For a long time, I went to bed grumpy. Well, I mean something additional to my normal lifelong grumpiness. (I’m the kid who, at age nine, got annoyed about a Daily Telegraph article on whether ABBA was better than the Beatles. Forty years later I still get annoyed about the Telegraph, though a piece on ABBA v The Beatles would now count as high culture at Australia’s Least Trusted Newspaper.) I mean particularly grumpy.
I’d noticed that there was a certain repetitiveness to popular culture, that the same things would happen over and over, but each time be treated in the media as if happening for the first time, with no mention that the same thing had happened the previous year and was reported in exactly the same way.
Later, I realised that the media needed to do that in order to give itself “news” to report, and I pitied, in particular, journalists who had to work for Sunday evening news bulletins, death zones for real news to be filled with eight minutes of coverage of community festivals, obscure sporting events and Hallmark holidays before they could credibly get to the footy. But at the time, it irked me, and I got into trouble once from Mum for yelling “that’s the same shit they do every year” at breathless news coverage of a “birdman rally”, an event eminently improvable, I felt, with the addition of firearms.
Such was my concern at this Eternal Return of the news cycle I developed a theory that — given there were necessarily an infinite number of universes, many of which were exactly the same as our own but for one near-trivial detail — I was, for some reason, doomed to slip endlessly between these nearly identical realities where, I would learn, they had not had a birdman rally the year before and the whole concept of people leaping, by way of some poorly crafted versions of hang-gliders, into a body of water was entirely novel.
As I grew older not merely did I understand why the media did this, I began to see a deeper truth: that humans craved, indeed needed, this repetition as a way of marking out the year, of providing a kind of calendar of the soul to mark the passage of their lives. Pre-modern community life bore this out, with different societies at different stages of development all sharing a tendency to mark out the passage of days, weeks and seasons in different communal ways.
The Catholic Church understood it, as well; the liturgical year was marked out with not merely “Ordinary Time”, holy days and major events like Easter and Christmas but extended periods such as Lent and Advent, and seasonal events like Rogationtide, for “beating the bounds” of the parish to protect the forthcoming summer’s crops.
Such ancient traditions — the Church, fine cultural imperialist that it was, nicked most of its liturgical calendar from older cultures — gave a shape to time, some certainty in an otherwise random, often inhospitable universe, satisfying some deep human need, hard-wired into us back in the days of the rude hut, to measure and mark the regular cycles of life.
Such cycles still appeal to us, however post-modern we might regard ourselves; electricity might have banished the darkness, screens might have driven us inward, air-conditioning might have divorced us from the heat and cold, but deep down we still need the familiar cycles. And if we can’t use the old ones, we invent new ones.
Take opinion, the now dominant form of media expression — hot takes, savage demolitions, nailings, must-reads, brilliant parodies, courageous self-revelation and tales of personal struggle, accompanied, of course, by industrial levels of outrage produced on social media, where smack-downs, take-downs, put-downs and meltdowns enjoy intense but meson-like lifespans.
But even here, the ancient need for a calendar of the soul asserts itself with a series of Holy Days of Commentary Obligation. Take Australia Day (please). Every year the approach of the 26th of January summons the faithful to prayer, or at least to their keyboards — to extol the unique virtues of Australia, or condemn our unique flaws, to question whether a day celebrating an invasion and the start of genocide isn’t, you know, maybe just a little bit inappropriate as a national day, and, above all, to struggle with the question of the meaning of Australia Day. As I recall from those distant ABBA-versus-the-Beatles days, that was a question that was rarely debated when it was just another public holiday occurring on the nearest available Monday but that is now agonised over as the flags erupt in late January and it becomes a crime not to Celebrate Straya.
‘Vasion Day sets the Ordinary Time of the commentary year in motion. Next is Earth Hour, an event equal parts harmless and witless, for which more carbon emissions are produced in pro- and con- commentary than saved in its temporary and voluntary return to the 19th century. Then there’s Easter, which might have once been given over to the actual Easter messages of sacrifice and rebirth from various Christian institutions but is now primarily a Holy Day in memory of Saint H.R. Nicholls, as employer groups gather to bemoan penalty rates, commemorate the slaughter of jobs and the inconvenience of having to go the next street over for an Easter Sunday coffee despite the Blessed 24/7 economy.
Shortly thereafter, or sometimes even beforehand, is the most important event of the commentary year, Anzac Day, guaranteed to elicit extensive and heartfelt commentary on its meaning. Stray too far from the orthodoxy, though, and you’ll suffer the consequences, as SBS’ Scott McIntyre learnt when he uttered the heresy of criticising Anzac Day and had Malcolm Turnbull demand, and receive, his head from the unctuous Michael Ebeid — though it is Catherine Deveny who has long endured an “annual explosion of hate” for offering her views on Anzac Day. My own contribution to this particular Holy Day of Commentary Obligation can be found here; let no one feel I’m excluding myself from this cycle.
The descent into winter is marked, of course, by Mother’s Day, originally an authentic community memorial day stolen by Hallmark to sell its products but now, in turn, used by the media to attract clicks, with commentary not so much praising motherhood as reflecting on maternal and child death, including an entire sub-category of “Why I Hate Mother’s Day” written (invariably) by women. Curiously, “Why I Hate Father’s Day” isn’t quite as developed a sub-category, although it too can be found online, partly from people who miss their dead fathers, mostly from people who had shit dads. Still, capitalism and alienation go hand-in-hand, so it’s entirely appropriate for Hallmark holidays.
With the arrival of spring marked by such Father’s Day commentary, the nation starts to warm up for commentary. And the liturgical calendar of commentary isn’t a dead text, incapable of change, but a living breathing document: a recent addition is RUOK Day, a relatively new event that produces more hot takes than a prison bakery as people rush to make the observation that merely asking how someone is isn’t, in some meaningful sense, good enough. Soon there’s the Melbourne Cup to look forward to with the now annual discussion of animal cruelty (enjoy my contribution here). Then we prepare to wrap up the year with Christmas, another social Rorschach test in which we can lament the commercialisation of Christmas, the unhealthy emphasis on enjoying ourselves by eating and drinking, Muslims constantly trying to destroy/ban/ruin Christmas, or how much people hate Christmas because their relatives upset them.
And just as you’re recovering from all that, it’s less than a month until the commentary cycle starts all over again. You’re a year older and little wiser, but you instinctively know where you are as the Earth endlessly orbits through the vast space of media content.