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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Stranger Than We Can Imagine – Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by John Higgs (FP: 2015)

As one of my drives behind my non-fiction reading being 50%+ history is to understand how we got here (and what we can do about it) a title offering to make sense of the last century is hard to resist. So you won’t at all be surprised that it didn’t stay in my un-read pile very long at all.

The first thing I couldn’t help to notice (and comment upon) was a delightful coincidence – one of my favourite things to be honest. In my previous read [Future Crimes] the author mentioned at the end of the updated paperback edition the latest hacking example to hit the US: The Sony Hack apparently in response to the upcoming comedy about North Korea. Here, in a different book, by a different author and on a different topic the narrative started with the author accidently triggering his phone in a bookshop to broadcast President Obama’s reaction to the Sony Hack. I was suitably impressed by the cosmic synchronicity.

But to the book itself… The author stated plainly from the beginning that he had no intention of trawling over the well-trodden ground that countless historians and others had worked over in trying to catalogue and (hopefully) understand the most documented and debated human century so far. What he proposed instead was to pick a handful of normally avoided areas (using the metaphor of deep dark and seemingly menacing forests) and look at the century through their lenses and, of course, he started with a doozy – Relativity. Starting with the century itself this idea, culturally shattering in its way, destroyed for ever the foundations of physical certainty. Despite the efforts of the greatest minds of the century that particular Genie has steadfastly refused to approach the bottle never mind agree to climb back inside. If that wasn’t enough the art world gave us Modernism at around the same time which proceeded to dismantle the very idea of art itself – not only painting but music and literature all fell under its spell and nothing has quite been the same ever since. With the certainty of Science and Art under sustained attack the equally supportive pillar of politics couldn’t be far behind. The wars of the 20th century where not only the bloodiest in our already blood soaked history but managed to shatter the very idea of Imperialism and the apparently natural hierarchies on which world spanning Empires where built. After 1918 the few remaining Imperial Powers were living on borrowed time and they knew it. Those who tried to bluff their way against the flow of history (I’m looking at you France) where very quickly disabused of the notion that Empires could be rebuilt or held on to by force.

With the collapse of certainty and the rise of cultural relativity it is no great surprise that the 20th Century could, without too much of a stretch, be called the Age of the Individual with Freud’s idea of the Id in charge. Free expression, Free love but no such thing as a Free Lunch was the feeling of the era epitomised by the rise and increasing veneration of the Teenager who came to prominence from the 1950’s with their strange ways and their Rock & Roll music. Likewise the 20th century was the Age of Space changing global perspectives forever with the iconic picture of the ‘Blue Dot’ and giving renewed impetus to the burgeoning Environmental Movement and the idea of a fragile Earth in need of protection. Not surprisingly the 20th Century embraced Science Fiction in all its guises, as novels, movies and comic books. With so many possibilities, both dark and glorious, what other literate genre could speak for the Age? Seemingly spinning out of control as the decades passed the 20th Century gave us the Uncertainty Principle (if we were not uncertain enough already), Chaos Theory and, of course Post-Modernism. Could things get any stranger…..?

But can such a diverse and dynamic century be made sense of with only 15 or so years of perspective? Apparently so…. Apart from an insightful and delightful style throughout this frankly brilliant book full of interesting ideas, often seemingly crazy people and (without the benefit of hindsight) bizarre events the author proposed a view of the century I hadn’t heard before. He essentially said that the 20th century was a unique time existing, in a kind of liminal state, between two epochs. Prior to 1918 humanity had lived through age after age of Empires and Hierarchies. People were born into their place and, by and large, lived and died there. The First World War brought most of them crashing to the ground and the Second World War finished off the rest. After around 1990 to world increasingly became a world of Networks where hierarchies became redundant dinosaurs surrounded by agile, fluid, spare of the moment, ad hoc concentrations of power and ability that flashed into existence, performed the task at hand and vanished into thin air. This, the author proposes is the future that will leave the remains of the last century behind as an example of a unique short-lived age which had a brief existence sandwiched between two all-encompassing global paradigms. We will never, he says, see its like again. It’s an interesting thought that I shall have to mull over for a while. This is a book chocked full of interesting observations, fascinating (and often very strange) people, lots of humour and an underlying brilliance that supports it all. One of my Top 10 books of the year. Highly recommended.


Mudpuddle said...

Higgs certainly has more faith in the human race than i do... it's nice to know that there are some, deluded tho they might be, out there who don't think modern life is a series of increasingly dire disasters that will inevitably end in total destruction/armageddon/ragnarok...
"cosmic synchronicity": like it... i've speculated that the quantum universe has a mind of it's own...

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book. The book sounds so interesting and worthwhile. I love what I call "big - picture" books that try to make sense of the world at large.

I really would like to give this a read.

CyberKitten said...

@ Mudpuddle: Oh, he wasn't completely optimistic as such. But his overall tone was reasonably positive. There's going to be elements of the bad 20th around for a while but, once the network kiddies take power, things will be a lot different. I doubt if everyone born in the TwenCen will like it though!!

@ Brian: Thanks. I think you'd like it. He has a lot of interesting and thought provoking ideas with thinking over. I too like 'big-picture' books. They really help to give things much needed context.