Thursday, February 10, 2011

NYRB v Mad Men: Face Off!

Finally, the American literarti lets Mad Men have it. I feel all gloaty, since I gave up on that poorly-written (sometimes ludicrously-written) soap opera at least a year ago after checking out the first three seasons in about a three-week span.  Mendelsohn, however, doesn't add much to the complaints about season one by Mark Greif in The London Review of Books in 2008 (a review Mendelsohn does not cite - I don't think so anyway, I only skimmed Mendelsohn's three-page attack on the show in the New York Review of Books). All he really adds is the thesis that the main viewership for the show is people in their 40s and early 50s, or people who are of an age with not the adults portrayed in the show but their children, and that the viewpoint of the show is the child's-eye view.

Is Mendelsohn using actual statistics about demographics at any point here? On the first page of the review he states that most of Mad Men's viewers are between 19 and 49, but on page three the greatest part of the show's audience is made up of people in their 40s and early 50s... huh? I personally know only three Mad Men fans, two a couple (in their early-mid-40s), one in his early 30s. But I couldn't tell you if there were deep Oedipal reasons for their interest in the show or if they were swept up by the phenomenon and the production design. I also wonder how much ignorance of the soap opera form has to do with the widespread affection for the show among intellectuals, academics and hipsters. If you haven't watched many soap operas in your life, you might not recognize it in Mad Men amidst the production design, the portentousness, and the "cool" "historical accuracy." Like when a film critic friend of mine started raving about the unique dramatic structure and moral terms of John Woo's Face/Off (a movie that had not impressed me), and I realized, and pointed out, that he was just describing a comic book, which he probably had never read.

Similarly, the academics who read and write about Henry James tend to miss the fact that James seems to have invented the soap opera about half a century before the dramatic radio serials that became the daytime soap. Likewise, the Jamesian melodrama of badly behaving adults is often overtly observed from the viewpoint of a child. So maybe Mad Men can tell us a little bit about James, and James about Mad Men, and both about melodrama, once I get back to my promised "James series" - on the weekend,  I hope.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Notes on Hipsterism, Loser Culture, the New Failure Focus, and the Mysteriously Enduring Popularity of the Hardboiled Detective

It turns out I can't make the artificial distinction between pop culture, literature and amateur sociology. But I'll tie it into literature by the end of the post and also, I'm sure, in future posts.

A Loser, Baby

As an idle zeitgeist-watcher, I've developed over the years a theory of how slackers became losers, on the one hand, and hipsters, on the other. You remember "slackers," that censorious boomer term for people in their early 20s, who, it was thought, had no ambition or work ethic. Its introduction to late 20th century pop culture was accomplished, as far as I know, by the 1991 Richard Linklater film Slacker, and the same period, the early 90s, also saw the introduction of the term "loser" into pop culture, with Radiohead's "Creep" ("I'm a creep, I'm a loser / What the hell am I doing here? / I don't belong here") and Beck's "Loser" ("I'm a loser, baby / So why don't you kill me"). Between them, the two songs, ubiquitous on the radio throughout the 90s, heralded, with Nirvana, a new era of depressive, self-deprecating youth, whether you were emo (also known as "what people with no sense of humour thought The Smiths were") or a hipster, two strains of youth culture best characterized by their relationship to irony (total absence or total saturation).

I was in my late teens (sixteen and on) when all of this happened, and I remember being insulted by the term "slacker" even though I wasn't one of the twentysomethings being implicated: it still seemed like the old people were unfairly branding my generation. I don't recall noticing the Radiohead or Beck songs until the late 90s, though, when I was approaching my mid-20s and getting divorced. Maybe it was because they spoke to me then (I was also going through career failure), or maybe it took me so long to notice them because I never listened to pop stations and rarely watched MTV. The sentiments of "Creep" repulsed me, while "Loser" made me laugh. I did, however, like Radiohead's "Just," which was as masochistic as "Creep" but more vigorous. Anger works when humour fails.

Loser TV

The loser appeared on TV a little ahead of his pop music emergence, in the person of George Costanza on Seinfeld. No one had ever seen anything like George before: physically unremarkable (balding, short, tubby), mentally unremarkable, neurotic, browbeaten by his parents, unable to hold down a job. George was a born loser with self-sabotage added for good measure, and no one had seen a TV character like this before, someone you couldn't either identify with as a fantasy or look down on and laugh at. Instead, you looked down on George and identified with him at the same time.

Loser TV flourished in the UK as well, initially with the series Black Books (2000-2004), with the loser mantle taken up by Peep Show (2003-present). Black Books, created by and starring Dylan Moran, centered on the misanthropic, chainsmoking-and-wine drinking Bernard Black, owner of a tiny bookshop, his flunky Manny (the tricky slave to his senex iratus, in Frygian terms: from Fawlty Towers on, British sitcoms like to stay close to the classic template), and their neurotic friend Fran. As if their (unusual) interest in books disqualifies them for reality, not one of the main characters is capable of real work (the bookshop itself doesn't count) or a relationship, and Bernard and Fran constantly engage in the un-p.c. self-destructive behaviours of smoking and drinking. Fran is a Bernard who guiltily tries to better herself, but by the third and last season she has all but given up and accepted that she is just as unfit for normal life as Bernard. In the characterization of her college friends from the climax of her character trajectory, the devastating episode "Elephants and Hens" from season three, Fran is a "crazy spinster" only fit to hang out with the bookshop "freaks."

Whereas Black Books seemed to express the personal vision of its creator (namely, that the modern world wasn't worth living in and it was much better to hole up with a book, cigarettes and wine), Peep Show seems more like a generational commentary. Mark and Jez are odd couple roomies in their thirties: Mark the uptight nerd and Jez the laidback slacker. Despite being opposites, however, they're united in their complete lack of equipment for success by the same old standards of measurement: career, money, relationships, raising a family. Between the two of them, they can just about manage work and sex respectively, though not very well. Mark can hold down a dull office job and takes work seriously enough to want to get ahead in it, but unfortunately he has no talent, and when by a miracle he does start to rise, he naturally screws it up. Jez has nothing but scorn for the "straight" world of work, thinking he's going to make it as a musician, but he, too, is hampered by lack of any talent. Although Mark seems comparatively "mature," in fact both are boys, curiously stunted in the development of their life skills and emotions, and their growing co-dependency (as in Black Books) makes it worse. As the series progresses, viewers watch and wait for time to take its course as the characters get older without getting ahead and grow more desperate all the time.

Peep Show maybe proves that you don't have to be a bohemian with acute mental illness to be desperate. It's enough to be an ordinary person unable to figure out (or, deep down, to care) how a dull life works in a culture obsessed with youth, so that you go from being young and carefree to being a pathetic loser by exhibiting the same behaviours and maintaining the same level of success in your thirties (and forties, and fifties) as in your twenties. Turning thirty (the age of the fictional Jonathan Ames in Bored to Death) seems to be the gunshot that starts the race, after which every second that passes without accomplishment decreases your social status and increases your existential desperation. Like the gunshot of turning twenty for an unmarried Jane Austen heroine.

The Loser and the Recession

The mighty Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring the real George Constanza, debuted the same year as Black Books. Trust the Irish and the Jews to know a thing or two about losing. I have to admit I've never watched more CYE than a few seconds of the first episode, so sick was I of the Seinfeld hype by that time, and also going through a period (my entire twenties) where I "didn't watch TV" (meaning I watched very little, mainly Buffy), until the advent of DVD availability and the HBO and Showtime era seduced me back (so now I watch a little more). Nevertheless, in my casual, totally subjective overview, if the 90s introduced the concept of the loser as a pop culture identification figure, the concept truly flourished in the 2000s, after which it may have gradually fizzled out if it weren't for one thing: the recession.

The global recession of 2007 gave the loser a new lease on life and retroactively justified the slacker attitude. Once, young people rejected their boomer parents' materialism; now, we discovered we would never get ahead if we tried. Once, we refused to mature and become bourgeois; now, we discovered that the social symbols of maturity (house, car, family, career advancement.... leaving your parents' house) would either be unavailable to us or come very late. Once we thought we might like to live like bohemians not only in our twenties (which still gives you time to become bourgeois on schedule) but into our thirties; now we learned that we could be living that way into our forties, or fifties... or permanently.

The Loser and the Hipster

At exactly what point did the defining term for the post-boomer generation change from "slacker" to "hipster"? As notoriously elusive as Sontag's camp, the condition of being a hipster is defined both against mainstream culture (the trash culture celebrated by reality TV) and bourgeois culture (i.e. corporate culture, whose promises of success for the individual are ever-decreasing since the recession).  The hipster was consolidated as a cultural figure by the time of the publication of Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like in book form in early 2008, although Lander participated in a common confusion by making "white people" (i.e., hipsters) refer to both the new, young, post-boomer middle class in their thirties who have disposable income to spend on consumer products geared towards bourgeois bohemians; and what he calls the "poor by choice," namely arts grad students, who will for the rest of their lives exhibit a comical disparity between their overeducated snob tastes and their poverty. But although the media has tried to account for low-income hipsters by pointing to the glutting of urban centres by the sons and daughters of the middle class, you don't, in fact, need either to live in a major urban centre or (contra Lander) have a university education to be a hipster. If you were anywhere between six and forty when indie music crossed over into the mainstream in the early 90s or have passed through adolescence since that event, you, too, had the option of becoming a hipster without ever going anywhere near a university. Really, hipster taste is just urban taste, and in the era of global marketing and the internet, nothing is easier than to acquire urban taste even when you're miles from a major urban centre.

In recessionary pop culture, the hipster and the loser dance around each other without completely coinciding. The recession and its economic fallout have confirmed that post-boomers are losers, and hipsterism is the most recognizable form of post-boomer youth culture, and, like the also urban dandyism of the latter 19th century, can be supported even without any income, because its focus is taste, not property - a superior state of being rather than a superior state of having. But you can also be a hipster without being a loser and a loser without being a hipster. Take the cast of Community: the only hipsters are Jeff and Britta, who are also the only "white people" (under 60) by the show's implicit definition. (In another sociological perceptual filter, Annie, who is Jewish, might be "white" and/or a hipster, but here she is "ethnic" and a preppie nerd.) They're two different, mutually hostile varieties of hipster, too: Jeff is a metrosexual hipster, a narcissistic womanizer; Britta's a hipster's hipster, a white liberal guilt-tripper who scorns Jeff`s metrosexuality as vulgarly retro. Although by the show's definition, which coincides with Lander's hipster definition of hipsters, non-"whites" can't be hipsters, they can be hipper than the hipsters (like Abed) or cooler than the hipsters (like Troy: you're automatically cooler than white people if you're black unless you're Christian, like Shirley, and the white people are implied agnostics or atheists - Community is easily the most overtly secular, or rather specifically anti-Christian, mainstream show I've ever seen, also reflecting trends within the young hipster demographic it seeks). Meanwhile, the show itself is a hipster comedy (due to its self-reflexive pop humour and mixture of liberal inclusiveness and cheeky post-p.c. "edge") about losers (adults and other failures attending community college). The undercurrent of class warfare was most apparent in the episode where Jeff and Britta (who, as white people, are the most sensitive about their social status, since after all they belong to the social group that's losing ground, as Lander records) get involved in a battle with some obnoxious high school kids who mock them for being unsuccessful adults. The hipster-loser viewer can't help but cheer when the show plays to her prejudices in the climactic food fight by providing legends that identify the moronic, infantile teens as future Ivy League graduates and Supreme Court justices.

Bored to Death is likewise a hipster comedy about losers, although the set of reference points is literary-hipster rather than pop-hipster (although the boundary is hazy, since the hardboiled detective character is pop-literary and comic books are both a pop and a print medium). Pre-recession, the loser isn't a failure so much as a fuck-up: there is no conceivable universe in which George Constanza, Bernard Black or Mark and Jez could get ahead. We identify with the loser's inability to navigate ordinary life but recognize that our own incapacities are comically exaggerated in these characters. In recessionary loser comedy, in contrast, the loser has failed not due to obvious, gross incapacities but because "failure" is normal (even if it hurts white people's egos) or the odds are so stacked against him or her. Both Community and Bored to Death are - in their different ways, at moments, in between the comic hijinks that are the main point - about learning how to negotiate failure, which is also re-understanding what success is. A borderline loser in the first season, by the start of the second season "Jonathan Ames" is a confirmed loser: his second novel has been rejected, he's teaching writing (the seal of death for most writers' careers unless they're already famous) at night school, and George can't help him out with assignments because of budget cuts to his magazine. By the anxious standards of the early 21st century, Jonathan is, as he worries out loud, "washed up at 30." Of course as George, in his role as sage, tells Jonathan, that's completely absurd. A thirty-year-old is a child (as the casting of baby-faced, adolescent-voiced Schwartzman emphasizes), and life still holds decades of experiences and surprises. And even if Jonathan is never a success as a writer or anything else, as George tells him in a later episode, how can he be a "failure" when he's a writer and a detective - two pleasurable occupations that make life more interesting?

The Writer and the Detective

Why, anyway, the hardboiled detective - whether you're Jonathan Ames or Roberto Bolano, who teasingly claimed in the last interview before his death that he would rather have been a homicide detective than a writer? If I recall correctly from my early teenage reading, Camus liked the hardboiled detective too, that lone, lonely figure who lived by his own code. In the secular, relativistic early 21st century, only the fantasy of being as cool, iconic and in control as the hardboiled detective can survive the scrutiny of the ironic postmodern/hipster eye (in which regard he is to us as the dandy was to Baudelaire). The fantasy of being a hardboiled detective is, after all, is, like the fantasy of being a writer (however dreary and demoralizing the reality may be), not only a leap of faith that life might, after all, be more interesting than it appears, but a fantasy of oneself being interesting. Like the Quixotism of Emma Bovary or, for that matter, of Quixote. Except that the Quixotism of "Jonathan Ames" is more gently entertained, at least in the show's first two seasons, as though what the late Western capitalist/recessionary/corporate world of the eternal bottom line could use is a little more whimsical fantasy, not less.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

So what's gonna go first, capitalism or the English language?

Marxism, or Real Life?

I ignored Marxism in university, happy to thoughtlessly mimic Paglia's scorn for tenured professors' faux solidarity with "the working class," which, anyway, I never planned to be (I planned to be a tenured professor, or failing that a "classless" bohemian artist). Even the non-academic jobs I did work at, retail and service, seemed distinctly middle-class to me, in orientation if not in earnings. Definitely not "working class," which, like the middle-class brat I was, I associated with manual labour, like ditch digging or plumbing.

But now that I've been out of university for scarce a year, and out of academe altogether due to budget cuts to sessionals, suddenly the Marxist explanation of labour and capital seems less like a radical theory and more like a simple, non-contentious description of my life and that of everyone I know and most people I see, regardless of industry or household income. This long but lucid London Review of Books article by Benjamin Kunkel on two recent books by David Harvey explains Marxism, with application to the current economic crisis, in terms even an ignoramus like me can understand (I'm confident I got about 80 per cent of it). The upshot: high wages mean loss of profit, low wages mean lack of a market. So, capitalism doesn't work. Credit scotch-tapes it together, but not indefinitely. Yet to find new markets and sources of labour, it will go on (capitalism, that is) until every last nook and cranny of the globe has been turned to its purposes, and every area of human endeavour, including those once considered sacred, such as higher education. (Incidentally, I'm not proposing an alternative, such as communism, for instance. That hasn't turned out too well in practice and I'm not sure that human nature can support it. I'm simply pointing out that late capitalism, if these are in fact late days rather than early ones, is extremely gross, in so many ways.)

Texting Revisited

In other news, I asked my 20-year-old sister/roommate what sort of language she uses when she texts. "Full sentences, with punctuation," she replied instantly, adding that she will tolerate poor grammar and spelling in texts she receives, but doesn't like it. My sister is a big reader, though not generally of "literature" (with the exception of Oscar Wilde and sometimes Kafka), not a university student, and not a writer of any kind, and her response shows up the pretension (with its faux solidarity with the youthful masses) of my defense of "texting lingo." I don't own a cell phone in any case, but if I get one for work and start texting I will no doubt use ordinary sentences, just like my friends do when they send a text message to my e-mail, although I will no doubt use "lol" a lot more. (I can't do without it, or WTF, which makes me ROFL.)

My sister's response also, however, flies in the face of Zadie Smith's worry that kids who grew up with text messaging do not view texting as a continuation of pre-online forms of communication. As long as kids are educated in elementary and high school to use standard English, presumably they will continue to recognize texting and online language (like verbal slang) as a deviation. Anyway, it's kind of sad when someone only... WTF, Smith's only two months younger than me? ROFL... when someone that young feels such fear of young(er) people. Perhaps it's because I live with a 20-year-old and often talk to her friends that people that age don't seem like aliens to me (or only when they rave about Lady Gaga). But then Smith is a teacher... if she wants to know what the texting habits of 20-year-olds are like, why doesn't she just ask them?

Oh, those ellipses above were me looking Smith up on Wikipedia. If that sort of online behaviour still needs explaining.