Historians divide the last 250 years into the “Long Nineteenth Century” (stretching from the French Revolution to the First World War/Russian Revolution) and the “Short Twentieth Century” (running from the inter-war period to the fall of the Berlin Wall).
Obviously this is a sociopolitical rather than chronological division — minutes and seconds don’t care what happens in them — and I think 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, the wars in the Middle East, and the succession of bursting economic bubbles and resulting resurgence of inequality — is sociopolitically part of the Twenty-First 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 earlier eras were born with 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 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) and span of the Short Twentieth (to the column marked 1990) jump right out, as does the birth of the Twenty-first.
This is a map of modern history colored in crayon, and it can be replicated across almost any aspect of your life: where to live, what kind of job to get, what breakfast cereal to buy, the number and kind of potential mates on offer, the quantity of diversions at your fingertips, and so on.
If you’re not happy with any of these, when would you ever be?