Dates have a funny way of imposing a preconceived analysis on the past. They can function by synecdoche: 1776 for the five years of the American Revolution, 1976 for the punk revolution and its aftermath. Or they can work by metonymy: 1789 stands for the dawn of modernity itself. When a book takes that sort of date for a title, it's rarely more than a gimmick to spice up a familiar narrative. Choosing a date with no such obvious implications can be just as gimmicky, but it can also serve a useful methodological purpose, drawing attention to the way we process time and give it meaning. Mathematically and physically, the passage of time is neutral, any chunk of the past equivalent to any other. We give time meaning subjectively and socially: the first weeks at university in our mental autobiographies, the Second World War in the social memory of so many nations. These periods of marked time swell up and fill our understanding of the past. Picking an 'unmarked' date can force us to rethink the unexamined hierarchies of importance that we assign to past ages and past events. What's more, because we tend to process the past in terms of narrative, we leave out many things that don't readily fit into the stories we tell. By focusing on one ordinary, unmarked year, we can often make sense of the things we usually leave out because they just don't belong; in the process, gimmick becomes useful method.
LRB 24 September 2009 | PDF Download