Naming our time: some new terms to try on

What should we call our time?

I’ve been looking at answers for this question for a while.  Beyond nullities like “the 2020s” no label has really emerged.  It’s been hard to settle on a handy word or phrase which summarizes some leading features of our moment, like “the Renaissance” or “the Era of Good Feelings.” No overdetermining political developments serve, as opposed to handy labels of revolution or war.

Maybe the problem is that we’re caught in an interstitial moment.  An old era ended, perhaos in 1990s (fall of the USSR) or 2001 (September 11th), and a new, agreed-upon one has yet to behin. Back in 2016-17, reflecting on Brexit and the Trump election, I explored some ways of thinking about our era as a transition state.  Paolo Freire’s remark fit well for that purpose:

It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts.

Four years later I still felt that interstitial vibe.  No phrase had seized the world’s developments, bringing together (say) climate change, COVID, a rising authoritarian right, wokeism (or whatever else you’d like to call this iteration of progressivism), a new space race, digital expansion and techlash, and the demographic transition.  There was consensus neither in labeling nor in politics, which led me to George Packer’s nice formulation:

This is the [American] election’s meaning. We are stuck with one another, seeing no way out and no apparent way through, sinking deeper into a state of mutual incomprehension and loathing.

Lately I’ve been finding a term which might solve the labeling problem.  Adam Tooze has led the way in using polycrisis, which describes multiple, simultaneous crises which overlap with and exacerbate each other.  For example, the World Economic Forum offers this handy concept map:

polycrisis WEF Global Risks Report 2023

DALL-E offers this view in response to my simple prompt:

A polycrisis with a crowd, cityscape, and storms

One criticism of polycrisis is that it’s nonspecific in time.  Surely 1929-1945 was a polycrisis, as was 19th century colonialism or the French Revolution/Napoleonic wars. It might be a good placeholder for now, especially if this turns out to future historians to be an intermediary period after all.

(This is a good point to issue a caveat. Yes, there is a *lot* more to the question of historical naming and periodicity.  However, this is a quick blog post pointing towards some examples of names in a brisk way when I’m also writing on several deadlines.  If you’re interested, I can say a lot more later.)

A New Yorker staff writer, Kyle Chayka, recently assembled some alternatives and added a few of his own.  Here I’ll share some of the best, ranked alphabetically to dismiss my biases and for neatness:

The Age of Emergency A pretty good term when we want to identify individual crises or their polycrisis combination as emergencies, like the climate emergency.  As with polycrisis, though, it seems adrift in time.  Surely 1914-1920 was such an emergency, at least in Europe?  Or the Taiping Rebellion?  Maybe called it “Global Emergency” might be better.

Age of Unhingement Coined by Liz Lenkinski, who runs a Substack about it.  Interestingly, she describes this as a title for a transition time:

It’s wild in these streets and we’re at a pivotal moment, collectively. Do we get our shit together and try and fix something… everything… before it’s too late? Or do we just succumb under the weight of war, climate change, cultural chaos, and unhinged occurrence after unhinged occurrence, until we welcome our new AI overlords and enter the optimized reality they have created for us by ingesting old Pinterest boards?

The 2020s have allowed (forced) us all to reassess how we engage with the world and the community around us. Join me as I unpack what the fuck is going on in these unhinged times of great transition.

The newsletter is new to me, so I’ll check it out.  I like the way the word “unhingement” calls up images of dislocation and dismantling.

Chthulucene This one comes from the great Donna Haraway in her 2016 book Staying with the Trouble.  Gothically inclined folks like myself would guess the word referred to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, but Haraway says she’s thinking of cthonic, of deep, ancient roots coming to life and flexing their power in our epoch.  Climate change, species collapse, and more are flagged by it.

Epoch of Disarray This is one Chayka came up with by asking ChatGPT: “I asked ChatGPT to offer its own snappy name for our times, the results were ineloquent…” I do like the phrase’s emphasis on entropy, of undoing rather than creation or positive reconfiguration.

The Jackpot The term comes from a Robert Heinlein short story about a polycrisis on steroids, which ends up in an apocalypse.  Galaxy magazine gave it a fine cover illustration:

Galaxy_magazine 195203

William Gibson then resurrected the term for a bad 21st century in his 2014 novel The Peripheral.  One character explains:

droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but just big enough to be historic events in themselves…

The Amazon tv adaptation offers a good visual summary here:

Note the wry, black humor of the phrase.

New Dark Age James Bridle repurposes the classic description of post-Roman empire Europe for our time in a book of the same name.  The author focuses on technology as a major driver of change.  As you might guess, Bridle sees this as mostly bad change.

off-modernism This one came from the philosopher Svetlana Boym and was new to me.  Wikipedia introduces it thusly:

It recovers unforeseen pasts and ventures into the side-alleys of modern history at the margins of error of major philosophical, economic and technological narratives of modernization and progress. Off-modern reflection involves exploration of the lateral potentialities of the project of critical modernity. In other words, it opens into the “modernity of what if” rather than simply modernization as it is. As such, the term can be understood as an intervention in the larger theoretical discussion surrounding modernitypostmodernityhypermodernityaltermodernitylate modernity, and post-postmodernism.

I’m not sure what to make of that yet, so I’m checking out one of Boym’s books now.

The Omnishambles Some Brits use this to describe their recent government – quite accurately, I aver.  Applying it more broadly does a good service of identifying the present order’s inability to grapple with, well, the present.

Terrible Twenties Google search shows this to usually mean someone aged 20-29, and that’s a fun usage (for example).  Repurposing it for our shared decade sounds good, literally, with strong alliteration. It’s also nonspecific other than the negative, so maybe everyone could use it.  And I like the callback to a century past’s Roaring Twenties.

For a bonus, there’s also the Assholocene.  One Tadzio offered the word earlier this year and it’s already made, or was already in, the Urban Dictionary.  One sample:

The epoch in human history in which assholisation, i.e. the normalisation of group-specific misanthropy, is a dominant political dynamic, and the nationalist, patriarchal asshole replaces the neoliberal sociopath as the dominant subject: this is what I call the assholocene – the age of assholes.

That’s a good one, pungent and descriptive.  I don’t think it addresses efforts to reform discourse and action, like calls for civility or purging language of variously offensive baggage… unless we see such moves as part of a struggle against assholism, or if we view those activists as assholes.

And with that I’ll stop. Each of these terms points to a different aspect of our era, a different understanding of how our times are proceeding. They each speak from a kind of imagined future: “Oh yes, the ’20s certainly were terrible.” “What a time of unhingement indeed, before the [X] of the 2030s!”

See what you think of them. Or add your own.


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13 Responses to Naming our time: some new terms to try on

  1. Joe says:

    Don’t forget Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. I’ve disagreed with him on several fronts, but he nailed the “converging catastrophes” of our time.

    I’m hoping for something more like a post-Troubles future, not a New Dark Age. But the dice are loaded and they are being rolled, as we speak.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I like Kunstler’s monicker, if, like you, I disagree with some of his recent stances.

      Perhaps the more clearly we anticipate the threats, the better we can roll those dice?

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    The Great Decoupling covers a lot of bases. We are decoupling from:

    1) Carbon – with all of the economic dislocations that will involve
    2) Reality – information overload provides plenty of opportunity for alternative realities to emerge and makes it difficult to “prove” anything in complex systems of information
    3) Norms – both interstate and intrastate norms are under attack, risking everything from democracy to nuclear war

    You could argue that we are decoupling from the industrial paradigm (and I have). This decoupling threatens a lot of institutions, including education.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a good quartet, Tom.
      Now, what are we decoupling to?
      1) Electrification or solarpunk
      2) Solipsism or fantasy
      3) New norms
      4) I’m not sure post-industrial is useful as a term

      • Tom Haymes says:

        The scary thing about Decouplings is that we don’t know what will come next. The shards of the old are there to be picked up and reassembled. We just don’t know what will emerge from them. Some of the old will survive but in new form. Let’s hope the best leads and not the worst.

  3. Dr. Lisa Durff says:

    I think we call our time ‘crazy’

  4. Sarah says:

    Given the past four years in my life, I’m partial to “The Great Clusterf**k”. 🤣

  5. We should, unironically, call it The Very Best Time To Be Alive Ever. Every era has its challenges. We are not special.

    (Although I’ll concede that “the Assholocene” made me laugh out loud!)

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      (Very glad to make you LOL)

      You are right on so many fronts, including being a learner. So how do we encapsulate the extremes?

  6. Phil Katz says:

    The Mean Years

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