When looking at the cultural and media landscape of the United States it strikes me that there is little or no discussion of the cultural Zeitgeists – more specifically, the viewpoints and mindsets that continually compete for our attention, usually in order to convince us that a particular viewpoint is superior to another, and that a particular worldview should prevail.
These Zeitgeists show up in our films, our media, our social discourse, on Facebook posts, in television shows, in the News, and in discussions over dinner. Often considered cultural ‘givens’, some of these mindsets can lead us to conflict, even while others try to lead us toward peace and reconciliation. Yet other Zeitgeists imply that we should give up to the futility of the human condition which is, after all, tragic – that fatalism is the only realistic approach to life.
So what do I mean by Zeitgeist? The definition of Zeitgeist is ‘spirit of the time’ – and some philosophers would argue that one cannot determine the Zeitgeist of a time except through a historical lens. A Zeitgeist is a mindset, a prevailing mood and way of seeing, an overarching frame through which we view the world.
I’ll argue that we can define cultural Zeitgeists as they exist today, and furthermore that we can actually find several Zeitgeists in contemporary culture that compete for our attention. In my mind, the top three are:
The Humanistic Zeitgeist sees human beings as of central concern – that human dignity, compassion, tolerance, reconciliation, common human values and social justice are of paramount importance. This Zeitgeist seeks to humanize the other side and to have empathy for their viewpoint.
The Mythic Zeitgeist views the world through the lens of the hero. Always requiring a villain and/or nemesis, the hero’s journey and path believes that wars are just and winnable, that evil is absolute, and that eye-for-an-eye justice should prevail. This mindset is the world of angels and devils, winners and losers, of spoils going to the righteous victorious. It is, in the end, hopeful and optimistic for a future when the final war is won and a golden age prevails.
A Nihilistic Zeitgeist tells us that the good guys do not always win, that evil may in fact prevail, and that the inevitability of death stalks all human beings. The reality of our mortality, and the uncertainty of anything beyond this life and world and our ability to survive in it alone, without trusting others to help, is what defines this worldview.
Since most of us are film fans, it might be useful to break down these Zeitgeists in terms of familiar movies. Please bear in mind that the categories are fluid, with many crossovers from one Zeitgeist to another, with some stories that pit one Zeitgeist against the other. Below is a breakdown of each Zeitgeist by its sources (and example theater and films), themes and music corollaries:
Sources: Greek Theater, Shakespeare, Auteur films, Disney/Pixar, Literature, Romance
Examples: Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Bicycle Thief, Dead Man Walking, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Manchester by the Sea, Toy Story, Out of Africa, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gandhi
Themes: human dignity, reconciliation, relative evil, compassion, social justice, humanizing the other, common values – trends toward more traditional drama, tragedy, comedy
Music Corollaries: Classical, melodic, poignant, sensitive, emotive, soft rock.
Sources: Greek Epics, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Marvel
Examples: The Odyssey, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Never Ending Story, Kill Bill, The Hunger Games, Iron Man
Themes: hero’s journey, family/tribal and national bonds, eye for an eye justice, requires a villain/nemesis, wars are winnable, hopeful – trends toward melodrama and fantasy
Music Corollaries: Wagner, impressionistic, operatic, rock mashup.
Sources: Horror, Crime, Action/Thriller
Examples: The Thing, The Strangers, American Psycho, Reservoir Dogs, The Accountant, Open Water, The French Connection
Themes: survival, revenge justice, security, trust no one, you are alone, cynical of human intentions, fatalistic – trends toward the absurd and violent
Music Corollaries: Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, post-modern, atonal, dissonant, heavy metal.
It does not take much imagination to quickly surmise that these three Zeitgeists permeate culture on every level. They inform who we call an enemy and if we can forgive them, if we require a villain or nemesis to define who we are, whether or not we seek a cause to support, or whether we take guilty pleasure in looking at other people suffer (as long as we don’t). These Zeitgeists define the nature of revenge, of fame, of misfortune, and of attempts at peace and reconciliation. They are such givens to most people that to consider them as cultural templates – realities that arise from conscious choices that we each make as individuals – is unthinkable. And yet they do inform our choices in everything from the films we see to how we react to the political ‘other’ (whether Republican or Democrat) on Facebook.
These Zeitgeists are, in fact, a grand landscape for manipulation to both beneficial and not-so beneficial outcomes. They are the realm of politicians and marketers and advertisers who seek to convince us to move to vote this way or that, to buy this product or that one. Often, they have strong and prevailing economic agendas that buttress them. While there are arguably other Zeitgeists that should make the list (for example, rationalism) the three discussed here, in my mind, pervade culture more dominantly because they address the emotional as well as intellectual needs of people.
Why talk about Zeitgeists? In my mind, awareness that cultural Zeitgeists are in the realm of human choice is paramount if we have any hope of moving to a more peaceful, tolerant and accepting world. If we actually believe, for example, that the world is made up of good and evil people, then that will color our personal interactions, our votes, our choice of entertainment, and the news that we watch. If we believe, on the other hand, that evil is relative, that empathy and dialog are possible, that each war plants the seed for the next conflict in a never-ending cycle—then we are free to choose a different path. On the other hand, if we believe human nature is unredeemable, any attempt to change it tantamount to arrogant folly, and to accept the inevitability of mankind’s destructive path is the only truly mature and realistic frame, then we nudge humanity toward yet a different outcome.
The point is that we all make choices – and by our choices we influence the power of the Zeitgeists described here. While we may believe our individual choices are trivial and unimportant, when combined they make for powerful social forces that literally can determine the fate of mankind. This is, in fact, the reality of the individual. We each, in our own way, define the world. It is up to each one of us to define it wisely.
Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.