Discover more from Desk Notes by Charles Schifano
1968 Has Ended
1968 arrived in some places, as begins the old cliché, long after the calendar year had passed. The social, cultural, and political upheavals of that year took place in a world that still, for most people, resembled the 1950s. What’s depicted as the spirit of an age—in the demand for freedoms, in the marches, in the art—were actually many small, localized revolutions, which occurred in different places and at different times, with the majority of the population still speaking with 50s norms, wearing 50s clothes, and driving 50s cars. Your location, amid all these various 1968s, determined when you happened to meet that particular year.
Yet nearly everyone retains, it seems, a parochial view of the period, where a personal experience is described as a global experience, even though the moniker of ’68 represents a worldwide convulsion, which is too kaleidoscopic, too volcanic, too idiosyncratic, for any one interpretation. In the United States, the period appears as a montage in the contemporary imagination, an amalgamation of music and culture and politics—from the Civil Rights Movement, to the assassinations, in the Vietnam War, with the relentless changes in norms and laws and, perhaps most importantly, expectations. But that’s still a local and occluded view—if you dilate your focus just a bit, you’ll see the period as expansive, convulsive, and global. The music isn’t your first memory if you’re in Prague and there are tanks, if you’re fighting a rebellion in Portugal's African colonies, if you’re living in the military dictatorship in Athens, or if you’re hurling cobblestones in Paris—among the countless wildfires that made the year so combustable. Despite the manner in which the contemporary imagination has solidified a particular view, it wasn’t merely a year to write the soundtracks for future insurance commercials.
Annie Ernaux, who was twenty-eight in 1968, encapsulates the narrow sensation nicely in The Years, stating that “1968 was the first year of the world.” That description manages to be myopic and conventional, yet also artful and true. For those remembering those ripe days, 1968 is omnipresent, it represents a groundswell, the beginning of inescapable, irrepressible changes, but it is easy to forget that this moment of ignition involved a small group confronting a large group—with the tally of successes not quite as rosy as the memory. In 1968, the Baby Boomer generation in the United States, age four to twenty-two at the time, represented about a third of the population—which is another way of saying that once you remove everyone under the age of fifteen or so, what’s left is a mere slice of society. If the politics that we associate with ’68 were more widespread—as many people believe—then there wouldn’t have been any need for the revolutions. To contest that point is to overlook the election, later that year, of Richard Nixon, it is to overlook, in Annie Ernaux’s France, that Charles de Gaulle stayed for another year, and, most crucially, it is to overlook that the United States military wouldn’t leave Vietnam for five more years. Of course Ernaux recognizes how this collective fallacy has colored the contemporary imagination, representing all of these distinctive revolutions, with their varying successes, as a more digestible and pleasing memory.
And television, with its fixed iconography and minimal cast of actors, would institute a ne varietur version of events, the unalterable impression that all of us had been eighteen to twenty-five that year and hurled cobblestones at the riot police, handkerchiefs pressed to our mouths.
Of all the lies told in politics, the grandest, most obnoxious, and most common lie involves finales: politicians and activists and commentators always promise endings, even though that’s the most unreasonable promise in life. There may be a victory, even progress, but the opposition will, eventually, retake power; the people who disagree will never disappear, as the little pendulum of shifting power never stops its swing, which, I might add, is certainly for the best. For ’68, this is one way to understand how it reverberated into later decades, with the premise that nearly all subsequent political tensions can be distilled into an argument about whether that year contained more good or more bad.
The truth is that 1968 is actually lot further away in time than its place in the contemporary imagination: 1968 is closer to World War II than today is to 1998. Yet the period still comes across as vibrant for many people, it is a lively place to set films, it remains the subject of stories, with the slogans and music and personalities of the time still active in the culture. The strength of that vibrancy, however, has faded. The year has just started to recede in recent times—in the thrust of its political arguments, in the timelessness of its art. And after such a long time as a cultural pivot, I can finally and definitely state that 1968 has ended.
To carve out your own identity, and to move past the social motifs of your parents—or, in many cases, of your grandparents—is a vital aspect of cultural progress. If we want a lively and intriguing and dynamic art world, along with politics that fit the contemporary moment, then we can’t have every generation celebrating every previous generation. A little gratitude and appreciation for history is always a good start—but that appreciation should also come with a desire to surpass. I can both relish in the enjoyment of and want to exceed the reach of the art and politics that have come before me. There’s no contradiction in simultaneously valuing what’s old while seeking what’s new.
Following only one side of that equation leads to peculiar situations: either you’re caught in a period of stagnation, obsessed with and lost by the past, or you’re solipsistically peering into the future without any foundation for your feet. In neither extreme do you end up with reasonable politics or with the creation of memorable art. Of course the decades since ’68 have seen the perverse experiment of conveying nostalgia as contemporary art. It is worth pointing out that some of the most popular songs in 1913 were Ballin' the Jack, Danny Boy, Gasoline, He'd Have to Get Under – Get Out and Get Under (to Fix Up His Automobile)—and if your current political anthem comes from 1968, that’s the equivalent of the 1968 revolutions selecting political anthems from 1913. A vibrant art world, and certainly a vibrant political cultural, puts its nostalgia in the proper place.
And my sense is that the reorientation has finally happened. The ’68 shackles, so ubiquitous in politics and culture, are now gone. Although it didn’t happen because of the usual reasons. New generations didn’t rise up and rebel. Nobody was tossed off the boat. Nobody was forced to resign. What happened, instead, was more prosaic, and certainly more subtle, but I’ve noticed it a few times recently, especially since the beginning of the pandemic—it comes in casual conversations with university students or with those just entering their twenties, and it should have been predictable. For the first time, the period is simply too far away. If you’re an undergraduate now, you were probably born after another milestone, September 2001, and that makes 1968, for the most part, as distant as the French Revolution. So, no, I’ve heard people say, I’ve never seen a Woody Allen film, nor read any Susan Sontag, nor really listened to any classic rock, and what’s all the fuss about the 1968 Democratic convention? At this point the retro, trendy past lands at about 1985, as Annie Ernaux knew more than a decade ago:
The excitement of world events receded. The unexpected was tiring. Something intangible was sweeping us away. The space of experience lost its familiar contours. As the years accumulated, our landmarks, 1968 and 1981, were erased. The new break in time was the fall of the Wall, no need to specify the date. It didn’t mark the end of History, just the end of the history that we could tell.
The dreams of those years—some worthwhile, many silly, some fulfilled, many forgotten—eventually faded, just as all dreams eventually do. And the replacements don’t—thankfully—feel the need for nostalgia, as the horizon is too enticing.
We marveled, we hardly dared hope. May ’68 in winter—for us it was the fountain of youth. But youth put us in our place. Their banners read 68:passé, 86:the better way. We didn’t hold it against them. They were good kids. They didn’t throw cobblestones and expressed themselves sedately on TV.
Nothing that I’ve written in the paragraphs above gives the remotest opinion on the quality or importance of the politics and art from 1968—I do feel the need to add. The subject isn’t about whether that period created a fertile environment for culture, as that’s a different argument, and requires a completely different ledger. What I’m using as a ledger is much closer to an actuarial table, which reveals that, at long last, the endless year of 1968 has ended. If you come of age today, the references of ’68 don’t have any lingering, meaningful, or even relevant connotations—there’s simply less of an impetus to look that far back, which is almost certainly good, in all periods, for both politics and art.