The Trouble with The Current Year: Looking Beyond Chronological Snobbery
C.S. Lewis, in his autobiography, deserves credit for popularizing the term “chronological snobbery”: this being the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age, and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” With the rapid ascent of the information economy, and the elevation of tech industry innovators to the new priestly caste, there seems to be an unprecedented thrust to make this “uncritical acceptance” the intellectual coin of the realm, and to progressively discount the ideals and attitudes of previous eras as having nothing to say to us now. For tech firms in particular, this fits in amazingly well with a business strategy of planned obsolescence: a steady diet of chronological snobbery helps the bottom line by stoking anxieties over “crucial” software and hardware upgrades. However, chronological snobbery is not at its most pernicious in the case of planned obsolescence, which most will probably recognize as a “necessary evil” or an evil outright. A greater danger is the condition Robert Beum identified as “the progression of history towards a condition of euphoric perfection that will be brought about by social and physical action under the hegemony of science and technology”.[i] The idea that technical progress provides proof of social and ethical progress is one that is less and less challenged in the public sphere, along with the idea that these advancements are all accumulating towards that “condition of euphoric perfection”.
It’s understandable that such sentiments would be a regular feature of electoral politics, since bold proclamations of a sweeping, imminent utopia typically generate more enthusiasm on the ground than appeals to meliorism or small-scale reductions in human suffering. Yet, in an era where few aspects of culture are not politicized, it can be difficult to make a clear distinction between chronological snobbery as promoted by state actors and that being produced by cultural creators. In order to understand the pervasiveness of this attitude, there is no need to look any farther than the common pop-cultural trope of mocking ideological opponents by reminding them it is the “current year”.
There have been countless attempts to portray this straw man argument as an exclusive province of the political left: the now-infamous exasperated shouts of “it’s 2015!!!” by left-leaning comedian John Oliver lend some credence to this, as do adoptions of the same phrase by both American and Canadian heads of state. The political opponents of all the aforementioned, meanwhile, have delighted in mocking these proclamations of 2015 as the apex of material and ethical progress, given the apocalyptic electoral defeat suffered by the Left in the following year (none other than Oliver may have contributed to this, by goading Donald Trump to participate in the presidential race).
However, this sort of ‘recent-ism’ is a truly bipartisan phenomenon, and this attitude interestingly illuminates the convictions that both the political Left and Right hold in regards to the flow of time. The progressive worldview more or less hinges upon the idea of an idealized future, in which human relations will be strikingly different (e.g. more egalitarian) from what we have all previously experienced. As Beum suggests, the conservative worldview also seems to view the present as an inconvenient transitional phase towards an idealized future, one in which supposedly time-honored traditions of hierarchy are given another chance to thrive. Seen against this background, battle cries of “it’s the current year!” show that the idea of inevitable and irreversible techno-social progress has a full-spectrum hold on the public imagination, regardless of what shape its ultimate victory takes.
With this in mind, one of the observable dangers of “current year”-ism is that it seems incapable of anticipating reversals of either social or technological progress within civilizations. At its worst, having faith in the moral goodness of “the current year” means projecting the civilizational advances of the speaker’s culture — whether these are either real or imagined — onto the entire world. As we have seen, the expectation of a uniform attainment of progress has led to numerous occasions when civilizational advances have been violently reversed by Western intervention. The strategy of “destroying the village in order to save it,” as once applied to Vietnam, has been carried over into multiple 21st-century experiments in nation-building or corrective violence directed at the always expanding list of “rogue states”. It’s worth wondering how much “the current year” counts for in, say, Libya, where a typically short sighted Western campaign of regime change transformed a nation with some of the highest educational attainment in Africa to one in which the open air slave trade has been re-instituted. This ill-advised and ostensibly “progressive” adventure shows the sheer destruction that occurs when chronological snobbery becomes embraced as a universal, objective truth.
There is certainly an ugly irony at play here: for one, bombardment campaigns of “liberation” aimed at bringing some rogue state up to “current year” living standards of the hegemonic superpower often result in catastrophic damages that put such living standards even further out of reach. More damningly, though, these police actions originating within the “current year” West highlight just how hollow a conceit chronological snobbery truly is. Actions such as the Libya campaign resurrect the same traditions of imperialism and colonialism that the West’s liberal intelligentsia habitually denounces as an outmoded excrescence of international relations.
If anything, the projects of imperialism and colonialism have only changed in their technological character: the moral justification for such has not shifted appreciably from the “white man’s burden” ethos of past centuries, with its implication that other sovereign nations are too stupid and morally deficient to eventually arrive at workable solutions to their own internal crises. With technical and social progress being seen as two interlocking strands of the same DNA, it is all too easy to condemn those who have failed to join the first world in both those respects as being willfully defiant of the Greater Good. Bringing “backwards” nations up to speed both morally and technologically may not be the explicitly stated casus belli when mass outbreaks of Western corrective violence occur, but highlighting their deficits in these areas is a reliable strategy of the propaganda machine that whirs to life in advance of any such assault.
Now, we don’t have to stray into the realm of geopolitics to find evidence of how chronological snobbery can diminish the experience of living authentically, even as it offers a feeling of pride to those who feel they can boast of having cut every possible cord to the past. I would argue that the explosion of the modern therapeutic industry is one proof that techno-social progress is not the “across the board” achievement of positive effects that its most evangelical proponents declare it to be. At the very least there is a push-pull dynamic between the satiation of existing desires and the creation of new ones, a trend that can be witnessed in the expanding catalog of modern paraphilias and the division of entertainment media into ever smaller niche markets catering to ever finely articulated social identities. I’ve proposed elsewhere that the aforementioned boom in the therapeutic industry, particularly that considerable segment of it tasked with treating anxiety-related issues, can be partially attributed to the need for constant self-justification brought about by social media saturation and a 24-hour news cycle. Having to prove oneself worthy of existing in the “current year” only exacerbates this intensification of anxiety, and a sense of participating in a historical enterprise makes the pathological levels of validation-seeking all the more difficult to control. In an era where fifteen minutes of unmonitored solitude is more difficult to achieve than fifteen minutes of fame, it is difficult not to crack from the pressure to be continually relevant. This becomes compounded by the feeling that not doing so means not only failing in the present, but also failing to contribute significantly to a grand historical narrative.
So what, exactly, can be offered as an alternative to a world in which massive amounts of physical and psychic collateral damage always follow in the wake of progress? Herbert Read, the anarchist intellectual and critic once dubbed “the Pope of Modern Art”, laid out a conception of progress that would be quantified by “the degree of differentiation within a society.” Elaborating further on this, he stated that
If the individual is a unit in a corporate mass, his life is not merely brutish and short, but dull and mechanical. If the individual is a unit on his own, with space and potentiality for separate action, then he may be more subject to accident or chance, but at least he can expand and express himself. He can develop — develop in the only real meaning of the word — develop in consciousness of strength, vitality and joy.[ii]
Put more simply, the concept of progress that Read suggests is “measured by richness and intensity of experience — by a wider and deeper apprehension of the significance and scope of human existence”. It is a vision of the world that, when examined deeper, suggests an expanded role for artists and creators in defining the boundaries of progress, something Read apparently believed in enough to predict “the origins of a new religion will be found in art rather than in any form of moralistic relativism”.[iii] Moreover, this is a vision of the world that bases quality of life upon the degree of free play and experimentation extant within a culture. While Read’s “deeper apprehension” can be brought about by a confluence of technological and social advancements, this is not essential to this process, and in many cases can hinder the “degree of differentiation within a society”. Can we, for example, really say that our perception of the world is the best it has ever been, when our reliance on handheld computers blunts most of our senses in order to create a purely “visuocentric” understanding of reality? Are we really experientially richer in a time when heavily moderated platforms for online communication attempt to act as a stand-in for activities like physical travel? Does our ability to consume exabytes of data amount to a genuine increase in real actionable information, or has it just led to a confused cultural landscape in which new creative forms exist mainly to mirror that confusion?
Though all of the above are open for debate, I submit that any vision of progress, insofar as it is the enemy of stasis, needs to consider the aesthetic dimension of human existence and not confine itself to the technological benchmarks we so often cite as the basis for the moral goodness of the “current year”. Our aesthetic faculties can continue to develop, unlike other forms of inventiveness, in both times of necessity and times of relative ease: even in the face of natural disasters or violent conflicts that disrupt our advanced technology, this type of qualitative progress can still find some way to manifest itself. More importantly, it can continue to develop independently of long-term plans or historical narratives. Nurturing these faculties means reaping rewards in the present that techno-social progress perpetually pushes back to a later date. As such, the “current year” is only really valuable when we approach it as artistic and philosophical beings, and appreciate it for being the only point on the historical timeline that we truly experience: not for being the latest step towards a tomorrow that never comes.
[i] Beum, Robert. “Modernity and The Left: An Equivalence”. The Georgia Review, Vol. 27, №3 (Fall 1973), pp. 309–320.
[ii] Read, Herbert. “The Philosophy of Anarchism”. The Anarchist Library, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/herbert-read-the-philosophy-of-anarchism. Accessed October 14, 2018.