An Era-less Era?

A critique group friend gives me back issues of The New York Times Book Review.  In the stack she gave me this week, I found a provocative article in the March 11, edition called “Convergences,” by Douglas Coupland.

Coupland noticed something unexpected during TV coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11:  nothing appeared very different than it had a decade ago.  The clothes, the cars, the hair, seemed pretty much the same.  This led him to speculate that:  “…we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once – a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet.  No particular era now dominates.  We live in a post-era era without forms of it’s own powerful enough to brand the times.”

He then says, “The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist.” (To Coupland’s credit, he does a mea culpa for this sentence).  He goes on to say there is something “psychically sparse” about the present, and writers and artists are creating new strategies to track it.  He then reviews Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, and calls it an example of “translit,” a new genre that fractures time and space while telling a single story.  In other words, it isn’t time-travel, or intercut parallel tales, like Pulp Fiction, but a singular narrative that unfolds all over the map.

Yet if Translit is a new genre, Once Upon A Time, a popular TV program, got there before Gods Without Men.   Though it doesn’t have as many sub-stories, structurally it’s the same.  Maybe part of our zeitgeist is a world where highbrow and lowbrow forms are equally likely sources of innovation.  (That sentence, containing the word, “zeitgeist,” was payback).

Once Upon A Time

Besides, who says this decade lacks “forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times?”

OK, when I was in grade school, my nightmares were not of winding up naked in public, but in my pajamas [this is true], so this particular fashion crime draws my attention.  But my reason for this post isn’t cultural artifacts – it’s something I’ve wondered about for a long time, that Coupland’s article brought to mind:  how and when the distinctive feel of a decade is formed?

Sometimes there’s a distinctive moment.  What we know as “the sixties” started the day John F. Kennedy was shot.  The last decade began on September 11.

Some decades don’t start with a single event; at a certain point, everyone simply knows the times have changed.  The eighties began when the good times started to roll.  In our current decade, something is rolling, but not good times.  We sense it, though it doesn’t yet have a name.  Read the paper or turn on the news, and you find a miasma of anger and greed, driven by fear and disillusionment.

This morning, with my coffee, I read details of how the New Orleans Saints bounties for injured opponents especially targeted head shots, even as overwhelming evidence points to concussive injuries as the source of higher than average rates of dementia in retired NFL players.  A little while ago I read of women arguing over a Facebook profile outside a waffle house.  Police arrived after shots were fired.  No external foe can destroy us, but we are doing pretty well on our own.

Lately politicians have been touting “American Exceptionalism.”  I first came across the term in Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism, 2008.  Both the politicians and Bacevich mean economic, political, and military superiority, things no country ever retains indefinitely, though they all believe they will when they have it.

President Obama got in trouble for speaking the truth when he said every nation thinks it’s exceptional.  Every nation has the potential to be, if you think in terms of character.  In those terms, our story might fall in the Translit genre – a narrative told across long reaches of time and place.  This decade would be a chapter set deep in the second act, when things are cascading downhill from bad to worse.  The darkness is pretty thick.  Who knows how the story is going to end?

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4 Responses to An Era-less Era?

  1. Adam says:

    This post reminds me a lot of one of the central points of the book Fluke by Christopher Moore. In the book, he discusses the difference between genetics and memetics – the transfer of physical traits versus the transfer of information. The idea that many things have stayed the same as they were in the past decade is similar to a genetic stability. But while that has happened, we’re actually aware of it and are using that information to continue to push our culture forward by a change in how we use information rather than the input of new information (the shift from genetics to memetics).

    It’s often difficult to effectively analyze the present day when looking for something significant (back to your post on inflection points). Thinking about it for a moment, you could argue that the defining point of the current decade is the explosion of social media as an acceptable form of mainstream communication. Especially as our communications technology has continued to increase in scope, it really is possible to know about an event that happened anywhere in the world within a minute of it happening.

    I don’t know how truthful this is, and I don’t know if it would be possible to look into it or not, but it’s very believable. In one of the episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast, one of the podcasters mentions that the death of Osama Bin Laden was on twitter before it was on CNN.

    The rapid explosion of our communications technology is what has allowed us to even begin to look at our current era in the way you describe in this post. We’re fairly stable because because we’re constantly able to receive and analyze information from anywhere in the world.

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  2. You are exactly right about the explosion of social media. It was one of the points that Coupland made in his article that I didn’t include. He said people looked the same, *except* they didn’t all have smartphones. His comment about that was, “History may well look back on 9/11 as the world’s last under documented mega-event.

    Very good points, Adam, thanks.

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  3. Rosi says:

    I think the bounty hunting New Orleans Saints and other professional sports (other than baseball) are emblematic of where we are (we being the U.S.) in our evolution as a country. Look back at the Roman empire and the rise of blood sport as their empire began to slide precipitously into oblivion. There is also the problem of professional politicians and the power-mongers many of them have become. Public service be damned — it’s all about the power and glory, much like the Roman leaders and politicians during the decline. Now I’m having a sense of impending doom. I knew it was too good to last. I miss the fifties and sixties like crazy and wish I could take my children and grandchildren there.

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