Monday, 16 April 2018

Periodisation and reform

Someone put up on Facebook the other day an article about our habit of periodisation: giving names to different generations of people coming through in society. So we might talk about Baby Boomers or Millennials with the same familiarity as we talk about the music of the 1970s or of the 1990s. We do it with ease and facility. It’s almost second nature in fact. And so some people are asking whether it is still useful to use such labels to classify people despite the existence in their character or education of attributes that might clash with the stereotypes we hold about them.

And it made me think about periodisation in general and what purpose it serves, and has served in the past. It occurred to me that the big categories that we use to segment recorded history – like “Renaissance” and “Enlightenment” – were first developed in the 19th century by scholars working in academia. This was a time of important reform movements in Europe inspired by the American Revolution of the previous century. The English Chartists of the 1830s through to the 1850s pressed their government for electoral reform so that a larger number of people could receive the franchise. The British establishment also took steps to remove the Test Acts, which had for centuries excluded Catholics from holding public office, from the statutes. Big changes were afoot, so big in fact that they served to ensure in the long term the stability of the constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom, while kings and princes on the continent would lose their crowns over the ensuing years as communities pushed to take power that was not voluntarily ceded to them.

Queen Victoria appeared at the beginning of this period in the UK, and her reign has become emblematic for the reform movement for many writers. Also notable at the time was a man named William Morris, who with a group of friends in 1848 formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the first art movement. The Romantics who inspired Morris and his friends had not applied that sobriquet to themselves, and as often as not it had been used as a form of opprobrium by critics. The difference this time was that the Pre-Raphaelites applied the name to themselves quite openly.

It was done in a spirit of reform and in opposition to the industrial economy with its machines and poverty, that surrounded them. The painters in the group admired Medieval stories and took as their model in painting the early Renaissance painters of northern Italy, such as Giotto and Mantegna. Morris would go on to convert his interest in manufacturing to found the Arts and Crafts movement, a group of thinkers who wanted to tame the excesses of design in the industrial age. They felt among other things that the form of an object should follow its function, and this impulse would in later generations inspire the continental thinkers who founded the Bauhaus, which led to what we know now as Modernism in architecture.

This process of critique and synthesis that is characteristic of modernity started therefore during a time of intense change as technology altered the delineations of people’s lives in Europe and America. We still live in the shadow of such men and women today. Essential to the process is the ability to talk about what you are interested in, and it is in the context of this need that periodisation appears. If you cannot name something you cannot discuss it and therefore you cannot improve it. Making names to measure time and segment it through the use of manageable and widely-shared semantic referents is essential to the process of reform and improvement, which should always be out goal as we move onward tied to that crazy arrow, Time, which despite what we are told by scientists seems only ever to travel in one direction.

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