In college, my friends & I were way into what at the time was called “alternative” radio. We listened to the latest albums & read the reviews, played what we liked. It was all in the music. Alternative Tentacles. Sub Pop, etc.
Our tastes were educated by older students, the seniors teaching the juniors & sophomores, the juniors & shop-mores teaching the newcomers.
When we heard Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ Blank Generation our collective ears pricked up. (Joe Orton’s Prick Up Your Ears was already important to us.) It spoke to us for reasons we didn’t understand. It spoke of this failure to understand. We understood the “blank” in “I belong to the blank generation” to be a ______________; a space in which anything might be filled in. This affective realization may be understood according to Raymond Williams’ notion of “structures of feeling,” which (as Shianne Ngai observes) refers to a feeling that sticks without clear ideological reasons to back it up. It marked us as all potential, no possibility.
We were not wrong to feel for this song. I am reminded of it today as I hear on the radio (NPR) another report comparing the “I generation” to the Baby Boomers. The millennials come across in glowing terms, being more ‘diverse,’ more ‘liberal’ than their grandparents. Missing are the parents, uncles, godparents, big brothers & sisters who were born in the late 60s, early 70s.
In the mid-1990s, around the time we were meant (according to the narrative of continual progress that so frequently determines US nationalism) to come into our own, there were a number of stories in newspapers that observed how we had failed to ‘make our mark’ as a generation. We were at the time referred to as the X-generation, a term which balanced our collective incapacity to live up to our parents’ expectations & our collective interest in punk/alternative culture, symbolized by the band X.
What was the blank generation? Affective theory provides one answer. Raised in the 1970s we grew up in an age of agitation & revolutionary dreams, only to come of age during the Reagan revolution. Like the “lost generation” that came of age during WW I we were largely obliterated by technological changes, which were accompanied by a fundamental shift in public/popular cultural perceptions. In this sense, the X-generation does not indicate all members of a generation, but an ideological split, both sides of which were lost to history–the Young Republicans dissolved into the prosperous public sphere of the Clinton era, making big bucks in digital/financial start up, while the majority took temp jobs.Either way, we were dismissed: as ‘good sons’ who followed the right-ward trend or ‘bad/riot girls’ who bucked it but were not able to resist the cultural tide.
We were, in short, a queer generation. A group who defined ourselves primarily as outsiders, & whose outsider status came without rewards.
A few personal anecdotes (unnoticed by the “mainstream” who we learned to reject at a young age, what else have we?) will help to explain our situation:
- I’ve worked full time or 3/4s time (when in school) since i was 16; I’m now 44. In the last 28 years I’ve never been fired from a job, never been disciplined for poor work, and NEVER BEEN OFFERED A PERMANENT POSITION. We are a precarious generation.
- Leaving college in 1992, I remember being told that my best bet for employment was to seek out the new ManPower Inc., one of the first “temp” agencies. I dutifully went to a large downtown office building, where I was given a typing test on one of these new personal computers. I’d taken a year of typing in high-school, prided myself in being able to type about 85 wpm. But the computer’s keyboard was subtly yet substantially different from the one I’d grown used to, banging out my senior thesis on an IBM typewriter. There was a “back key’ & no reason to hit return at the end of the ‘page’ (the screen). I messed up pretty badly, leaving large gaps in the ‘page’ every time I tried to make a new line. My testers shook their heads, confirming themselves that I’d been lying about my abilities. They denied me an office job, sending me to manual labor pools, which paid minimum wage.
- I didn’t just write my BA thesis on a typewriter, I wrote my MA thesis on one as well. I simply couldn’t afford the $2,000 for a PC. That was 1995.
- Shortly thereafter I managed to get a temp job at a major university, working as a functionary in the Chemistry department. My job was to enter numbers on a web page that connected the local Chemistry journal (JACS) to its national organization offices. My manager, a Professor at the University, warned me not to spend my down-time “surfing the internet.” I had no idea what the “internet” was but surfing sounded fun, so I tried it out. It seemed to mean clicking on various words in order to move from one page to another. It was NOTHING LIKE SURFING. To this day, I’ve never understood what the big deal about the internet might be. I’ve joined the ‘conversation’ because no other options seem available. Pulled into a subjectivity we never accepted, the blank generation wails, as Richard Hell put it, “get me out of here!” “It’s such a gamble when you get a face.”
The X-generation has so much to offer generation Y/I. We remember what it was like back when interpersonal/bodily/queer relations organized our subjectivity. But no one listens to us; we are invisible, the ‘left-behinds’. It’s a (non)subjectivity we grew into, learned to live with, but on we must resist if we are to impart our knowledge, based on continual loss. Among our observations, a few key points stand out:
- There is no significant difference between male & female.Everyone in our generation wore pants (jeans or corduroy). Sometimes we wore them under skirts, both men & women. We talked to each other w/out a sense of intellectual/emotional/cultural difference. We were not a trans generation in the biological sense–we didn’t know of & didn’t need physical transformations of our bodies. Girls could be fem or macho; guys could be macho or fem. “It’s all cool with me” was the predominate ideology.
- Nothing was more important than “authenticity,” which meant being true to one’s own desire, not capitulating to “the mainstream.” This was regarded by the mainstream as a collective effort to hold ourselves back; we were the original “slackers.” We refused the bullshit they offered us in our continual critiques of ourselves & each other. We disdained anything that resembled “selling out.” How times have changed; now it seems that “selling out” is the sole goal of up-&-comers, & everything that makes one more ‘marketable’ is praised.
- Subjectivity located in bodies can’t be commercialized in the ways that subjectivity located in spectral images can be. Every generation chooses an efficient mode by which to mediate itself to itself. We insisted, perhaps for the last time (until the zombie apocalypse, an X-generation genre if there ever was one), that bodies in proximity was the best way to gain friends & get laid. We approached each other face-to-face, tasted each others juices before making an ultimate decision. Nothing was check off because there was no conception of boxes to be checked.
- We located our problems in collective, rather than individual accomplishments. This post & this blog are testimony to this affective stance. The blank GENERATION will rise or fall (mostly fall) collectively. We did not assume the perspective, so prominent today, that each person is responsible for his/her (note the gendered dimorphism, which we did not accept) destiny.
I remember the summer when Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” his the mainstream radio. Kathy, Chuck, Ethan & I were driving north to see Camper Van Beethoven play songs like “Mao Reminisces about his Days in Southern China” & “Take the Skinheads Bowling” when we heard it on FM radio. Some of us thought it was a good sign: as a generation we’ve begun to be accepted! Others, included myself, thought it marked the end of an era: the ultimate sell-out.
We argued about it; argument is something the X generation is very good at. We were never afraid to disagree.
In retrospect, it’s an understandable shame that Cobain died, but it was shame, not Courtney, that killed him in the end.