introduction
Missed Encounters
Cosmopolitanism, World Literature, and Postcoloniality
In a recent video installation, The Refusal of Time, the South African artist Wil-
liam Kentridge brilliantly captures a key premise of this book: the hierarchical
ordering and control of the world as we know it is based on technologies of
temporal calculation. Kentridge shows how the cartographical or­ ga ­ ni ­ za ­ tion
of the capitalist world-­system relies on Northern-­ and Eurocentric regimes
of temporal mea­sure­ment. The subordination of all regions of the globe to
Greenwich Mean Time as the point zero for the synchronization of clocks is a
synecdoche for Eu­ ro ­ pean colonial domination of the rest of the world because
it enables a mapping that places Eu­rope at the world’s center. This tethering to
the uniform march of Eu­ro­pean standard time is a form of imprisonment that
smothers lived local temporalities (see this book’s frontispiece).
The perfection of chronometers had long been the aim of geographers, to
fix more precisely the positions of islands and continents in relation to Eu­
rope. With the spread of cables under sea and over land, that followed the
development of electric telegraphy, time was taken from the master clocks
of London and Paris and sent to the colonies.
The lines on maps ­ were miniature renderings of the real lines of cables
that snaked round continents, or drew great arcs across the floors of oceans.
Sending and receiving stations followed the cable and marked the end of
lines tethering the center to the satellite colony. The clock and the colonial
observatory completed the mapping of the world.
The strings of cables, these birds’ nests of copper, turned the world into
a giant switchboard, for commerce and control. The world was covered by a
huge dented bird cage of time zones, of liens of agreement of control, all
sent out by the clock rooms of Eu­rope. Local suns ­ were shifted further and
further from local
zeniths.1
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