Saturday, 9 January 2010

The History of Now

The broadcast media is very taken with its lists and retrospectives, and this week the BBC has added three more documentaries to the ever growing heap of attempts to diagnose our times. That said, The History of Now were slightly more highbrow than your Most Annoying People of 2009 and The Greatest Songs of the Noughties as the accent was on social trends and cultural phenomena, rather than the ins and outs of Katie Price's bedroom.

The first episode looked at how aging had been redefined in the 00s, examining the differences between the generations, the extension of adolescence into "kidulthood" and "middle youth". The second focused more on celebrity, class and social mobility. It talked about how the extension of cheap credit had stimulated a consumerism driven by the godheads of celebrity. It made the interesting point that the instant and seemingly easy routes to contemporary fame actually masked declining real life social mobility. For every young man and woman plucked from obscurity for a "career" in the glossies, millions more rare doomed to modestly paid work with little or no prospects of advance. The last discussed the impact globalisation has had on British society, covering everything from mass immigration and multiculturalism to the Washington-London axis in international relations.

There's no real need to produce in-depth reviews seeing as they are available on BBC iplayer, at least for the next week or so. But there are a couple of problems with
The History of Now.

The first of these is standpoint. The talking heads were, in the main, well remunerated white male journalists and academics. This fitted the perspective of the documentary very well - it was more a
middle class history of the 00s than anything else. Nearly everything was prefaced with a catch-all "we" - we all globe trotted thanks to cheap air travel. We all spent hundreds of pounds a month chasing the latest fashions. We were all property mad. We all benefited from the boom before the crash. And we all had a jolly good titter at the vulgarity of the chavs.

The second problem is the way the 00s are represented as radically discontinuous of the 1990s. I don't think this is the case at all. Multiculturalism figures more now than it did at the turn of the century in hegemonic narratives, but all the basics were there - the cultural battle against overt forms of racism, sexism and homophobia had made massive advances by 1999. Ditto the universality of popular culture and the spread of consumerism - both of which had been established by the late 1980s. It was surreal listening to arguments about the decline of class identity in favour of consumption-led tribalism as if this was a new thing - I remember studying exactly the same ideas as an undergrad in the mid-90s. Post-Fordism and the '
New Times', anyone? (And of course, with the yawning inequality gap and frozen social mobility, it is very difficult to pretend class "doesn't matter").

The History of Now completely misses *the* defining characteristic of the 00s, if there is one. The 00s has been a decade of introspection. As instantaneous communication and economics has compressed time and geographical space, British society has simultaneously turned itself inwards, as if engaged in a bout of existential soul searching. The endless list programmes about best music and TV, the explosion of surveillance technologies (including voluntary self-surveillance exercised via Facebook, Twitter and blogging), reality TV, and environmental anxieties are all suggestive of a culture interested in what it is and where it is going.

This notion itself is nothing new either. There was a time
Anthony Giddens used to make notable contributions to sociology. Among these was his understanding of reflexivity - that modernity (i.e. modern industrial/post-industrial civilisation) was, thanks to the break down of existing class and community relations and the development of new technologies, becoming progressively self-aware. Its capacities for recognising the problems society faces grows - however, while risks can be identified how they are met are a matter of politics (it is however a weakness of Giddens' approach that he pays insufficient attention to the structural reasons why some identified problems go unresolved - climate change is the example par excellence).

So if you're in a reflexive mood, these documentaries are well worth watching. But best keep your critical spectacles on.

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