In his latest volume, John Higgs offers a new perspective on the previous century, paying special attention to its more curious products: as varied as Einstein and relativity, surrealism and postmodernism. Delving into these ‘patches of thick, deep woods’ in just 315 pages is no mean feat, yet Higgs does a good job of translating the theory into an easy and entertaining read.
Higgs’ previous offering tracked the career of one of the most idiosyncratic music acts from the tumultuous acid house scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the KLF. It might seem rather ambitious to jump from covering a duo famous for burning their work in a field after failing to get permission for an ABBA sample, to charting a whole century, but it actually seems a logical progression as Higgs portrays the time period as having a similar chaotic character to the career of the electronic outsiders.
One of the book’s most successful features is its focus on the eccentricities of some of the century’s most unusual characters to structure its narrative – Norton I (self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States) and the tin can-wearing Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven to name just two. It could be construed as a Great Man (or should that be a Strange Person?) approach to history, but in fact Higgs is able to situate such apparently anomalous individuals within a wider context of shifting perspectives and cultural patterns across a range of different disciplines, from modern art to quantum mechanics. Indeed, the Satanist Aleister Crowley is one of the most prominent names throughout the book. His personal connections and the wider relevance of his thoughts on individualism allow the introduction of, amongst others, the doyenne of Objectivism and champion of competitive capitalism Ayn Rand, the rocketry pioneer and occultist Jack Parsons, and the founder of scientology, L. Ron Hubbard.
The main thrust of the narrative is that the twentieth century saw the elimination of the ‘omphalos’, i.e. that which is culturally seen to be the centre of the world: Mount Fuji to the ancient Japanese, Rome to the Romans, etc. Einstein’s theories set the precedent right from the off; indeed, what could be a more convincing arena for the demonstration of the subjectivity of viewpoints than the supposed bastion of objectivity, the physical sciences? Intriguingly, however, under the rubric of ‘modernism’ similar moves were already under way in art, literature and theatre. Higgs charts how nearly all aspects of society were transformed during the twentieth century: from war and geopolitics to religion and sexuality. By the latter half of the century this shift reached its apex with the advent of postmodernism, introducing the notion that all viewpoints could have validity and, as a fantastic analysis of the computer game ‘Super Mario’ demonstrates, that disparate, unconnected elements could be melded together into acceptable new forms.
Although this multiplication of perspectives made the twentieth century a difficult and oft-violent one, Higgs argues that such a process was necessary in order to allow for the reassembly of society into a new and improved form, in which people are able to accept those with different viewpoints. This, he argues, has been achieved through the development of computer technology and horizontal social networks between individuals, which have deconstructed traditional vertical hierarchies and created feedback loops for behaviour, or a ‘communal panopticon’. In this sense, Higgs’ history provides a more positive take on things than Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. According to Higgs’ logic, for example, the ‘selfie’ is not a product of narcissism but rather a reflection of how connected we all are with each other. After all, a selfie only truly ‘exists’ once it is shared with someone else.
Although both of us found the final section on the birth of the digital world and the growth of connectivity rather less convincing than the rest of the book, perhaps that is to be expected. It deals with phenomena so recent that their true significance cannot yet be grasped, and, as Higgs’ excellent overviews of chaos theory and the butterfly effect demonstrate, predicting the future of a complex system is a nigh-on impossible task. Stranger Than We Can Imagine is a thought-provoking read. Its memorable anecdotes and signposts to further reading make it an enjoyable introductory text on twentieth century history, as well as an accessible guide to many of its more murky aspects.
Aaron Ackerley is a second year PhD student at the University of Sheffield studying economic discourse in inter-war British newspapers. Stephanie Wright is a first PhD student at the University of Sheffield studying perceptions of masculinity in Nationalist Spanish Civil War Veterans.
‘Stranger than we can Imagine’ by John Higgs is published by W&N and is available now.
Image: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven via Wikicommons