2016. It’s dangerous to call it ‘significant’, ‘world-changing’, blah, too soon, but 2016 is shaping up as the year when not only have a key number of western cultural icons have joined the Great Majority, but Brexit and Trump seem to have reconfigured our political landscapes. We are, for example, often told we’re in a post-truth, post-welfare culture.
Like everyone I’m trying to process recent events, and I’m mostly failing. In my bewilderment I’ve reached for a wee bit of history. Truth is, despite a life-long fascination with history, I’m no pro-level historian. Please bear that in mind, as you read on. (Though, in our post-truth world, maybe I should just claim to be 'the World's Greatest Historian'!! ;-))
Memory tells me that one classic way of dividing European/Western-centric political history is to claim that the '19th Century' ‘begins’ in 1815 (with Waterloo) and the 20th century in 1914 (with the outbreak of the Great War). Clearly, these dates are euro-centric and arbitrary. What, after all, is 'a Century'? However, they suggestively indicate the way ‘reading history’ creates undertows and overlaps as well as drawing on key, focal events.
Thus, 1914. Clearly, there were any number of artistic and cultural moments which anticipate and were already constructing ‘the 20th Century’ before 1914. Modris Ecksteins’ famously takes the 'riot' at the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring in 1913 as a performance of 20th century subjectivities; equally, one can ‘read’ Literary Modernisms in texts long before Eliot and Pound’s post-war ‘triumph’. The violences of 1914 were already anticipated in the imperial adventures of the European powers.
However, there are some grounds for claiming that 1914 signals a key blow to the Meliorist fantasy of cultural-political progress and continuity. Yes, pre-1914 was hardly the settled aspic of Edwardian lawns and white frocks it is sometimes presented as, but ‘14-18 was arguably a catastrophe for the European Imperial mind. Some have suggested that, for example, the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 was the last moment of the Victorian era. Yes, this does rather ‘read’ history one way – overstating war and violence, buying into certain kinds of politics – but it is suggestive.
So, 2016. Is it a kind of watershed? Does it signal that the 21st century has taken place? I guess the answer is – as ever – possibly. It signals something. It may be that it signals the last flicker of the horrible racist-patriarchal dream of ‘The Old White ‘Strong’ Man’ who offers a fearful bargain – 'protection' in exchange for 'submission'. Perhaps that cultural imaginary is at its most dangerous when it is most wounded. And it is (arguably) wounded. But equally it may signal the end of one kind of neo-liberal (Whiggish?) fantasy of consensus and progress – that ‘history’ flows in one direction, a progressive one. (As many have suggested, if we’re serious about rights, respect, justice etc. now may indeed be the time to organize, etc.). Some of the assumptions of the 20th century seem to have been exposed.
Equally, the death of a whole bunch of western cultural/pop culture icons in the past year or so indicates the death of one version of the 20th Century’s ideas about cultural production. The likes of Bowie and Cohen – productions of the 20th Century - are going.
As 20th Century artistic productions disappear, so equally a number of 20th century referents become seemingly less available. In no order of significance, these include:
Earning a living as artist/musician/writer.
Having an 'ordinary' job that might generate a decent pension or enough to buy a house or even to be able to rent a house and save a bit.
A belief that society should care for the weakest and most vulnerable, including those displaced across borders.
A commitment to the claim that ‘compassion’ (after the serial violences of 20th century wars) is foundational for society, and so on.
These were just a few of the beliefs I feel the 20th century communities I was raised in held (for good or ill) as valuable and significant. And, yes, I know that as a European and and a Brit I speak from privilege and am taking a culturally-privileging position, but…
2016. The year the 21st Century took place?