Nicholas Handler,is a junior at Yale University majoring in history. Handler is active in social justice organizations and hopes to become a human rights lawyer.
I never expected to gain any new insight into the nature of my generation, or the changing landscape of American colleges, in Lit Theory. Lit Theory is supposed to be the class where you sit at the back of the room with every other jaded sophomore wearing skinny jeans, thick-framed glasses, an ironic tee-shirt and over-sized retro headphones, just waiting for lecture to be over so you can light up a Turkish Gold and walk to lunch while listening to Wilco. That’s pretty much the way I spent the course, too: through structuralism, formalism, gender theory, and post-colonialism, I was far too busy shuffling through my iPod to see what the patriarchal world order of capitalist oppression had to do with Ethan Frome. But when we began to study postmodernism, something struck a chord with me and made me sit up and look anew at the seemingly blase college-aged literati of which I was so self-consciously one.
According to my textbook, the problem with defining postmodernism is that it’s impossible. The difficulty is that it is so …. post. It defines itself so negatively against what came before it– naturalism, romanticism and the wild revolution of modernism–that it’s sometimes hard to see what it actually is. It denies that anything can be explained neatly or even at all. It is parodic, detached, strange, and sometimes menacing to traditionalists who do not understand it. Although it arose in the post-war west (the term was coined in 1949), the generation that has witnessed its ascendance has yet to come up with an explanation of what postmodern attitudes mean for the future of culture or society. The subject intrigued me because, in a class otherwise consumed by dead-letter theories, postmodernism remained an open book, tempting to the young and curious. But it also intrigued me because the question of what postmodernism–what a movement so post-everything, so reticent to define itself–is spoke to a larger question about the political and popular culture of today, of the other jaded sophomores sitting around me who had grown up in a postmodern world.
In many ways, as a college-aged generation, we are also extremely post: post-Cold War, post-industrial, post-baby boom, post-9/11…at one point in his famous essay, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” literary critic Frederic Jameson even calls us “post-literate.” We are a generation that is riding on the tail-end of a century of war and revolution that toppled civilizations, overturned repressive social orders, and left us with more privilege and opportunity than any other society in history. Ours could be an era to accomplish anything.
And yet do we take to the streets and the airwaves and say ‘here we are, and this is what we demand’? Do we plant our flag of youthful rebellion on the mall in Washington and say ‘we are not leaving until we see change! Our eyes have been opened by our education and our conception of what is possible has been expanded by our privilege and we demand a better world because it is our right’? It would seem we do the opposite. We go to war without so much as questioning the rationale, we sign away our civil liberties, we say nothing when the Supreme Court uses Brown v. Board of Education to outlaw desegregation, and we sit back to watch the carnage on the evening news.
On campus, we sign petitions, join organizations, put our names on mailing lists, make small-money contributions, volunteer a spare hour to tutor, and sport an entire wardrobe’s worth of Live Strong bracelets advertising our moderately priced opposition to everything from breast cancer to global warming. But what do we really stand for? Like a true postmodern generation we refuse to weave together an overarching narrative to our own political consciousness, to present a cast of inspirational or revolutionary characters on our public stage, or to define a specific philosophy. We are a story seemingly without direction or theme, structure or meaning–a generation defined negatively against what came before us. When Al Gore once said “It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism,” he might as well have been echoing his entire generation’s critique of our own. We are a generation for whom even revolution seems trite, and therefore as fair a target for bland imitation as anything else. We are the generation of the Che Geuvera tee-shirt.
Jameson calls it “Pastiche”–”the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” In literature, this means an author speaking in a style that is not his own– borrowing a voice and continuing to use it until the words lose all meaning and the chaos that is real life sets in. It is an imitation of an imitation, something that has been re-envisioned so many times the original model is no longer relevant or recognizable. It is mass-produced individualism, anticipated revolution. It is why postmodernism lacks cohesion, why it seems to lack purpose or direction. For us, the post-everything generation, pastiche is the use and reuse of the old cliches of social change and moral outrage–a perfunctory rebelliousness that has culminated in the age of rapidly multiplying non-profits and relief funds. We live our lives in masks and speak our minds in a dead language–the language of a society that expects us to agitate because that’s what young people do.
But how do we rebel against a generation that is expecting, anticipating, nostalgic for revolution? How do we rebel against parents that sometimes seem to want revolution more than we do? We don’t. We rebel by not rebelling. We wear the defunct masks of protest and moral outrage, but the real energy in campus activism is on the internet, with websites like moveon.org. It is in the rapidly developing ability to communicate ideas and frustration in chatrooms instead of on the streets, and channel them into nationwide projects striving earnestly for moderate and peaceful change: we are the generation of Students Taking Action Now Darfur; we are the Rock the Vote generation; the generation of letter-writing campaigns and public interest lobbies; the alternative energy generation.
College as America once knew it–as an incubator of radical social change– is coming to an end. To our generation the word ‘radicalism’ evokes images of al Qaeda, not the Weathermen. ‘Campus takeover’ sounds more like Virginia Tech in 2007 than Columbia University in 1968. Such phrases are a dead language to us. They are vocabulary from another era that does not reflect the realities of today. However, the technological revolution, the moveon.org revolution, the revolution of the organization kid, is just as real and just as profound as the revolution of the 1960’s– it is just not as visible. It is a work in progress, but it is there. Perhaps when our parents finally stop pointing out the things that we are not, the stories that we do not write, they will see the threads of our narrative begin to come together; they will see that behind our pastiche, the post generation speaks in a language that does make sense. We are writing a revolution. We are just putting it in our own words.
Postmodern theory changed the way I think about the world. It taught me 1) the importance of making my arguments specific and contextual rather than universal and abstract, and 2) that power in modern liberal democracies is distributed throughout society, in different forms of knowledge, experience and alliances–meaning ‘revolution’ is often a misleading concept. This essay neither acknowledges nor employs these crucial points.
— Posted by Anna
Our generation is seeing the logical progression of what we started. “Question authority” became “Question Truth.”
We sought pleasure in our youth so we provided for every possible pleasure for our children. Every need met, even pills for emotional needs. Feel bad? Here’s a pill. Feel sad? Here’s a pill. Feel mad? Here’s a pill. We didn’t teach them a particular “right” religion (just seek spiritual experiences that feel good), or moral code (situational ethics, just go with what feels right)) or political stance (Politics. Pssht.) or occupation (let’s just watch t.v.) or health (fast food, it’s easy) or education (no grades, that ranks people, they’d feel bad; whatever you think is fine, everybody’s ideas get equal importance)…
So now our generation is wondering where’s the energy in these kids? Don’t they have an issue to fire ‘em up? Why is Halo 3 more important than refugees, pestilence, famine and global warming? Why are chat rooms more fun than talking to humans who are right there in front of you? Why live together instead of get married? Don’t they even vote?
Eventually there will come a new question. “Question pleasure.”
— Posted by joanne
How many postmoderism eras can there be in this world. Seems we are running into them left and right.
Fun essay to read and some provacitve thoughts. I especially am fond of the reminded that the internet can serve as the forum for protest. Our society has really come a long way - we can “couch-potato” protest and avoid all the hassle of protest marches, sit ins etc.
Good job Generation XYZ or whatever you are called.
— Posted by poor richard
“the ability to communicate ideas and frustration in chatrooms instead of on the streets, and channel them into nationwide projects … is just as real and just as profound as the revolution of the 1960’s…”
excuse me, young man. keystroke-based whining to like-minded typists does not qualify as rebellion. Is the title at the top of this piece a typo… did you mean ‘The Post Everything (ie: post on Facebook, post on YouTube, post-on-my-blog) Generation’?
The Times doesn’t mention what Prize this winning essay was awarded. Might I suggest a round trip bus ticket to anywhere off-campus, and 90 days of bona-fide, hands-dirty community activism.
I believe the author is as confused about what it takes to affect positive change as he is about what it takes to produce a piece of honest persuasive writing. The Times should not be.
— Posted by roger
I am a recent Yale graduate (and a member of this “posteverything” generation) and this essay is the epitome of my critique of that school, the ivy league and “higher learning” in general: talk is cheap. blogging and complaining don’t DO anything! The posteverything generation needs to get post-itself, so that we CAN take advantage of our resources and our knowledge to actually DO anything! like, for example, start fixing the world we’ve verbally lambasted so much.
For a good time, look up the essay, “Generation Vexed.”
It will make you laugh and cry.
— Posted by Ben
Mr. Handler is a good writer, and a thoughtful kid. I would like to praise him for taking the time to write this essay. I agree with his contention that the methods of our parents are obsolete, (protests usually have the opposite effect on the majority of people than their participants intend) I don’t agree that our generation of young people is very effective, or that significant social change can be accomplished through chat rooms. Sorry Nick, you write well, but I need evidence to be convinced.
As a history major, I believe that the twentieth century has left us with a legacy that it is often easier to ignore than face. At least, that is, if we are protected from it by the walls of Ivy league universities and the stability offered by good jobs.
From a fellow history major, I would have hoped for a little less emphasis on overworked, fifty year old intellectual history, and a little more on the social, economic, or political changes we must face. I would also have hoped for a bit more caution when representing the views of an entire generation by social experiences with spoiled Ivy kids. The technological revolution (by which I think he means the information revolution) has indeed had profound consequences. I, however, would argue that the ability of undergraduate students to chat about politics without leaving their dorms is among the less profound of those.
I think this essay highlights the problem of our generation. We have time, and energy, and contrary to popular belief, many of us do care. We just don’t understand where we are or where we came from, and consequently, which way to go now. Maybe that’s why postmodernism is so much more attractive to so many young people like Mr. Handler than theories that actually try to explain something, however inadequately.
That said, this essay gave me hope that some of us are looking for a way forward, and trying to understand our place in the world.
— Posted by Gavin
Oh, the pretension!
The gut-wrenching search for self!
seriously? as a member of his generation and a Columbia graduate, this guy is an embarrassment.
— Posted by Evelyn
This is an excellent essay. Most importantly, it persuades me that Mr. Handler thinks about things, with a high degree of insight. I have no idea what Mr. Handler hopes to do in life. But I can easily see him doing fine work as a journalist or other kind of writer. I don’t find him blasé as some other posters do. He sees his generation as a story being written, and it is early in the writing of that story. I wouldn’t expect this young man to solve all of the world’s problems just yet. I have a hunch, though, that he hopes to make a positive difference in the world and I congratulate him on his winning entry.