The Posteverything Generation
I never expected to gain any new insight into the nature of my generation, or the changing landscape of American colleges, in Lit Theory. Lit Theory is supposed to be the class where you sit at the back of the room with every other jaded sophomore wearing skinny jeans, thick-framed glasses, an ironic tee-shirt and over-sized retro headphones, just waiting for lecture to be over so you can light up a Turkish Gold and walk to lunch while listening to Wilco. That’s pretty much the way I spent the course, too: through structuralism, formalism, gender theory, and post-colonialism, I was far too busy shuffling through my Ipod to see what the patriarchal world order of capitalist oppression had to do with Ethan Frome. But when we began to study postmodernism, something struck a chord with me and made me sit up and look anew at the seemingly blasé college-aged literati of which I was so self-consciously one.
According to my textbook, the problem with defining postmodernism is that it’s impossible. The difficulty is that it is so...post. It defines itself so negatively against what came before it – naturalism, romanticism and the wild revolution of modernism – that it’s sometimes hard to see what it actually is. It denies that anything can be explained neatly or even at all. It is parodic, detached, strange, and sometimes menacing to traditionalists who do not understand it. Although it arose in the post-war west (the term was coined in 1949), the generation that has witnessed its ascendance has yet to come up with an explanation of what postmodern attitudes mean for the future of culture or society. The subject intrigued me because, in a class otherwise consumed by dead-letter theories, postmodernism remained an open book, tempting to the young and curious. But it also intrigued me because the question of what postmodernism – what a movement so post-everything, so reticent to define itself – is spoke to a larger question about the political and popular culture of today, of the other jaded sophomores sitting around me who had grown up in a postmodern world.
In many ways, as a college-aged generation, we are also extremely post: post-Cold War, post-industrial, post-baby boom, post-9/11...at one point in his famous essay, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” literary critic Frederic Jameson even calls us “post-literate.” We are a generation that is riding on the tail-end of a century of war and revolution that toppled civilizations, overturned repressive social orders, and left us with more privilege and opportunity than any other society in history. Ours could be an era to accomplish anything.
And yet do we take to the streets and the airwaves and say “here we are, and this is what we demand”? Do we plant our flag of youthful rebellion on the mall in Washington and say “we are not leaving until we see change! Our eyes have been opened by our education and our conception of what is possible has been expanded by our privilege and we demand a better world because it is our right”? It would seem we do the opposite. We go to war without so much as questioning the rationale, we sign away our civil liberties, we say nothing when the Supreme Court uses Brown v. Board of Education to outlaw segregation, and we sit back to watch the carnage on the evening news.
On campus, we sign petitions, join organizations, put our names on mailing lists, make small-money contributions, volunteer a spare hour to tutor, and sport an entire wardrobe’s worth of Live Strong bracelets advertising our moderately priced opposition to everything from breast cancer to global warming. But what do we really stand for? Like a true postmodern generation we refuse to weave together an overarching narrative to our own political consciousness, to present a cast of inspirational or revolutionary characters on our public stage, or to define a specific philosophy. We are a story seemingly without direction or theme, structure or meaning – a generation defined negatively against what came before us. When Al Gore once said “It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism,” he might as well have been echoing his entire generation’s critique of our own. We are a generation for whom even revolution seems trite, and therefore as fair a target for blind imitation as anything else. We are the generation of the Che Geuvera tee-shirt.
Jameson calls it “Pastiche” – “the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” In literature, this means an author speaking in a style that is not his own – borrowing a voice and continuing to use it until the words lose all meaning and the chaos that is real life sets in. It is an imitation of an imitation, something that has been re-envisioned so many times the original model is no longer relevant or recognizable. It is mass-produced individualism, anticipated revolution. It is why postmodernism lacks cohesion, why it seems to lack purpose or direction. For us, the post-everything generation, pastiche is the use and reuse of the old clichés of social change and moral outrage – a perfunctory rebelliousness that has culminated in the age of rapidly multiplying non-profits and relief funds. We live our lives in masks and speak our minds in a dead language – the language of a society that expects us to agitate because that’s what young people do. But how do we rebel against a generation that is expecting, anticipating, nostalgic for revolution?
How do we rebel against parents that sometimes seem to want revolution more than we do? We don’t. We rebel by not rebelling. We wear the defunct masks of protest and moral outrage, but the real energy in campus activism is on the internet, with websites like moveon.org. It is in the rapidly developing ability to communicate ideas and frustration in chatrooms instead of on the streets, and channel them into nationwide projects striving earnestly for moderate and peaceful change: we are the generation of Students Taking Action Now Darfur; we are the Rock the Vote generation; the generation of letter-writing campaigns and public interest lobbies; the alternative energy generation.
College as America once knew it – as an incubator of radical social change – is coming to an end. To our generation the word “radicalism” evokes images of al Qaeda, not the Weathermen. “Campus takeover” sounds more like Virginia Tech in 2007 than Columbia University in 1968. Such phrases are a dead language to us. They are vocabulary from another era that does not reflect the realities of today. However, the technological revolution, the moveon.org revolution, the revolution of the organization kid, is just as real and just as profound as the revolution of the 1960’s – it is just not as visible. It is a work in progress, but it is there. Perhaps when our parents finally stop pointing out the things that we are not, the stories that we do not write, they will see the threads of our narrative begin to come together; they will see that behind our pastiche, the post generation speaks in a language that does make sense. We are writing a revolution. We are just putting it in our own words.