2020: The Year of Cancel(l)ed Culture

When life as you know it gets canceled, what’s there to do? For some, apparently, the answer is: Google it. Back in March, as a national emergency was declared and the shutdowns began, Americans were searching for that very word, canceled, at an unprecedented rate. What they hoped to achieve by so limited a query, only they could know. Maybe they were looking for meaning. Or at least some orthographic clarity, since the vast majority of them spelled the word incorrectly, with two Ls: cancelled.In a year of subtraction, it’s hard to begrudge anyone a bit of verbal addition, even if doubling the consonant when the stress falls outside the suffixed syllable hasn’t been standard in American English for nearly two centuries. Besides, there may be a secret contained within that extra L. If an ideal is “an idea,” as Stephen Fry once put it, “with an L,” then 2020 is the year canceled became cancelled: the idea’s idealized form.
It certainly means more, as a concept. Things canceled in 2020, from concerts and movies to family reunions, were not just postponed but caaaaancelllllled, we said, exasperatedly, in texts and emails and slacks, the word stretching out along with the delays. When was the last dinner party? Who remembers live anything? Nothing was reschedulable, because the schedule no longer existed. Even when you pretended it did—let’s try something next month! next year! when things go back to normal, haha!—nobody really believed you. 2021 is, in theory, nearly upon us, mere days away, yet it still feels immeasurably distant, as though some second-rate Hitchcock were zooming in on space while dollying out on time: a mockery of motion. Vomiting, if not quite vomitting, may occur.
Actual motion, of course, has been at an all-time low of late, with far fewer people leaving their immediate vicinities. When space shrinks and time expands, we suddenly find ourselves traveling inward—binge-watching ’80s sci-fi, creating new online personas, studying Buddhism, covering our bedroom ceilings in cotton and LED strips so it looks like a thundering night sky and/or reflects our storm-tossed souls. Anything to rediscover ourselves. Macroculture may have been voided by 2020, but microcultures boomed. At the very least, everyone’s just a bit more interested in something as a result, and thus more interesting, as people.

Or they’re crazier, which might be the same thing. As global as the pandemic is, this was an intensely personal year, where everything was felt more keenly than ever. Loves widened, hates deepened, and many ideas, rolling around unchallenged in foggy, lonely heads, hardened into ideals. Some people, too angry or frustrated or resentful to move forward, made the wrong point at the wrong time and were, as we now say, canceled for it. Or cancelled. However you spell it, it’s become the new default, from the social up through the societal. After a year in which we just wanted everything to go away, we’ve become experts, for good and ill, at mass cancellation—and that’s always spelled, for no good reason, with two Ls.

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