The best review of the last decade that I heard was a conversation on the Irish Times Inside Politics podcast between Hugh Linehan and Fintan O’Toole. It is interesting throughout, as The Browser is wont to say. If it starts out slowly, even reflexively, by the time it gets to culture it has moved to a different level.
I don’t want to spoil it. But here’s a clue. Fintan O’Toole suggests that the long-form TV series is the distinctive cultural form of the 21st century, and then looks at the big difference between The Sopranos (the big series of the ’00s) and Game of Thrones (its equivalent in the ’10s).
There are different ways of reading The Sopranos, including as a metaphor for destructive and extractive capitalism, but O’Toole observes that despite the nature of the work, the characters still have inner lives.
Game of Thrones? Not so much. O’Toole wrote an extended essay about Game of Thrones a few months ago, and you can say what you like about the characters, but they have no inner lives. What you see of their desires, what you discern of their motives from their actions, is what you get.
On the surface
In their conversation, Linehan and O’Toole make a connection between the leaders we have for the moment ended up with, certainly in the UK and the USA, who likewise show little evidence of an inner life. Linehan, I think, also suggests that this is one of the deep second-order consequences of the world wide web: everything has become surface.
I’m speculating here, based on listening to their conversation. But if this is true, and if this is a shift, and not just a cultural moment or cultural beat–then it is a deep shift. It suggests, at least potentially, that we are moving away from the Enlightenment values that sit beneath most European and North American societies, and beyond.
Or to put it the other way around: the invention of the novel, in the 18th century, was about finding ways to write about the notion of the inner self.
Of course, it’s easy to be hasty about such things. Stewart Brand’s pace layers model reminds us that culture is one of the slow stabilising layers. (Fast proposes, slow disposes). It runs at a clock speed of several hundred years. As Brand notes:
Culture’s vast slow-motion dance keeps century and millennium time. Slower than political and economic history, it moves at the pace of language and religion. Culture is the work of whole peoples… In Europe you can see it in terminology, where the names of months (governance) have varied radically since 1500, but the names of signs of the Zodiac (culture) are unchanged in millennia.
In the model, only Nature moves more slowly than Culture. But culture does change. The least we can do is notice when we see possible signs that things might be changing.
The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast episode can be heard here.