The Invisible Great Recession: Did It Ever Happen?

Years from now, will people really know we ever had a ‘Great Recession?’ How? Will those two words resonate a concrete sense of time and crisis? Or be just another meme football, drawing meaning from shadows cast by shifting contexts?

The Great Recession Is Not Happening, Move Along. Keep It Moving.

They can’t know because we today refuse to talk about the Great Recession in its granular reality. We’re a people compulsively determined to pretend it’s not happening.

Of course, there’s ‘talk’. Our lives every day are filled with tactical fluff. Snarky tweets. Cable news opinion – millionaire teleprompter readers solemnly reading economic numbers like a professional sports summary. The next Obama sound byte merges with the next Republican Debate in a vortex of detachment.

Ephemera. All of it flitting like lifespans of summer fireflies. Easily interchangeable by . . . Tebow, crashed cruise ships, whether Vanity Fair some magazine bleats is Zooey Deschanel ‘over’? And so on.

That is not how (healthy) societies memorialize and create legacies about one of the great catastrophes of the modern era, the Great Recession.

What then are the actual artifacts that mark a time? In our demotic-oligarchy, the mass memory is defined by pop culture. Even as technology allows narrowcasting and splintering of audiences, the yearning for finding consensual touchstones remains. The spiraling reductionism of a ‘hit’ TV comedy show like “The Big Bang Theory” which both mocks and marinates self-referentially in pop culture is an example.

Let’s look at pop culture since 2007. Is there any break between pre-and post 2007? Anything to reflect the economic collapse and implosion experienced by at least 20-25% of the populace? Put another way, what will one find in a future iTunes/Amazon online product grid to define this time?

Not much if anything. There is no ‘break.’ More than that, pop culture is virtually unchanged. The same franchises lurch on. New IP (as they say) can be about zombies, vampires, rich people in trouble. One painful ‘comedy’ on CBS called ‘2 Broke Girls’ allegedly speaks to the Great Recession. It’s really about 20-something actresses dropping excruciatingly clumsy and rushed innuendo ala the movie Bridesmaids. Apparently, empowerment for women is now to be as crude as bad male characters.

Compare how differently pop culture reacted to 9-11. Pop culture powerfully aided and abetted lobotomizing American society, making it pliable, even willfully complicit in its militarization and constitutional subjugation. ’24’. ‘The Unit’. We could spend hours documenting it all. Movies. Pop songs. Video games. Violence. Power, Kinetic death. Remember the death threats to the Dixie Chicks? U-S-A! U-S-A!

The legacy endures. Much of pop culture today is still excessively militarized or suffused with National Security State memes. One can be a ‘burned’ spy, but the answer is always the same – righteous violence, subterfuge and fast-cut action.

Why are Americans incapable of producing or unwilling to consume mass market pop culture about the Great Recession — a calamity far greater than 9/11? What accounts for the willful refusal to experience it, produce it, consume it, create it?

A Future College Student Looks Back To Today

Imagine a hypothetical college student trying to understand the Great Recession. He or she might come across some photos or video clips of tents in some parks. But what puts them in context? What is the cultural product that gives these random images meaning? The mortgage crisis – there isn’t one scriptwriter capable of portraying the human toll for an artifact as historical legacy movie/TV show? Or songwriter for a pop album?

Dear Reader, you might well ask, ‘Why the fixation on pop culture?’ Besides demotic poli-sci-sociological riff. People consume pop culture to forget about things, lay off. Except they don’t. The revenge culture of force and violence after 2001 is proof. Every season of ’24’ Jack Bauer killed and maimed countless dark people trying to nuke LA, etc.

There’s something else afoot. It’s an almost child-like refusal to deal with reality in the hopes it will go away? Paramount, Sony, Fox – all of them collectively thinking ‘cooties’ and ‘jinx’.

It’s true there are many books about this or that. Some may survive in a future format even. Yet our definition above specifically sought out *mass* audience because that scope of consumption created a forged common experience (even if audiences have mixed reactions). College kids today know their Robot Chicken. Upton Sinclair, not so much.

Imagine that future college student looking at those tent pictures. Where’s the context? If you answer Hoover-ville, that says more about a reader’s demographic than the likelihood the same historical ‘charge’ in that label’s capacitor will carry forth into the future. Put it this way, a college sophomore today has no living memory of Bill Clinton as president, only vaguely recalls the Bush twilight. They couldn’t even vote in 2008. To them, reading about GHWB might as well be Augustine Rome temporally. Truly.

We submit that a society that can not create and experience X (however defined) about the Great Recession as it unfolds is psychologically incapable of grasping the actual challenge. And a society acting on fear and embracing avoidance only empowers those without compunction who see opportunity.

Our bet that not much will change. Which means that a lot will for those who have to live out that future.


  1. Dr Leo Strauss says

    A heart breaking read – the end result determined by the initial social alignments yet she was compelled to walk the entire path.

    One could blithely cite Henry the K, office politics, stakes being so low, etc. She does raise systemic behavioral issues beyond the merely petty. And one must acknowledge the status difference between a contract freelancer and [insert more permanent sand box player]. Social Realities 101 regardless of subject matter. The transitional are always diminished – especially in D.C. but ‘academia’ (these websites loosely labelled compared to the academics we know and knew well who focused on the Soviet target).

    At the end she observes the greater Truth at work – logistics. Especially after the UBL raid and POL routes closed in Pakistan. Shattered illusions are never pleasant to see. She writes well if that post is any indication. More supportive sites would be lucky to have someone who also has social media savvy.

  2. says

    Those web sites dark thing sure showed ’em who’s boss. We gots the powrrrr, SOPA! All the kool kids on Twitter talked about it. If they smoked pot and sat the back of the school bus listening to Frampton Comes Alive it couldn’t have been more cool. Swear.

  3. Aldershot says

    How about the down-sizing and threatened corporate buy-out of Dunder-Mifflin in The Office? (Not that the depression is actually discussed.)

    This idea of 9-11 being culturally processed, but not the Depression, mirrors your recent point that the PATRIOT Act was accepted with relatively little public outcry compared to SOPA.

  4. says

    Some of his design refs were over my head – I just sit on whatever I have lying around – I agree with you about the ComicCon shift, but it just stuck in our mind because all our clothes are the same – Basically, I and my friends still dress and act like we just got out of college and so it was funny in that sense. Anecdotal, attending 9-11 events, we notices that people are about 10-20 larger than c2000.

  5. says


    Don’t agree with its premises or conclusion, actually. Pop culture *has* changed identifiably over the last 20 years contra his assertion. True in music, film, the explosion of ComicCon as meme-factory/Hollywood promotion, even his name dropping that he had the same Herman Miller chair 20 years ago (the Aeron has been in production only 15 years). (Note to Andersen – the HM chair to have now is actually the ‘Embody’ – and we like *ours* better than the old Aeron).

    To one detached from actual pop culture consumption and active participation, Andersen’s systematized survey of the now and seeking analogs in the past is plaintively predictable. The results are predetermined.

    These kind of trend pieces are always attractive to those outside whatever is being discussed anxious to be seen as part of [insert subject]. Technology, whether start ups, angel investing, etc., here pop culture, art, etc. Usually because the pieces are also written by an outsider, they’re wrong. Usually it is an older generation trying to either peer into what’s happening around them or dismiss it as here – ‘it’s the same old song’ (so don’t worry about feeling out of touch).

    People can differ of course. We wouldn’t be surprised if Maureen Dowd emailed that link to 250 of her BFF (while still trying to figure out what Foursquare does).

    Our contention in this piece is that pop culture did change substantively after 9-11 and actively assisted the Bush Administration’s radicalization of society. In another year or two Andersen will be writing columns demanding kids get off his lawn.

  6. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Wow, that’s a blast from the past. Does have that Newt-esque breezy vibe about it, you’re right.

    Just re-saw the 1990s sci fi move “Screamers” over the weekend from the cable On Demand. Saw it when it came out – a nostalgia thing. The guy who played Buckaroo Banzai and Robocop is a solder on a planet infested with mini-terminators.

    In this far future many centuries ahead on another planet setting, one of the characters put on his Walkman ™ and BOOM! suspension of disbelief gives way to giggles.

    One can only imagine if YouTube got hold of a vintage 2001 Newt briefing to the Defense Policy Board. . .

  7. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Ah good catch, Huntly. Deserves at least a a nomination of some kind (you know, in a category like sound effects, held at a Denny’s two weeks before the televised event/red carpet).

  8. Huntly says

    Was going to say maybe “Raising Hope” but they are just poor; there doesn’t seem to be a lack of yards for Burt to maintain or houses for Virginia to clean.

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