There was, I suppose, a universal sigh of relief when New Year 2017 ticked over and the world left the Year from Hell. We like our arbitrary calendar dates.
Reality seldom conforms. After all, Lemmy Kilmister kicked off the big celebrity die-off that marked 2016 on Boxing Day 2015. A friend of mine suggested that this is when the Year from Hell really started.
This is a general truism for all history, of course, which largely flows around human-driven events and trends. They, too, don’t respect the arbitrary ways in which we divide our calendar, despite the way we popularly refer to a turning year or century as an arbiter.
Eric Hobsbawm – one of the best historians of our age – took that to its obvious conclusion with his two seminal works on the ‘long’ nineteenth and ‘short’ twentieth centuries. Keep the terms, he insisted, but let’s adjust the dates to match the socio-political trends that defined them.
For Hobsbawm, the nineteenth century began in 1789 with the French Revolution, the sea-change that essentially set what followed over the next century or so on its way. And it didn’t end until 1914, when the First World War erupted and broke that ‘old order’ almost completely. Hobsbawm’s twentieth century was defined by the political divisions into which the world fell after 1918 – western capitalist, totalitarian fascist, and totalitarian communist. Their oppositions, and the wars that followed, did not end until the Soviet Union crumbled and the Cold War was officially called off. So for Hobsbawm, from the perspective of political change and ideology, the twentieth century was a ‘short’ one that lasted only from 1914 to 1992.
There are many other ways of dividing things up – all of them valid relative to the reference frame. We could equally look at how technology affected society, dividing the last few centuries through pivotal inventions such as steam locomotives, electricity and the information age. Those give ‘fuzzy’ results: the effects developed incrementally over years, and there’s no single year we can point to as pivotal. But there’s no question about their effects.
Here in New Zealand one of our top historians, Paul Moon, has taken the same idea and inversed it, exploring our own past by decade. His question was what can we learn if we DO use our arbitrary calendar as an organising principle behind the analysis. Of course he came up with some sharp answers and an insightful new history of New Zealand. Innovative thinking at its best.
As for 2016 cutting off, mercifully, as 2017 rushed in on January 1? For all these reasons, I don’t think we’re over ‘2016’ yet. Given what’s been set in motion generally around the world, some of which seemed to come to a head in 2016, I wonder whether it will eventually be seen as one of the pivotal dates of the twenty-first century. Not a colossal shift-date like 1914 was to the twentieth, but one of those sorts of years where things happened that had consequences later. More like 1922 really. Or maybe 1933. We’ll see.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017