All for Nought?

The decade is winding down. Scott McLemee wonders what it was all about...

March 26, 2008

We are coming to the end of a decade with no name. As the 1990s wound down, there was a little head scratching over what to call the approaching span of 10 years, but no answer seemed obvious, and no consensus ever formed. A few possibilities were ventured -- for example, “the Noughties” -- but come the turn of the new millennium, they proved about as appealing and marketable as a Y2K survival kit. Before you knew it, we were deep into the present decade without any commonly accepted way of referring to it.

The lack seems more conspicuous now. We are in the penultimate year of the '00s (however you want to say it) and much of the urgent rhetoric about “change” in the presidential campaigns implies a demand for some quick way to refer to the era that will soon, presumably, be left behind.

It has become second nature to periodize history by decades, as if each possessed certain qualities, amounting almost to a distinct personality. To some degree this tendency was already emerging as part of the public conversation in the 19th century (with the 1840s in particular leaving a strong impression as an era of hard-hitting social criticism and quasi-proto-hippie experimentation) but it really caught on after the First World War. In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (Norton, 1991), the late Christopher Lasch wrote: “This way of thinking about the past had the effect of reducing history to fluctuations in public taste, to a progression of cultural fashions in which the daring advances achieved by one generation become the accepted norms of the next, only to be discarded in turn by a new set of styles.”

Thus we have come to speak of the Sixties as an era of rebellion and experimentation, much of it communal. And you could read books by 1840s guys like Marx, Kierkegaard, and Feuerbach in cheap paperbacks, if you weren’t too stoned. In the Seventies, the experimentation continued, but in a more privatized way (“finding myself”) and with a throbbing disco soundtrack. By the Eighties, greed was good; so were MTV, pastel, and mobile phones as big as your head. In the Nineties, it seemed for a little while as if maybe greed were bad. But then all the teenage Internet millionaires started ruling over the end of history from their laptops while listening to indie rock and wearing vintage clothes from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.

Of course there are alternative points of emphasis for each decade. This kind of encapsulated history is not exactly nuance-friendly. But it’s no accident that bits of popular culture and lifestyle have become the default signifiers summing up each period of the recent past. “The concept of the decade,” wrote Lasch, “may have commended itself, as the basic unit of historical time, for the same reason the annual model change commended itself to Detroit: it was guaranteed not to last. Every ten years it had to be traded in for a new model, and this rapid turnover gave employment to scholars and journalists specializing in the detection and analysis of modern trends.”

Well, we do what we can. But it seems as if the effort has failed miserably over the past few years. The detectives and analysts have gone AWOL. There is no brand name for the decade itself, nor a set of clichés to clinch its inner essence.

While discussing the matter recently with Aaron Swartz, a programmer now working on the Open Library initiative, I found myself at least half agreeing with his impression of the situation. “This decade seems Zeitgeist-free,” he said. “It’s as if the Nineties never ended and we’re just continuing it without adding anything new.”

But then I remembered that my friend is all of 21 years old, meaning that roughly half his life so far was spent in the 1990s. Which could, in spite of Aaron’s brilliance, somewhat limit the ability to generalize. In that regard, being middle aged offers some small advantage. My own archive of memory includes at least a few pre-literate recollections of the 1960s (the assassinations of 1968 interrupted "Captain Kangaroo") and my impression is that each new decade since then has gone through a phase of feeling like the continuation of (even a hangover from) the one that went before.

It usually takes the Zeitgeist a while to find a new t-shirt it prefers. On the other hand, I also suspect that Aaron is on to something -- because it sure seems like the Zeitgeist is having an unusually hard time settling down, this time around.

In the next column, I’ll sketch out a few ideas about what might, with hindsight, turn out to have been the distinguishing characteristics of the present decade. Perhaps the fact that we still don’t have a name for it is not an oversight, or a bit of bad semantic luck. According the Lasch, decade-speak is a way to understand the past as a story of progress involving the rise and fall of cultural styles and niches. If so, then it may be we might have turned a corner somewhere along the way. The relationship between progress, nostalgia, and the cultural market may have changed in ways making it harder to come up with a plausible general characterization of the way we live now.

More on that in a week. Meanwhile: What do you call the current period? Does it have its own distinct “structure of feeling”? When we fit it into our thumbnail histories of the recent past, how are we likely to understand the spirit of the age?


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