March 2, 2010
There are, in fact, no “generations” except in the biological sense. There are only categories and crises of temperament [which] crisscross and defy and deny chronology. — Cynthia Ozick
Years ago, when I was researching a book (still unwritten) on the 150-year history of the “hermenaut” or “outsider intellectual,” I noticed that historical eras like “the Sixties” — as opposed, i.e., to the strictly calendrical 1960s decade — inevitably begin and end late. Like generations, which don’t really exist, historical eras don’t really exist. However, under certain restrictive conditions, it can be a productive intellectual exercise to imagine that both generations and historical eras do exist.
I’m hardly the only student of periodizations to have remarked upon the “long decade” phenomenon; as far as I know, though, I’m the first to have been reckless enough to codify this insight with an eccentric, risibly precise periodization scheme. The scheme began as a tongue-in-cheek experiment. But I’ve looked at social, political, cultural, economic factors — and my periodization never fails.
The Forties ended in ’53 (e.g., with the censuring of McCarthy), the Fifties in ’63 (e.g., with the assassination of Kennedy), the Sixties in ’73 (e.g., with the death of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man #121). It’s uncontroversial to say that punk began in 1974 and ended in 1983: “The seventies, sprawled out in chaos between the progressive sixties and the conservative eighties,” writes Nicholas Rombes in A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, whose subtitle (1974–1982) is only incorrect by one year, “was so incoherent that punk’s incoherency made perfect sense, or nonsense.” James Parker notes that alternative rock’s birth year was 1984: “Meat Puppets II was slap-in-the-face great. It came out in 1984, part of the same evolutionary spasm that birthed Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, Black Flag’s My War (all of them on SST).”
A corollary to this periodization scheme: During “4/3” decades, the 8/9 years are — for better or worse — an apex. For example, 1969 — ’nuff said. A recent work of history, Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels, makes the case that 1979 was a key moment of counter-revolution, a swing of the historical pendulum against the trends of the preceding decades. At the start of 1978, the Soviet Union and China seemed immovable monoliths of Communist ideology. Iran was run by the Shah, and Afghanistan was run by a secularist keen on modernization and women’s rights. The Iron Curtain seemed a permanent division between the free and the unfree. By the end of 1979, none of the above was still the case. The Soviet bloc was destabilized by the effect of Pope John Paul II’s papacy on Poland; the Shah had fled into exile and the Ayatollah Khomeini was at the head of Iran’s new revolutionary government. Islamist guerrillas had begun the war of resistance in Afghanistan. And Deng Xiaping had steered China toward its new identity as a capitalist economy.
Here is my generational periodization scheme; note that it’s a work in progress:
1755-64: [Republican Generation] Perfectibilists
1765-74: [Republican, Compromise Generations] Original Romantics
1775-84: [Compromise Generation] Ironic Idealists
1785-94: [Compromise, Transcendental Generations] Original Prometheans
1795-1804: [Transcendental Generation] Monomaniacs
1805-14: [Transcendental Generation] Autotelics
1815-24: [Transcendental, Gilded Generations] Retrogressivists
1825-33: [Gilded Generation] Post-Romantics
1834-43: [Gilded Generation] Original Decadents
1844-53: [Progressive Generation] New Prometheans
1854-63: [Progressive, Missionary Generations] Plutonians
1864-73: [Missionary Generation] Anarcho-Symbolists
1874-83: [Missionary Generation] Psychonauts
1884-93: [Lost Generation] Modernists
1894-1903: [Lost, Greatest/GI Generations] Hardboileds
1904-13: [Greatest/GI Generation] Partisans
1914-23: [Greatest/GI Generation] New Gods
1924-33: [Silent Generation] Postmodernists
1934-43: [Silent Generation] Anti-Anti-Utopians
1944-53: [Boomers] Blank Generation
1954-63: [Boomers] OGXers
1964-73: [Generation X, Thirteenth Generation] Reconstructionists
1974-82: [Generations X, Y] Revivalists
1983-92: [Millennial Generation] Social Darwikians
1993-2002: [Millennials, Generation Z] TBA
The work of certain creative types parallels the zeitgeist: for example, David Bowie’s 1973 announcement that he was retiring the “Ziggy Stardust” persona was a farewell to the Sixties. Also, check out “Annus Mirabilis,” by Philip Larkin:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
George W.S. Trow’s periodization of the Fifties/Sixties shift, in “Collapsing Dominant,” a 1997 essay written as an introduction to a new edition of his 1980 monograph Within the Context of No Context, complements my periodization:
I can remember once going with the Cerf family to Lindy’s in . Lindy’s was if not on its way out, past its prime. But we were still in the 1950s in a way…. But even then, Lindy’s, 1963, we all sensed that it was cracking…. [T]here has happened under us a Tectonic Plate Shift….
My generational periodization scheme corresponds to my “2/3” and “3/4” and “4/5” decade periodization. (Generational consciousness is formed in important ways by tectonic pressure from the eras in which they grew up and came of age. That’s a truism; if you don’t believe it, then you don’t believe in generations, period. Those era-specific pressures are a confluence of factors: social change, cultural shifts, historical events, demographics, economics, even natural disasters. None of which is to say that generational consciousness isn’t also formed by other pressures — the influence of other generations, for example; or the influence of certain charismatic or powerful individuals.) The Boomers, for example, aren’t simply men and women born during America’s postwar baby boom. Instead, they’re men and women who were in their teens and 20s during the Sixties (1964-73), and in their 20s and 30s during the Seventies (1974-83). Trow writes about “social generations — from the ’50s, from the ’60s, from the ’70s, from the Reagan era, from now,” and my use of the term generation is similar to this cusper’s.
From astrology, in which I do not believe, I’ve appropriated the notion that someone can be “born on the cusp” — i.e., between two Zodiac signs, which means (according to astrologists) that the cusper’s personality is complex and contradictory, blending qualities of both signs. According to my generational periodization scheme, someone can be born on the cusp between two generations.
Being born on the cusp between two generations might mean identifying with the “right” generation. But it might also mean identifying with the “wrong” one. For example: Oscar Wilde, though born in 1854 and therefore technically a member of the Plutonian Generation, is much easier to identify as a Promethean (1844-53); while Vincent Van Gogh, though born in ’53, is best identified as a Plutonian (1854-63).
A person who identifies with the “wrong” generation, however, sometimes also identifies with aspects of the “right” generation. Such men and women find it nearly impossible to internalize either generation’s dominant discourse. Such men and women become alienated, hyper-analytical, obsessive, nostalgic-visionary, and quite often angry-funny social/cultural critics.
“No one is ahead of his time,” Gertrude Stein (a cusper, born 1874) writes in “Composition as Explanation,” “it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who also are creating their own time refuse to accept […] and it is very much too bad, it is so very much more exciting and satisfactory for everybody if one can have contemporaries, if all one’s contemporaries could be one’s contemporaries.” This is precisely how all cuspers must feel.
Jonathan Lethem, writing in The New York Review of Books, in 2019:
I was born in 1964. Some of my favorite books attempt to account for what life was like before, during, and after some large rupture in the collective human prospect, or the advent of a reality-reshaping rupture, ideology, or technology. Transformations still in living memory, but receding fast: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Doris Lessing’s The Children of Violence, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End — each of which tries to encompass the atmospheric changes between and around convulsive European wars, as does Paul Fussell’s tremendous study The Great War and Modern Memory. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons partly concerns itself with the effect of the coming of the automobile on small-town Midwestern life. George W.S. Trow’s glinting essay “Within the Context of No Context” captures television’s insidious displacement of older social orders.
Here we find a cusper talking about the bewildering, yet perspicacious experience of finding oneself uniquely able to look forward and back into otherwise discrete sociocultural eras, across the “rupture” between one generation’s habitus and the next’s. Note that Lethem also mentions Ford Madox Ford (1873), Paul Fussell (1924), and George W.S. Trow (1943) — all of whom are cuspers mentioned elsewhere on this page.
Pre-19th century cuspers: e.g., Jane Austen (1775).
Born in the first half of the 19th century: e.g., Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804); Alexis de Tocqueville, William Lloyd Garrison (1805); Mikhail Bakunin, Mikhail Lermontov (1814); Ada (Byron) Lovelace (1815); Wilkie Collins, George MacDonald (1824); Thomas Henry Huxley, Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825); Edward Burne-Jones, Félicien Rops (1833); William Morris, James McNeill Whistler, Ernst Haeckel (1834); Henry James, Gabriel Tarde (1843); Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Verlaine, Henri Rousseau (1844); Vincent Van Gogh (1853).
Born in the second half of the 19th century: e.g., Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, James Frazer (1854); Edvard Munch, Paul Scheerbart (1863); Max Weber, Miguel de Unamuno, Zo d’Axa (1864); Alfred Jarry, G.E. Moore, W.C. Handy, J.D. Beresford, Ford Madox Ford (1873); G.K. Chesterton, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Nicholas Roerich, S. Fowler Wright, Karl Kraus, Amy Lowell, Harry Houdini, and Gertrude Stein (1874); Franz Kafka, Max Fleischer, Rube Goldberg, Anton Webern, Edgard Varèse, William Carlos Williams, and Jaroslav Hasek (1883); Bronislaw Malinowski, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Marie Vassilieff, Gerald Gardner, Abraham Merritt, Hugo Gernsback, (1884); Mayakovsky, Dorothy Parker, Wanda Gág, Anita Loos (1893); E. E. Cummings, Claude Cahun, Martha Graham, EC Segar, James Thurber, Jack Benny, Dashiell Hammett, and Aldous Huxley (1894); Mark Rothko, Walker Evans, Joseph Cornell, Yasujiro Ozu, Cyril Connolly, Countee Cullen, George Orwell, Nathanael West, Evelyn Waugh, Cornell Woolrich, T.W. Adorno (1903).
Born in the first half of the 20th century: e.g., Salvador Dali, S.J. Perelman, Jacques Tourneur, Edgar G. Ulmer, A.J. Liebling, Pablo Neruda, Dr. Seuss (1904); Albert Camus, Paul Ricoeur, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Walt Kelly (1913); William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar, Sun Ra (1914); Norman Mailer, Hugh Kenner, Italo Calvino, Roy Lichtenstein, Joseph Heller (1923); Jean-François Lyotard, Paul Feyerabend, Terry Southern, Paul Fussell, E.P. Thompson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ed Wood, William H. Gass, Tony Hancock (1924); Susan Sontag, Bruce Conner (1933); Gloria Steinem, Joan Didion, Guy Peellaert, Fredric Jameson (1934); R. Crumb, David Cronenberg, George W.S. Trow (1943).
Born in the second half of the 20th century: e.g., Martin Jay, Bill Griffith (1944); Alan Moore and Jim Jarmusch (1953); Alex Cox, Luc Sante, Kurt Andersen (1954); Simon Reynolds, Mark Kingwell, Justin Bond, Quentin Tarantino (1963); Michael Hirschorn, Jonathan Lethem, Dan Savage, Adam Yauch, DJ Run and D.M.C., Joss Whedon (1964); Dave Chappelle, Madlib (1973); Stephen Merchant and Marco Roth (1974); Micah White (activist, came up with the idea for Occupy Wall Street), perhaps Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (1982); Amy Winehouse, Jesse Eisenberg (1983); Miley Cyrus (1992).
I’ve left many names off this list. But it’s fascinating to see that Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich, who pioneered hardboiled and noir fiction, respectively, are cuspers; as are dystopian novelists Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Not to mention many particularly insightful historians, economists, science fiction authors, and humorists.
And — didja notice? Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn are cuspers, born a decade apart. They’re both fascinating, insightful social and cultural critics; their joint project, Inside.com, was way ahead of its time.
My generational periodization scheme is only a half-serious one. But it gets more convincing all the time.
What do you think?
Yeah, Hirschorn and I are cuspers, true, but it’s maybe worth noting that I had a bunch of OGX cusper collaborators at Spy. In fact, pretty much everyone at Spy except my dear boomer co-founder Graydon Carter (b. 1949) was an OGXer.
Thanks, Kurt. In the post I did on OGXers, I make it clear that you’re an OGXer, not a Boomer. But having a foot in either generation, as it were, must have been formative for your particular sensibility? At the late, great Spy, for example, perhaps you were uniquely capable of mediating between Carter and everyone else…
Benjamin Kunkel writing about Fredric Jameson’s new book,”Valences of the Dialectic,” for the LRB on 4/22/10:
From today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review: Tom Bissell, author of EXTRA LIVES: WHY VIDEO GAMES MATTER, “was born in 1974, which puts him on the cusp of gaming’s generational divide. That transitional position affords him a perspective not unlike — if you’ll indulge the grandiose analogy — that of Tocqueville or McLuhan, figures who stood on the bridges of two great ages, welcoming the horizon while also mourning what the world was leaving behind.” — Chris Suellentrop, an editor at The Times Magazine, has obviously been influenced by the only correct generational periodization scheme!
“For many women, and not a few men, the publication of Friedan’s book [“The Feminine Mystique,” 1963] was one of those events which seem, in retrospect, to have divided the sixties from the fifties as the day from the night.” — Louis Menand, “Books as Bombs,” New Yorker (January 24, 2011)
“Those years — 1965-1973 — were the American High Sixties. The Vietnam War was in overdrive through most of the period; the US economy was fat and bloody; academic imperialism was as popular as the political kind.” — John Barth, from a 1984 retrospective preface to his 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion.”
Eric Hobsbawm’s “The Age of Extremes” (1994) claims a US/Western Europe “golden age” of prosperity (during which relatively high ;evels of income throughout society made possible a high level of consumption of goods of all types) lasted from 1945-1973.
Arthur Marwick isn’t the first to talk about a “long sixties” running from roughly 1958 to 1974. He claims the era is characterized by: (1) “the great profusion of new movements, new ideas, new social concerns and new forms of social particiaption, the passion for experimentation, for pushing matters to extremes, and for, of course, challenging established ways of doing things, exemplified by experimental drama, art, poetry, and music groups, New Left, civil rights, anti war and environmental-protection movements, the philosophical pronouncements of the structuralists and post-structuralists, the situationists and of Marshall McLuhan and Timothy Leary, in which excess was succeeded by still further excess.” (2) an upheaval in personal and family relationships and in public and private morals, subverting the authority of men over women and parents over children, and entailing a general sexual liberation. (3) the rise of the unprecedented influence of young people; Marwick claims that youth culture of the period presented “a shifting accommodation” between the imperatives of hedonism and activism, or consumerism and politicization. (4) the enormous growth in the international exchange of cultural products and practices. (5) Absolutely fundamental to the cultural revolution of the long sixties was the “spread to all sections of society of decent living conditions (which is linked to, but not the same thing as, consumerism).” (6) The expansion and strengthening of a liberal, progressive presence, privileging tolerance and due process, within institutions of authority. (A dramatic change from the McCarthy era.) (7) The existence of circumstances leading readily to dogmatism, rigid intolerance, and extreme violence. Certain upholders of the status quo were incited into violent resistance against change; many radical protesters believed in violent overthrow of existing society and/or provoking police violence.
Christopher Leigh COnnery talks about the “World Sixties” — which begin with the rise of third-worldism as a political force at Dien Bien Phu (154) and end with the conjuncture of the end of the post-War expansion (1973-74), the September 11 bombings ending the Allende regime (1973), the end of the Vietnam War (1975), the death of Mao (1976). [from The Worlding Project]
Marianne DeKoven’s very useful book “Utopia Limited” claims to coin the phrase “long sixties,” “extending from the late fifties to the early seventies; from the heyday of the Beat movement and the rise of popular youth culture to Watergate.”
Fredric Jameson’s “Periodizing the Sixties” and Fredric Jameson, Anders Stephanson, and Cornel West’s “A Very Partial Chronology” in The Sixties Without Apology are the strongest conceptualization of the long sixties.
Arthur Marwick claims that he coined the phrase “The Cultural Revolution of the Long Sixties” — c. 1958-74. See above; also see his essay “1968” and the Cultural Revolution of the Long Sixties (c. 1958-c.1974) in Transnational Moments of Change. Also see his The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c. 1958-c.1974. This is a period not merely of economic recovery and growth (vs. Hobsbawm) but also multiple and enduring social and cultural change. Note that he distinguishes (in The Sixties) between three sub-periods, 1958-63, 1964-68/9, 1969-74.
In a 1988 book, “Postmodernism and its Discontents,” E. Ann Kaplan credits Jameson with charting a caesura from the beginning of the “long Sixties.”
Jameson’s “Periodizing the Sixties” (in The Ideologies of Theory) notes that thinking in terms of historical periods and working with models of historical periodization are theoretically unfashionable. He notes that cultural periodization need not imply some massive homogeneity or identity within a given period; he also notes that a period is simply “the sharing [i.e., by a generation] of an objective situation.” He goes on to say that he is not arguing that the sixties had an organic unity on all levels, but rather “a hypothesis about the rhythm and dynamics of the fundamental [shared] situation in which those various levels develop according to their own internal laws.” By rhythm he means that certain regularities appearing in, say, the cognitive, aesthetic, or revolutionary fields, also appear in widely different fields — because all fields are reacting to the same objective situation.
Jameson traces the beginning of the sixties to the movement of decolonization in British and French Africa. 1957 — independence of Ghana; 1961 – agony of the Congo; the Battle of Algiers – 1957. Reaction to their countries’ colonial wars helped give rise to the two most powerful student mass movements of the sixties, in the US and France. He notes that the US also had a sort of decolonization movement, which began with sit-ins in North Carolina in 1960 (though it could be argued the civil rights movement began in 1954). The First World’s “inner colonized” — “minorities,” marginals, and women — would struggle against colonization during the sixties.
This argument suggests, to me, that the late 1950s and even early 1960s part of the “long sixties” is a different period — part of a “long fifties” that isn’t properly conceived by historians of the sixties. Decolonization, that is, marks a Fifties period (my hypothesis: 1954-63) articulated by a political rhetoric of self-determination; inner decolonization marks a Sixties (my hypothesis: 1964-73) articulated by a psychological and cultural rhetoric of new collective “identities.” (I’m borrowing Jameson’s formulations.) During the 1964-73 period, anti-colonialism (old-fashioned imperialism) shifts to anti-neocolonialism (the invention and construction of a new kind of imperialism). Cultural revolution becomes a strategy for “breaking the immermorial habits of subalternity and obedience which have become internalized as a kind of second nature in all the laborious and exploited classes in human history.” Jameson himself suggests there is a difference between the early part of the “long sixties” and the later part when he says things like “It was as though the protracted experiences of the earlier part of the decade [e.g., the Vietnam War, technocratic dynamism, the Communist party’s resistance to de-Stalinization, the tremendous expansion of the media apparatus and the culture of consumerism] gradually burned into the minds of the participants a specific lesson.”
Jameson also suggests that the long sixties begins in part with the merging of the AFL and CIO in 1955 — the merger was a triumph of McCarthyism, an expulsion of communists. I’d instead suggest this is one of the starting points of the Fifties.
Jameson claims the assassination of JFK in 1963 was a major turning point — for future New Left activists. Yes — I’d suggest it’s one of the moments that marks the end of the Fifties and beginning of the Sixties.
Jameson suggests the long sixties ends with the dashing of the hopes of new (sixties) social forces — for Thirld-Worldism, awareness of institutional corruption and militarization after, e.g., the Chilean coup of 1973. He notes that the black movement and women’s movement in the US both enter a period of splintering and exhaustion in 1972-74. This period marks the end of the sixties, for Jameson.
Excerpt from a review of Will Hermes’ “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” (whose subtitle calls the period from 1973 to 1977 “Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever”) in today’s NYT:
Mr. Hermes, a senior critic at Rolling Stone and frequent contributor to The New York Times, has isolated a crucial, if sometimes awkward, period of transition in American music, hitherto dismissed as “a cultural dead zone,” and his painstakingly nuanced preface argues only that the figures he discusses “were breaking music apart and rebuilding it for a new era,” not that such an era had yet arrived.
His principal figures include the uptown D.J.’s Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash; the downtown club D.J.’s David Mancuso and Nicky Siano; the punk-rocking Ramones and New York Dolls; the so-called minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich; the salsa musicians Willie Colon and the Fania All Stars; and the post-Coltrane jazz players David Murray and Anthony Braxton. They were all “young iconoclasts on the edge of the mainstream,” whose “DIY moves,” Mr. Hermes writes, “would grow into movements that continue to shape music around the world.” Like Louis Armstrong or Hank Williams or Elvis Presley before them, they were engaged in “taking the lousy hands they’d been dealt and dreaming them into music of great consequence.”
“In a word, a lot was going on, the times around the end of 1913 and the beginning of 1914 were momentous indeed.” — Ulrich, in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.
People think of the 1990s as “The Grunge Era,” musically. But Grunge was just putting the nails to 80s hair-metal and other excesses.
The 90s should properly be remembered as the rise of electronic dance music, the rise of hip-hop and the new RnB, and for the boy bands.
the 00s will be remembered as the time hip-hop was the mainsteam, EDM continued to expand, and the boy bands were replaced by the lone girls.
We’ll see what the 2010s have in store…(please don’t let it be a legion of Mumford and Sons, cod-folkie bands!)
Richard Perez-Peña —
“There is no baby boom generation.
Oh, sure, there was a baby boom: a neatly defined, pig-in-the-python bulge from 1946 to 1964. But the kind of broadly shared cultural experiences that could bind together people across that whole span? That just didn’t happen.”
“The end of the war in Vietnam makes for one especially sharp dividing line: In 1973, the cease-fire was signed, United States forces withdrew, and the last American draftees were inducted.
If you were an early boomer, even if you were not drafted or shipped to Vietnam, you had friends, classmates or relatives who were. The fathers you knew had served in World War II, and probably thought their sons should answer the call, too. The war was a raw, central presence in young people’s lives, and in the nation’s cultural and political battles.
Late boomers like me had none of that — no war, no draft, no defining political cause, and most of our fathers were too young for World War II. I remember, as a teenager, seeing old footage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and thinking, “People my age don’t feel that strongly about anything.””
Another line between the eras runs through the bedroom. It’s not that premarital sex, casual sex and even anonymous sex, were unknown in earlier times. But when early boomers were teenagers in the back seats of their cars, it was understood that sex was dangerous.
Then came the birth control pill (first marketed in 1961, but because of various state laws, not universally accessible until 1972) and legal abortion (Roe v. Wade was in 1973). They helped create a window of time, 10 to 15 years, when, for the first time, people could convince themselves (and many did) that there could be sex without consequences.
Macroeconomics form another dividing line, also in the early ′70s. By then, nearly all of the first-half boomers had finished school and started their working lives. They had lived through a period of historic economic growth, when it seemed a rising tide really did lift all boats.
People just a few years younger grew up with that kind of prosperity, but it evaporated when they reached the age to seize it. From 1973 to 1982, the United States suffered through three recessions, two energy crises, inflation and high unemployment — a disillusioning time to establish a career.
Things were different still for those of us at the tail end of the boom. We grew up with the pessimism of that era, but we entered the work force during the ‘80s boom, when the tide lifted many boats but not others.
In “Striking a jangly chord: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ at 50” Mark Feeney writes:
“If ever there was a cusp movie, it’s “A Hard Day’s Night.” What starts out feeling a lot like the ’50s (that dingy rail terminal, cramped train compartments, tatty variety-show numbers) quickly shifts into the ’60s. By the end, the movie becomes so up to the minute that Roman numerals aren’t used in the copyright listing in the closing credits. The future has arrived. It’s not far from Arabic numerals to “Norwegian Wood.”
“A Hard Day’s Night” may even allow us to date the exact moment when the Swinging ’60s started. It’s when the Beatles explode out from a cramped TV studio on to an open field. They cavort, frolic, and otherwise cut loose to the strains of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Beatlemania already existed. This is something different, something both more potent and enduring: Beatle-liberation.”
“To keep costs down, “A Hard Day’s Night” was shot in black and white. That helps account for the ’50s feel. But it’s also part of the ’60s feel, too. The ’60s saw the birth of cinéma vérité and the flowering of the French New Wave. Both very much inform “A Hard Day’s Night.” In a very vérité way, director Richard Lester’s use of handheld camera is masterful, not least of all in seeming so unobtrusive. He also avoids tracking shots. The flashiness is almost always in the editing. Jump cuts were a legacy of the New Wave, thanks to Godard, and so was a sensibility that joined tenderness and insolence, thanks to Truffaut. Think of “John et Paul et George et Ringo” as “Jules et Jim” multiplied, and with a happier ending. If only a part could have been found for Jeanne Moreau!”
“Horizontal gives way to vertical as the movie progresses, as ’50s do to ’60s. But always, always, the movie’s at an angle.”
Post by Sarah Laskow at theatlantic.com:
Soon, Millennials, we will be overtaken. The trend pieces have already started defining the upstarts, the next generation. As Millennials replaced Gen X, and Gen X replaced the Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers replaced the Greatest Generation, we, too, will be replaced by the Youth of Today.
This is not, however, some ancient aging curse that’s afflicted humanity since the beginning of history. Societal generations are a relatively modern idea, hit upon by 19th century European intellectuals and refined in the beginning of the 20th century.
Back in 1979, the historian Robert Wohl (now an emeritus professor at UCLA) took a close look at “the phenomenon of generational thinking” in The Generation of 1914. Before the 19th century, generations were thought of as (generally male) biological relationships within families—grandfathers, sons, grandchildren and so forth. But in the 1800s, that started to change, Wohl wrote:
One can trace its progress in dictionaries. During the early 19th century the term “generation” was used primarily to signify either the relationship between fathers and their sons or contemporaneity. The French lexicographer Emile Littré defined a generation in 1863 as “all men living more or less in the same time.” In the second half of the nineteenth century the term was employed increasingly to connote coevals, and especially to evoke the dichotomy between the older generation and “youth.”
The roots of this idea came from the work of French and German philosophers who were, the sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote in 1927, “anxious to find a general law to express the rhythm of historical development, based on the biological law of the limited life-times of man.”
But the idea of societal generations became particularly compelling to young intellectuals living in European cities in the early 20th century.
It helped them, first of all, explain why their own era-defining creative and philosophical pursuits were important and special—they, the rising generation, were pushing society forward! Each generation had a shot, and this was theirs. Here’s the Futurists, for instance:
The oldest among us are not yet 30 years old: we have therefore at least 10 years to accomplish our task. When we are 40 let younger and stronger men than we throw us in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts!
But it also created a framework in which to explain some of the sweeping changes happening, anyway: More people had the luxury of a life stage between childhood and adulthood; those young people had their own distinct politics; technology and war were outmoding whatever wisdom their parents might have offered. Mannheim put it like this: “Youth experiencing the same concrete historical problems may be said to be part of the same actual generation.”
Is this actually a helpful way of grouping people? It gets more complicated, as Mannheim pointed out, when you start considering that people do not react to their particular historical conundrums as a monolithic group. This is often where trend pieces get into trouble, when they start attributing one possible reaction to the group as whole. (“Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists”; “In contrast to the view that millennials are lazy and entitled, millennials are extremely optimistic…”)
To the extent that a “generation” is a helpful way of organizing thoughts about larger group of people, maybe it’s a simple as this: These are the people who share your problems. Some of them might have come up with solutions that work for you, too. But some of them might just happen to have been born “more or less” when you were.
From Luc Sante’s NYRB essay about Patti Smith:
I went back many times after that, observing the band filling out and the songs taking shape. Meanwhile, the club was becoming the epicenter of a phenomenon that before year’s end had come to be called “punk,” in reference to the primitive teenage rock and roll of the mid-1960s, which had been surveyed in a 1972 anthology, Nuggets, compiled by Kaye. The house aesthetic matched the simplicity and directness of that music, and virtually every one of the bands that played CBGB covered the classics of the genre, often at the beginning of sets as ritual invocation and starting gun. The Ramones played the Rivieras’ “California Sun”; Talking Heads played Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears”; Television played the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Smith and her group yoked her poem “Oath” (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins…”) to “Gloria,” a 1964 standard by Them.
Note the years in the subtitle of Mark Greif’s new book:
“The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973”
Kairos, the theologian Paul Tillich wrote in 1963, expresses the feeling that “a moment of history had appeared which was pregnant with a new understanding of the meaning of history and life…. In the original meaning—the right time, the time in which something can be done—must be contrasted with chronos, measured time or clock time. The former is qualitative, the latter quantitative.”
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