Salvos We’re Marketed, Therefore We Are?

Stephen Duncombe

The marketing of our generation was bound to happen sooner or later. After the success of Linklater’s Slacker, the promotion of Coupland’s Generation X, and the “discovery” of Seattle grunge, it was just a matter of waiting for the wave. And it came. It started in the news weeklies, picked up speed with CNN, and crested with cover stories in both Business Week and Advertising Age. Generation X solved a real problem for marketers. Until we were discovered, they had been trying to tap a wholly fabricated “Pepsi Generation” via the lame superstar route of Michael Jackson and Madonna—lowest common denominator stuff, no ring of “authenticity,” didn’t build the proper emotive bond that self-identification does. They needed something new. And to capture all those who either opted out or were left out of the identity politics of the 1980s, Gen X was perfect. Even without an identifiable demographic tag like “black” or “queer” we could be marketed: the only essential for a gen-xer was to be born within a certain time and be willing to buy some stylin’ products. Bingo, a generation is born. But we know all this.

But it’s that we do know this already, and how we’ve been bitching about it, that’s what is interesting. It wasn’t until very recently that I heard people talking about their common experiences and saying the ever-elusive, eighties no-no word: “we.” Most often this “we” is used in criticizing, ridiculing, and negating the niche market “we,” but it’s a “we” nonetheless. It seems that it took the target marketing of our generation for us to acquire a communal self-consciousness and develop a coherent voice of our own.

This observation leads me to the not so pleasant conclusion that our generation, as a coherent confederation, was called into being by the market. The question then becomes: does this generational thing only exist as long as it is marketed and is confined to roles that fit within those purposes? Maybe … but maybe not. Any action can lead to contradictory results. The target marketing of the twenty-somethings may bring about something never envisioned by Nike, Geffen, Pepsi, et al. Good ol’ Karl Marx, though his reputation is a bit tarnished nowadays, understood this well.

Marx didn’t realize that Capitalism could be so accommodating.

Writing at the depths of the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe, Marx looked about and saw an imposing economic system that relied upon and resulted in the degradation of the people who produced the goods and worked the factories. “Dark, satanic mills,” were how William Blake described these sites of sweated labor and exploitation. Marx didn’t like what he saw either. Unlike Blake however, he realized that this was the way things were going, and not being one to cry over spilt milk, he set out to uncover other features of this relatively new system of production. He discovered that the people working in the factories, dragged from separate villages all over the land and thrown into the same cramped place, were starting to realize that they had things in common. Namely: the same boring and degrading work, the same shitty relationship to the bossman, and the power to do diddly-squat. At the same time, because the work demanded it, the factory workers learned how to work together as relative strangers, use new technology, and think in non-traditional ways. They put these new experiences and skills together, let it fester a bit, and voila: class consciousness and the labor union movement. Okay, so it wasn’t as simple as all that, but Marx’s basic observation was sound: there are always contradictory results from every action, and even the most inauspicious of beginnings can lead to positive outcomes.

Unfortunately, Marx didn’t realize that Capitalism could be so accommodating, and that his newly class-conscious proles in the mother countries could be bought off with a pop-up toaster in the kitchen and a Buick in the car park. Or conversely, that his own ideas would be so attractive to those without toasters and Buicks elsewhere, that all sorts of ridiculous regimes would institute the most heinous programs in his name. In any case, since at least the 1930s, in the United States and the over-developed world, the driving force of capitalism has shifted over from production in dark, satanic mills to consumption in bright and shiny shopping malls. If in Marx’s day people were brought together, whether they liked it or not, by the needs of production, today we are brought together, whether we like it or not, by the demands of consumption.

So what is to be learned from this history lesson? First: history happens, and you can’t go back to a plainer, simpler time in a land filled with gentle and humble folk. During the Industrial Revolution William Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement dreamed of this sort of thing, and all it did was attract the disenchanted elite of the day. Now the furniture they produced sits in the houses of the pigs who run Wall Street. In a similar vein don’t even think you can sneak back to your pristine slacker ghetto to hide your head and wait it out, because even that’s changing into a style to be consumed, even as I write.

Second, watch out for the toasters and Buicks. There will be big temptations to cash in on the experience of being a “twenty-something.” Visions of being left standing with a wad of dough in your hand when the Gen X thing, exhausted, crashes down and the culture parasites move on to the next trend, dance in all of our heads. Already a friend of mine was asked to do a treatment for a TV variety show named Avenue B, and Mike Gunderloy, late of Factsheet Five fame, told me that he was approached by a TV consortium wanting to do a “reality based” program on zines.

Don’t do it. To begin with it’s despicable that you would ever be so opportunistic. But we lived through a despicable age so it’s understandable. The real problem is that you won’t be the person who makes the bucks. There are much cleverer and much more ambitious people out there in “our generation,” who, realizing their career as the assistant photo director at Sassy or as Mary Boone’s subaltern is fizzling, will all of a sudden discover that they listened to “alternative” music and that they lived in a shitty apartment and that they really slacked all the while. The Best and Brightest will be the best and brightest even at being the laziest and most uncouth. And they know how to sell themselves, they have the experience.

Okay, so those are the things to watch out for. But there’s a good side too. All this target marketing and naming and commodifying has made a lot of us finally admit the fact that we do have a lot in common, and in arguing against the culture industry’s definition of our lives, we’re starting to talk about and become conscious of our own. The operative phrase here, however, is arguing against.

Born into the atrocities and lies of the Vietnam War, the deceit of Watergate, and the selling of the counter-culture; educated during the Reagan-Bush era of the ascendancy of the investment banker, the retreat of intellectuals into cushy tenured positions, and of artists into swank galleries; coming of age watching an artificial world labeled “ours” by MTV, what else can we be but critical? The shit rises so fast around our necks that to stop yelling “No” means you get swallowed.

For better or worse, criticism and irony are the dissenting voices of our generation.

Irony is the voice we speak in. It’s a way of communicating that expresses the opposite of our ostensible meaning. Unlike an affirmative assertion, irony depends entirely on context and a knowing audience for its meaning. Outside of its original setting and translated for an outside audience, it makes no sense. It’s our pragmatic response to a culture which eats up any positive statement, strips it of its original meaning and context, and reproduces and disseminates it as an affirmation for their own message of consumption. We saw the Beatles’ “Revolution” sell Nikes … try doing that with the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor.” Irony is a way of keeping the bastards out of our culture.

For better or worse, criticism and irony are the dissenting voices of our generation.

Well, maybe for worse, because there’s a problem: criticism and irony are negative. I don’t mean this in a touchy-feely sense of “bad vibes,” but in the sense that they can only work as negations of an already existing culture to which they refer. This relationship is complex—see Hegel’s writings on the dialectics of the master/slave relationship if you don’t believe me—but the problem is still simple: criticism and irony relegate our role and our voice to that of a parasite. While criticizing the culture we are wed to it; we have no autonomy, we are dependent, we are a sub-culture.

Irony is also problematic because it sets up boundaries. There are those who are in-the-know and “get it,” and those who aren’t and don’t. This, of course, is the reason we adopted it in the first place, but this exclusivity also complements a tendency in our generation’s dissident sub-cultures to move towards smaller and smaller in-groups of readers or participants—a will toward smallness—in the hopes that we will be too insignificant a morsel for the rapacious jaws of marketing to gobble up. Besides being self-destructive and in the end futile, this will toward smallness puts us again in a reactive position vis a vis the “mainstream.” They dictate our form.

Being a non-generation for all these years was comfortable. We could count on being safe in the role of outsider; denouncing, critiquing, being cleverly ironic, and arguing against the mainstream. And we were pretty much left alone. But that’s all over now, we’ve been sucked in; sucked into a mainstream which seems to incorporate its own negation, and, if Business Week and Advertising Age are correct, thrives off of it. The angry, outsider generation is just another niche market to be exploited. And as long as we are defined solely by our negation of the dominant culture, we’re simply another part of its free-wheeling, pseudo-pluralistic, multi-faceted, self-negating totality.

Don’t get me wrong, negation has been, and is, important to defining what we are not, but it has also left us in a lurch as to our own definition of who we are—a gaping identity hole all too willingly filled by MTV. The trick is now to get beyond being merely reactive and work on becoming pro-active, to stop being—albeit critical—consumers, and start becoming critical creators. This isn’t easy, as we live in a world where any positive voice, even a rebellious one, especially a rebellious one, is appropriated, marketed, and sold back to us, and all the safe havens have been discovered and eviscerated. So the question is: what do we do? Answer: we create a real outside: a new world within the shell of the old one.

We begin by using the cultural avenues that have been cultivated over the dark ages of yore. Thousands of zines and other small publications offer recess from the constant drivel of pundits pontificating on our generation. And tens of thousands of unknown bands demonstrate that there is life outside of MTV. And so on, with alternative art spaces, computer BBSs, underground and college radio, mail art, street posters, cassette exchanges, and the like. But these things have to break out of the groovy ghettos of subculture in which they exist now.

And they also have to be brought together. There are examples of this, like the recently resurrected Factsheet Five, which links zine writers and readers to one another, or the Do-It-Yourself networks of independent bands and clubs and record labels. But even these nascent associations need to become part of larger federations. We need to create a loosely coherent movement of alternative organizations that help connect, support, and politicize all of the disparate dissident voices of our generation.

Movements, organizations, politics? The instinct is to reach for your revolver, or more likely, the channel changer. There’s an old, yet still popular, idea that real culture exists on an altogether different plane than these tawdry, pedestrian things. It’s a lie: a myth which conveniently allows artists and intellectuals and other kindred individual geniuses to convince themselves that they are free from and uncompromised by the society which they profess to abhor. Worse, it is stupid. Alone, you rot in your garret, mute and confused, romantic perhaps to yourself, but only yourself. By refusing to acknowledge that these constraints already exist and affect us, we are simply—and blindly—accepting things as they are.

We need a space to get away from parasitical and impotent negation, and a place to imagine independently and affirmatively, without looking over our shoulders to see what market researchers are watching.

No culture can thrive without social groupings, organization, and politics. These provide participants, audience, support, communication, meanings, and so forth. It’s a testament to how deep into the dominant culture we are that we can’t think of “movements” except as something waxed nostalgically upon by smug big-chillers; “organizations” without bureaucracies of—now gender-friendly and oh, so stylish—navy blue pinstriped suits; and “politics” except as self-serving activists on C-Span and self-righteous prigs at sanctioned protests. But there is nothing wrong with the concepts per se, just the ways in which they’ve often been imagined and implemented in the past. At this point in history they’re defined for the most part by the corporate culture industry—the only coherent cultural and political organization around—and without another option available for comparison these definitions will go unchallenged.

So maybe we have to work on redefining these things. If we want to have anything other than minute “scenes” which either will themselves into insignificance in the name of purity, or grow and become resources to be mined by the culture industry, we need to carve out a large social, organizational, and political space outside of the mainstream for ourselves. We need a space to get away from parasitical and impotent negation, and a place to imagine independently and affirmatively, without looking over our shoulders to see what market researchers are watching. We need a space large enough, strong enough, and politically coherent enough so that when the market creeps come—and they invariably will—their spin on our life won’t be the only one that people see and hear. We need a space expansive enough so that if people want to communicate with more than a couple of hundred others who already think the same way, they don’t have to sell their writing to Details or sign with Atlantic. And we need a space combative enough—no flowers in “my” hair—to continue criticizing the consumer culture (and ourselves), and to be ironic and to be negative—but not because we’re forced to. But this space has first to be imagined and built and above all, be allowed to grow and include others now outside.

This last point is crucial, for the goal is not an insular bohemian nationalism, but to become part of a large movement of alternative practices, politics, and associations that offers a different path than that of the corporate consumer pinks, a path open to everyone. We need to take the underground above-ground but, and this is the tricky part, we must keep the sense of “alternative” intact. Not to get hung up on definitions here, but what I’m talking about is a full-on, self-sufficient, and dynamic alternative culture.

We occupy a unique historical juncture. The marketing of our generation has not only coalesced us as a purchasing group but has popularized a sense of group identity. The question is whose definition of our generation will persevere. The culture industry and their lackeys control most of the means of production, distribution, and publicity. But they were also careless: they left their xerox machines on when they left the room, they forgot to lock up the computers, their eyes were on Madonna and Michael Jackson when we cultivated our culture and began to develop our own outlets and networks. And these things can be the beginnings of a new world.

A note of caution however: an alternative culture does not a new world make. The revolution is not just a T-shirt away (as Billy Bragg ironically reminds). But it’s a start in that it creates a free space in which to plot, plan, and build a vision and a model of a world distinct from the world that we grew up in and the one that is still being forced down our throats. And while this space to imagine ain’t the revolution itself, it is important.

It’s important because the problem is not so much that our generation believes the crap thrown at us by the culture industry, it’s that there has been nowhere else to turn.