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Generation X

[SMH 10 March, 2001].

Ceaselessly ironic, anti-consumerist, way too cynical … Ten years after the book that launched generation X onto the world, Guy Rundle considers whether the packaging ever fitted the product.

By the time my family did the Disneyland trip, in 1980 I think, it was almost too late. The magic kingdom, the dreamland of every kid, terminally ill or otherwise, looked ersatz and plastic, especially compared with the boiling, dangerous city surrounding it. Frontierland, Adventureland, Main Street all the areas had a sort of clean depthlessness to them, a Truman Show gleam of unambiguousness.

The exception was Tomorrowland, the “space age” vision of the future built along with the rest of the wonderland in 1955. Nothing ages like the past’s vision of the future, and walking around Tomorrowland all bubble cars and fins, a fusion of the World’s Fair and Flash Gordon was like being trapped in someone else’s faulty vision. The ’50s had imagined us as a streamlined, super-rational civilisation, subsisting on food pills and scooting around on jet packs. Yet the subsequent quarter century’s only advance seemed to be stretch jeans and roller-disco.

The dominant mood of yesterday’s Tomorrowland was not optimism, but misperception. It was a sort of error message from the future and people hustled through it quickly. Yet it lingered in the memory long after the rest of the magic plastic kingdom had faded away. With its rich combination of historical naivety and rueful melancholia, the Tomorrowland experience was what we’d now call a quintessential generation X moment.

It is 10 years since the concept of generation X entered the public realm, setting the tone for an era and forever overshadowing the career of its deviser, Canadian writer Douglas Coupland. Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales For an Accelerated Culture was published by a small press in 1991 and hasn’t been out of print since. He didn’t invent the term that honour belongs to Billy Idol but he was the first to attach it to the floating generation of those born between about 1960 and 1970.

Not so much the children of the Woodstock generation as their younger siblings, squeezed between the obsessions of the baby boomers and the blithe consumerism of their children the global teens generation X is portrayed as a historical middle child of the postwar years. Prematurely resigned to lowered expectations, they are ceaselessly ironic about the world in which they subsist, unwilling to buy into its super-consumerist projections but too cynical to believe the alternatives of a previous era. So far, so fin de siecle.

Coupland’s tale is of three twenty-something slackers though they were yet to be called that living in the downmarket end of a failed real estate development in Palm Springs West, getting by on low-skill McJobs (another Coupland neologism) and avoiding the world of brainless yuppie consumerism. Eschewing television, Dagmar, Claire and Andy amuse themselves by telling stories of their previous life in the mainstream of the ’80s. They go home for Christmas, come back, accidentally torch someone’s car and move to Baja California to open a bar.

It doesn’t sound like much of a story, and, if the truth be told, it isn’t much of a novel, a minor example of the bohemian picaresque tale which never manages to escape the shadow of Kerouac’s On The Road. What made it an instant classic was its acid commentary on the minutiae of contemporary existence, most of which was contained in dozens of little “definitions” of gen X phenomena carried in the margins.

Like Flaubert’s anti-novel Bouvard et Pe{AAC}cuchet, the plot of Generation X was no more than a pretext to make the observation that many people worked in offices with “air families” (the brief but tenuous camaraderie of an office staff), suffered from “boomer envy” (the realisation that they would never have the options of those from their immediately previous era), and afterwards hung out with “platonic shadows” (close nonsexual friends of the opposite sex) and dealt with it by applying “101-ism” (self-analysis based on half-understood undergraduate psychology) or by “tele-parabilising” (morals used in everyday life that derive from TV sitcom plots). Tacky but accurate, they were buttressed with enigmatic little slogans and chapter headings “Use jets while you still can”, “Purchased experiences don’t count” all of which added up to a sort of taxonomy of contemporary life.

Soaking it all is an overwhelming sense of irony, of living one’s life in amused self-regard. Coupland’s characters have come a long way down from Kerouac’s freewheeling hipsters; they no longer believe that dropping out will give them anything more than a respite from the false-consensual onslaught of media society. Taking a picnic, they choose a dilapidated corner of the failed development, “because if you try hard you can feel the optimism of the developers … in an alternate universe these streets still bear the homes of stars such as William Holden and Grace Kelly”.

As a present Dagmar gives Claire a jar of trinitite, the crystallised sand formed after atomic bomb tests in New Mexico. When a family of Japanese tourists drives up and asks for directions, Andy refuses to use his fluent Japanese, saying “Why ruin their USA desert holiday fantasy?” And on it goes, every experience mediated by a hyper-awareness of its origin somewhere else, in a movie or a book or a TV show.

After a decade of Seinfeld and The Simpsons, in-your-face irony has become a reflex, its roots diving down deep into the language (“I’m serious not”, “that is so not true”, “yeah, right”), but 10 years ago it had not become the all-but-exclusive manner in which to represent contemporary life. Nor do the melancholic reflections of Generation X have quite the same tone as the jaunty flim-flam of Seinfeld or the more pointed satire of The Simpsons.

The irony of Generation X, its acute observation of lives patched together from the objects of more literal eras, was a distillation of the feeling that the possibility of a genuine mass alternative a heroic, transformative culture was out of the question. Not only was the counter-culture of the ’60s little more than a distant memory, but the brief efflorescence of a capitalist culture “greed is good” had also proved to be empty, unable to deliver on its promise that you would become not merely rich, but whole.

At the same time as ’80s yuppie bravado was falling apart, popular culture was being overwhelmed with the first waves of retro-chic as all sorts of ’60s day-glo tat began to supplant the basic black and pirate shirt lunacy of the post-punk new romantic era. This was a different process to earlier bursts of nostalgia, such as the kitsch ’50s revival in the ’70s, which amounted to a bunch of TV and record producers reliving their youth.

The ’60s revival involved a total re-incorporation of the visual styles of the period minus their actual political or social content and an expansion of the retro impulse to every style of the postwar era. At first this seemed like an add-on to the dominant style cultures the flannie shirt hick-chic of grunge, and the trainers and trakky daks of rap but as the ’90s progressed it became clear that retro chic was becoming the dominant mode of cultural expression.

Some sort of rubicon was crossed on the dark day when flares again became respectable clothing for the non-deranged. As the retro movement began to revive ’60s items year by year, moving from the beatnik goatee to Woodstock-style rough edges, the moment when it would hit the ’70s crept closer. And there, it was assumed, it would stop. Surely no-one would ever revive the baroque naivety, the triumph of burnt orange and robin’s-egg blue, glam rock and all the rest of the decade that taste forgot? But soon enough there they were, trousers so wide that they seemed to swallow people’s shoes.

Once that happened, anything was possible. Every element of the past 50 years was available for use as the basic units of a new, ie, old, vocabulary. The big hair and male make-up of the ’80s is yet to make an appearance, but it will come. With the rise of retro and irony, the twin pole stars of generation X, the culture went into backwash mode, and it has not yet come out of it.

This is far from a new phenomenon. Periods of change and upheaval at the political, social and cultural levels are usually followed by less heroic, more circumspect eras of reflection and consolidation. It happened after the Renaissance, for example, when artists and architects realised it was futile even to try to compete with the genius of Raphael, Michelangelo and Palladio, and a style known as Mannerist arose. The characteristic of Mannerism was that it drew on the stylistic revolution of the Renaissance, but filled its text with stylistic in-jokes and exaggerated detail.

At once playful and despairing, such periods are the hallmark of a culture of exhaustion, one that cannot escape the gravitational pull of its antecedents. Today, for example, a new culture of the Internet and the rave/rap/DJ ethos is rising with the New Economy. But the growth of the latter is nothing like the economic growth of the post-WWII decades and its culture, paradoxically, lacks the faith in the “new” that would allow it to sweep away the detritus of late modernity. DJ culture is an enormous cut-and-paste job on 50 years of mass-produced culture. The fact that it is seen as new is a measure of how foreign the idea of a genuine cultural revolution has become.

That bloke in the restored FJ with the goatee, wraparound shades and the cream-brown shirt with the blue piping is a Web-site designer, but he could have wandered out of a beat cafe circa 1956. The difference is that now he’s talking to a grunge-punk in a flannie and a slashed tartan skirt. She’s a little bit 1991, a little bit 1977, halfway between Anarchy in the UK and Nevermind, and a Big Five management consultant during office hours.

And on it goes, in increasingly rococo curlicues of self-reference and system nostalgia that is, a nostalgia not based in individual recollection of past joys, but a mass recall of things that people never experienced in the first place. Nothing from within the culture can transform the culture itself. Its elements will recirculate until exterior events depression, war, uprising, reaction or all four yank the carpet from beneath it. Hence the omnipresence of irony as the way in which to talk about a world of retro-styling.

Irony is a rhetorical device that people use to deal with a situation that appears both hopeless and absurd. It’s a way not only of capturing in language a situation that has gone beyond your control, but also of making sure others know that you know that you’re stuffed. You may be powerless, but no-one will take you for a fool.

Present in most cultures, it has developed most fully in the European Jewish world, out of the absurdity of being both God’s chosen people and his most persecuted, as the old Yiddish remark that maybe God could choose someone else once in a while attests. As modernity in the form of markets, bureaucracy, rationalisation, the state insinuated itself into every area of life throughout the 20th century, it was inevitable that a form of humour developed to cope with the ghetto would become its mode of expression.

The rise of the stand-up comedian as cultural hero is a new development, but the ironic reflection on the intractables of modern existence the different worlds of men and women, the frustrations of labour-saving devices, the deep misfortune of getting what you want is coming straight from the Book of Proverbs, by way of Yiddish storytellers such as Sholom Aleichem and Henny Youngman up to Woody Allen. The culmination of this is Jerry Seinfeld, whose act is a kind of comic Mishnah (the rabbinical book of laws and judgments)

for every circumstance of modern life. Can you break up with someone by phone if you’ve been on more than five dates? Why is there something so awful about trailing a shoelace in water in the men’s room? Why do we often prefer to speak to someone’s answering machine rather than an actual person?

Seinfeld has a brassier finish than Generation X, but its concerns are the same: making meaning in a world of limited scope, in the wake of a failed but heroic revolutionary era. As the novelist David Foster Wallace noted in a prescient essay on TV, “E Unibus Pluram”, the profusion of such irony is a measure not of playfulness, but of the universality of the feeling of being trapped, of living someone else’s life, amid the ruins of another civilisation.

Coupland’s imagination has turned in a similar direction. His more recent Girlfriend in a Coma retells the Rip van Winkle myth, with a girl who falls unconscious in the mid-’70s waking up in the mid-’90s. This obvious structure is subverted when the world she has woken up to is visited by apocalypse. Yet the changes between the two similar decades and the different ways in which people think about themselves loom as significant in the reader’s consciousness, as do the earth-shattering events of civilisational breakdown. In the post-Cold War period, the end of history when revolutionary transformations ceased to be possible marks the beginning of innumerable histories of individuals.

The ironic thing about irony is that it always slips from your grasp. By calling his own age cohort generation X the generation with the generic name Coupland was both summoning a generational spirit and trying to close off the idea of generational rebellion altogether. Whiny 16-year-olds aside, no-one used the term “generation X” about themselves in the same proud, literal and slightly goofy way that the baby boomers talked about “m-m-m-my generation”.

Generation X was an acknowledgement that the genie comes out of the bottle once in an age. When you’ve had a social rebellion (which really began in World War II) that pulls apart the intertwined authority of church, state and morality, you don’t get another social quake of any import for a while, simply because there isn’t much left to demolish. There are only aftershocks and then reaction.

Writers such as Mark Davis in Gangland have attempted a kind of “generational affirmative action” to suggest that the overrating of the ’60s is an effect of the boomers’ control of the media and their reluctance to let in a new generation. But this is to be in thrall to the ’60s at a deeper level, to imagine that every historical era integrates its rising generation in the same way.

History records that the first student riot occurred in Paris in 1155. It also records that the University of Paris was founded in 1150, so automatic generational uproar is hardly new. What was new about the ’60s was the key political and cultural break that ran like a faultline across the generational divide and meant that boomers and their parents were not merely people of different ages, but different sorts of people, working from different moral and existential frameworks.

Once the boomer version of the world had won, the process of integrating the young became smoother, but it also became stranger, since the ones imposing moral authority and limits the parents now had to reacquire them. How can faded flower children who’ve done and taken everything make rules for their children about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and keep a straight face? They do it by a sort of “masquerade of order”, playing the lawgiver and limit-setter that they know must be their role, while stopping short of believing (as their parents might have) that such rules amount to an unquestionable morality. Alternatively they were faced with children who had absorbed the ’80s Reagan-Thatcher ethic of social conservatism matched with free-market liberalism hence the success of TV shows like Family Ties and Absolutely Fabulous.

But while today’s parents might be alarmed at the earlier age at which sex and drugs and rock’n’roll kick in for their kids, they can hardly be amazed, as their own parents were, at the way in which people make up their own rules.

To say you were part of generation X was to say you didn’t really regard generationality as important at all. The only people who really tried it on were a bunch of American nerds called “Lead or Leave”, a mid-’90s pressure group similar to the self-advancing “voices of youth” cliques that developed for the constitutional convention in this country. Most got the internships they wanted, and the “movement” dissolved.

The fatuous process of trying to find a generation after generation X has been carried on pretty much exclusively by marketing consultants. If “heroic” periods of historical change are like mountain ranges, then the present era of reduced possibility is a plateau, where one can see for a long way in all directions. Rave music, and the ecstasy drug scene that goes with it, is geared to the needs of a population who can’t have drug hangovers stretching into the middle of their working week. It’s also been a part of the anti-globalisation movement, but most consumers would regard the idea that it was going to change the world and take them along with it as the purest madness.

So when did it first become clear, this sense of reduced possibility, of shrunken history? For a lot of people it was 1982 and the release of the film Blade Runner. The culture’s sense of itself is pretty much summed up in the opening scene of that epochal movie; the struggle for survival in a rain-soaked, multilevelled, multicultural, ruthless, cyberpunk megalopolis.

It seemed less a film than a trailer for the future. The idea that the future would occur amid the ruins of someone else’s idea of the future set the tone for postmodernity ever after.

But for me there was a prelude to it all that strange afternoon in California, at yesterday’s tomorrow. When even Disneyland has become a retro-ironic quotation of itself, then you know you ain’t in Kansas anymore.

Guy Rundle is a co-editor of Arena Magazine

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