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History has never had a convenient mechanism of organization. The measurement of time we call the decade, unfortunately, does not work. The sixties, for example, in many ways began in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and in other ways began in 1963 with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. They did not end on December 31, 1969, as we would have liked them to, because the Black Panthers and the Radical Feminists, as well as many others with sixties sensibilities, would have much to say going into the 1970s. Further, few could question the fact that the greed that personified the 1980s remained solely in that decade, or that only the 1920s “roared.”
Thus, historians, particularly cultural historians, tend to rely on chronology far less than others likely think we should. And because of that, we generally hate to personify the character of a generation, making for a tricky task of defining historical trends while avoiding vulgar generalizations. However, it is a worthy endeavor, for how else to explain the election of Richard Milhouse Nixon in the visibly revolutionary year of 1968? It also proves useful when responding to Joan Digby’s argument that the eighteenth century was an Age of Imitation, considering that the nineteenth century cultural landscape was dominated by the art of minstrelsy, likely the most imitative of performative styles and the forerunner of “mechanical reproduction,” as phrased by Walter Benjamin.1 Indeed, as cultural critics from the Frankfurt School to Benedict Anderson have theorized, the twentieth century is not so much an age of imitation, but rather a continuation of the reproduction of representations of reality that now permeate our postmodern sensibilities. To specify that any particular age is of particular imitation, and thus that our students follow suit, is to believe that there is an age of authenticity somewhere out there, or an “our culture” in the words of Digby, something that postmodern critique has dispelled and that globalization has rendered obsolete.