There are two tests of a good theory. From a strictly structural angle the standard for theoretical quality is how easy it is to disprove, how testable are the hypotheses. From a creative angle it is the neatness and/or elegance of the supposition that matters. Many of our best, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution perhaps the most controversial example I could nonchalantly pluck from the sky, survive mostly on the latter criteria. The rarer beast is a theory that satisfies both.
In 1995 Iain Spence published his Sekhmet Hypothesis, a book length proposal that the 11 year cycle of sunspot activity exactly mirrored a similar cycle in youth culture. Every 11 years, in periods starting roughly a year after the solar minimum, our youth culture flip-flopped between two extremes. At one end is a state typified by punk – short/severe haircuts, speedy drugs, spiky/poppy music and an appreciation of the more materialistic pleasures of life. At the other extreme was what might be loosely termed ‘hippy’ – psychedelic drugs, long hair, freeform music and other art forms, baggy clothing and a trend toward the spiritual. In these 11 year periods the magnetic polarity of the Sun reverses, an extinction event were it to happen to a planet, from one cycle to the next. The cultural shift of the West appeared to be doing exactly the same.
Spence traced this correlation starting in 1955 – the birth of rock and roll. Speed, bikers, leather jackets and three minute guitar riff driven sounds. This was a year after the solar minimum of 1954, the start of Solar Cycle 19.
The next Solar Cycle, No. 20 (the twentieth since measurement began in 1755), started 11 years later. By 1966 there had been a complete reversal in cultural polarity, with the long-haired, flared-trousered LSD generation. Flower children. Psychedelics. Hour-long sitar solos.
Another 11 years bought us around to 1977, and the punk explosion. Amphetamines. Leather and poly-plastics. Spitting. Pogoing. Tight jeans and the spiky, angry pop of The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Eleven years later came the start of Cycle 22; 1988 and the second summer of love. Ecstasy, acid house, and the loved up rave scene. Baggy hoodies, floppy fringes and shoegaze.
Eleven years after that: 1999, and … well. This is when Spence got to test his proposition. He had created a theory of quality in that it was a testable hypothesis, with an expected outcome predicted four years earlier. But Spence felt 1999 hadn’t delivered the “Stormer” movement, the punk maxima he was expecting. He felt his theory had collapsed. He has since modified his original proposal.
But just because a theory is provably bollocks, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. If we separate out the mathematical prediction of an 11 year cultural cycle and the now irrelevant Fortean pseudo-science of the solar cycle correlation, there is still clearly something of interest. I like mathematical predictions of the future, such as Moore’s Law, predicting that technology will halve in size every two years, which has pretty much held true since the 60s. Even if it’s creator has disowned it, the idea of culture endlessly repeating on an 11 year cycle is actually a pretty good one.
Grant Morrison, the writer from whom I stole the unexpectedly sticky name for my web presence sometime around the beginning of Cycle 23, remains a great believer in the theory. He wrote about its influence on his career in his recent book Supergods. Morrison didn’t consider it disproved in ’99, instead citing Nu-Metal, Marilyn Manson, the return of cocaine and the caffeination of our high streets as evidence. I too am kind to the theory, positing that perhaps the manifestation was simply not quite as it was expected. The paradigm shift in youth culture of 1999 was the explosion of mobile phones, and the internet. I’d argue that Napster, founded in ’99, had a bigger impact on the young than any musical trend of the time. Perhaps the punk maxima of 1999 was a technological one.
Anyway, my point is that a disproved or discredited theory is not necessarily a bad one. Darwin went through six editions of On The Origin Of Species, and still never felt he got it spot on. Yet his theory is now a bedrock. Just as other since-disproved creation myths were before it. The continued moral usefulness of long discredited theories is one of the best arguments in favour of most of the organised religions of the 21st Century. Religious moral codes surviving thanks to the baby not being thrown out with the bathwater.
So. If we’re happy to subscribe to a bastard theory, 2010-2021 marks Cycle 24 of the Sekhmet Hypothesis. A period of cultural change that has started at the hippy pole, and is evolving toward the punk. The next ten years are going to get angrier, tighter-trousered, more corporate and more compact. In the vaguest of senses. But really, for it to be useful, all that really needs to be defined about Cycle 24 at this stage is that it will involve a shift from something to something else. And it’s already started.
I wish you a productive decade.