The Age of Ages
I read a review of Watchmen and it said something about how the premise might be dated because it was written during the height of the cold war. It struck me because as far as I know almost nobody really thinks of 1985 as the raging year of the cold war. Normally they think back to tit-for-tat hydrogen bomb testing, Vietnam, the Missile Crisis, or Khrushchev getting shut out of Disneyland.
So what does that mean? I think that eras and ages amount to exactly dick. They are rhetorical devices that writers and politicians use to manufacture significance. Think about it, at the same time Americans were supposedly consumed by the darkness that brought us Watchmen, groupies were blowing stagehands so they could ‘bang the broads in Poison’ and John Hughes was shooting The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller back to back.
When was the last time you got up and actually felt the cultural consciousness pulling you this way or that? The underlying variable (people) are basically unchanged between now and then and 500 years ago, but we have no problem casually referring to the Decade of Greed or the Roaring 20s or the ‘Panic’ of some year the market crashed. The fact of the matter is that we have no idea what we’re talking about. We’re just trying make ourselves seem more important, like maybe if we give that generation an ethos someone will be kind enough to return the favor and that will somehow undo the fact that you’re dead and none of it matters.
“…There is always a plurality of diverse, already spent stages coexisting. People in the same age and the same country, even the same family, live together in different stages… The changing central domains concern only the concrete fact that in these four centuries of European history the intellectual vanguard changed, that its convictions and arguments continued to change, as did the content of intellectual interests, the basis of its actions, the secret of its political success, and the willingness of the great masses to be impressed by certain suggestions.” – Carl Schmitt, The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations (1929)
The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller were not back-to-back.
We’ll have to wait and see how the current economic situation plays out and is labeled by historians, but I definitely feel the pull of social consciousness at the moment to spend less, save more, etc. and I think most of my friends do too.
Now, that’s not to say we’ve stopped checking out wwtdd.com or that we’re not going to party for St. Patty’s day, but we’re all kind of nervous about whether or not we’ll have jobs tmrw and that affects our actions pretty noticeably.
For some of my friends running their own businesses, they’ve definitely made changes because they can see a decrease in profit based largely on the fear of their customers who are also changing their behavior.
I think I get your point: one day writers and politicians may refer to this time period as if we were all sitting around an oil barrel fire to stay warm, cooking up potatoes because we couldn’t afford to eat and that will be disingenuous, but I don’t think it’s ENTIRELY rhetorical to say that this is/was a time of financial fear because some of the effects are pretty palpable.
Nice post. This one really hit home for me.
We’re always trying to classify things and in doing so we leave out a lot of important aspects of the thing being classified. It’s kinda like in-group bias; you can’t classify a cultural time period in one homogeneous phrase the same way you can’t classify a group of people into one homogeneous entity.
It never works.
“Maine North High School used in the filming of The Breakfast Club was also used for some of the school-based scenes in John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which was released just a year after The Breakfast Club. Some of the posters on the walls during filming of The Breakfast Club were still there when Ferris Bueller was filmed. The giveaway is that the sign on the front of the school reads “Shermer High School” in both films. On the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off DVD commentary (featured on the 2004 DVD version) John Hughes reveals that he filmed the two movies back to back to save time and money, and some outtakes of both films feature elements of the film crews working on the other film in each case.”
Not to mention one was the hit ’85 and the other of ’86
But even that example is subject to the same problem. I’m guessing that you’re young – which means you probably didn’t feel the crash in your stock portfolio, you probably rent so if anything your expenses on are track to decline, and I doubt you work at GM so you’re less likely to get laid off.
In other words, you’re feeling the sway of something that for the most part has nothing to do with you. That means it’s not real. I don’t mean to be flippant about this because the situation is very serious and sad, you get what I’m saying.
We’re feeling a “cultural shift” that is handed and explained to us by people with massive incentives to exaggerate the story. Add on top of that the fact that we’re programmed to accept and internalize it and you’ve got how insidious this is.
You make a good point and I’m second guessing myself now. I received a 30% pay cut recently and at least 3 of my friends were laid off all under the guise of “cutting back due to tough times”, but I can’t conclude that those cutbacks wouldn’t have happened if the economy hadn’t collapsed. Maybe these changes were overdue and this just gave our employers an excuse to execute.
I guess all I can say is that I’m personally feeling and noticing changes and attributing them to the economic climate, but I am admittedly working with a small sample set.
No, that’s the worst. I didn’t mean to make light of your situation.
My bigger point, though, which is that we try to give special meaning to periods of time, let them harden in pop culture and then go around referring to them as fact. We think if we give something a cool name it will make it important, like it wasn’t for all intents and purposes, exactly like the years that came before and after it.
Do you really feel like 2008 was exactly (for all intents and purposes) like 2000? Hell, just September 11 and the financial situation make the zeitgeists of the two years remarkably dissimilar.
And I am only talking about an 8 year span here. Surely 1750 and 2008 can be called different eras – if only for electricity and automobiles. These are not insignificant things and claiming “we’re all just people” doesn’t make them such.
I think it’s more an expansion of a human trait than a rhetorical device. Experiences only become stories once you review them in hindsight; that future perspective allows us to extrapolate significance from everyday occurrences into a manageable form. It reminds me of a theme from Sartre’s Nausea.
“Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are no beginnings. Days are tacked onto days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition. … Neither is there any end: you never leave a woman, a friend, a city in one go. … That’s living. But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense. You seem to start from the beginning … in reality, you have started at the end. It was there, invisible and present, it is the one that gives to words the pomp and value of a beginning. … We forget that the future was not yet there.”
I like the blog a lot. It convinced me to start keeping track of quotes, for one thing.
I think the whole notion of a zeitgeist is bullshit.
Do you know what the spirit of 1750 was? Having sex, making money, being sad that people you know have died, technology, being entertained…
Basically the same stuff we’re preoccupied with now. Look was it a little different in 1940 living in a European city hit by daily carpet bombing? Sure. But ultimately they we know that even that didn’t get the way of those things.
So yes, 2000 was exactly like 2008. Don’t look at how historians describe eras, look at what the people preoccupied themselves with, what they wrote in their journals and letters. It’s the same shit you’ll write in emails tomorrow.
Don’t you think you’re making a over simplification of this whole thing? What I mean is, yes, for all of history all people have really cared about is having sex, being secure (money), and having allies (friends). However, that doesn’t mean that the trends that a culture will go through aren’t worth noticing and writing about.
You know what people will say about the years 2000-2010? Probably something about the obsession with celebrities, reality TV, and internet memes (Oh, and maybe a mention about a market crash and war in Iraq). Are all those things really pointless in the long run? Definitely. However, that doesn’t disqualify them from being interesting things to look at and get a basis for the culture of the time.
My point comes down to this- at some point, all of these events were on the crest of the wave of their time. It doesn’t mean they affect everyone, it just means it’s the strongest difference between any time period and the one before it. They may not be all encompassing, but they show the innovations and highlights of a time.
Dude, of course but we’re not talking about what makes for interesting history reading or trend analysis.
You have a lot at stake here with your life. Do you want to waste it in some vain exercise to do personality tests on decades of history? Or do you want to be honest and admit that they all blur together, that very little value comes from writing off 1820 as the age of Jacksonian Democracy and the only reason you’re able to even do it is that the people who actually know are long since dead and gone?
The real reason there are so many different buzzwords for each different era isn’t because they were complicated or concurrent. It’s because people are literally just pulling words out of their ass to sell a book or a movie or an article or a belief
I think the danger is in our tendency to stop thinking about things once we are given a neat summary by an “authority on the subject.”
Human inner life is largely uniform and malleable, and history hasn’t done much to change this. So it’s much more educational to learn about the thoughts and behaviors of singular people than to suppose you comprehend an era by memorizing its major policies and events. People are the constant and events are the reeling backdrop pattern that gives the impression of movement.
I think a great test of this is as follows: Ask yourself if, 5 years ago, you could have predicted your current situation, even approximately. Unless you’re in grad school or are an extremely bland person, I’d bet you couldn’t come close. So how much has your knowledge of the way the scenery unfurls helped your skills at prediction?
I think the important thing to learn from history is a respect for deep time, not an aptitude for deep forecasting or a complete lexicon of decade-by-decade trivia answers.
It’s like Tucker suggests, “Be people-centric.” The rest ensues. Then you die.
Coming from a background of both anthropology and history, the idea that people are still people (and thus driven by the same urges/needs/etc) no matter what time period rings very true. That said, I still had one major problem with this:
“When was the last time you got up and actually felt the cultural consciousness pulling you this way or that?”
Seriously? Maybe it’s just having been a young person who wasn’t caught up in Obama-mania, but every day from late ’07 through January ’09 I “got up and actually felt” that the culture of the group to which I belonged had a conciousness (or at least a group-think) that was pulling its members in a specific direction.
There IS such a thing as culture, both in a micro and a macro sense. All this talk of ‘ages’ and ‘eras’ is really just an attempt to create loose definitions that act to aid in describing them or work as mnemonics. Are they perfect, self-contained descriptors? No, of course not. But that in no way makes them useless.
Yes, what people wrote in their journals in 2008 was different than 2000. People are now talking about layoffs and systemic collapse (this is not just historians and journalists, people are talking about this) and during the era of the dot-com boom people were feasting on free money and rarely discussing layoffs. Also important: in 2000 they were writing their journals on paper and now they are broadcasting them to thousands of strangers.
If you are going to deconstruct humanity down to having sex, making money, and being entertained then you may be able to call zeitgeist bullshit. There is much more subtlety to the way in which humans pursue these goals, and the era in which we live is a large influence there. People aren’t just having sex, they are having sex with many partners before marriage. They aren’t just being entertained, they are watching TV on the Internet and eschewing newspapers. And they aren’t even making money to begin with. These are group experiences that cannot be divorced from the era in which we live.
Just look at what we are doing now – arguing with people across the world through a series of tubes. The basics of it could have been done 300 years ago, but it would have been done in a stinky pub and the experience would have been entirely different. So you could deconstruct it to “people arguing,” but that misses the whole point.
Institutions, technology, and culture change. But people and their interactions are constant. Humans are and always will be social beings. Yeah, we’re interacting at different levels and different medians, but the content of the interactions stays the same.
This is why the premise of the Watchmen is not necessarily limited to a specific “era” as defined by analysts and historians. Truly relevant works of art have universal premises. How else could else do you get movies like O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? Why else do we take the advice of ancient philosophers? It doesn’t matter where or from what “age” the work comes from, the thing that matters is the work itself.
We could spend all our lives breaking down everything into convenient little witty labels. But in the end, who gives a shit? It’s all masturbation and a great way to avoid seeing the world as it really is.
You yourself are being pulled up by the current age right now. You just don’t have the distance to see it because you haven’t been an adult in any other age.
I hate to use “web 2.0” to describe the era/sub-culture you are representative of, but it’s close enough. Do you really think you would have skipped college and had all these opportunities to work in various industries if you were an adult in the 80s? Even if you did manage, the costs would be so different it wouldn’t be the same experience.
Sure, you would have gone for “sex and power” and been successful somewhere, but without those experiences would you really be the same person?
Now magnify that. You really think the type of opportunities available and ideas at the forefront don’t shape everyone a little?
Are you accusing me of not letting my own peculiar circumstances define how I view and judge the entire world around me?
That is everything I have tried to do with this site.
And for the record, young kid who is very ambitious and gets taken under the wing of older, successful people is like the oldest story there is.
“Are you accusing me of not letting my own peculiar circumstances define how I view and judge the entire world around me?”
How does that make sense as a thing to do? And why/how is that even a desirable thing to do? I don’t understand how you value that.
Because the world is a large and complicated place in which you or I are very, very tiny parts of. To think that my situation is somehow indicative of transformative change in the universe is so laughably self-absorbed that I take it as a compliment when someone accuses me of not doing it.
I’m sorry but I think you meant to say Ryan is “Web 3.0”, not 2.0.
I’m accusing you of not seeing that your circumstances might not be as peculiar as you think; you are just more successful than most people in choosing your path through them.
Reality is made up of circumstances. I’m thinking the difference in reaction between you and your peers to that makes it hard to see the similarity in those circumstances.
Damn I hate saying circumstances over and over.
The argument is not about how to live your life, but whether historians have any business looking for “eras”.
I think they do. At different points in its evolution, society must focus on different problem sets. One of the major problems now we are trying to evolve past is the breakdown in value of the university system and a lack of mentoring. Hell, most of our institutions are breaking down.
“Web 3.0” is a good potential solution to this.
So, you are a front runner of an age, an age of institutional breakdown and a rise of individual power. Most of these changes are brought on by technology.
If not for technology, if we only had mostly unchanging human nature I would agree with you, but technology changes the relationships in society, and that causes new problems that define ages.
Your main point is something I can agree with, but the Watchmen film isn’t the best example. I don’t know what review you read but the aspects of Watchmen that the film focuses on are very much a product of its time.