Blessed Are the Meek

Essay

Paul Kneale
Still from SEO and Co, 2014
Digital video, 30 min., looped
From left to right: Oscar Khan, Harry Burke, Nina Cristante

 

“Generation Wuss” only wants to be liked, is incapable of dealing with criticism, and takes everything too seriously – this was the gist of a recent piece by Bret Easton Ellis in Vanity Fair. Responding to this no-holds-barred attack on today‘s twenty-somethings, the writer Harry Burke comes to his generation’s defence.

Bret Easton Ellis has spent the past three years trying to rebrand millennials such as myself as “Generation Wuss”. In a recent essay published in the French edition of Vanity Fair, he dismisses people born since the 80s for their “over-sensitivity, their insistence that they are right despite the overwhelming proof that suggests that they are not, their lack of placing things within context, the passive-aggressive positivity, and, of course, all of this exacerbated by the meds they’ve been fed since childhood by over-protective ‘helicopter’ parents mapping their every move”. It is a vanity piece that attacks millennials for their own vanity, portraying them as a generation that can’t handle negativity, and who seek relentless affirmation in the thumbs-up-fuelled hall of mirrors that is social media. It was intended to be provocative; to call out a younger generation for not calling each other out, and for constructing clouds of positivity that occlude real forms of critique.

If we were friends on Facebook, I would probably just like the post in which Ellis linked to the article without reading it, as I do already with people like Nicolas Bourriaud and Kenneth Goldsmith. It just seems funny performing the obvious hierarchies of the attention economy. But it’s also hard to avoid a niggling feeling (coming from a not dissimilar place to the will to destruction in Ellis novels such as Less Than Zero) that his comments are true. I’m familiar with the anxiety of having spent an overtly fun party complaining about how shitty housing is in London, or how broke I am in the trap of the precarious knowledge-worker, anxious, too, about whether this anxiety is only mine or something shared, sitting on the bus home hoping to be calmed by notification of a favourited Tweet. I get confused about why I’m not in a long-term monogamous relationship, though I tend to disagree with such relationships on principle. I can easily imagine having greater solidarity with my friends over collective disenfranchisements. I’d love to experiment with alternative ways of living in groups, but it doesn’t happen. I feel weirdly flattered by the idea of Bret Easton Ellis not getting me because I’m too sentimental.

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In the Vanity Fair article, Ellis ties this idea of “sentimentality” to “victim narratives”. It occurred to me that in his article he unwittingly positions himself as a victim in a larger historical narrative – that of the “death of the real”, perhaps the ultimate victim narrative, which we have both experienced, if from different vantage points. One of the last books Jean Baudrillard wrote was Why Hasn’t everything Already disappeared?, published in English in 2009, two years after he died. Here Baudrillard argues that, in the age of virtual reality and saturated image cultures, it is not just the real that disappears, but also the subject – which, he writes, “gives way to a diffuse, floating, insubstantial subjectivity, an ectoplasm that envelops everything and transforms everything into an immense sounding board for a disembodied, empty consciousness”. This is the tragedy of the characters in Less Than Zero (with its floating motto of “Disappear Here”, observed by its protagonist Clay on a vast billboard), and it is also the tragedy of the empty consciousness of contemporary writers like Tao Lin, who offer bleak anthropologies of their own lives which fail to register any difference between the social worlds of Gmail and the social worlds of Brooklyn parties and Whole Foods.

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Parsing this “death of the real” as a victim narrative might seem like an easy way out: If someone calls your generation pathetic or apathetic, blame the technological innovations of the older generation for collapsing the grounds of your reality, subjectivity, world, etc. But it’s one thing for Baudrillard to suggest that our culture has lost a sense of the real behind the image, and consequently the fixed reality of our own subjecthood, and another for Ellis to take the example of a suicide that followed an episode of “cyber-bullying” at an American university and contrast it to what he calls “genuine hands-on bullying”. Ellis has a lot of chips on his shoulder but this critique, in particular, seems to rely on a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between “real” and online space. He is simply wrong to imply that what occurs in virtual spaces is not real, or, to put it differently, that it doesn’t have any effects. The architecture of the Internet may seem at first glance quite flat and virtual, but it offers social and material advantages to some and is silencing to others, in the same way that the geography of Los Angeles is disempowering to some based on the reality of things like gender, race and class.

Ellis’s nostalgia clearly rides on an anxiety surrounding the emotional, material and psychic effects of digital mediation. What he fails to recognise, or attempts to suppress, however, is the emancipatory potential in the Baudrillardian disappearance of the real. Paradoxically, the death of the real has made possible its own (re)surrection. What we are seeing today – in art, on social networks, in spaces of protest and gathering, and among friends online and IRL – is the co-creation of a hybrid space, where the important question is not whether something is real and virtual or whether it occurs online or offline. The way that categories like real, virtual, online and offline flow into one another offers us a new set of tools to help shape the world in which we live, and forge out new, active ground for subjective experience. What we gain as a result is a new reality that is defined in part by the histories of these categories but most of all by how they are subjectively engaged, enacted and intersected with today. This might seem confusing or diluted via a lens of old, real critique, and this is perhaps why Ellis is so angry. Yet the death of real critique – or at least the death of the well-polished, well-invented image of “real critique” – also permits a new sensitivity that is inseparable from new languages and cultures of criticism. Perhaps we won’t even be able to properly say what these are until they, too, have been pronounced dead. But it is wrong to reject them before they grow into new forms, practices and ways of living.

 

Harry Burke is a writer based in London. He recently edited the poetry anthology I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best (Test Centre, 2014) and published City of God, an ebook of his poems (Version House, 2014).