It’s Cinco de Mayo and, against my better judgment, I’m out at a noisy, overcrowded, Mexican restaurant, trying to get the bartender’s attention so I can order a much-needed margarita. I overhear a conversation about what Cinco de Mayo commemorates, the final verdict being that it is a celebration of Mexican Independence day. I know that this isn’t true, but I also know that I’m no better than the participants in this conversation, as I’m out here celebrating a holiday without knowing exactly what I’m celebrating. Not Mexican Independence Day I’m sure, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it does commemorate. I wonder what it means to celebrate without knowing the reason why.
Perhaps an argument could be made here for the ascendance of spectacle and celebration, for commemorative events taking on a meaning and importance based on ritual rather than remembrance. Maybe we live in a time and a place defined by bullet points and power point presentations, where history is boiled down to a holiday, where the details fall by the wayside and public drunkenness and wanton celebration find justification in the commemoration of any event that allows us a bit of freedom from the Puritanism of our daily lives. By this line of reasoning, such anniversaries are little more than empty vessels to be filled by the repressed desires of the celebrants, ciphers floating without reference. One could even go so far as to argue that anniversaries in and of themselves have become nearly irrelevant; commemoration has been flattened across the public sphere to the point where everyone and everything can have an anniversary: people, animals, buildings, events, stores, corporations, products, television shows. Anniversaries have been indelibly linked now to commercial language; indeed, one would be hard pressed to find an anniversary whose commemoration hasn’t been transformed into an occasion to buy, sell, or consume.
Given all this, what then is the utility of an anniversary? Why are anniversaries still important, even after their rampant commercialization, indiscriminate application, and often specious interpretation?
Much has been made of the drive towards instant gratification as a defining characteristic of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The statement that the internet puts the world at our fingertips has gone from a revolutionary idea to a cliché. And yet, along with the expectation of access to everything all the time, another shift has quietly occurred. It finds its genesis and its metaphor in a device/service offered by our cable and satellite television companies.
The digital video recorder, with its ability to pause and rewind live television, is subtly shaping the way we live our lives. The marketing for this product promises that we will never miss anything again–should the real world intrude on our television watching, we can simply hit rewind and not miss a single moment of programming. We can record our favorite shows and skip through the commercials with the press of a button. The DVR has singularly revolutionized the way we watch television. Once one gets used to the idea, it’s surprising how quickly it translates to other venues. More than once I’ve caught myself reaching to push some non-existent button on my car stereo, attempting to rewind what someone has said on the radio. And of course, while that button might not exist in my car, a few minutes on the Internet will likely yield that radio station’s website with an archive of the program in question, allowing me to listen to it again whenever I want. The same is true of television and, if something is not on an officially sanctioned network website (or even if it is), it’s almost certainly on YouTube. There is no such thing as missing a televised event now that everything ends up on YouTube. The DVR is a metaphor for how we live our lives, where everything is instantly repeatable, instantly archived, and always accessible. Nothing again will ever be “can’t miss”; indeed, nothing can ever be truly missed again, as everything is instantly documented, archived, and available with a couple of clicks. History repeats itself, literally.
Within this context, the anniversary does still hold value and meaning. The anniversary makes the argument that time does matter, that time is real, that despite all our technology time is still the one thing we cannot change, alter, or halt. An anniversary is the insistence that today is different from yesterday is different from tomorrow. When we commemorate an anniversary, we are not just celebrating an event, we are recognizing the passage of time. An anniversary marks an important event, but it is not just about remembering that event, it is an affirmation that what has happened between then and now is also important. Anniversaries tell us that life is important, that life is not repeatable, rewindable, or redactable. Time marches on and every moment is singular and unique and precious.
We may not have known it on that margarita-soaked night, but in its own way Cinco de Mayo commemorates the significance of time. The Battle of Puebla took place on the Fifth of May, 1862, with the Mexican army successfully, if temporarily, forcing a withdrawal of the occupying French forces. It is widely recognized that French General Charles de Lorecenz’s fatal error was beginning his campaign too late in the day.