World historians typically divide the previous two centuries into the “Long Nineteenth Century,” stretching from the French Revolution (1789) to the First World War/Russian Revolution (1917), and the “Short Twentieth Century,” running from the inter-war period to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) — which is, interestingly, a period of exactly 200 years.
Obviously this is a sociopolitical rather than chronological division — minutes and seconds don’t care what happens in them — but there’s something to it. The Long Nineteenth Century was about industrialization and the birth of ideology and the consequent destruction of pre-modern ways of life. British historian J.M. Roberts called western culture of the high modern period “corrosive,” and it was. It dissolved traditional modes of life wherever it was poured.
The Short Twentieth Century was about post-industrialization and the extremes of ideology leading to dissolution and Durkheim’s social anomie. Everything that has happened since the end of the Cold War — including the birth of the Internet in the 1990s, the wars in the Middle East, and the succession of bursting economic bubbles and resulting resurgence of inequality — is sociopolitically part of the 21st century.
What’s always fascinated me is how, unlike earlier eras — which moved slow enough that people were very aware of what crept over them — people today are largely ignorant of the “social structure:” that there even is such a thing, that they exist in one, of what their relation to it is, of the current structure’s relation to the past, of what the alternatives are, and of how we might go about realizing them.
People of the modern era were born with seemingly solid landmarks and watched them fade beyond the horizon of history. But if you were born in a speeding car, or on a hazy sea, and have never seen a mooring or landmark, then you never know you’re adrift. The very idea of being adrift will seem alien, as if it were a lie imposed on you by some meddling Other. “Adrift? Adrift relative to what?”
I would like to give you a landmark. This is every color of crayon offered by Crayola over time.
Note first the historical divisions mentioned above. The end of the Long Nineteenth Century (at the column marked 1935 or 1949, depending on your taste) and span of the Short Twentieth (to the column marked 1990) jump right out as periods of relative stability, as does the birth of the 21st, when everything splinters.
This is a map of history, and it can be replicated across almost any aspect of our lives: where people live, what kinds of jobs they have, what they eat for breakfast, the number and kind of potential mates, the quantity of diversions at your fingertips, and so on.
The lesson for me, looking at the explosion at the end, is that it’s no wonder we’re having trouble finding ourselves. A pair of dangerous myths emerge. The first is that we can go back. The second, more insidious, is that this is somehow normal.