The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
Is January 1, 2000, just another day? Not to most of us, struck by the "numberness" of facing a new millennium. A popular-culture expert dissects the current American fascination with angels, dinosaurs, and aliens, among other forms of millennial madness. In the women's lounge near my office, there are two huge piles of old magazines, left there for those inclined to browse--and one book.
This is no ordinary book. Unlike the magazines, which have been disappearing one by one, it wears a prominent label, "Please do not remove from ladies' room," and has a spot of its own on the windowsill. When Angels Speak contains pithy maxims for living a fulfilled life, culled from the other-worldly TV show, Touched by an Angel. A photo of the show's stars graces the cover.
Touched by an Angel, about people searching for meaning in life, is one of the most-watched shows on television. Its massive popularity is not lost on observers of popular culture. Professor Tom DiPiero sees more than just bathroom reading material in the angel book; he sees time's inexorable march toward 2000 and the effect it is having on movie makers, television producers, journalists, and the rest of us.
Routine milestone years are a time for reflection about personal values, dreams, and fears--and, for scholars, a chance to look back and see how those qualities translate over time into national sentiment and historical record. At this millennial milestone, society is trying to look ahead as well.
DiPiero, whose scholarly origins are French literature, enjoys teaching undergraduates. And lately he has delighted support staff with a knack for organization (not always a professorial trait) as chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures. But look past the French books and the bigger office and you'll find where he really has fun: popular culture.
Tom DiPiero's scholarly origins are in French literature, but what he really enjoys talking about is popular culture, such as the current millennial mania.
He has just finished editing a collection of essays, Angels, Dinosaurs, Aliens, written by literary, film, and cultural studies scholars around the country and soon to be published as a special issue of Camera Obscura, a journal devoted to popular culture and film theory. His upcoming book, White Men Aren't, tackles race. And he's quoted often in magazine and newspaper articles on a dizzying range of topics, from "male bimbos" to online chat rooms to bachelor parties to the meaning of race.
The millennium is DiPiero's fascination du jour. He absolutely loves talking about it. Sounding more like a fast-talking New Yorker than the Youngstown, Ohio, native that he is, he settles into the worn couch in his office to describe the approaching millennium's grip on American culture. "Talk" doesn't do justice to DiPiero's form of communication: To follow his chain of ideas, a kind of stream of consciousness that somehow makes sense, is to pull the endless handkerchief chain out of the magician's pocket, hanky by hanky.
On this topic, DiPiero talks even faster than usual. Words like "suicide" and "mystical properties" fly by; bringing a pen but no tape recorder to this interview is like riding a toy airplane to the moon.
"Our fascination with milestone dates got its start in the 16th century," he begins, "when historians of the time reported that the end of the first millennium had brought suicides and general hysteria in the streets.
"Scholars have since debunked this. Among other things, they argue that the average person on the street in 999 didn't even know what day it was."
But the buildup to 2000 (or, for purists, 2001) had begun, aided by other factors. For one, more people started keeping track of time and so knew what day and year it was. For another, humans have always been drawn to the mystical properties of numbers; our religions have deep roots in such mysteries. Third, big political events have dovetailed conveniently with years of mystical importance, lending even more weight to the date. The French even tried renumbering years shortly after their revolution, but gave it up when no one else followed suit.
And so it is that every new century since the 16th has arrived in Western cultures with more fanfare than the last. Surely now that it's finally here, I posit to DiPiero, a new millennium deserves our best efforts at celebration.
Not necessarily, he argues, and here's why: We imbue milestone years with far more meaning than they deserve. After all, our measure of time is itself a mere human creation.
"We set this thing in motion, and then we act like it's out of our control," he says. "We sit in awe of the ticking of the clock, when in fact all days and years and centuries are arbitrary measures of our existence. Time is a form, a structure, that we endow with incredible meaning."
And it's a Judeo-Christian one at that, he adds. For a reality poke, we need only look to Chinese and Arabic calendars.
That's the history lesson, the "why." For DiPiero, examining how we give meaning to the march of time is the fun part. Late 20th-century humans are staring down the end of the second millennium in some creative ways, he says.
"We use the millennium to explore other worlds, both inner and outer."
Think angels, dinosaurs, and aliens.
Touched by an Angel is a good example, says DiPiero, who watches the show, well, religiously. The job of Della Reese's angel character is to help people travel inward, to accept themselves and others despite differences or lifelong conflicts. The show also talks about weathering change, perhaps the most universal of millennial conditions.
"It has a '90s sensibility," he notes. "A generation ago a show like this would not have been possible. But these days we are looking at race, sexual orientation, and gender roles with greater flexibility."
DiPiero believes the show's creators carry off weighty inward retrospection by turning outward--that is, by attaching the wisdom to a higher source that is omniscient.
Touched by an Angel is only one show among many to explore matters of the spirit. Add to that countless books, movies, CDs, and the stores and catalogs that sell angel merchandise. (DiPiero says he was passing an angel store with a friend when the angel-millennium connection hit him.)
Exploring inner and outer worlds can be a fearful experience, particularly if we're talking about aliens. Luckily, we humans like to question our fears. We play out the alien theme in ways that alleviate our general unease about "us vs. them"--whether the "them" are international foreigners or creatures from outer space. The word's double meaning slips into running gags on NBC's 3rd Rock from the Sun. In the movie Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones's character tracks a Mexican alien who turns out to be an alien of the outer-space variety. X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Independence Day, and Armageddon all look at the alien inside (at times physically and grotesquely) as well as outside.
DiPiero calls it classic nationalism.
"It's a barely camouflaged way of dealing with our fear of foreigners. By dealing with space aliens, we put it outside in a different form."
Lacking the traditional foreign aggressors in the post-cold war era, American cinema may have found in space aliens--and dinosaurs (Jurassic Park)--another enemy to wear the black hat.
"What's important to note is that in each of these movies or TV shows, the human spirit ultimately triumphs, and life goes on, though sometimes in a radically new order," DiPiero explains.
Being the scholar, he can't resist finding deeper allusions in Deep Impact, 1998's wipeout movie. The fact that a flood destroys the earth, leaving only a boy and a girl to carry on, resonates with anyone who has read the Old Testament.
"Where have we seen this before?" he snickers.
This willingness to face the unknown with hope means we are not so much afraid as intrigued, both by the symmetry of the number 2000 and by the notion of a shiny new century and millennium.
"I don't think people have much real fear about the date," DiPiero says. "Actually, I believe we're hooked on the 'numberness' of it, the structure itself. And we like the idea of a fresh start: 'Out with the old and in with the new.'"
Rochester's Own Millennial Celebration
The advent of the year 2000 carries a special connotation for the University community: the start of Rochester's Sesquicentennial celebration marking the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1850. The 18-month observance, concluding with the 151st Commencement in May 2001, will include special alumni festivities in 20 metropolitan areas around the country as well as numerous events on campus--with a spectacular Charter Weekend celebration October 12-15 as the apex. The entire University family, including alumni, is invited. Stay tuned!
He says, however, that's not why he got out of bed last January 1 and decided not to shave. He had no new-year need to grow a beard; it just happened that way. To this objective millennial scholar, the ticking of the clock was simply that, nothing more.
Nonetheless, few people think as deeply about the millennium as DiPiero. Most of us are prompted by the media--the magazine article or the TV news program that tackles the topic.
"My guess is the media have latched onto it thinking there's got to be something there. So they write cover pieces on Deep Impact and other end-of-the-world movies, looking for meaning," DiPiero says. "On some level, they know the story is our reaction to the millennium, not the millennium itself. But generally there's an insistence on the formal properties of the millennium--the fact that the years are going to change--and less interest in the kinds of consequences to human thinking that are coming about."
When Touched by an Angel came along, critics scoffed; it was too soft, a lamb among wolves, they said, and it wouldn't last. They were dumbstruck when its popularity went through the roof and copycat shows sprouted up. They grappled with how to write about this strange new order of television programming.
On the other hand, DiPiero says, the Year 2000 computer problem, rooted in the structure of dates and times, is something journalists can get their arms around. It is easy to sound the millennial alarm when each tick of the clock brings us closer to actual scientific doom.
Yet even the danger of computers going berserk hasn't sent us screaming into the streets (at least not yet). In the spirit of the best millennial movies, the Y2K problem is regarded as monstrous yet solvable.
DiPiero is a people person, and he thinks people have a need to periodically measure their lives in concrete ways. For that reason alone, Times Square at midnight December 31, 1999, might be just the way to restart our batteries.
"I think most people look at the televised New Year's Eve shows as silly antics because deep down we know tomorrow is just another day," he says. "But at the same time, you can't dismiss the need to celebrate together, or to anticipate change together."
An hour has passed. We've been to the millennium and back. I'm thinking I just may swing by the restroom and pick up that book.
Sally Parker wrote the article "Author! Author!" published in the Fall 1998 Rochester Review.
Copyright 1998, University of Rochester