Jesse Matz, Modernist Time Ecology

Jesse Matz, Modernist Time Ecology (John’s Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2022), 230 pp. ISBN1421426994

Jesse Matz’s 2019 study, Modernist Time Ecology is a refreshing and poignant exploration into the temporally transformative qualities of modernist narratives. Inspired by the Tuzing Time Project, Matz expands the concept of an ‘ecology of time’, convincingly arguing for the extended potential of narrative to reframe and reimagine how we live within time. While narrative’s ability to shape and form the complexity of time has consistently examined by narratologists, Matz proposes a study into how modernist time ecologies can reshape our understanding of temporalities and our environmental consciousness.

Taking Charles Dickens’s, A Christmas Carol as his starting point, Matz plunges readers into the expanded temporality of Ebenezer Scrooge, who, during his various encounters with the Spirits of Christmas past, present and future, comes to live a ‘manifold temporality’ (1). This expansion away from the linear and narrow pane of singular time is what Matz describes as time ecology. The ecological metaphor is key to Matz’s theory. As with physical ecological relationships, ecological time is a state of ‘temporal plenitude’ (215) whereby all forms of time exist and are available simultaneously. Subsequently, it is the parities of interdependency in ecological and temporal systems upon which Matz centralises his argument.

While Matz concedes that the ‘time-crisis long preceded the modernist movement’ (11), he argues for modernism as the ideal aesthetic space within which to locate his study. Reading modernism against modernity, Matz asserts that modernism’s response to the crisis of modernity provides ‘the sharpest sense of crisis most powerfully subject to aesthetic intervention’ (11). Modernism’s need for refiguration of formal and ideological conventions gives rise to ‘hope for aesthetic restitution’ (10). From a narrative perspective, modernism’s experimental modes generate a move towards ecological time as opposed to remaining confined within a linear and closed narrative.

The study itself enacts ecological time, taking readings from aesthetic and cultural moments throughout the twentieth century to the contemporary moment. The detailed analysis of texts from E.M. Forster, J. B. Priestly and V. S. Naipaul provide grounding for the concept of modernist time ecology, subsequently enabling the study to move into contemporary and future time, with discussion of The Long Now Foundation, and how time ecology can enable ‘queer people create or restore queer possibilities’ (238). The movement and structure of the book, and Matz’s lively and eloquent discussion across various modernist aesthetic forms, opens readers up to the potentiality of modernist time ecology, propelling us through and into a multitude of temporal moments, allowing for a reconsideration of how we think about time.

A particular strength of the writing is Matz’s incisive language analysis. Language is essential to the conception of a modernist time ecology in narrative. By applying Mikhail Bakhtin’s ecological reflections on chronotopes, particularly the process by which they can enrich ‘the actual world’s time-environment’ (71) though a dualistic formation of the novelistic world, Matz proves the far-ranging temporal scope of narrative and language to create a multitude of temporal panes within a few sentences. Henri Bergson’s distinction between ‘l’étendu and durée’ provides answers to Bakhtin’s open speculation regarding chronotopic exchange, forming what Matz coins, the ‘ecological chronotope’ (72). When considered together, Matz illustrates how Bakhtin and Bergson advocate for an enduring language of time ecology within cultural production.  

Indeed, it is the range of forms that Matz draws upon that gives the study depth, and frames its significance not just within literature, but across the arts. From Forster’s narrative cultivation of a homosexual temporality ‘consistent with rational order’ (19) to how popular Hollywood blockbusters like Source Code and Limitless use cinematography to destabilise linear conceptions of time, Matz comprehensively explores the concept of ecological time across a range of aesthetic modes.

Matz provides three examples of modernist texts to outline the concept of modernist time ecologies. Second of these focuses on Priestley’s belief that England’s issues during the early 1900s were due to the ‘mechanization’ and division (140) of time. The dramatic structures of Priestley’s ‘time-plays’, such as Matz’s choice of Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls sought to enact multiple time by allowing theatrical audiences to experience non-linear temporality. In both plays, Matz notes that Priestley’s exploration into the representation of multiple time also ‘advocates a redemptive temporality’ (143), encouraging audiences to ‘sharpen’ their senses to what is to come to ‘avert disaster and even realise a fuller form of life’ (143). Matz maintains that this redemptive time ecology places Priestley as a ‘leading figure’ in the destabilisation of time through aesthetic and cultural production in the pursuit to ‘rectify a range of social and cultural practices necessarily structured according to temporal custom’ (154).

Reframing temporal perspectives to rectify socio-cultural practices is furthered in the seventh chapter. Matz globalises his work with his discussion of controversial Trinidadian writer, V.S Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Within an English pastoral landscape haunted by imperialism, Naipaul experiences the landscapes of Africa and Wiltshire within the ‘mix of modernity, subject to its perpetual flux’ (166). It is this ‘chronotope of alterity’ (166) that allows Naipaul to locate a ‘cultural temporality’ and move from ‘allochronic anthropologist’, emerging finally into a postcolonial writer. Combined with narrative form and fluctuating deictics, Naipaul’s altered perception of time is a catalyst to navigate his own ‘definition of otherness’ (165), providing, Matz argues, a potential redefinition of the relationship between time and otherness.

The relationship between time and otherness also comes to light in the Matz’s final chapter, ‘The Queer Prospect’, which homes in on a contemporary temporal issue whereby LGBT youths find it challenging to conceptualise their futurity within a predominately heteronormative society. Reading Lee Eldman’s No Future and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better alongside each other, Eldman’s notion of ‘no future’ and Savage’s promise that things will ‘get better’ are shown to form a complementarity of the negation of time in rethinking narrative temporality towards ecological time, offering a point of future-thinking for LGBT youths. Priestley’s sense of redemptive temporality and Naipaul’s sense of othered temporality are projected into the contemporary moment with the destabilisation of narrative shown to open the potential of future-time conception for the LGBT community. In this sense, Matz’s notion of ecological time also serves to cultivate LGBT futures through a refiguration of how we view and understand time.

Modernist Time Ecology sparks insight into the variation of temporal landscapes, and how narrative and language engender potential to open our perspectives to various temporalities. Comprehensively highlighting how a range of forms engage with modernist time ecology, Matz provides a compelling investigation into our perceptions of time. Despite acknowledgment for the dissonance between ‘salvific’ worlds of art versus ‘real-world crisis’, (247) Modernist Time Ecology illustrates the essential need to acknowledge within scholarship to recognise chronodiversity (216) within aesthetic forms.

Domonique Davies, University of Reading