Generation Y represents the undiminished legacy of the neoliberal 1980s and ’90s, the decades of their inception. They are all ripples and surfaces illumined by sparks of excessive self-regard. They are the people for whom life is one elaborate reality-TV show. More troublingly, they’re a generation for which the contortions of public relations have become a veritable habitus: Good is what nourishes the ego; evil is what you didn’t get away with.
The ideology of corporatization, which to all outward appearances has consolidated it dominion over institutions of higher learning across the nation, now sees to the apportioning of spoils to the victor and the hindmost to the devil (the devil being the common rout of humanity), while the hapless majority have been snookered into believing that critical thinking and writing are simply passé, like the talents of the blacksmith or wheelwright, which find a market only in the incredibly small domain of touristy pioneer village mock-ups. Perceived as the relic of an era in which people had little else at their disposal to beguile their leisure, academics becomes as obsolete as the dusty Commodore VIC-20 in one’s parents’ attic. Thus confronted with having to deal with the rigors and demands of a mode of inquiry that to them has no perceivable connection to the cash nexus, today’s university student reacts with impatience and hostility, itching to move on to the more practical concern of enhancing his future earning power, which, though he may not have the foggiest idea how this is acquired, to his mind certainly does not involve Avogadro’s number, the Battle of Hastings or iambic pentameter.
Bejeweled vaginas do not cyborgs make, of course; and I don’t believe they will pave the way to yet another weapon of mass destruction, but they do indicate a society that is growing increasingly discontented with the merely human, adorning itself with implants intended to make our cheekbones larger or our noses smaller, our genitals look less like genitals and our faces look less like ourselves. All that is fine so long as we don’t start to fetishize the uncanny result of such operations, where we forget the imperfectly human in favor of the perfectly artificial. Because then those that can only afford to be human, and given the recession, it looks like more than a few will fall into that category, will be seen as second-class citizens, as people not quite alive, or worthy of life, because they can’t afford the latest supplemental technology to their bodies.
Crises in the political domain tend to throw a spanner in the workings of government. The institutions of this form of government, which regulate, modulate and constrain the exercise of political power fall into disarray. Power thus springs free the mechanisms of governmental institutions, showing just how excessively saturated these institutions were with it. This is another way of saying that, in the political arena at least, the opportunities presented in a crisis usually come at the expense of the existing constitution. True gnostics of crisis understand this intuitively in much the same manner as Thulsa Doom of the 1981 film Conan the Barbarian understands “the riddle of steel.”
Anyone who has had a job in the real world can report that bringing one’s personal life into the workplace is strenuously discouraged as a drag on one’s productivity. But one would never know this if all she had to go by was Hollywood. And, lacking much sustained or significant engagement with the real world for having been cosseted and micro-parented by their anxious Boomer parents, Gen-Y’ers seem incapable of drawing a clear distinction between their personal and professional lives largely because of all the television and cinema they’ve imbibed. They are thus nonplussed when hotness and ample self-esteem don’t send them hurtling pass their co-workers into the executive boardroom.
Keep it simple, stick to a simple job, and you’ll be able to go home at night and be alone with your thoughts. No one needs to hold an emergency meeting with a waitress or postal clerk after the office has closed. A janitor doesn’t need to brown-nose via Facebook while camping with his kids. That guy at the DMV who takes your (always unflattering) driver’s license photograph never worries about all those urgent emails flooding his work inbox. No, in those jobs you put in your eight hours of hard, shitty work and then you leave it.
The biking dandies and quaintrelles invoke a narrow spectrum for their rainbow coalition. Hip-hoppers and heshers, one gathers, need not apply. How this wished-for amalgam of social cliques is supposed to happen within the dissolving medium of dandyism is not entirely certain. One imagines that all this supposed de-cliquing can only lead to dislocation and anomie, as hipsters parasitize preppiedom and preppies extract some of the value hipsters have added to the preppie look. A climate of antagonism, recrimination and refusal would likely follow, proving ruinous to the urbane charms of a Saturday’s cycling.
When technology meets the crowd, it is the crowd that wins. This should come as no surprise. The crowd is an organism of its own and only incidentally a collection of individuals. The crowd is neither wise nor foolish. It uses technology for its own purposes, and when the crowd comes into being, it is beyond the power of any individual to question those purposes. Similarly, technology has no moral content; it neither knows or cares what uses it is put to. It is a tool in the hands of humans, and subject to the reasons and instincts of flesh and mind. This is what the ideology of technology would like us to forget. We would prefer to believe that the latest marvel is “improving” our life, when we are improving or impairing our lives depending on what technologies we use and how we employ them. At its best, technology is morally neutral. But there may be certain technologies that are inherently destructive and repressive. The jailhouse, the handgun, the atom bomb have seemed at various times to be useful tools, but it is difficult to find moral neutrality in any of them. Instead, technologies tend to be the reflection of the men and women who produce them. Individual technologies, then, are unlikely to be any better than we are at the time when we use them. If the flash mob is benign in the hands of urban prankster, in other hands it is not so benign.
It’s easy to fetishize communal living, because we can’t help but believe it would only turn out for the best. In such assumptions we show ourselves the dupes of mass culture, as we project upon the prospect of co-habitating thusly the rosiest elements of the 1960s and 1970s — all peace, love and plowshares into swords and unrefined handwoven fabrics, a real-time, three-dimensional montage of hippiedom’s stock tropes, sanitized and craigslist-ready. These new ashrams of boomers and millennials would have no cult killings, race riots, venereal disease or drug overdoses. No, for them it’s impossible that communal living could ever be other than a Potemkin village of the Aquarian Age, that it could ever lead to dozens of angry, disenfranchised people occupying an apartment crawling with bedbugs and reeking of yesterday’s cabbage.
The latter particularly — knowledge work — would seem to throw a spanner in the distinction Nussbaum wishes to draw between pursuing knowledge for a job and pursuing it for more edifying, spiritual reasons. In an era like ours, in which work and play become increasing entangled (and not necessarily for commendable reasons), it’s hard to see how knowledge pursued for a career’s sake isn’t also knowledge pursued for one’s own good. Americans are famously beholden to the idea of self-actualization through work. That’s why they work harder, work longer and take less time off than their counterparts in other advanced nations. This mentality, though it might to some extent be rooted in Americans’ national character, hasn’t exactly been discouraged — and, indeed, had even been helped along — by corporations. So naturally thought about the whole of one’s life will at the same time be thought about one’s career; the two are in many cases indistinguishable, because, according to the master narratives of primetime one-hour dramas, advertising, and corporate in-services, reaching career benchmarks and reaping the fruits thereof, they tell us, are expressive of a life, in a very real yet vulgarized Nietzschean sense.