In Cultural Periods and Styles we’ll be working within the Modern Era, or roughly from 1492 to the present. This span of years is, in itself, a traditional periodization, one that foregrounds two related events of that year. The first, odds are, you already know: the Columbian “discovery” of America. The second is equally as important in world-historical terms and has a particular resonance with the contemporary (another periodization) geopolitical scene: the Reconquista, or the moment when the last vestiges of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula were extinguished. That latter process took centuries to unfold and ended with the expulsion (ethnic cleansing) of almost the entire Muslim and Jewish population of Al-Andalus. Notably, then, historians of the Modern Era have often chosen to emphasize not only the opening of the “antipodes” as the projection of “Western” power (in all its forms: military, technological, political, etc.) but Europe’s reconsolidation against the “foreign” element of Islam.
The key features of the Modern Era (or what we could call, thinking about the condition of being modern, Modernity) are not, however, limited to military conquest and exploration. One of the most important aspects of Modernity is the rise of capitalism, from its earlier mercantile forms to the Neoliberal (or Neoclassical) variant that you and I now live under. As we’ll see, particularly when we begin to read Wolfgang von Goethe’s William Meister’s Apprenticeship, the advent of new ways of organizing socio-economic life had a profound impact on people at both “micro” and “macro” levels– i.e. in their everyday lives and more comprehensively in terms of the configuration of the planet as a whole. Other, related developments include the gradual formation of a phenomenon that most of us take completely for granted: the unitary, transcendent Self that constitutes the basis of our social and political identities.
The Modern Era may be subdivided into smaller periodizations, an activity which we’ll undertake though always with the caveat that periodization itself– the act of dividing history into units– is necessarily a partial and provisional project, one that– as Toohey suggests– invariably reflects the preoccupations of those doing the periodizing. Our task here is to attempt to periodize even as we retain some distance from the assumptions that have generally guided periodization. So, for example, we can meaningfully discuss the contours of Modernity in light of the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution, the Romantic Period, the Progressive Era, the Machine Age, etc.– though we always need to be aware of what particular perspectives are being privileged by those periodizations. All of the above designations are suspect because they are the product of un-theorized or tendentious assumptions about history and culture. They reflect the investments of particular disciplines and ideologies, institutionalized ways of thinking about the world that may not accurately or justly represent conditions on the ground. Such errors may be the product of silences and gaps– ignorance about various aspects of historical process. Generally speaking, periodizations are also geographically limited and culturally specific. The Meiji Period names an historical epoch in Japan. What relevance does that label have for people living in West Africa or the Southern Cone? Even further, the geography of periodization is itself uncertain: “the West,” “the Islamic World,” the Orient,” “America,” etc. Our goal here is to de-naturalize these concepts, to underscore their contingency, their interestedness.
One of the first questions we’ll need to ask is how we construct a period. By economy, wars, technology, culture? If the latter, what does it mean to think of history in terms of culture? How do we relate an artefact produced in a period with the period itself? In order to pursue this fool’s errand we will take what seems to be a fairly uncomplicated category– Youth– and examine specific texts, practices and values which contribute to its formation. Note the last word of the previous sentence, which is indispensable to any lucid engagement with history and historiography (history writing): formation indicates a process. A concept such as Youth changes dramatically over time even as some of the core cultural values associated with it may persist. It is a formation because it is not “done,” not complete. Youth is inflected by its context, by the historical and social forces which largely determine its meaning and how it will be experienced by those who are considered young. Lifting a phrase from Fredric Jameson, we can conceive of this process as a matter of the playing out of a larger cultural logic. In many ways the culture we live in tells us what makes sense, what works or what is impossible. The teenager, high-schooler, college student or adolescent of the 21st century is the product of a contemporary cultural logic which was not operative in, say, Plato’s age, the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BCE– in spite of the fact that in many of his dialogues the youth of Athens feature quite prominently.
This recognition of the mutability of ideas and their significance is meant to function as an admonition to be wary of presentism, of “reading backwards,” of focusing on only those artefacts that seem to influence the development of the concept or object of inquiry. In other words, if we view the present as the necessary outcome of the past– if we maintain against all good sense that the world could not have turned out any other way– then we run the risk of imposing our own cultural values, our own ideological commitments, onto the past and trashing any chance we might have of understanding history. Presentism is a form of historiographical narcissism, of talking about history while looking lovingly in the mirror. The required readings for this course definitely skirt the edges of such a presentist view, of allowing those current values that we attach to the Youth Concept to determine our cultural sources. Hamlet, for instance, a central fictional figure in “Western” culture, seems to suggest a set of attributes associated with youth even now: indecision, gloom, alienation. Yet those characteristics represent only one aspect of a larger, often contradictory image-system pertaining to Youth. Youth is also held to be impetuous, effervescent, and sentimental. Youth, then, in structuralist terms, is something of a “floating signifier”– an unstable aggregate of cultural values, desires, and prohibitions that can mean many things at once. (In any case, Hamlet may not turn out to be as young as he might seem.)
So: what is Youth? According to accepted definitions (ex. UNESCO), Youth means people from the ages of 15-24. But could it be that youth has less to do with a span of years and more with a structural position certain people inhabit? Certainly in the 21st century Youth Culture occupies a central position with regard to culture in general. By way of experiment go to Forever 21 and count the number of customers who are either “tweens” or well into their 30s or 40s. Or go to a show and observe the crowd. Cultural practices such as fashion and listening to music which are generally identified with Youth have been appropriated by people who– in terms of their lifespans– are not young at all.
Again: the preliminary questions that we need to ask are perhaps obvious: What is Youth? What are the cultural valences of Youth? What characteristics are ascribed to or associated with Youth? What does it mean to be young, now or during the English Renaissance? Can we generalize– if not globally then at least within a national context, or in relation to that vexed category “the West”– about the experience of Youth? How do various collateral terms for Youth– naif, ingenue, “street Arab,” teen, etc.– expand out understanding of the Concept? And always, the core question, one we’ll ask repeatedly: What is the relation of culture (text) to history (context)?