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Affective Time: American Realism as Resynchronization, 1860-1910

Bald, Emily. Affective Time: American Realism as Resynchronization, 1860-1910. 2018. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

My dissertation, Affective Time: American Realism as Resynchronization, 1860-1910, examines the disciplinary functions of the clock and attendant temporal systems in U.S. literature and culture from the mid-19th to early 20th century. I am specifically interested in the way American realism brings temporality itself to the fore as a critical but often ineffable dimension of our embodied and intersubjective life. That our sense of time shifts with the vicissitudes of our emotional states is common sense: time flies when we’re having fun, drags when we’re bored, freezes when we’re afraid, and so on. Yet surprisingly little attention has been paid in literary studies to the originary relationship between temporal and affective experience, nor to the various social, political, and aesthetic contexts of this connection. My project focuses on the role of modern time discipline and synchronicity in factory labor and class stratification, reconciliationist cultural memory of the Civil War, women’s time-thrift and domesticity, and white supremacist narratives of cultural history and national progress.

I argue that U.S. literary realism developed as a means of negotiation between the chaotic pluralism of perceptual times, which threatened what William James described as “the turbid privacy of sense,” and the large-scale reification of clock time and related systems (e.g., factory shifts), which sustained many social and political institutions by subordinating individuals’ variable, emotionally mediated temporal experiences to a regulatable and necessarily disembodied meter. As efforts were made to standardize time, laying the foundation for broader networks of social synchronicity in the second half of the 19th century, more complex studies of the evolutionary mind and body were emerging in psychology, neurobiology, and physiology that highlighted the critical adaptability of our inner clocks. Extending what Michael O’Malley has called 19th-century America’s “crisis in the authority of time,” I thus situate the emergence of literary realism within a period of conflict among disparate understandings of temporal “reality” and the impacts of new social constructions of time upon the body. Throughout my archive, feelings of synchronization with and desynchronization from social time draw attention to the various temporal modalities and time scales individuals had to negotiate during this period, whether implicitly or with great difficulty and self-awareness. I focus on moments of disjuncture – experiences of slipping or being jolted out of habitually lived and socially shared time – whereby the feeling of time is brought to the surface of characters’ and readers’ attention, enabling them to question previously uninterrogated social constructions of time and the (often oppressive) institutions they tacitly sustain.

I take the term “desynchronization” from phenomenological psychiatrist Thomas Fuchs, who has charted a new course in the interdisciplinary field of time perception by extending the terms “synchronization” and “desynchronization” from chronobiology – the study of our diurnal rhythms (e.g., sleep-wake cycles, libido, and appetite) – to psychosocial and cultural dynamics, including “common attitudes, fashions, styles, values and memories” that provide the feeling of “a basic ‘contemporariness’” (180-81). Fuchs’s characterization of modern time consciousness is germane to the social and historical context of realism, but furthermore, it speaks to the interplay between synchronization and desynchronization embedded in realism’s narrative forms, which aim to synthesize the “mutual commitments, agreements and arrangements” necessary to the feeling of shared time, while also registering periodic disjunctures which compel us to question the terms of those agreements. Desynchronization from social time thus arises as both opportunity and threat in my archive: it offers new vantage points on sociopolitical constructs, “releasing subjects from the normativity of intuition and making them available for alternative ordinaries,” in Lauren Berlant’s words (5-6), but it also unsettles a shared sense of reality.

This dissertation is a co-winner of the 2017-2018 Heilman Dissertation Prize offered by the UW Department of English.

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