Sunday, August 30, 2009

Eva Hoffman's "Time": Book Review

"What time is it?" Awakening, we ask this question. Hoffman regards this as "our first act of orientation," as we locate "where we are in the day and how we should pitch ourselves towards it." (63) Her four short chapters read more like self-contained essays than a solid whole, but she does convince me that Augustine's query: "What then is time?" continues to elude facile explanation. "If no man ask me the question, I know; but if I pretend to explicate it to anybody, I know it not." (qtd. 64)

Hoffman starts off promisingly as she evokes from her Polish Cold War upbringing "the lyrical side of the famous Slavic melancholy" and its less puritanical, more generous, acceptance of slowness and conversation. (13) I read the other day that Czech women take twice as long in lovemaking as Americans, and I wondered about the applicability of this factoid to Hoffman's discussion, as she as an emigré notices the acceleration of the industrialized, networked, "stacked" realms of information and production that permeate the way you read what I type.

It's a truism to talk of the fast pace of our lives, and perhaps this study inevitably suffers from such observations. Hoffman incorporates much information, many endnotes, and scraps (akin to the one I added above) into her chapters, but they remain unevenly covered and intermittently engaging. Much of this scans like an intellectual's notes, and given the audience for this entry in "small books, big ideas," this may be appropriate. Yet, it may cause many to skim a lot.

Death as the way evolution programs us to perpetuate the species and then depart rather hastily by cellular breakdown as organisms, the slow-food movement, the trouble with trying to "drop out" of society when its temporal patterns program us all inside our biological clocks as well as our collective demands, and the role of BPD, ADD, and ADHD all prove intermittently engaging, but Hoffman for my tastes runs past cultural aspects while getting bogged down in phenomenology and psychoanalysis.

Her first chapter on the body works best when tying us to nature and the time ticking within every moving thing. The second, on the mental constructs, struggles to stay more cogent. While her two poems from Emily Dickenson and one from Philip Larkin enliven poignantly her duller scientific summaries, such moments were too rare for me in what often reads like a well-written if overlong term paper rather than an engaging essay.

Chapter three on culture, while it revives the Clifford Geertz examples of Balinese perceptions familiar to any Anthropology 101 student, stops after only a few pages. The cultural impacts remain here very underexplored. The final section about contemporary attitudes, seems oddly blind to the role that 24/7 demands extend the workplace for many of us into what used to be leisure time, declining in America for the employed since the 1980s. Hoffman stresses the entertainment and information-gathering aspects of Internet and data access, but barely mentions the stress exacted as employers expect many employees to be always available for customers, bosses, and production. Surely this erosion of time hastens the personal impact she finds when citing Walter Kirn on how multitasking may enhance visual processing and physical coordination while decreasing memory and learning.

While I learned that wild blueberry bushes live 13,000 years compared to minutes for a mayfly, and how "temporal omnipotence" tempts us all in Promethean fashion, the time spent with this little book I would not call wasted, but not as rewarding as I'd hoped. Still, despite the rather stolid material after the more lively preface, parts of this I predict may excite other readers, even if they may not be the examples I've summarized above.

(I reviewed another book in this series on my blog, Slavoj Zizek's "Violence," last year; earlier I reviewed Hoffman's account of post-'89 Central and Eastern Europe, "Exit into History," both reviews on Amazon US.)

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