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Winter 2006

Fall 2005

Except From Superhip, Jolipunk: Coming of Age at the End of History

Camille de Toledo courtesy of Soft Skull Press

Five Pillars

My soul has asthma. I mean that the atmosphere of these times causes me severe respiratory distress. It's not the old problems, the familiar problems that we all know by heart. My suffering is less public. None of the usual symptoms here-no coughing fits, no hawking and spitting. I have observed, met or been a part of almost everything people say exemplifies the spirit of the times, and in every case I have come away from these pathetic excuses for nourishment choking even harder. I need air. That's why I have been rooting through the debris of my 1990s for such a long time, looking for a place where I could come up for air, for one or two ideas that could give me some breathing space. I'm sure I'm not the only one. There's no way. I'm willing to bet that the suffocating I I'm talking about is a suffocating we . The we of a generation whose outlook was formed between the poles of two strangely symmetrical dates: 11/9-November 9, 1989, and 9/11, that September day not so many years ago. On one of those days a wall came down, on the other two towers fell. Boom behind, Badaboom in front. Two times nine, two times eleven, double collapse. Both those days are history now, but during the years in between "capitalism" became for me another word for maturity. I mean that I came to understand growing up as the process of resigning yourself to Reality. the brute reality of egoism, the idiotic reality of competition, the imbecilic reality of the incentive-driven life and the duty not only to exist, but to exist with a cozy layer of lard on your ass and a protective patty of bullshit on your eyes. Two times nine, two times eleven. Like dust clouds rising from the double collapse, a special kind of consciousness billowed up from the debris of this decade, as yet unaware of itself, mine, ours: 119911. The palindrome-consciousness of my generation. A generation for whom all there was to see in front or behind were immense clouds of dust and debris. But it's worth trying to understand it, this palindrome-consciousness. I don't think anyone really has, not yet anyway. Its elders have gagged it. It's supposed to just shut up. Well, maybe it can make a little noise, maybe it gets to speak a few lines, but only if they're watered-down, sugar-coated, shrink-wrapped and sanitized for consumption. The plan is to keep its voice stifled until the members of yet another generation grow old, petrified and contaminated, a thousand little renunciations stamped into their faces like crows-feet. And all this so that when the moment comes for this generation to claim its place in the history books and walk out onto life's big stages, it will be too late. By then, that beautiful spirit forged by the double collapse will have been entirely co-opted, its need for air sated by snack food and other assorted trivialities. This is why I have set out here to document the phenomenon before rot sets in, before life has eaten away what is left of my innocence. I've had it with the sage advice of the compromised and resigned. Let me say right away-I know it's true-our generation-the sons and daughters of the BOOM and the BADABOOM-our generation now has within its grasp the kind of power and the kind of honesty that can work the great changes, that can create real works of art. Every day I watch as our elders shamelessly extend their empire and spread their bullshit around and it makes me nearly blind with rage. Why don't they just finish dying for fuck's sake and take their miserable egos with them, their nostalgia, their State, their sexual liberation, their failed revolutions, their shattered illusions, their political parties, their parliaments and their putrid corpses. We don't want any more of the history they are writing. Here's ours, right here!

For the children of the double collapse, the initial motivation behind the new spirit of revolt isn't economic. It's respiratory. It starts with a vague, unpleasant and overpowering feeling. A stifling feeling of being cornered, boxed in, buried alive! Does that do it justice? It's a violent claustrophobic reaction to the idea that the world is a finished piece of work. That among other things it has finally been confirmed that there is only one system of political, social, and cultural management available to humanity. You get strangely ill from having your options cut off like this; it's a disease without obvious symptoms. Its first sign is an overpowering sense of powerlessness. Then nausea sets in, it moves up through the gut, chokes the throat and then spreads throughout the entire body. This is the malaise that is driving the spoiled children of the West as they attempt to rediscover the possibility of resistance. Was it just some kind of panic attack? I don't think so. The last twelve years were clogged with despair. If we're still here, it's because we were forced to invent a reason to go on living. We had to forge an outlook that REJECTS RESIGNATION.

"What is a rebel?" Albert Camus asked in 1951. "A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying 'no'?" The market has been systematically co-opting revolt ever since, for 50 years now. The question today isn't any longer w hat does he mean by saying "no"? What we need to ask now is why "no" doesn't mean anything anymore. Say no to whom exactly, to what ? This impossibility , absolute until the demonstrations in Seattle, Prague and Genoa suggested otherwise, is the keystone in our globalized prison's invisible architecture, the linchpin of what I am calling the new captivity. This is the sea into which we were cast as teenagers, where the main choices were limited to despair, suicide or irony. Despair? Despair over a destiny that is finished as soon as it has begun to unfold. Suicide? A way out. Irony? A means of survival. As the walls closed in the wake of the disappointments of earlier generations, principled revolt became increasingly difficult: its causes were discredited, its inspiration was polluted, and its value was restated in terms of the money-making potential of its different poses. This fate was not imposed from above. No one was forced into cynicism. People just heard the same message over and over: "Well, all this has been tried before, and look what good that did." We were already jaded, and anyway, Camus's "no" was beginning to bore us. No one even noticed as the different forms of revolt unraveled, and turned into what were at best quaint sound-bites and at worst marketing strategies. People would express their rage and there would be all this angry noise and every time it all just ended up seeming like a temporary pose. In spite of this, we can still feel the sincerity of that righteous indignation, late at night when we are by ourselves and undistracted by the drone of entertainment. But it has become something obscene, something we must hide from others.

This is how life is in the new captivity. My goal in setting out on this exploratory mission into its invisible architecture has been to try and understand how revolt has been neutralized and how in our resulting helplessness-since there are apparently no other options open-we seem condemned to seek shelter in irony. I want to suggest that our bondage rests on five pillars, five conditions that are the building blocks, as it were, of the impasse our generation finds itself in today. The first pillar has come down squarely in front of History, and so History has stopped moving. The second ensures that anyone attempting to resist will be instantly condemned. The third pillar is the co-option of any and all efforts at subversion. The fourth pillar is a machine that has sucked up everything marginal and spat it out into the mainstream. And the fifth is the dispersion of economic and political power so widely that it has become impossible to confront it. This pentagon has been our school of despair. Between those five walls an entire generation was trained in the sciences of cynical laughter and in the arts of what I am going to call mass dandyism .

Sleep Tight

The first pillar of our world's invisible architecture is the spirit of endings . It was built as the 80s became the 90s, around the time that people in Moscow were celebrating this new idea-Freedom-with an intensity rarely seen since. I was thirteen years old. The pillar was made out of Berlin stone, stone from the bricks of the GREAT WALL, the same bricks that now reduced to gravel, were being made into cheap jewelry destined for the flea-markets of the West. The stones of Berlin, pocked with bullet marks and scratched by razor wire on the eastern side, colored by layers of counter-culture graffiti on the western side. For those who remember those days, these were artifacts of a happy time. A light, pleasant breeze blew through those months. My mother bought me a T-shirt celebrating the date: November 9-11, 1989. But it only took a few months and several trips through the washing machine for the letters and numbers on the shirt to fade beyond recognition.

The summer before the T-shirt, an article entitled "The End of History?" appeared in the political journal founded by Irving Kristol, The National Interest. Prior to that article, the name Francis Fukuyama was known only to a handful of students and academics. The question mark suggested that Fukuyama wanted to avoid jumping to any conclusions, but the damage had been done. The pundits instantly seized on what they recognized as the keystone of the après- Cold War's triumphalist rhetoric. The dialectic was over; History had arrived at its final phase, its fulfillment, and would go no further. Now democracy and turbocapitalism walked hand in hand like the newly-hitched excreta of a Vegas wedding chapel. The rest of us had no choice but to fall in line with the macabre procession.

Veteran partiers and party-members of the 20 th century, connoisseurs of the barbaric delights of that age, I ask you, use your imagination, do you think growing up is easy when your mother is a cemetery? Was Fukuyama right? That's a question for the philosophers, not for me. But take the words "We're at the end of History." Try to listen to that lullaby with the ears of a child. Try to hear how it sounds as the book closes and voices are hushed, as the lights are turned out and the dim figures of the people who put us to sleep slip away with a phrase gentle and disturbing at the same time: Sleep tight . Sleep tight was our pillow and our cradle. And we did sleep tight. No missiles kept us awake nights. The crisis was past. We were the happy campers. There was nothing left to do but live happily ever after and sleep tight. We are the children of that funeral elegy. It was plausible enough. It would have been easy to believe that any attempt at creating something is in vain, that writing is just a form of masturbation, that resistance is futile. The various causes that might have given us a reason to keep going were either retro or obsolete, take your pick. Independence? Retro. Alienation? Obsolete. Punk Rock? Retro. Rock and Roll? Obsolete. Unionism? Obsolete. Communism? Retro. Modernity? Outmoded.

Fukuyama caught wind of something that the rest of the world had been smelling for a while. Ever since the mid-80s, there had been something in the air, a hint of something completed, something over. Now the spirit of endings was a sold-out show all over the world. Pulling the wings off of the idea of becoming , as a child might mutilate a fly, became an international pastime. Preaching that the end times were upon us became sexy. It was sort of a weird thing to get excited about. Apparently, everything was going to vanish, or go extinct, or achieve completion, or whatever. But instead of hearing the happy sounds of weddings or baptisms, instead of wedding feasts and champagne, the services we saw being given everywhere were funereal, elegiac. It was the end, and the end was good. These were fat times for obituary writers. At the head of the pack were Hans Belting, a German art historian, and Arthur Danto, an American philosopher a little too obsessed with Warhol's Brillo boxes. "It was a moment-I would say it was the moment-when perfect artistic freedom had become real. [.] Everything was permitted, since nothing any longer was historically mandated. I call this the Post-Historical Period of Art, and there is no reason for it ever to come to an end." Snort a few lines from this period, and you get a feeling for it instantly: the name-dropping, the mania for citation, the growing impression of a world mesmerized by its own reflection. Art had decided that its mission was to join those producing the same dittohead regurgitations of life offered in less tony media. Banality became sacred, and all of the classical aesthetic criteria were henceforth so much gunk caked on the rim of history's dustbin. In the same motion, art denied itself permission to confront society's norms. "If nothing is true," wrote Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov , "then everything is permitted." And if everything is permitted then transgression is obviously no longer possible. That is the contribution the spirit of endings has made to our captivity. To celebrate the collapse of a wall they made a urinal into an altar. In the name of liberty, Art and History were relegated to the past and vast swamps of banality were annexed to the present.

This swan song reverberated on through the beginning of the 90s. Not only did it pollute every inch of the reality around us, it stunted our ability to imagine other realities. One very prescient French essayist, Jean-Paul Curnier, put it this way: "These were the times of decomposition. The sense of completion without any hint of new beginnings that now permeates western democracies is just a figure of the general sentiment writ large. Everywhere, the only important things are endings. The end of utopias, the end of politics, the end of meaning, the end of feminism, of sexual liberation, of full employment, of the golden age, of communism, of History, and topping it all off, the end of modernity itself." The first edition of Aggravation was published in 1996. Curnier had started writing it in the year of Berlin Wall souvenirs and T-shirts. He was ten years older than me, so he had seen each stage of the enormous funeral under whose shadow we were doomed to live. As for our own generation, we were widows and widowers before even getting married. Our future was like a spider web stretched between two chandeliers at a big memorial service. While on the floor below everyone appeared to be weeping, most were actually making barbed remarks under their breath, covering them with more public sniffles and sobs. Well before we had even the slightest ambition to be part of the world, the pallbearers were already carrying the casket of our future towards a common grave. We never did get a look at this future, but we did see the dirty faces of the sextons marching off with their shovels and picks. We never heard the voice of our future, but we did join in the songs of farewell. Hell, we helped to seal the vault. And now the ceremony is over. So go back home! Turn on the TV! Do something! Let old acquaintance be forgot! What humanity really wants is a piece of tinsel and a pretty story. All you really need to worry about is getting busy with your stocks, busy with your cocks, and rocking the rocks in your stupid fucking heads.

We were still playing hopscotch when the writers, political pundits, historians and critics took up battle stations on either side of the spirit of endings . Eventually, it became clear that this was a purely rhetorical war. On one side, the conservatives rejoiced that the end of the world had finally arrived. On the other, the progressives sought salvation through deconstruction. Art was over. Borders and national sovereignty no longer existed. Politics had come to an end. The timing was great, too, because weren't we approaching the millennium? Post-punks, post-rockers, postnationalists and a lot of other groups with names as silly put their faith in these trendy labels, hoping that they would carry them to a post-world, a world that would still have an after as well as a before. But reality had lost the ability to examine itself through anything more significant than a prefix. The dominant spirit of the present has banished the image of cyclical time, of revolutionary time, and now it only dreams of a future colored in endless shades of gray. Instead of the radically new, all we've got is the cycle of fashion, seasonal novelty. A universe of tiny little variations on the same theme, just with more beats, more bass notes and more nothingness. The novelty item! That's why we keep going back to music stores, to newsstands, to supermarkets and to bookstores. Post, post, post, after, after, after, new, new, new, neo, neo, neo. The whole bundle of prefixes is repeated with the incantatory passion of a high priestess in heat. Maybe sometimes with good intentions, but IN VAIN! Totally pointless form of behavior here. Even when the larger buildings are obscured by low clouds and fog, the whole game takes place in the framework of democratic capitalism, whatever moves are made at street level. And that's why those of us who had to grow up in the midst of this funeral are so determined to put an end to the spirit of endings.