Clocks, Culture, and Global Modernities

AHA Session 9
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Peter S. Soppelsa, University of Oklahoma

Session Abstract

Arguably one of Western Europe's most significant innovations, the mechanical clock changed timekeeping practices, the meaning of time itself, and time consciousness throughout the world over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But how it did so depended on the historical context; as recent scholarship has shown, temporal modernity looks differently in different places. So does modern timekeeping.  Clocks, Culture and Global Modernities is a topical roundtable in which the histories of timekeeping practices and innovations in the Ottoman Empire, Japan, and North America diverge and intersect in ways that will allow for discussion about some of the biggest questions associated with the history of timekeeping, including the following: How do ideas about time influence the adoption and diffusion of timekeeping devices and practices? How and why have non-Western cultures appropriated Western clocks into their timekeeping systems? What is the relationship between clocks and time discipline in the modern period? How have governing authorities used clocks to legitimate their power? What is the relationship between timekeeping and the quest to centralize state authority and power?  What tensions and preoccupations inform the relationships between natural time, religious time and clock time?  How did clocks and clock time contribute to the emergence of particular experiences and forms of modernity?

         The four panelists on the roundtable are each specialists in the history of timekeeping in four different regions -- the Ottoman Empire, Japan, Canada and the United States-- where temporal modernity followed different trajectories. While our interests in the relationship between timekeeping, governance, culture, and modernity overlap, we each bring to the table questions and concerns that arise out of the unique conditions of the places we study. In bringing us together in conversation, this panel thus provides the opportunity to explore the many histories associated with the encroachment of clocks and their attendant technologies. The chair of the panel, Pete Soppelsa, who has recently begun to investigate timekeeping in Paris, brings to the panel an expertise in the history of technology and culture, which will help him frame questions and guide the discussion.

         Our sense is that the audience for the roundtable is a broad one. Each of the keywords in its title will draw a different cohort.  First, clocks will bring scholars working in the history of timekeeping, a sub-field that is growing, particularly amongst the latest cohorts of graduate students. This interest extends beyond earlier generations’ focus on the production and distribution of clocks (exemplified by David Landes’ work), and more recent generations’ concern with clocks as instruments of social control, an interest that rose out of E. P. Thompson’s landmark article “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.” Second, culture will bring cultural historians, particularly those whose interests are in material culture, the intersection of technology and culture, and the history of ideas. Third, global modernities will attract world historians, historians interested in globalization, and historians interested in modernity and its attendant formations.

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