I sometimes reflect on the fact that I belong to the last generation that knew an era yet untouched by television and ball point pens, let alone calculators, copy machines, computers, cell phones…. But a recent article bemoaning the dominance of adolescent modes in American culture recalled to me a fact more relevant to our current predicament (culture is always in a predicament except in rare moments of apotheosis): that I belong to the last generation to reach adolescence before the onset of the youth culture. I was in junior high school at the birth of rock’n’roll, when my urban teenager friends began trying to talk and dress like rural southerners, abandoning the imitation of the rich and famous for that of the poor and commonplace. Perhaps needless to say, the new music and what it stood for were incompatible with Bronx romanticism. Not that I preferred the excruciating insipidity of those old Hit Parade songs, best exemplified by Patti Page’s “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? (woof, woof),” which were themselves addressed, if not to adolescents, then to young adults in a state of terminal complacency. Setting aside the twenties and thirties tunes I heard my mother sing while helping her with the dishes and a few more recent exceptions, I simply opted out of musical popular culture.
The point of these details about the moi haïssable is to claim for myself a certain historical privilege; no one more than a year or two younger than I has come of age in a world where popular culture was not specifically geared to the expression and purgation of postwar adolescent resentment, the kind that remains adolescent rather than following the etymology of the term and becoming adult.
What is culture for, anyway? Why does this agricultural metaphor refer both to a “cultural” segment of our society and in a less colloquial context, to the social order as a whole? Culture in both senses serves to keep humans from killing each other, or as I prefer to put it, it brings about “the deferral of violence through representation.” Cultural activity in the narrow sense is a profane supplement to religion, specifically geared to deferring mimetic violence the propensity for which defines us as human on the condition that we defer it long enough to profit from our mimetic abilities. Culture in this sense consists of a privileged set of representations that attempt to reproduce in profane experience, that is, esthetically, the effect of the originary scene. This reproduction is effected by the oscillation between the representation and its imaginary referent: the representation evokes the referent, but the referent cannot be contemplated without the representation; we assimilate the signs of art in order to stage on our internal scene of representation the imaginary world they evoke, but at every moment of this staging we return to the artwork in order to reinforce the presence of this imaginary world. The artwork deliberately, as do all objects of esthetic experience implicitly, attracts our desire into a world devoid of appetitive satisfaction, where the only pleasures are those of desire itself. This lack of appetitive satisfaction explains why the artwork cannot be transparent to a (propositional, moral) “meaning.” The mediation of a unique artistic will–which we postulate even where its association with any individual is problematic, as with the auteur of a film–is essential not merely to reinforce our perception of the esthetic content but to establish this content in the first place, just as the meaning of the first sign was established in the originary scene.
The notion of originary will merits a discussion of its own, given that it is the real bone of contention between those who believe in God and those who do not. The cosmology of religious belief is more metaphoric than substantial; the force that “moves the sun and the other stars” at the end of the Paradiso provides no epistemological basis for distinguishing between a conscious and an unconscious agent, so that Ockham’s razor dictates that we prefer the latter. But in human affairs, it is impossible to eliminate conscious will from the “arbitrary” choice of the sign and its meaning. This is not a logical necessity but an anthropological one; language is born as an act (the “aborted gesture of appropriation”) of the several participants in the originary group that demonstrates their renunciation of a central object, an act that is taken as/becomes/is at the same time the collectively understood emission of a sign-of that object. This new intention of the individual members of the group binds the sign to its referent, so that the aborted gesture of appropriation becomes invested with the “meaning” of the object. But the source of the participants’ intention is outside them, in the object, ultimately in the subsisting center itself. It is this central will that presides over the scene as God. The artist’s will occupies the same place in the artwork, as the mediator of the desires aroused within it–and its subjective unity, like that of God, is vulnerable to contestation, as postmodern critical theory has shown us ad nauseam. Artistic representation is no mere perceptual mnemonic reinforcement of our imagination; when we return to the representation from our imaginary construct it is not the artwork as such but the artwork as intended by the artist that reinforces our desire.
When we speak of a “youth culture” we are referring to a particular quality of this mediating will that defines our desire as adolescent. The adolescent is a consumer who does not (yet) produce; whereas the traditional notion of adolescence was the preparation of adult life, the imaginary realm of modern youth culture presents itself as a permanent refuge from adult life. The dominant role of the youth culture in our society is due to this utopian dimension, which offers a solace for resentment unattainable in an imaginary world that has compromised with the marketplace. The youthful revolt against the exchange system, by the very fact that it takes place within the system itself, gives it a paradoxical guarantee of authenticity. Resentment is the denunciation of a scenic configuration by those who participate in it; youth culture is the privileged mode of expression for the resentment of the victimary era. I have pointed out elsewhere the particular role of America’s Black population as providing a guarantee of authenticity to the popular culture of revolt and in particular to the youth culture, a role that has maintained itself for over a century and that shows no signs of flagging in the era of hip-hop.
The broader revelation of the dominance of postmodern culture by its youth is the essential immaturity of popular culture and at the limit, of culture itself. Rather than contenting himself with the endless mediations of the exchange system, the consumer of culture requires and obtains closure, or in other terms, sacrifice: the generation of transcendence or “meaning” from within the world. In the past, culture’s immaturity was on the side of history, not of the individual; as in Hegel’s vision of tragedy, the cultural imagination showed the world its moral future. Conversely, today the maturity of human history is reflected in the immaturity of its sacrificial culture. I commented in Chronicle 211 on the extraordinary sales of the Harry Potter series; the only cultural desire powerful enough to impose an epic-length narrative on the general population is not even that of adolescents, who prefer to act out their desires in increasingly elemental music, but that of children.
The oft-remarked coarsening of our cultural lives, in every domain from popular spectacle to everyday dress, reflects the immaturization of resentment in the postmodern era; the increasing remoteness of a credible long-term utopia is compensated for by the provision of increasingly short-term satisfactions–culture with ADD. (Whence the fascination on all levels, from oversize jeans to the Sopranos, with the criminal element, whose lives are dominated, as ours cannot be, by the search for immediate gratification.)
But the salvation of popular culture is that at any point, and in unexpected ways, real beauty can emerge within it. There is no fictional situation so simplistic that the complexity of human relations cannot be retrieved from it, no resentment so radical that love cannot be generated from its transcendence. So long as life can be lived, it can be affirmed. What one learns in getting old is that maturity is nothing but immaturity deferred.