Tuesday, April 18, 2006


I realize, halfway through this decade, that for the first time in my life, I'm living in a decade without a name. It's rather odd. Not that a decade, considered as a cultural phenomenon, begins or ends odometer-precise with the arrival of a year ending in "0"— or in "1". But there does seem to be a more than just conventional reality to that cultural phenomenon which we conveniently call, for shorthand, a "decade."

(Side note: If there's one species of pedant who deserves to be shot on sight, it's the pedant who wrangles over whether decades begin in a "0" year or a "1" year. Also the pedant who complains that a cultural decade doesn't really coincide exactly with the beginning or ending of a calendar decade. "Wah, wah, wah"— KA-BLAM!!!)

That said, I'd say that what I call the 90s first broke on my consciousness around '93 or '94 or '95: tattoos, body piercing, young adults inexplicably wearing nerdy eyeglasses. Seattle. Coffee. The World Wide Web. TV commercials with half a dozen surreal images per second flashing by. Folks feeling they were really saying something when they tried to justify changing mores by saying, "But it's the Nineties now!" The ongoing bottomless-pit mendacity of the Clintons. A general sense that we were living and eating lotuses at Francis Fukuyama's "End of History." Not all of this broke at once, but over a span of a couple of years I had a definite sense of the culture shifting gears.

And I had a sense that the 90s were culturally far less derivative from the 60s than the 70s or 80s had been.

Speaking of which, for me "the 80s" were pretty much of a piece: say "Reagan" and you're saying "80s." Pretty obvious to me from '81 or so onward. The most peculiar hiccup I noticed in the 80s was the sudden advent, in first few months of 1988, of a neo-moralism which in one guise or another is with us yet. Am I the only person who remembers this? In early January 1988 it was not yet on the horizon. By March or April some commentators were remarking on the sudden shift.

I tend to think of "the 70s" as pretty much mid-to-late 70s. Yeah, yeah, leisure suits, the first primitive electronic video games starting to displace the old mechanical pinball machines: Asteroids, Battlezone. And there was indeed a moment in history (more or less coincident with moon boots) when no self-respecting American male under 40 would've been caught dead in a crewcut. The 70s. Starting some time during Ford's brief presidency, and not outlasting Jimmy Carter's departure from the White House.

As for "the 60s" (actually, the late 60s and early 70s), I remember their advent when I was midway through grade school; and throughout my junior high and high school years, "the 60s" ruled. It was not until the spring of 1975 that it dawned on me that the 60s, as a cultural force, were receding into the past. I was then a college freshman in Madison, Wisconsin, "the Berkeley of the Midwest." Well do I remember reading underground rags like Kaleidoscope and Free for All. Almost until my departure from Madison in 1981, it wasn't hard to look around you and pretend you were still living in the 60s, if only you squinted a little.

And the 50s? I remember the 50s. Which extended actually up through the early 60s. Despite the bad rap which some wild-eyed crazies have given them in retrospect, the 50s were overall a good time. A solid, levelheaded, judicious, sane time. The last sane time we had, and maybe the last sane time we'll ever have. In the 50s, the culture basically just worked. At least from the perspective of the small town American Midwest. A little starchy and repressed, true; it could have taken a little loosening up. What we got when the 60s rolled in was more than just "a little loosening up": Après moi, le déluge.

A cultural "decade" may start or end several years out of synch with a calendar decade. But there does seem to be a real sense of the culture shifting gears, noticeably and within a span of a year or two, every several years. It doesn't go smoothly, it sticks and then slips. If the shift is on the order of magnitude of every 10 years (or 7 or 8 or 12 or 15), we may as well annoy the pedants by referring to it as a "decade."

Oh, and our current nameless decade? I think it's the only one in my lifetime that began abruptly and with a sudden lurch. You probably remember where you were when you heard about it. September 11, 2001.

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Blogger Richmond said...

Excellent post. These days I find myself sonewhat apprehensively waiting to see what comes *next*. ::sigh::

Wednesday, April 19, 2006 2:37:00 PM  

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