Mon 19 Feb 2007 4:00 AM
I’ve been obsessed for some time now with the aesthetics and mentalities of certain periods in time. The 70s with its formica, drugs, and pre-AIDS promiscuity. The nuclear 50s with horn-rimmed glasses, buzzed hair, and a red scare played out on black and white television. What will the icons be of our messy era of social repression, tech explosion, and unpopular war? What harsh realities will fade as we move out of one decade into the next? What are the nascent issues now hatching that will grow into the galvanizing trials of a future iconography?
The whole practice of periodizing or fetishizing an era or scene may just be a way to insulate ourselves from responsibility. For those who idealize the beat generation or draw inspiration from the global revolutions of the 60s, there’s a longing for what they imagine those times to be like, but also a relief that, since those times are gone, there is no burden to actually live what in reality must have been an exhausting and alienating life. Was the punk movement filled with marginalized dreamers who just wanted a simpler life and greater autonomy? Or was it just a bunch of assholes who didn’t want to do anything they didn’t want to do?
There are some big problems with our cultural compulsion to put brackets around time periods, perhaps especially in the arbitrary designation of decades. A good example is the current surprise a lot of people have that North Korea is trying to build nuclear weapons, that the world’s ecosystem is turning against us, that we’re in a bloody war in Iraq for no good reason. These are grown-up versions of problems that entered our awareness long ago, but then disappeared once the numbers rolled over to a new set of ten years. Fashions changed, consciousness changed, it seemed like a fresh start.
So maybe it’s useful to look at the ways the present will be iconified and forgotten as it happens. While the dot com boom was technically in the late 90s, I think it will be absorbed as part of the 00s since it could only really be understood in retrospect – the same way a lot of the culture of the late 60s bleeds into the early 70s. That’s an easy one – college students getting rich off of empty, exciting language; venture capitalist rolling on the ecstasy of a wildly inflated market. But what did it set the stage for?
The boom was a huge shift in economy, public philosophy, and awareness who’s effects can easily be overlooked since it can swiftly be dismissed as ‘that crazy dot com bubble.’ What will the safe totems be for this war time depression? The powerlessness of compassionate intellectuals lulled to complacency by economic comfort? More likely
it will be blogging. Soldiers blogging, moms blogging, everyone blogging. What was your blog about during the Iraq war? Oh, that was back when I was blogging about kitten attire and mom makeover secrets, it was great. At least the kids of the Vietnam era could take solace in their radicals. Are they out there now and just hidden from us?
Maybe it would also be useful to find out what type of learning mechanism makes this an appealing strategy for assimilating information. Is there a more comprehensive way to digest large pieces of information so that our landmarks of history can be based around events rather than temporal mile markers?
This is not only on my mind as a critic of culture, but on a personal level as well, because I have a similarly limited perception of myself. My idea of who I am is only based on about the last three months. I take no pride in past accomplishments, old friends fade from awareness, a stifling tunnel vision sets in due to the constant reenforcement of a small number of visual landscapes. I use seasons and years to put bookends on themes and personas that are ongoing and fluid. Whenever I go to my hometown of Eugene, OR or down to Santa Cruz where I went to school, I’m flooded with a deeper sense of myself and a wider vocabulary for interpreting my current situation. Upon returning to San Francisco, the vision narrows and the claustrophobia sets in, with little of the recovered identity transcending the boundaries of the bay.
Perhaps it’s a bit conceited to analogize the two periodizations. But if the world can carry around the calm that I feel when a larger portion of my history is at the front of my mind, perhaps we can collectively make better decisions and repeat less mistakes. Maybe a more comprehensive public consumption of history would have the added benefit of allowing compulsive nostalgics to stop dreaming of a scene or era or movement and see the ways they can shape the future by believing in their own perceptions.