving the world through “panoramic perception” ([University of California Press, 1986], 64). in her absorbing new study, A Tenth of a Second: A History, Jimena Canales finds a new approach to the question of the relationship between modernity and temporality through an exploration of the ways in which very small units of time— “microtime”—assumed a stubborn presence in science, philosophy, and culture that was at once disruptive and productive (2). From the mid-nineteenth century, Canales argues, physicists and astronomers became increasingly aware of a troubling temporal lag between a physical event and an observer’s reaction to it. event, sensation, and perception were frustratingly non-simultaneous: hence “reaction time” complicated the entire experimental process (72). Human consciousness appeared incapable of discerning anything shorter than a tenth of a second; a subtle, universal temporality appeared to underpin perception. the awareness of this structure catalyzed multiple experiments, studies, and technologies designed to either eradicate, correct, or creatively exploit reaction time. On the one hand, in astronomical observations, the disjuncture between physical event and human response threatened to undermine the credibility of data and hypotheses. On the other hand, comprehension of this innate temporal structure formed the physiological or perceptual basis of early cinematic technologies. the tenth of a second was inescapable and ambivalent. Canales’s central argument is that microtime underpinned a multitude of scientific and cultural phenomena, and a great strength of her book is the careful, nuanced exploration of these moments of emergence and the seemingly endless debates they generated. the history she reveals is complex and surprising. For example, the 1873 transit of Venus was intended to be more accurately recorded than previous transits, but tenth-of-a-second observational gaps, compounded by individual idiosyncrasies, produced infuriatingly discordant results. if modernity was to be marked by accurate measurement, then microtime threatened to unravel the project. Hence technologies (like Jules Janssen’s photographic revolver) and correction measurements were developed to overcome the problem. Yet this was no simple replacement of fallible human senses with predictable machinic ones, since different technologies produced different results. indeed, by 1881, drawings of planetary phenomena were back in vogue. these drawings, especially those of Étienne Léopold trouvelot, are of considerable aesthetic attraction and interest and are beautifully reproduced here. in turn, the fashion for human graphical measurements was overtaken by a new wave of technologies again pioneered by Janssen. the tensions between Janssen and trouvelot were blamed for the latter’s early death in 1895; Canales does not lose sight of the very personal and emotional stakes of these debates. the overall history here is nonlinear and fractious, a history of human fallibility partially superseded by technologies which themselves had a frustrating tendency to fail. in short, microtime was a productive problematic underlying a wide variety of scientific and philosophical debates. At times, the intractability of temporality threatened paralysis, and some scientists, such as Adolphe-Moïse Bloch, seemed to suggest the problematic was insoluble. Canales concludes her study with a revealing appraisal of the famous debates between Albert einstein and Henri Bergson on the

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nature of time. She sets out to rehabilitate Bergson, who is often depicted as having misunderstood relativism. instead, she suggests, Bergson simply adhered to a different philosophical and qualitative conception of time, one not fully compatible with relativity. For Canales, Bergson’s ideas were entirely in keeping with a modern focus on subjective lag. this provides intriguing historical context to other recent attempts to reappraise Bergson, such as Sebastian Olma and Kostas Koukouzelis’s article “Life’s (re-)emergences” (Theory, Culture and Society 24.6 [2007]). this is a rich and fascinating study, which carries Canales into all kinds of interesting areas. For example, reaction time analysis partook of late-nineteenthcentury scientific and anthropological racism. richard Meade Bache, for example, argued that so-called inferior races had shorter reaction times, the implication being that temporal delay was more pronounced in the west, perhaps undermining the purported universalism of microtime: the personal equation might be culturally overdetermined. reaction time experiments also had critical military implications. Canales examines world war i, when aviation pilots’ and gunners’ reaction times were tested. Such analyses were not limited to the visual realm; some studies attempted to identify thresholds beyond which particular smells became discernible. As these examples suggest, Canales digs deep into the history of european science, working in several languages and explicating the work of many minor or forgotten figures. Canales successfully makes the argument that microtime was a central problematic in nineteenth-century science. where she is perhaps less successful, however, is in some of her broader claims. in the introduction, she states that “instead of studying the tenth of a second in modernity, my aim is to understand the tenth of a second as modernity” (14). this is a bold and ambitious claim, which, for this reader at least, was not fully demonstrated. in contrast with the scrupulous and nuanced definitions elsewhere in the text, modernity itself remains rather loosely defined. to truly demonstrate that microtime was modern in some intrinsic and all-embracing fashion, one would have to explore its connections with other key developments of the modern period, like large-scale capitalism or the putative demise of religion. this is, however, less a criticism than a reflection of the intellectual space this absorbing book has opened up. A Tenth of a Second, like the earlier work of Jonathan Crary, has revealed hidden dimensions to the histories of science, perception, and psychology. with its sophisticated, cross-disciplinary focus, A Tenth of a Second deserves the widest possible readership. Chris Otter The Ohio State University

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