Younger Than That Now

A new book reflects on generation gaps and how they get that way. Scott McLemee takes a look.

December 10, 2014

Hannah Arendt’s thinking takes an unexpected turn in the final paragraph of The Origins of Totalitarianism -- rescuing a glimmer of hope from the ruins of the 20th century’s final solutions and ends-of-history. Permanent closure is not in our nature as a species. What distinguishes us, rather, is the power to begin. It is “the supreme capacity of man,” she writes; “politically, it is identical with man's freedom.”

As consolations go, this seems wanting. It sounds cold, distant, and much too abstract to be of much comfort -- though by that point, readers will take what they can get. But Arendt’s closing sentence begins to put some flesh on the idea: “This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.” Her reference to birth is literal. Human existence changes -- or at least has the potential to change -- with each new participant. And that is true in a way that can’t be with, for example, chimpanzee existence, for our mode is defined by language, tools, and institutions. None of them are programmed into the human genome (at most, the potential to assimilate them might be) and yet they are transmitted from one generation to the next. Without the thick exoskeleton of culture and technology, we would be little more than exceptionally vulnerable primates, distinguished by hairlessness and a peculiar tendency to walk upright.

But the exoskeleton does not grow quickly. Our physical birth is, in effect, always premature; it takes several years for the rest of what makes us human to develop. And we are not passive participants in that effort. Arendt elaborated on the idea a few years later in The Human Condition:

“With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.”

Education, then, is an umbilicus, nourishing us throughout the more or less protracted transition from infancy to personhood. Complicating the analogy is the fact that the process has no fixed term. Nature sets limits to its gestation period; culture tends to be much less decisive. Periods of rapid social or technological change make it especially hard to define the skills and competencies required for full, functional maturity.

Robert Pogue Harrison’s Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age (University of Chicago Press) concerns the still more problematic situation that emerges after the flux has gone on for decades. Harrison, the chair of graduate studies in Italian at Stanford University, delivered an earlier version of the book as a series of lectures at the Collège de France. 

“An older person has no idea what it means to be a child, an adolescent, or a young adult in 2014,” he writes. “Hence he or she is hardly able to provide any guidance to the young when it comes to their initiation into the public sphere – the public sphere for which the young must eventually assume responsibility, or pay the consequences if they fail to meet that responsibility. It has yet to be seen whether a society that loses its intergenerational continuity to such a degree can long endure.”

Taken out of context, that sounds like an example of a genre of cultural criticism that might be called “the higher worrying.” With a change of date it could have been published at any point in the last century. (See also Paul Valery's essay “The Crisis of the Mind” [1919]: “We later civilizations, we too know that we are mortal..... We see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all.”)

Fortunately there is more to Juvenescence than that. Harrison recognizes that a gulf between generations is not the disruption of otherwise stable and healthy cultural patterns. In fact, it is a cultural pattern -- one articulated and reflected on in literature, philosophy, and political thought for at least 2500 years now. And at issue are qualities of mind more complex than anything expressed in stereotypical contrasts between youth (eager, impatient, impulsive, resilient) and age (sober, cautious, sententious, fond of taking naps).

Harrison’s thinking develops in dialogue with Hannah Arendt – among many others, though her concept of natality, which I sketched earlier, seems especially important for him in Juvenescence. We are born into a particular society that exists before we do, and will presumably continue to do so for some while afterward, but that isn’t eternal or static. It leaves its mark on us (and we on it, to whatever degree). We are affected by its changes.

More to the point we are part of the changes, even when we are incapable of recognizing them. (Especially then, in fact.) It’s possible to get some perspective on things -- to challenge, or at least evaluate, what we’ve come to accept and expect from the world – through learning about the past, or formulating questions, or absorbing stories and other cultural expressions of other people.

Harrison coins the expression heterochronicity to point out the reality the present is never pure or self-contained. The people around us are being pushed and pulled by senses of the world (including memories and expectations) that can be profoundly different from our own, and from one another. Heterochronicity is the matrix of generational conflict, but Juvenescence explores it through readings of Antigone and King Lear rather than the contrasts between boomers and millennials.

The book is somehow both digressive and closely reasoned, and arguably it owes as much to Giambattista Vico or Stephen Jay Gould as it does to Hannah Arendt. The words “cultural history” appearing in the subtitle are not especially helpful in conveying the quality of the book, which would more accurately be called a meditation -- or, better still, an anatomy. (But then that might be even more misleading in the era of Viagra and cosmetic surgery.) It’s odd and brilliant -- clearly the product of thought given time to ripen.


Back to Top