Youth Without Youth
The effect of technological revolution on youth culture, as viewed by Jean-Luc Godard, David Foster Wallace and, um, myself. [Abridged]
Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Breathless,” (1960) recently re-released in black and white 35mm print for its 50th anniversary (and currently playing at Film Forum in Soho), has a reputation comparable to “Citizen Kane” or “Birth of a Nation” – the sort of film secure of its placement in the Film Class 101 canon, with its modern relevance devised entirely from its once groundbreaking film techniques and its revolutionizing of the known narrative concept at the time. All very true, but all a bit staid for a film that 50 years later still comes across as freewheeling and anarchic. Far more intriguing are the questions Godard poses regarding how youth fashions its identity under the influence of popular culture, questions that continue to be asked afresh with each new generation and each new technological revolution.
The technological revolution at play in “Breathless,” the story of the young and narcissistic Michel and Patricia in late 1950s Paris, is the ubiquity of film, particularly Hollywood gangster films, in European and American pop culture at the time. Godard explores how not only the style and morality of these films, but also the very nature of film as a medium itself, can mold the personalities of those most susceptible to its influence: style-conscious urban youth.
So what qualities did the medium of film wrought in 1960s youth culture? For Michel, like the gangster heroes he emulates, “cool” is about bravado. Characters embodied by Bogart and Cagney acted seemingly without forethought, moving the plot along to fit into a brief running time. Michel, unable to distinguish that his life is inconveniently unscripted, likewise remains unperturbed by the fact that he has no idea what he is doing, and his downward-spiraling, frenetic actions are why the French title of the film, “À bout de souffle,” is better translated as “Out of Breath,” rather than “Breathless.”
Equally obsessed with image is the beautiful Patricia, with her portentous movie-dialogue conversation and the vanity with which she poses by a painting and asks Michel if she resembles the woman it features. Film, after all, is the projection of images, and in focusing on outward appearance, Michel and Patricia not only fear introspection (lest they reveal themselves to be anything “less” than glamorous, two-dimensional characters), but also have a pathological need for an audience, in each other and, as Godard does not hesitate to show, in us. As Dennis Grunes describes one scene:
…Patricia turns to us, showing the same need for us as Michel has shown. Why us? Because we, the audience, her reality, project her fantasy, her motive, of assuaging loneliness; and the self-reflexivity of the film corresponds, in part, to this sore self-consciousness afflicting Patricia and Michel.
Just as “Breathless” examined the powerful influence of popular film on youth culture in the 1960s, these questions re-arose with the next technological revolution: the ubiquity of popular television in the 1980s and 90s.
By the early 1990s, television – and television advertising – dominated American media. Young Americans were watching on average six hours of television per day, a hitherto unprecedented amount of time to be spent doing anything, and the absurd magnitude of this influence shaped the generation. In his 1990 essay “E. Unibus Pluriam,” David Foster Wallace described the defining features of his youth culture as “irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule.” And just as Godard linked his own generation’s narcissistic self-consciousness and bravado with the medium of film, so too did DFW root the defining features of 1990s youth culture in the medium of television:
In fact, the numb blank bored demeanor…that has become my generation’s version of cool is all about TV. “Television,” after all, literally means “seeing far”; and our six hours daily not only helps us feel up-close and personal at like the Pan-Am Games or Operation Desert Shield, but also, inversely, trains us to relate to real live personal up-close stuff the same way we relate to the distant and exotic, as if separated from us by physics and glass, extant only as performance, awaiting our cool review…[W]ooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we regard that attention as our chief commodity, our social capital, and we are loath to fritter it.
At the 50th anniversary of “Breathless” (and 20th anniversary of “E. Unibus Pluriam”), the time seems right to ask these questions again. What effect has our generation’s technological revolution, the ubiquity of the internet and social networking, wrought on American youth culture today? What are the defining features of the personality this medium has caused us to invent for ourselves?
The main factor distinguishing the internet, and social networking in particular, from the previous media of film and television is that it gives us the opportunity to project ourselves. And because a disinterested or neglectful online persona is no online persona at all, the more of “ourselves” that we put out there, the more social return we accumulate.
Perhaps that is why there is nothing ironic or disaffected about the current hipster generation: It takes itself very, very seriously. We take ourselves very seriously, and we take others very seriously. We take the earthquake in Haiti as seriously as we take the characters on The Hills as we take Gay marriage as we take the day-to-day minutiae of our own no-longer-inconsequential lives, such as being stuck in the airport or being hungover at work. This is the defining mark of “cool” in our generation – a sort of self-righteousness about the value and overall fascinating-ness of our own interests, accomplishments, personal life and information.
The “poker-faced silence” described by DFW in the 1990s has been replaced by oversincerity, as we collude with one another to perpetuate this belief in our own self-importance: if you tell me I’m interesting by reading my blog, “liking” me on facebook, following my twitter, supporting my causes, I’ll do the same for you. Likewise gone is the fear of ridicule – nothing is really a source of shame any more, because nothing is really better than anything else, and no one is better than anyone else. In fact, my personal term for American youth culture in the age of internet networking is “Social Socialism.”
Does this sit a little uncomfortably with you? Why? It’s a much nicer place to be than the generation of Michel and Patricia, the culture that Crowther of the New York Times described in his 1961 review of “Breathless” as “youth that is vagrant, disjointed, animalistic and doesn’t give a damn for anybody or anything, not even itself.”
So don’t be so ungrateful. Welcome to the giant family.