A quarter of a century ago, the whole idea of utopia seemed irredeemably sullied. At the start of the 1990s, the largest social experiment in human history – the USSR – imploded, and with it went the notion that imagining a radically different society was a serious activity. It seemed that the rewards of such experiments were always so enticing that genocide inevitably ensued.
That was the lesson drawn from any totalitarian regime informed by the highest (or lowest) idealism: the Khmer Rouge, the Videla regime in Argentina, Nazi Germany, you name it. Back then, it was thought best not to fantasise too much about a better world, but to learn to live in this one. The academic and political atmosphere in the 1990s was decidedly pragmatic, rather than optimistic. It was an era in which the liberal democracies celebrated (prematurely, of course) “the end of history”. The story of humanity was a march to freedom, we were told, and we had arrived. This was as good as it got, and the idealists and unrealists should stop fantasising, because it was a dangerous hobby.
Nearly half a century later, we find ourselves at a different sort of crisis point. Radical literary experimentation continues, but it has become the privilege of a few. In Barth’s day, a robust welfare state supported writers. Public patronage programs provided new classes of Americans with the resources needed to write and, through financial support, enabled them to take aesthetic risks. The upshot was a more diverse literary world—racially, politically, and aesthetically.
But times have changed. No longer supported by the state, today’s writers must meet market demands. Those who succeed often do so by innovating no more than is necessary. Many of today’s most celebrated writers marry experimentalism with accessibility; they produce prize-winning fiction with just a dash of formal excitement, enough to catch the eye of cultural gatekeepers but not so much that it renders a work unmarketable. They forge aesthetic compromise and favor political consensus. Their work reassures readers more often than it unsettles them. This isn’t so much bad literature as boring literature. After all, what’s more exhausting than reading, time and again, experimentation you’ve come to expect?
Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macroeconomist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.
In “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” Gordon doubles down on that theme, declaring that the kind of rapid economic growth we still consider our due, and expect to continue forever, was in fact a one-time-only event. First came the Great Inventions, almost all dating from the late 19th century. Then came refinement and exploitation of those inventions — a process that took time, and exerted its peak effect on economic growth between 1920 and 1970. Everything since has at best been a faint echo of that great wave, and Gordon doesn’t expect us ever to see anything similar.
For the last 20 years, Helle Helle’s novels and short stories have made her a star in her native Denmark, where she regularly receives awards and acclaim. Denmark is also where, according to her biography, Helle “lives in a forest.” What a fittingly magical dwelling for Helle, who — judging from her first novel to be translated into English, “This Should Be Written in the Present Tense” — has enchanting gifts as a storyteller.
What were the ‘90s? They were a world without our conveniences, and therefore, a world with a lot more mystery. Much of audiences’ fascination with the era is something like suppressed wonder at how anyone navigated adulthood without these devices and repositories of knowledge; even though, as we have discovered, an interfaced world is its own set of problems.
There are only two ways the human body can deal with the invading pathogens and infections that can cause colds and other illnesses – and neither involves vitamins or ‘superfoods’ that claim to offer protection.
The 1996 film about an Italian restaurant in the 1950s is a ‘cultural milestone’, says Mario Batali – and it foresees the future of the business.