Friday, May 28, 2010

How long is 20 years?

A few thoughts on the pace of generational time

Something I've long thought about but struggled to put into words:

We all know that time can be measured objectively -- that a minute is sixty seconds, a day is twenty four hours, a year is 365 days and so on. We also know there are wrinkles -- that there are leap years, that calendars have been periodically adjusted (eighteenth century calendars were about three weeks apart before the whole western world adopted the Gregorian) and so on. And yet we also know that time is experienced in as a subjective reality -- that it flies and drags, that a year seems like an eternity when you're a child and that a decade feels instantaneous when you're old, and so on.

But collective time, which we tend to think of as objective, is also experienced as subjective -- and yet is experienced as subjective in a weirdly objective way.  For example, however we define that era we know as "the sixties" (which can be dated as beginning as early as the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 or as late as Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974), the period is one where we tend to agree social change seemed to be accelerated. That, in effect, what "the sixties" means: time of rapid change. Similarly, the pace of change was literally revolutionary in North America between 1763 and 1783. At the start of that period, we had thirteen colonies clearly anchored to Great Britain. When it has ended, a new nation had constituted itself. Washington Irving captured this astonishing pace of change in his story of Rip Van Winkle, in which a sleeping man reawakens to a whole new world.

In other generations, at least in retrospect, time seems to move more slowly. A lot happened in the United States between 1875 and 1895, but would anyone say that the period was as decisive as, say, that between 1855 and 1875? In 1875, the United States was a rapidly industrializing country. In 1895, the United States was, well, a rapidly industrializing country. Sure, presidents had come and gone, and the process of creating a segregated Jim Crow South had culminated. But that's sort of the point: a process had happened in what seemed like a relatively steady way.  A regrettable and even hateful process in this case. But not one that was especially rapid or notable in terms of pace.

Of course, in many other cases -- and maybe in the ones I'm citing here was well -- the speed of change is arguable. That's not only because some generations are not as obviously as fast or slow (what might you say about 1915 and 1935, for example?), but also because your notion of speed will vary depending on the particular issue or lens that is your standpoint (1980-1900 may not mean much if you're talking about party politics in the United States, but a good deal more if you're talking about foreign policy, and Eastern Europe in particular).

So my question is this: Is it possible to speak of something like "twenty year-ness?" That we can speak of a fast twenty or a slow twenty? Would it be possible to make the perceived pace of time passage a focus of inquiry? If so, what would it look like?

Oops: I'm out of time. Gotta get to class. It took me about fifty minutes to write this post, longer than it should have. We'll call it a slow fifty. But it seemed like a relatively worthwhile way to spend an hour.

Time as (economic currency). Something you spend. What would Confucius say about that?