The Terrible Twenties? The Assholocene? What to Call Our Chaotic Era

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In the winter of 2020, on one of my aimless, frigid quarantine walks around my silent neighborhood, I remember being struck by a thought: did a medieval European peasant know that he was living through what is now widely known as the Dark Ages? Was there some moment when he leaned against his hoe in the fields, gazed up at the uncaring sky, and dimly perceived that he was unlucky enough to have been born into a bad century, perhaps even a bad millennium, too late for classical antiquity and too early for the Renaissance? I was sympathetic toward that notional peasant, because I was feeling the same way. The tide of history was overwhelming; I was minuscule, my life brought to a terrifying standstill by an airborne virus. I thought that if the humans who survived into the year 2500 looked back on my era, they would see it as cursed or benighted, the beginning of a downward slide.

Of course, that was before rioters broke into the Capitol on January 6th of 2021 to try to overturn the election of President Biden; before Russia invaded Ukraine; before artificial intelligence became both a public tool and an imminent societal threat; before a summer of climate-change-induced floods and fires ravaged cities around the world; and before, in October of this year, Hamas attacked Israel, prompting a catastrophic war in Gaza and destabilizing the global geopolitical order. Some have argued that the aggregate events of recent years call for a new label that we can apply to our chaotic historical moment, a term that we can use when we want to evoke the panicky incoherence of our lives of late. Such coinages usually happen in retrospect, but why not start now? Think of it as a universal excuse: It’s hard living through the _______, you know?

During the past weeks, I’ve been casting about to see what ideas are already out there. Suggestions I’ve found include the Terrible Twenties, the Long 2016, the Age of Emergency, Cold War II, the Omnishambles, the Great Burning, and the Assholocene. The novelist William Gibson coined “the Jackpot” in his 2014 novel “The Peripheral” for a near-future period of intersecting apocalyptic crises, when everything seems to be happening at once. In 2016, the scholar Donna Haraway deemed our time the Chthulucene, inspired by a word derived from ancient Greek, “chthonic”—of or relating to the muddy, messy, impenetrable underworld. The artist and author James Bridle titled their 2016 book on technology and our collapsing sense of the future “New Dark Age,” taking a phrase from H. P. Lovecraft.

For Bridle, our era is defined foremost by the utopian promise of the Internet and the subsequent disappointment. Online life has befuddled more than enlightened us. The New Dark Age is “an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity,” Bridle writes. Part of what feels so particularly jarring about living right now is our ability to follow news events everywhere in the world at once as they’re broadcast in real time on social media. The crush of stuff happening only underscores our lack of agency in relation to it. “In history, humans as animals have lived in uncertainty and helplessness, but we haven’t had it demonstrated to us on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s hard psychologically to deal with it,” Bridle told me. In the past few years, the term “new dark age” has been used to encompass the decay of democracy and the increasingly blatant impact of climate change. The name represents “a smack in the face to the idea of progress. That there can be a dip in the line—that alone terrifies people,” Bridle said.

Yet “dark age” itself is something of a misnomer. It was coined in the fourteenth century by the Italian writer Petrarch, who used it to describe not widespread civilizational decline or chaos but a lacklustre literary culture in his own time and place compared with classical antiquity. The sixteenth-century historian Caesar Baronius used “saeculum obscurum,” “dark age” in Latin, to describe the scarcity of historical records from tenth-century Europe—not that the period necessarily sucked, just that it was a blank—which is certainly not a problem in our current age. According to Larisa Grollemond, an art historian and curator of medieval manuscripts at the Getty Museum, the name reinforces a stereotype of the medieval millennium as “a time of sickness, of plague, of a stagnation in art and culture.” But, Grollemond said, the so-called Dark Ages were also marked by the rise of universities, mechanical clocks, the printing press, astrolabes, crop rotation, and mead. “I think there’s darkness about every age,” she continued. “It’s a very human thing to want to find yourself in history. I don’t think we will ever stop periodizing.”

The urge to name reflects the urge to understand. In February, Liz Lenkinski, a social strategist in Los Angeles, began referring to our era as the Age of Unhingement in conversations with friends. The phrase stuck, and she started an Unhingement-themed newsletter. “It makes me feel saner to talk about it,” Lenkinski told me. She traces the dawn of the Age of Unhingement to the election of Donald Trump, but sees its true expression in post-pandemic times, as we’ve been confronted with the realization that there are more horrors to come, and there is little sense of normalcy to return to. This knowledge can cause a kind of spiritual infirmity. “The unhingement comes from not being able to know what’s next,” Lenkinski said. “Since 2020, it feels like we have all just collectively been through one nightmare after another.” The emergencies vary drastically in scale, impacting every facet of our lives: news about climate change commingles with that of warfare, inflation, and supply-chain delays, not to mention everyday incidents like neighbors stealing your Amazon packages. “If you’re staying attached to the status quo right now, you will be unhinged, because there is nothing there,” Lenkinski said.

Artificial intelligence threatens the status quo in ways that can be hard to predict. Already, the technology makes humanity start to seem somehow irrelevant: if A.I. can do everything we can do, what purpose do we have left? But when I asked ChatGPT to offer its own snappy name for our times, the results were ineloquent (The Epoch of Disarray), overly optimistic (The Resilience Renaissance), or self-aggrandizing (The Algorithmic Ascendancy). None had the requisite compressed poetry or catchiness of a global meme. When it comes to labelling our era of technological supremacy, the tech itself is not yet up to the task—which perhaps we can count as a small win for humanity.

There is something paradoxical about trying to pin a name on an age characterized by extreme uncertainty. In 2001, the late philosopher Svetlana Boym coined the phrase “off-modern”: “Today postmodernism is dead and we are not yet nostalgic for it,” she later wrote. “There is something preposterous in our contemporary moment which we do not know how to describe.” This problem of unknowability calls to mind a quote that is often trotted out on social media, from Slavoj Žižek’s translation of Antonio Gramsci’s nineteen-thirties “Prison Notebooks”: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” The critic and novelist Namwali Serpell told me that the quotation appeals to her in this moment, even though Žižek’s translation is slightly unfaithful to the original. The phrase “now is the time of monsters,” Serpell said, “allows us to think about the ongoing eruption of multiple atrocities, without engaging in a largely futile blame game.” She continued, “The monstrous is what cannot be predicted or anticipated or decided in advance, the unthinkable in the offing.”

A sense of historical chaos might just be a perennial phenomenon, a cultural pendulum that swings forth every so often without much grounding in reality. (“Perhaps we really do live in a time which begets nothing but the mediocre,” Michel de Montaigne complained of France, in the midst of the Renaissance.) Faced with a name like the Terrible Twenties, many people might point out that humans today are in some ways far better off than they’ve ever been: life expectancies are up, on the whole, compared with a century ago (though they dipped during the pandemic); extreme poverty has sharply declined. It seems possible, though, that both interpretations are true simultaneously: we are living through a time of unprecedented health and prosperity and through a time of historic anxiety and calamity.

The historian and writer Adam Tooze told me that around 2016, he began observing European Union officials, including the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, describing refugee issues, Brexit, and security threats using the term “polycrisis,” which was established by the French philosopher Edgar Morin and his co-author Anne-Brigitte Kern in the nineties. One paper defines the term as “any combination of three or more interacting systemic risks with the potential to cause a cascading, runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects.”

Tooze became persuaded that there was something to this bureaucratic vocabulary after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. In October, 2022, he débuted as a columnist at the Financial Times with a piece titled “Welcome to the world of the polycrisis,” and he has remained a champion of the term ever since. Humanity has never faced anything like the combination of climate change, the rise of a vastly powerful industrialized China, and the “total collapse of the neoliberal paradigm,” he said. “It is a non-repeating pattern; it’s a one-way street into radical unhinging,” he continued. Tooze isn’t a pessimist, per se. “We aren’t on the point of World War Three, I don’t think,” he said. Rather, the polycrisis is “really saying that we are going to get no sleep; there is an endless frantic race to keep up with the pace of change.”

The modern era, the long twentieth century, offered a kind of teleology of progress, a line on a chart going upward and to the right. Systems worked; certain logical frameworks—for markets, for politics, for labor—reasonably applied. “What if the gravitational center is just kind of lost?” Tooze asked. “There isn’t any longer that anchoring; we drift in a permanent state of being out of equilibrium.” Defining any kind of era implies that the era may at some point come to a close and make way for another coherent stretch of time. Tooze told me that he tries to resist that kind of “stability thinking.” Our current age is not dark; it may simply not be an age in the first place, because a linear, finite period of historical time may be an outmoded framework for our current reality—in which case, the scariest part would be that it doesn’t require a name at all. We just have to live through it. ♦


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