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Sunday Pages: "Radio"
A poem by Therese Lindsey
The late historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose books subdivide European history into various “ages,” popularized the concept of the “long 19th century.” While the literal 19th century goes from 1801-1900, the 19th century as a distinctive period of historical time begins, he says, in 1789, with the French Revolution, and ends in 1914, when the First World War begins. Hence, “long” 19th century.
Yesterday on Bluesky—my Musk alternative social media platform of choice—Jacob T. Levy, the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill, suggested that the 90s, as a decade, were similarly “long”: the grunge era “lasted from the fall of the Berlin wall in autumn ‘89 until September 11, 2001,” he wrote. “The 70s were long; they lasted from the Tate murders in August ‘69 until ‘Xanadu,’ August 1980. (That leaves only a short 1980s.)”
Whatever cultural marker we use to draw the boundary between the 70s and the 80s—I would go with the end of the Iranian hostage crisis, which neatly and not coincidentally aligns with Ronald Reagan taking office—there is a pretty clear cultural distinction between the two decades, between bell bottoms and Lacoste shirts with the collar up. Levy then posed a question: “How do you carve up the 2000s/ 2010s/ 2020s?”
He added: “It doesn’t help that the 2000s have had fewer clear, large-scale, culture/ pop culture markers. By 1992 I remember people having ‘80s clothes’ theme parties; could do 60s & 70s too.”
In college, we would host “retro 80s” dance parties. That was in 1996-7, around the time The Onion published one of its greatest fake news articles: “U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past’”:
According to [Anson] Williams—best known to most Americans as “Potsie” on the popular, '50s-nostalgia-themed 1970s sitcom Happy Days before being named head of the embattled Department of Retro by President Clinton in 1992—the U.S.’s exponentially decreasing retro gap is in danger of achieving parity with real-time historical events early in the next century, creating what leading retro experts call a “futurified recursion loop,” or “retro-present warp,” in the world of American pop-cultural kitsch appreciation. . . .
Such a warp, Williams said, was never a danger in the past due to the longtime, standard two-decade-minimum retro waiting period. “However, the mid-’80s deregulation of retro under the Reagan Administration eliminated that safeguard,” he explained, “leaving us to face the threat of retro-ironic appreciation being applied to present or even future events.”
“We are talking about a potentially devastating crisis situation in which our society will express nostalgia for events which have yet to occur,” Williams told reporters.
The retro singularity, thankfully, didn’t come to pass. Rather, the two-plus decades of our current century all kind of blur into one another. For example, there is no distinct, easy discernible musical style separating the 2010s from the 2020s. Do we just use Taylor Swift eras as dividing lines, like how Great Britain put different portraits of Queen Victoria on the pennies as she aged? That would be 2006-2012—her debut to the release of Red; and from Red until…Folklore and Evermore in 2020? Midnights last year? Her first date with Travis Kelce? It’s not clear.
“I always figured the sense of the 2000s/2010s being a blob is because that’s when I raised kids and just time passing differently as we age,” wrote Robin Broshi. “I hadn’t considered they were actually a blob.”
Then Andy Craig, the director of election policy at the Rainey Center, in response to Borshi, turned the question on its head. “Or that perhaps the decades from roughly the 50s to the 90s were the unusual outliers in terms of distinct turnovers in fashion and music and such,” he suggested. “Makes sense because each roughly aligned with an unusually large change in media. Early TV / late broadcast era / cable / internet 1.0 / social media, and the last has kept going longer so far.”
I have long had a theory that each generation becomes fixated on the technological advancement that took place as it came of age. For example: my grandparents, born in 1911 and 1912 respectively, watched TV all the time. I don’t think this was because they loved the programming. I think they watched TV because they were, on some level, even in their old age, astonished that TV existed. For Baby Boomers, it was the VCR. You can watch a movie in the comforts of your own living room! Gen X had the personal computer, which evolved in a proverbial eye-blink from giant contraptions that required multiple floppy discs to operate to portable laptops. Millennials had early social media and WiFi and streaming; Gen Z, the proliferation of smartphones and the ability to broadcast. The Alphas, poor chaps, have AI.
Because of the exponential acceleration of technology, it’s easy to forget that for most of human existence, everything was more or less static. The printing press was invented in the mid-15th century. Books—which required literacy to read and money to access—were the prevailing media for hundreds of years. Nowadays, pretty much all the cultural stuff we consume we consume via technologies that didn’t exist until very recently. My great-great-grandfather, Stefan Olejar, came to New York from a flyspeck village in Eastern Slovakia in the 1880s. He left a place that was essentially medieval for a gleaming city with electric lights. I can’t even imagine what he must have thought, alighting that ship. I mean, that was the stuff of science fiction!
The first non-print media to change the American cultural landscape was radio. In the First World War, the tech was used by the military for communication, but was unavailable to the common human. That changed in November 1920, when, after several fits and starts, a station in Pittsburgh broadcast a presidential debate between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. After that it was off to the races.
The Texas-born poet Therese Lindsey was 50 years old in 1920. Influential then if obscure now, she studied at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, was an active member in various international poetry organizations, and co-founded the Poetry Society of Texas. I stumbled upon her verse in The Book of American Poetry, a 1934 anthology edited by Edwin Markham, that I picked up at the Elting Library Book Fair. Here is the short poem Lindsey wrote about the earthshattering technological breakthrough that happened when she was my age:
We have picked the pocket of silence. By this feat
Is set another pace for light to beat,
With coil of silk-covered wire to snare a song
Between whose breaths a thousand miles belong!
We brand our sounds and loose them pigeon-free
And practice on them some new falconry.
The lines capture the marvel of the new invention, but temper this feeling of awe with a sort of cautious foreboding. Like any new medium, radio is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.
“New falconry” as a metaphor for wondrous technological advancement is chef’s kiss perfect. The new medium soars above us, beautiful and graceful and unknowable—but it’s also potentially lethal. Humans control it, but they also don’t. The image of the falcon also invokes the famous Yeats poem “Second Coming,” published the year before that maiden radio broadcast:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
Falcon, falconer, falconry.
Later, in her Collected Poems of 1947, Lindsey revised the lines:
We brand our sounds and loose them pigeon-free,
And practice on them some new falconry.
We have coined the content of the wind by sleight;
We have picked the pocket of silence. This serenading
Discloses sound to be as fleet as light,
This miracle which we have overtaken,
This weird contriving through the Vast with man,
Suggests no heaven’s too strange for him to reach
Or God to plan.
What does the future hold for us now, a hundred-plus years later? What strange heaven will we reach? What new falconry awaits us, to mark with razor talons the coming decade from the last?
Photo credit: The Other Kev via Pexels.
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