Still feeling for the pulse of time

Robert Hassan, The University of Melbourne

Stefan Klein, The Secret Pulse of Time, Carlton North, Scribe Publications 2007 (368 pp). ISBN 13 9-78192121-563-6 (paperback) RRP $30.00.

I opened the pages of Stefan Klein’s book, The Secret Pulse of Time, with some trepidation. A first glance at its cover immediately reminded me of other recent works in the non-fiction genre that deals rather too excitedly with the abstruse subject and the abstract concept. Memories of Hannah Holmes’s slim volume The Secret Life of Dust (2001) and Henry Hitchings’s rather more capacious The Secret Life of Words (2008) occasioned an inward sigh. I thought of further examples in the expanding field, such as William Bryan Logan’s Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (2006), a book of precisely the same substance and ambition of the others, but for reasons (one supposes) of mere logic, could not in this case be prefixed with ‘The Secret life of …’.

No matter, it is an emergent trend in publishing that becomes clearer with every month’s best-sellers list. Questions and dilemmas should and do pose themselves with books such as these. Should we feel relieved that intrepid authors and their enlightened editors are trying to thrust these ostensibly reflexive texts on to the (some would argue) largely unreflective book-buying public? Should we welcome a more intimate knowledge of the ‘life of’ dust or words or dirt, as antidote to the broad generalities—‘politics’, ‘culture’, ‘globalisation’, ‘postmodernity’—through which we try to make sense of the world and our own microscopic place within it?

Many of these books are interesting in their own ways (more or less) but one comes away feeling slightly conned. Okay, so it’s moderately interesting to learn from Holmes that some of the thousands of bits of dust that swirl in that ostensibly clean cup into which you are about to pour your morning coffee, quite possibly were once part of a camel that is still wandering around in the Middle East. These camel bits would have been scoured from its back, or backside, by winds that carried them up to the stratosphere to drop, in your cup, as you take it outside to enjoy your coffee al fresco. But is this life-changing stuff? Or does it even stay with you any longer than the time it takes to put the book back on the shelf to gather its own dust? Maybe the broad generalities do have more practical meaning and relevance.

Klein takes a stab at analysing examples
of the ‘social pathologies’ of time.

And so to Klein’s contribution to the genre. According to his website, he is a science writer as well as a journalist and sometime essayist. This useful mixture makes for a zesty and brisk style that is both engaging and illuminating. He takes a broad and essentially popular science-based perspective on time and tells us a lot of stuff about time and temporality that is both trivial and valuable. It is fairly trivial to learn, for example, that the composition of the circadian rhythms (body clock) of young children, compel them to wake early and jump around in their parents bed. It is a bit more useful to discover that the changes in the body clock of the adolescent make it difficult for some teenagers to get out of bed in the morning. It can make a difference, then, to know that young Johnny might be going through a natural phase when semi-comatose in his bedroom at 11 am, as opposed to being a lazy good-for-nothing. And it’s both interesting and helpful to know that due to changes in the same circadian rhythms and the individual proclivities these produce, the fact that you are in bed at 9.30 and your partner stays up until at least midnight might be explained by science rather than mutual antipathy.

Klein also takes a stab at analysing examples of the ‘social pathologies’ of time in a society that seems to be continually speeding up. For example, some sizable blame from the growth of stress, both as an illness and industry, may be laid squarely at the door of what Klein calls ‘time pressure’. This not only makes you sick, but also depletes the precious vitality of civil society too, and, moreover, Klein offers evidence from surveys in Germany that suggest that fully 71 per cent of people no longer feel they have enough time to devote to family, or friends, or to support volunteer services.

Indeed, the concepts of speed and acceleration comprise such a central feature of this book that The Secret Pulse of Time might more accurately have been titled The Increasing Speed of Time. Much of Klein’s narrative is concerned with how life is accelerating. This is interesting stuff that we already know or at least are intuitively aware of—such as how we can crumble under the pressure of ‘multitasking’ or how we tend to die younger (from stress) if we have less control over how our own time is spent, something we call ‘burn-out’. And again these are examples of science-based, and empirically measured, real-life effects. But are we any closer to understanding their causes? A key passage in Klein’s book is one that doesn’t deal in the currency of science-based findings and instead begins to engage in the questioning language of social theory and philosophy. It reads:

EVERYTHING IS NOW ‘ultra’… No one knows himself anymore, no one grasps the element in which he lives and works … Young people are swept along in the whirlpool of time; wealth and speed are what the world admires and what everyone strives for. All kinds of communicative facility are what the civilized world is aiming at in outpacing itself (p. 151).

Much of Klein’s narrative is concerned with how life is accelerating.

This reads as if it could have come from any number of contemporary social scientists or general pundits—from James Gleick (2000) to Jeremy Rifkin (2000), both of whom loom large in this book, if only as spectres of background influence. But, in fact, the quote comes from the quill of Goethe, complaining to a friend in an 1823 letter about life’s increasingly agitated course. In his sentiments on the seeming breathlessness of the pace of change, Goethe was anticipating, by a generation, the writings of Marx and Engels who noted with rather more anticipatory glee in their Communist Manifesto of 1848, that ‘The need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere …’. What these now relatively ancient concerns with speed and restlessness suggest is that our social understandings of temporality have not progressed nearly so much as our science-based accounting.

And here lies the problem with this book. There are many popular science explanations of the effects of temporal acceleration—but not much about causes, and more importantly, hardly anything at all about how our understandings of, and relationship to, temporality are at the root of the ongoing transformations that have perplexed us since the time of Goethe (at least). In other words, Klein’s book would have been vastly improved if the growing body of empirical work on time had been complemented and strengthened by work from social theory and philosophy.

Klein is German, and this book first appeared in that language in 2006. The book’s provenance is not merely of incidental concern—it points to an unfortunate elision in the wider focus and structure of his narrative. Goethe’s concern with time, as well as that of Marx in his broad economic and philosophical writings, reflects an ongoing and deep German concern with the nature of zeit (time) in social life. Indeed, German social and philosophical thinking on time has been, and continues to be, centrally important in pushing out our intellectual boundaries within this subject to new, fascinating, and challenging areas.

For example, there is Klein’s disappointing omission of the towering figure of Edmund Husserl, who developed the tremendously influential phenomenological approach to time—which criticises the Newtonian-based, clock time, instrumentalised process that is at the root of so many of the time pathologies Klein so ably describes. Perplexing, too, is the omission of a wider German tradition on time, a tradition that has flowered in the past couple of decades through social theorists such as Barbara Adam (1998), Helga Nowotny (1994) and Hartmut Rosa (2003). These writers have all argued compellingly that time is not something abstract like the mechanical time of the clock but is, rather, a deeply embedded social process, the experience of which is produced socially through numberless and various social contexts.

Adam’s theory of ‘timescapes’, for example, builds upon the phenomenological approach to explore the subjective experience of time. She argues that we produce a diversity of temporal ‘scapes’— biological, psychological, environmental and technological (that is, clock-time)— through moving in and through different social contexts. Sitting on a park bench reading a book is a context wherein many different temporalities intersect: there is the clock that inexorably ticks down your lunch-hour, the rhythms of the passing traffic; the speed of the wind that makes the trees sway and the short grass vibrate; the ‘time’ of the novel you might be reading into which you can psychologically insert yourself (for a time); the beating of your heart; the patterns of your breathing; and the throb of the city with its times of commerce and temporalities of urgency and speed, or relaxation and leisure. As so it goes on, with a potentially intersecting ‘time in everything’. Time, in this idea, is fluid, dynamic ubiquitous, and above all, social.

Our ‘time-reckoning’ capacities have been displaced by mechanical clock time.

The problem, as a reading of any these writers would indicate, is that our ‘time-reckoning’ capacities have been displaced or sublimated by the domination of mechanical clock time since the beginnings of the industrial revolution that brought it to prominence.

Interest in the complex experience of time extends beyond the German academy. Popular awakening to issues concerning the innate subjectivity of temporality and time reckoning in Germany was evident in the reception of Sten Nadolny’s novel The Discovery of Slowness. First published in German in 1982 as Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit, this fictional-historical narrative about the life of the 19th century English sea captain, Sir John Franklin, is a meditation upon the nature of social time. Nadolny’s narrative device is an ingenuous ascribing of a certain subjective slowness in the thought and action to the real-life character of Franklin. There is a temporal disconnect between Franklin and the society in which he struggled to find a synchronous place. His ‘slowness’ could be read by his fictional contemporaries as either symptomatic of a profound thinker or a dolt who finds his way to the Governorship of Tasmania, and thence to a icy grave—the result of a donkey-like determination, against all the odds, to find a way through the North West Passage. The book was a very big commercial and critical success in Germany, sparking an ongoing debate on the social nature of time that has helped propel social theorising of time in that country to the very forefront.

It is a pity that Klein seems to be unaware of this rich local history on time and temporality, based on an interdisciplinary approach that the current generation of time-theorists in the social sciences are trying to develop. Many working in the science-based research on time evidently need convincing that social theory will not dilute their more rigid structures of reason. Nevertheless, social theory and philosophy contain resources that would have complemented, to an immense degree, Klein’s own science-based account. Without them, the book is yet another fragment of the ideal whole, that is to say, a more holistic perspective on time that would combine the empirical with the subjective. If you come to this book with the expectation of learning what time ‘is’, you will, I think, be disappointed. Time, under Klein’s science-only treatment, retains its ‘secret pulse’ and our subjective relationship with it continues to be sublimated by the weight of two hundred and more years of the domination of that mere technological (and scientific) artefact, the clock.


Adam, B. 1998, Timescapes of Modernity: The Environment and Invisible Hazards, Routledge, London.

Gleick, J. 2000, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, Abacus, New York.

Hitchings, H. 2008, The Secret Life of Words, John Murray, New York.

Holmes, H. 2001, The Secret Life of Dust, Wiley, New York.

Logan, W.B. 2006, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, W.W. Norton, New York.

Nadolny, S. 2003, The Discovery of Slowness, Canongate, Edinburgh.

Nowotny, H. 1994, Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, Polity Press, Oxford.

Rifkin, J. 2000, The Age of Access, Penguin, London.

Rosa, H. 2003, ‘Social acceleration: Ethical and political Consequences of a desynchronised high-speed society’, Constellations, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 311–327.

Robert Hassan is ARC Senior Research Fellow in the Media and Communications Program at the University of Melbourne. His latest book The Information Society: Cyber Dreams and Digital Nightmares will be published by Polity Press on 30 August 2008.