The spirit of an age: Confusion and alienation

In his writings, W.E.B. Du Bois refers to the “spirit of an age” at least once explicitly, and numerous times implicitly. The “spirit of an age” is the essence, energy, or character that characterizes a particular time period. It is the prevailing mood or personality of a given historical moment.

One might argue, for instance, that the spirit of the age of the mid-1950s to early 1970s was one of mass-struggle, as movements for self-determination or social justice were being waged in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. These movements ran parallel to the state manifesting varying degrees of reform and/or suppression, as these struggles challenged its basic legitimacy.

Similarly, the 1980s and 1990s, and to some extent the 2000s–in the U.S. in particular–were characterized by the ascendance of acquisitiveness, consumerism, and materialistic impulses. All of this was paralleled by a reconfiguration of the state, greater economic insecurity, globalization, and the rapid ascent of technological revolutions in the areas of telecommunications, finance, and commerce.

I would argue that our present moment, the 2010s, is characterized by abounding confusion and alienation, as the “progressive” politics of our day reinforce an untenable status quo in the forms of appeals to reform, despite the fact that we have reached a point in the development of the U.S.’s political-economy where reform is wholly insufficient to move progressively from the current state of things to a truly emancipatory order. In fact, and in many instances, the politics of identity, are advanced as if they were the apex of critical discourse. While appeals to identity may be viscerally appealing to some, liberatory movements must ultimately offer both a critique of and alternative to the existing order. Thus even the most aggressive, seductive, or irrepressible movements of our time are generally insufficient to either disrupt, dismantle, or problematize an increasingly dangerous neo-liberal capitalism, a recalcitrant white racism, or the fratricidal violence of communities that function as almost de-facto sites of “internal colonialism”. This is because, I ague, that these movements, and much of what comprises this cultural moment reflects “abounding confusion and alienation”, and that this myopia is, generally, inescapable and endemic.

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