by chuck klosterman
penguin, 384 pages, $28
Most people hold the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to be the beginning of the ’90s: It symbolizes an era said to involve unprecedented peace, prosperity, and geo-political stability. Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties: A Book, by contrast, selects fall 1991, when Nirvana’s Nevermind was released, as the pivotal moment when “the nineties became a recognizable time period with immutable values.” Namely, the caricatured values of Generation X: “an adversarial relationship with the unseemliness of trying too hard.”
Decades are indeed about cultural perception, and this perception means being flexible with dates, and thus even with facts. After all, memory naturally renders facts malleable, according to how people perceived the past. Klosterman begins by pointing out that the ’90s “began on January 1 1990, except for the fact of course they did not.” Matters of fact are not the only thing that counts when apportioning significance to history.
Perception can warp even the most well-reported events. Klosterman discusses “the Mandela effect”: When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, a surprising number of people insisted they could remember news reports about Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. There is also the fact that, on paper, George Bush Sr. should have sailed into a second term after managing to defy the odds in building an international coalition for the largely successful Gulf War. Yet, strangely, the memory of his achievement “just evaporated, almost as if nothing had happened at all,” and the people got Bill Clinton instead.
Klosterman’s real achievement, however, is not just a penetrating study of collective misremembering. It lies in the fact that misremembering is brought into play with a decade that saw the genesis of the most significant rewiring of collective memory since Ancient Egyptian scribes first began chiseling hieroglyphs in tablets of stone: the internet. The 1990s are unique, he claims, because there was a massive proliferation of information to misremember, and this was “amplified by the nonexistence of a cybernated [computer-controlled] depository where that information could be indexed.”
The internet of course complexifies historical writing, insofar as the cybernated depository threatens to become the only authoritative record. In a discussion of Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Klosterman shares McMurtry’s unease about how “media warps memory” even to the point of transmogrifying “the interior process of how people recalled their own lives.” Such concerns had cybernetic steroids added to them by digital technology—for as memory itself receded, the “software does the remembering, relentlessly and inflexibly, for you and for everybody else.”
Klosterman’s modus operandi is to undo some of the effects of this informational subsumption. He does this by entering into the perspectives of people living through this decade itself. The way he works up to the appearance of the internet in people’s homes is masterful, as is the painfully slow and awkward description of the aural soundtrack to switching on a home modem around 1995. Viewed through the prism of the past itself, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center didn’t seem particularly significant, yet the 1993 “Storm of the Century” did—because, at the time of their occurrence, these events are not footnotes to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina respectively.
Klosterman does not seem to challenge the dominant “peace, prosperity and stability” ’90s narrative, so much as portray it in more lived detail than most writers have yet achieved. This lived detail is invaluable, make no mistake. Reading the account of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy through the eyes of people not yet rewired about understanding power dynamics and sex by the #MeToo movement offers some striking insights, as does the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, of course. Attentively revisiting Steven Pinker’s response to a 1993 Los Angeles Times editorial offering “Guidelines on Ethical, Racial, Sexual and Other Identifications” shows that both sides in that debate still shared some faith in “the reliability of language” to portray, rather than orchestrate, reality. The Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision of 2000 is disclosed as the moment when today’s “two-tribes” politics decisively dominated the scene. The ’90s as an era of internal peace within the West itself thus comes to an end in fall 2000. “Every other aspect of political thought became irrelevant”: from now on “every sociopolitical act of the 21st century would now be a numbers game on a binary spectrum.”
Yet one wonders if the “peace, prosperity and stability” narrative gets off a bit too lightly. The space between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 surely sowed the self-confident seeds for the black and white “good versus evil” rhetoric of the wars on terror. The swelling and imploding of the first dot-com bubble gestures toward the credit-crunch collapse of global finance in 2008. Yet, in true Gen X fashion, material conditions are largely absent from Klosterman’s study of a time when everyone was assured of basic comforts. Even the ’90s icon Kurt Cobain can hardly be completely disassociated with a normalization of heroin-infused attitudes and aesthetics in popular culture that feels particularly sinister now the opioid crisis ravages entire communities and not just waiflike dropouts in Seattle.
Entering into the decade as it was lived has one overarching advantage, however. It is genuinely difficult to place Klosterman in either of the “two tribes” of today’s political discourse. Of course, reviewers on both sides have decided he is an opponent or a foe, but the discussion is not clear-cut. This reflects the book’s even-handed discussions, which sidestep the usual culture war signifiers. Too many of today’s books can be immediately categorized as belonging to either “us” or “them” within the opening pages, if not the title and endorsements.
But again, even here, one wonders if it isn’t all a bit too Gen X. This even-handedness bespeaks a time when principled convictions didn’t really seem to matter because we’d reached the end of history, and a self-referential irony could rediscover a conceited authenticity within the deceits of consumer capitalism.
Today’s neuralgic issues are centered on establishing the meaning of human nature, life, communities, and religion. Klosterman’s sidestepping is not deliberately disingenuous. But I was born at the end of Gen X—and for those my age and younger, it will be impossible to sidestep today’s concerns innocently, or to look back on recent history while thinking something like Cobain’s closing lines to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “oh well, whatever, nevermind.”
Jacob Phillips is the author of Obedience is Freedom.
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