The eras we live through

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The word postmodern bugged me for years. No one I asked could give me a definition I could understand.

The dictionaries I searched through were not much help. Postmodernism was defined as “…reacting against the theory and practice of modern.” I looked up modern: “breaking with the past….”

So, it seemed to me they meant the same thing, postmodern just more of modern. All that the moderns or postmoderns had to do was make a break from the rules of the prior generation. Why there had to be two words meaning the same thing confused me.

The modern era lasted from the late 1800s into the 20th century. It did help women. The corset had to go, as did that ridiculous bustle. And riding sidesaddle. They got out of long skirts so they could wear bloomers to ride bicycles. (Scandalous.) Women could travel alone. Women could march in the streets! Which helped get them the vote.

Many men were appalled, but that old arc of history was rising so fast they couldn’t stop it. Males were okay that the new unions made life tolerable for working folks of both genders, however, as well as shaming employers into paying them enough of a wage so their children weren’t obliged to work.

“Modern” had been a word used in particular for artists and writers who saw new ways to express themselves, breaking away from old rules of color and form; but although modern art began before the first world war and continued after, it was the drastic effects of modern warfare in WWI that defined the era. It was “the war to end all wars” that made people question not just art and bustles but all traditions, morals, religion itself, all of which had guided behavior for eons.

Post-war, the world went even a little wilder – the dance craze called the Charleston, women smoking, people drinking and drunk in public, women becoming more and more outspoken in print, demanding more equality in their lives. Quite a few men actually liking that change.

Then the Great Depression hit, and economies came to a halt across the globe.
It was around this time –mid 1930s – that the word “modern” began to fade. The new word that took over was “postmodern.”

The postmodern era, defying more tradition than the modern era, moved in forcefully after WWII, with its lethality of blitzkrieg killing and massive genocide. The war’s violent splintering of any kind of belief in anything accelerated change, even as it forced us to protect ourselves from our inability to keep up with change. The brief period of hope after this war degenerated soon enough into cynicism in general and suspicion of government in particular.

It took signing up for a class in postmodernism for me to make sense of it, to make sense of the times I lived in. The industrial revolution of the 17- and 1800s changed life more than it had changed in thousands of years. By the time I grew up in the latter half of the 1900s, things were changing by the decade, then by the year. As the century turned, the revolution of cyberspace – computers, information technology, social media, virtual reality – began to change life by the moment. In our lifetimes, more changed than had changed in all of recorded history. Nothing stayed the same because the “anything-goes” attitude became the reality called the postmodern era, a reality that was pro materialism with little time for a spiritual breath.

And then 9/11 hit us in that place of fear that twisted us again.

We were already cynical in our anything-goes understanding of life, but that attack and massacre did something that I’m just beginning to understand: it shoved us into an even more jaundiced view of humanity.

A few years later we experienced a brief break when the country attempted civility in electing its first African-American president. And when that was over, those who were outraged that a person of color got elected before they themselves did? Well, they struck back and elected a symptom, an example of our cynicism.

Some call this era “neo-Modernism.”

To me, there is no modern about it at all. It’s simply a return to pre-Enlightenment. When Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 1600s described the world he lived in as incessant fighting which created life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish….” he thought that a halt to nationality might humanize humankind.

That ushered in the Enlightenment, which about 130 years later prompted a handful of people to make a big point about all humans being born equal and all of them worthy of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. Cool stuff.

For two and a half centuries, this idea worked variously well…and here and there, not at all. Right now, we’ve moved into a “not at all” period, a bit of a mishap stage, rampant brutish behavior, so much solitariness and too many poor people, nasty words flying, ill will from all sides, bad decisions being made, too many reverting to type.

With thoughtfulness and perseverance – and I feel I’ve got to bring in luck for these behaviors that are in slight regard right now – we may get back on the we’re-all-in-this-together track of the Enlightenment.

Postmodern? Neo-modern? A new word already out there defining us? Like Anthropocene maybe? A new astrological era? They’re said to influence the rise and fall of civilizations. So, the Age of Aquarius? It’s defined as a rise of democracy, freedom, humanitarianism, idealism, philanthropy and veracity [that last is a funny one].

I don’t know that we can or want to stop the juggernaut that is invention. In 2004, for example, there were 356,943 patent applications filed.* But along with all the new discoveries maybe we can rediscover and make real that little phrase that pointed out that we “all are created equal.” And this phrase, you know, is beginning to include the birds and the bees, the air and the water.

This really makes some people nuts.

*U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

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