Where can we live but in decades? Since the twenties roared, it’s become a habit to delimit history in distinctive ten-year stretches. The upward spiral of developments in science and technology, imposed upon business cycles, political successions, and evolving cultural orders, guarantees that every decade inscribes a novel signature on popular memories and historical perspectives. The diffuse complexities of time get condensed into a series of indelible moods. The thirties—famished, ominous, forbidding. The forties—triumphant, horrifying. The icy cornucopia of the fifties is flushed out in the fervid deliquescence of the sixties. In the fluctuating world engendered by modernity, the decade stands for truths still held in common. You may not understand the ultimate meaning even of yesterday, and the notion that you and your neighbor occupy the same reality wanes as you burrow deeper into different media outlets. Yet you both share an impression of the aughts as an age whose crassness was exceeded only by its cruelty.
Not all decades are created equal. Our memory assigns some crisp outlines and flashing colors; others are ambiguously toned, shot through by muddle and confusion. The nineteen-nineties fall in this second category, but their indistinctness fails to subtract from their momentous character. Prominent features of the contemporary world originate within the period. The implosion of the Soviet Union, three decades ago, ushered in a political and intellectual climate—Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”—in which the primacy of private enterprise could be taken for granted. Financial deregulation, free-trade pacts, welfare-state retraction, and mass incarceration became matters of bipartisan agreement. An Internet of plaintext and crude images metastasized into the mercurial, glossy entanglement of today’s Web. Congressional Republicans began engaging in a pattern of militant obstruction that climaxed, last year, in grassroots Republicans sacking the Capitol. The nineties were the first decade to do without aesthetic distinctions between mainstream and marginal popular cultures; since then, the clash between establishment and avant-garde has become as obsolete as duelling.