[thingist] ask thingist: what is the name of the year 2020?

sebastian at rolux.org sebastian at rolux.org
Mon Nov 2 09:20:23 UTC 2020

[via https://thegermanissue.com/texts/what_is_the_name_of_the_year_2020.html]

What Is the Name of the Year 2020?

This summer, when re-reading Peter-Paul Koch's essay "Making <time> safe for
historians,"(1) I was, once again, reminded that years should be treated as
names, not as numbers. This may be most obvious to those of us who have ever
tried to arithmetically operate with dates that lie outside the confines of our
immediate present – but the issue at hand is more than just a technical
problem. Just like, over time, cyclical concepts of time have gone out of
fashion,(2) the postulate that human history will, and must, remain in
alignment with a monotonically ascending sequence of integers, has been running
out of steam for quite a while, and may have already entered its trajectory
towards the dustbin of said history.(3)

Until organized religion planted the dubious origins of today's numbering
schemes, the rise and fall of kings and dynasties was a rather obvious choice
for naming otherwise uneventful years.(4) The Roman Consular Years are one of
many examples,(5) and when historians try to map them back onto the set of
numbers, the shaky foundations of human historiography become painfully
apparent. But there were always those outlier years when it was hard to make
out who was actually in power, or when being in power, or not, didn't seem to
make much of a difference.

2020 appears to be a special year in many ways. It is also one of the rare
years whose name - its "number" - already had a proper meaning. Until the year
itself arrived, 20/20 used to be synonymous with "perfect vision,"(6) and one
could argue that the year so far has reinforced this meaning. "2020 feels as if
someone had switched on the light: Everything is the same as before, just much
more so, and all of a sudden, everything appears much clearer."(7)

Yet, "perfect vision" may not be the last word when it comes to putting a name
on the year that we're in. The Chinese name for 2020 is "The Year of the Metal
Rat,"(8) which evokes the image of a mutated robotic rodent that gnaws at the
foundations of our global order. The United States, one day in the future, may
remember 2020 as "The 4th Year of the 45th Dynasty," and there is not much
comfort to be found in that name either. But what other names can we already
think of, now that most of 2020 lies behind us?(9)

For inspiration, a short selection of years that were more special than others
is included below.(10) (A few of the entries are just movie titles... sorry for
that ;-))

1978: The Year of the Three Popes
1888: The Year of the Three Emperors
1066: The Year of the Three Kings #1
1483: The Year of the Three Kings #2
1936: The Year of the Three Kings #3
1992: A Year of Kings(11)
1991: The Year Punk Broke
1965: The Year We Were Nowhere
1978: In a Year With 13 Moons
2001: A Space Odyssey
2010: The Year We Make Contact
1816: The Year Without a Summer
1848: The Year of Revolutions
1914: One or Several Wolves?
-333: bei Issos Keilerei
2000: Y2K
1968: "1968"
1971: WTF happened in 1971?(12)

My own pick for 2020 would be: In a Year of Leaky Abstractions.


 (1) https://www.quirksmode.org/blog/archives/2009/04/making_time_saf.html

 (2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel_of_time

 (3) The concept of linear time and history has been challenged on many fronts, 
     from post-colonial studies to quantum mechanics. It has also been   
     experimentally abandoned in practice (see, for example, 
     https://www.blackquantumfuturism.com), and some of the findings look 
     rather promising.

 (4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regnal_year

 (5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_consuls. In fact, the Roman 
     reign over time has never ended, and left us with one of the most broken 
     naming schemes in existence: the names of our months, where ancient 
     emperors are followed by cardinal numbers that are all off by two. To 
     _mix_ names and numbers is never a good idea.

 (6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_acuity

 (7) not attributed to anyone in particular

 (8) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_zodiac. We are dealing with a lunar 
     calendar here, so the Chinese year "2020" would be the one that begins on 
     January 25, 2020, and ends on February 12, 2021.

 (9) I am aware that this question is both premature (history is usually 
     written from a safe distance) and misguided (history is usually written by 
     the winners). But maybe that's the point here.

(10) Obviously, any such list, and one could make much better ones, will show, 
     by omission, that most historical events refuse to align with the Earth's 
     revolution around the sun. That's why we also have The Day the Music Died, 
     Ten Days That Shook the World, The Week of Blood, The Summer of Love, The 
     Years of Lead, The Greatest Hits of the 80s, and The Short Century. But 
     whatever calendar units we choose: putting names on them will always 
     remain a hopelessly heliocentric approach to human history. Science and/or 
     fiction may eventually come up with better ideas.

(11) according to Brian Springer's film Spin: https://0xdb.org/0114512/00:00:31

(12) https://nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-2009/msg00016.html. I 
     personally suspect that this is off-by-one, and 1972 ("The Year We Left 
     the Moon") was the year in question – but maybe that's just my own


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