Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Not really" trends

Over the St Patrick's Day weekend Irish television featured a number of programmes about Irish national identity and changing Irish attitudes. A common theme here was the division of Irish history into three broad periods:

1) Early independence when Irish people were emerging from many centuries of Protestant British domination. The narrative here is that the Irish Catholic majority were suspicious of government because it had been so long associated with the hated British. Economic stagnation, cultural repression under a Catholic conservatism, and mass-emigration led to a deep national insecurity. Pessimism and cynicism became the norm.

2) The Celtic Tiger period, when the economy boomed, Irish cultural exports became popular abroad, and migrants began to pour into the country. Here the narrative is that there was a new sense of economic and cultural confidence among the Irish. Riverdance made Irish dancing, which many remembered from stiff and sexless schoolday jigs, assertive and sexy. Overcome with excitement over the boom and easy credit, people spent wildly, grew uncharacteristically optimistic, and arrogant.

3) The economic crisis since 2007, which reset back to the default Irish setting of emigration, cultural and economic shame, and contented pessimism!

Discussion around this tried to relate specific cultural products to the eras from which they emerge. Riverdance, as I mentioned, seemed symbolic of the new assertive Ireland. The assumption underlying all this seemed to be that most Irish people were deeply responsive to the large-scale economic changes, and that personal opinions and attitudes and interests were moved by the macro-level societal changes.

I was full of doubts about this because my own tastes don't seem to have changed at all to keep up with society's shocks. As a child I loved old books like Treasure Island (1883), The Hobbit (1937) and The Hounds of the Morrigan (1985). Back then Ireland had yet to experience its big economic boom. As I grew older I read other things but right through my teens I still loved such unfashionable classics, while Ireland's economy grew and grew. Now, at 29, with the economy beginning to climb out of a major crisis, I still love this stuff.

I started listening to heavy metal in my late teens, around 1999. I listened to it through the September 11 attacks, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the housing bubble, the Lisbon Treaty, the economic crisis, the collapse of Fianna Fáil and rise of Barack Obama. None of these big events made a damn bit of difference to my tastes in music. So why do these commentators assume that populations are moved more by macro-level economic and cultural changes than by the dramas and insights of their daily lives? Why interpret books and music and cinema as being inspired by, and representational of, their narrow period?

Mulling all this over, and thinking especially of my continued appreciation of JRR Tolkien's wonderful The Hobbit, I remembered that Tolkien himself was bothered by similar interpretations. With The Lord of the Rings, many critics thought they saw a grand analogy for World War II: Adolf Hitler as the terrible Sauron stretching a dark hand out from the Mordor of Germany. This seemed a perfect allegory for the time.

Yet Tolkien utterly rejected this interpretation, insisting in the foreword of the second edition of LOTR that he disliked allegory and pointing out that First World War had been the more traumatic event in his life. He added that Lord of the Rings was clearly not an apt allegory for World War II:
If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Rule of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.
I have written here before that generalisations about groups can be useful without them being applicable to every single individual. But these vague claims about generations shifting in attitude and interest in response to macro-level trends are often not backed by any evidence at all. Have most people really gained and lost a sense of cultural confidence since 1990? With no evidence either way there is little point in even guessing.

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