The New Romantic Age
Parsing the 2020s zeitgeist shift
Who can know where we are or where we’re going? The passage of time, and eras themselves, become obvious only in hindsight. Living in the gyre of the present is the best way to be blind. But against all of that, I tried—I wrote about the new romantic age that might be upon us. This wasn’t a value judgement (good, bad, neither) but rather an assessment, an attempt to reckon with change. Here we are and here’s how we got here. Here’s what it might mean, if the fire burns brighter.
From my new writing in the Guardian:
The new romanticism has arrived, butting up against and even outright rejecting the empiricism that reigned for a significant chunk of this century. Backlash is bubbling against tech’s dominance of everyday life, particularly the godlike algorithms – their true calculus still proprietary – that rule all of digital existence.
The famed mantra of the liberal left in the early months of the pandemic – trust the science – has faded from view, as hero worship ceases for the bureaucrat scientists (Anthony Fauci) and even for the pharmaceutical behemoths that developed, with federal assistance, the Covid vaccines.
Church attendance, long the barometer of the US’s devotion to the unseen, has continued to plummet, but taking its place isn’t any of the pugnacious New Atheism that tugged at the discourse for a stretch of the 2000s. Instead, it’s what can be loosely termed “spirituality” – a devotion to astrology, witchcraft, magic and manifestation – that has emerged, particularly among the young. Online life, paradoxically enough, has only catalyzed this spirituality more, with teenage TikTok occultists and “manifesting” influencers racking up ever more followers.
Credit to Ted Gioia for helping me formulate this. The first romantic age was a backlash to the enlightenment and the nascent industrial revolution, when new technologies were ascendant and upending daily life. Suddenly, time was a commodity; the great machines, if they weren’t replacing flesh labor, were forcing a disorienting pace of work. Newtonian law and capitalist law did not seem so different. The natural order of things pointed toward progress. More mystery would be quantified.
But what kind of progress awaited the human race? It was no coincidence Frankenstein arrived in the second decade of the nineteenth century or Beethoven, at the same time, broke open Western music. Or that a greater unease and even mysticism took hold. Anger is as much a part of the romantic mood as love. Luddites torched factories.
The poets and painters, the influencers of their age, lashed the old gods of logic and gentility. There were William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, blasting away at British cultural elites in Lyrical Ballads, and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron hurling between profound ecstasy and crepuscular sorrow in their poetry. William Blake, beset by visions of trees glittering with angels, believed imagination was the most vital element of human existence, and became the herald for generations of metaphysical insurgents and revolutionaries. Ralph Waldo Emerson lectured about the invisible eyeball and the over-soul.
Not all of the old romantics were opposed to Judeo-Christian religion, but they were drawn, like the youth of today, to spiritual realms that operated far beyond any biblical teachings or rationalist precepts. They were deeply wary of technology’s encroachment on the human spirit. They feared, ultimately, an inhuman future – and hence their rebellion. Today’s romantics, still nascent, sense something similar. Why else, in such an algorithmic and data-clogged age – with so much of existence quantifiable and knowable – would magic suddenly hold such sway?
Today’s algorithmic age will breed its own backlash. What form it takes, in the longer run, remains to be seen. We are too soon into this shift, from the techno-optimism of the 2000s and 2010s to now, too early to know if there will be a revolt against the technology of convenience that wraps itself around us. There’s the nagging sense that little of this stuff has made existence better. Indoor plumbing saved us from disease and the outhouse. Electricity delivered eternal light. The steam engine and the automobile and the airplane made the very far near, and changed forever how we would relate to the rest of the nation and the world. The smartphone, in turn, has delivered us screen addictions and teen depression. The tech giants seized control of the internet and herded us into our silos. Facebook and Twitter are losing their grip. TikTok rises, but will last only so long. Instagram hums through its strange middle period, no longer a place for genuine photography, reflecting unreality back to us. None of these platforms will vanish. But I would bet they will all matter less in ten years.
The greater hope for the new romanticism is, in some sense, art, and not the dominance of digital charlatans who promise all of life’s riches are at hand if only you visualize hard enough or utter the correct incantations. Embracing the paranormal or believing, wholeheartedly, that star positions can determine personalities can be harmless fun – until the delusions become life-consuming and despair takes hold when they inevitably do not deliver on their promise.
Irrationality, on its own, is no virtue, and some of the romantics of the 19th and 21st centuries succumb to the same ancient dross, magic alone as the supposed channel to transcendence. That spiritualism has spread with tech is an irony fitting of the age.
There is logic, though, in the anti-logic. Science is science, not a religion, but for many months in 2020 and 2021 it was treated as one, even as the scientists failed, in several striking instances, to adequately explain and predict the virus in our midst. Masks were a waste, ineffective, until they weren’t; the vaccines were a miracle cure that could immediately stop the spread of Covid, until the virus kept circulating anyway. Fauci was a cult hero who nevertheless became the face of a shambolic American pandemic response, his mythos swelling with the nation’s death toll.
Trust in the science did not curdle at the same instance as trust in the tech conglomerates, but they are not so dissimilar when weighed against the hype of progress. The new romantics wonder: what good has any of this done for us? Were hyper-sophisticated GPS devices, cameras and video recorders worth it? It is too soon to predict a revival of the Luddites, but there has been at least one press report of a teen group ditching smartphones altogether because “social media and phones are not real life”.
Science now promises a great leap forward with A.I., which seems intent on replacing the arts themselves—machines will now manufacture mediocre art, music, literature and even fact-challenged journalism. Little of it, after a while, amuses. Digital technology, of course, has radically cheapened music, television and cinema.
Will this new romantic age deliver new revolutions in art? That I don’t know. Popular culture, for now, is static. There are rebellions below, since old distribution channels have been broken. Perhaps these rebellions will burst into view. Perhaps we are ready to be surprised and amazed again.
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