The Nihilism of Privilege By Michael Ferguson

     This is an interesting article on the nihilism, the denial of objective value and meaning beyond hedonistic individual satisfaction, of Generation X. It is all a product of affluence, something which I believe has weakened modern man terribly over the 20th and 21st centuries, destroying Darwinian survival capacity:

“Gen X culture is often caricatured by the “slacker” meme: young people, over-educated but under-valued by society, spending their days in coffee shops and nights in underground clubs, flipping social norms on their head. Gen X birthed a certain kind of “cool nerd,” the awkward guy celebrated for his hip lack of hipness, arcane knowledge of art and music, embracing “alt” for alt’s sake. In 1994’s Reality Bites, a tedious catalogue of Gen X stereotypes, Ethan Hawke, a rebellious slacker with a heart of gold, wars for Winona Ryder against an equally lovable yuppie played by Ben Stiller. They are supposed to represent the dialectic of the generation: a clash between dreaded success and the unbearable loveliness of knowing the proper definition of “irony” but still letting your girlfriend pay your rent. Scholars may balk at my reductionism, but the cultural shift around Generation X is undeniable. The term “postmodern” was regularly deployed to describe how artistic structure, narrative, and character were tossed in the blender during this period, but there was also a postmodern shift in social values. While hiding from the coronavirus, I’ve decided to re-read every one of Clowes’s books, which I quite loved when I was younger. Amid the clever character pieces, there is a sense, particularly in his books from the 1990s, that these characters are rebelling against the very idea of meaning. In Ghost World, Enid gawks at her father’s residual radicalism and asks, “Why would anyone even want a revolution?” Clowes’s earlier character Rodger Young, based largely on himself, only invests in cultural expression as a way to meet women and overcome his awkwardness, and social pathologies like racism and homophobia hardly leave a dent on him. His early characters are overwhelmed by their sexual desires, and readers are treated to the perversity of young men obsessing over women to whom they are invisible. Clowes’s work betrays a solipsistic rejection of grand narratives and social consciousness for the sake of revelling in dissipation.

In his essay “Against Groovy,” Joshua Glenn wrote that Gen Xers “are horrified and repulsed by the Boomers’ suggestibility — which is to say, their ability to immerse themselves whole-heartedly in some ethos or movement, only to drop it in favor of something else.” To Clowes’s “original” Generation X, their Boomer parents’ “tendency to frame their lives in a mythical register is pathetic, their proneness to emotional excess is bogus; their empathy is suspect.” The reality is that the New Left was a total failure, as were the Baby Boomers. A generation defined by its idealism was the same generation that gave us gentrification, commodities trading, Trumpism, and hating “kids these days,” just like their parents. This is not a slight against Baby Boomers; a generation of people can’t be revolutionary any more than the general public could be. They are people, not a coordinated social movement. But the language of the New Left was cemented to the identity of the Boomer generation. Is it any surprise their kids became hostile when they failed to live up to its promise? “Previous ‘youth movements’ looked to revolutionary truth-seekers for leadership,” says one of Clowes’s characters of grunge-era Seattle in a 1994 “Buddy Bradley” strip. “Our heroes are mass murderers, cartoonists, and alcoholics. It’s fitting that our cultural mecca is a gray, lifeless area known previously for rainfall and a high concentration of Nazis.” Revolutionary zeal was replaced by the solipsism of cigarettes, flannel, and prolonged adolescence. The term “angst” itself, though not an invention of the ’90s, certainly seems to be owned by it. Having abandoned heroes, pop-culture and literature celebrated those who simply described their experiences with self-deprecating honesty. The world sucks, and so do I, and that’s enough.

This was also a popular film trope of this era. The outsider celebrations of Terry Zwigoff, the ironic tragedies and cruelties of Todd Solondz, the brutal apocalypticism of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, all exist in a world unencumbered by ethics. “Right and wrong” was a passé construction that no one really believed in in the first place. The period’s literature is even rifer in a cultural pessimism. One of the more difficult authors to return to from my teenage years is Bret Easton Ellis, the privileged aristocrat who penned near-classics like Less Than Zero, in which characters float emotionless through Los Angeles until they witness a friend kidnap and assault a 12-year-old girl and … feel nothing about it. Ellis’s work felt poignant to me, a brilliant analysis of today’s world, even though I knew no one like the people in his books and have still never met anyone that they seem to satirize. The lack of commitment lends a flatness to much of the pop literature of the ’90s. Chuck Palahniuk captures this in Fight Club: “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war … our Great Depression is our lives.” The words are Tyler Durden’s, spoken before he leads a pack of men to hit each other so they can feel feelings.

     Then there are the next two generations, Y and Z, and after that, probably, mercifully the whole game ends with God bringing down the tent of the world. It is something that conservatives shy away from, the problem of accelerating dysgenics and racial decline. When I look at my family, despite my best efforts, I despair. Why did I bother working my guts out, what did it achieve, because their little friends in their peer groups were far more important than Christian values?  Sometimes I just despair.



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Saturday, 20 July 2024

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