Monday, July 22, 2013

Talking About Talking About My Generation: Millennials Vs. The Zeitgeist

I'd like to center this around the infamous quote from Girls that goes, "I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice—of a generation." Like most of the main character's bumbling hubris, it's played for laughs, the joke being the very idea of The Voice of Our Generation. Despite charges to the contrary, I think it's obvious that the characters of Girls, privileged as they are, are at least aware that they exist in a very specific milieu (young, white, New York, privileged poverty), and that there's nothing intrinsic in that milieu that makes it any more worthwhile than another. So when Hannah says she might be the voice of her generation, she immediately has to walk her claim back, which leads her to the absurd title of "A voice of a generation"—which means she's exactly like everyone else. Ha ha.

There's more to the joke, though, because Hannah's deference to inconsequentiality is a very familiar maneuver. We've been seeing it on television for years, in one form or another, from the passive-aggressive schlubs of The Office to the preening idiots of Arrested Development. These are people who, like Hannah, believe intuitively that they are the centers of the universe, but constantly find themselves in situations where they have to confront their own averageness; the only development in Girls is that we have a character who's smart enough to hold the two concepts in her head at the same time. In a supposedly pluralistic world, the pluralism of which has been drilled into her head for years by the liberal arts philosophy, Hannah desperately maintains her selfish egotism. This kind of millennial doublethink is best expressed in the old demotivator bromide that "if everyone is special, then nobody is." But Girls, in embodying that sentiment, and putting it into the wishy-washy parlance of our times, is not only proving itself formally proficient, but also truly, deeply in touch, which is to say that it's the voice of the generation.

There was an article on Opinionator a few weeks ago about treating prints by Andy Warhol like they were paintings by Jackson Pollock. I think Lena Dunham—and most other people who are attracted to speaking for a generation—are doing the same thing, which is to say applying a modernist concept to a world that no longer accepts it.

It's not difficult to see how the idea of "the voice of a generation" requires the exclusion of most people in that generation; the whole idea of a single, monolithic generation would be incoherent without some degree of cultural hegemony. Most Americans in the 1920s weren't alcoholic expats, but we know Hemingway in part as the voice of the Lost Generation. Being The Voice of a Generation has always necessitated both a broad understanding of the Zeitgeist and a willingness to ignore certain of its features when they contradict one another. Which is to say that it's always been as much about imposing one's will on the culture as it's been about having one's finger on the pulse. (I'd make that metaphor more consistent, but I don't have a crash cart handy.) Put differently, a prospective Voice has to focus on the semantic elements of their generation and then tell us what they mean. In The Sun Also Rises, alcohol, which was particularly prominent in the 20s, refers to simultaneous needs to escape oneself and to connect with others; we have the signifier, alcohol, and the signified, lonely self-hatred. The problem is that after the 60s and postmodernism, it's no longer easy to make a judgment about which set of signifiers to privilege, to say nothing of what's befallen those easy structuralist ties between signifier and signified, so it becomes impossible for anyone to call themselves the voice of a generation without a lot of qualification. 

Hence the joke: it's as absurd for Hannah to call her tiny, unfinished book of essays a major generational statement as it is for Lena Dunham to call her show a major generational statement. Yet that's exactly what they're doing; by putting their self-awareness on display, they're reducing it to a symbol, a soundbite that speaks to the confusion and self-consciousness that, we're encouraged to believe, are key features of the Millennial Generation. Never mind the arrogant rich kids, oblivious nerds and enthusiastic vegans we're familiar with from TV shows, books, movies, comics and everyday life; this is the real generation. Girls comes right up to the absurdity of its own raison d'ĂȘtre and then moves immediately in the opposite direction.

As the idea of The Voice of Our Generation becomes more absurd, we seem to want it more desperately. Girls is just one example of this; others include Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, anything by LCD Soundsystem, or Zachary German's novel Eat When You Feel Sad (the subject of our next post, which archly declares that it is "a book about a generation" on its back cover). All of these have a violent, conflicted relationship with the presumed Zeitgeist; they're obsessed with expressing it, but they either spend half their time trying to suss out what it is in the first place (Soundsystem) or they're content to hold forth about a received set of semantics (Pilgrim, German). In all of them, though, the absurdity of the concept of the Zeitgeist is the Zeitgeist; the failure of its characters to be generational makes them generational. God knows I've enjoyed all of them, but the search for a generational idiom, in every case, is misguided; I think the need to reconstruct cultural consensus, the first phase of which seems to be the airing of all our grievances about aimlessness and vacillation, must be based on a discomfort with irony that leads in its most extreme form to bullshit like Kimya Dawson.

To everyone who's looking for a Millennial idiom based on the disavowal of a Millennial idiom, I'd suggest John Campbell's brilliant webcomic Pictures for Sad Children, which performs the same fastidious analysis of Millennial semantics (privileged poverty, allergies, thin computers, cube farms and multiculturalism all feature prominently at one point or another) but takes the vacillation about a Zeitgeist one step further, turning it into all-consuming self-hatred. John Campbell's comic constantly criticizes the egotism his main characters display in being main characters at all; they're denied victory, redemption and even self-pity, and in this they're no different from Lena Dunham's characters. But Pictures for Sad Children takes the next logical step and starts killing them off, or simply abandoning them after a few pages, as if the universe's attention span was just too short. A comic that treats everybody with the same hostile apathy is the logical resolution to the problem of Girls; unless we want everything on TV to be that hostile and apathetic, we should get the Voice of Our Generation out of our heads completely.

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