2022 Birthday Lecture: Notes Towards an Intellectual History of Generation X

2022 Birthday Lecture: Notes Towards An Intellectual History of Generation X

By Peter Berard

I – Generational History, Vernacular History

There are generations for which it would be possible to write a fairly “straightforward,” “standard,” “elite” intellectual history. Prior to the watershed of the First World War, commentators restricted the concept of “generation,” as a coherent unit of analysis, to the articulate portion of the population, the ones who left written records, that is, to elites- the usual actors in intellectual history. These generations often took the form of people who were a given age for a specific, bounded historical event. Take “The Generation of ‘98,” the generation of Spanish intellectuals that came of age around the same year that the United States seized most of the remnants of Spain’s overseas empire. The term mostly refers to intellectuals, writers and philosophers like Miguel de Unamuno, Antonio Machado, and Ramon del Valle-Inclan. The term “generation,”’here, makes little reference to the mass of the Spanish population born and living at the same time, and was never meant to.

Such an approach will not do for Generation X. This is not because Generation X lacks intellectuals. It has the same complement of them any generation has, and some fairly good ones, too- there’s a number of fine historians in that age cohort, I know. The approach won’t do because of changes in what we mean when we talk about of generations. These, in turn, reflect and were determined by changes in the larger spheres of cultural life. For this reason, and for others, we must turn to what I call “vernacular history of ideas,” or “vernacular intellectual history,” if we are going to start to get a grip on what Generation X means. 

I have toyed with other terms for it, usually swapping out words like “popular,” “demotic,” “extra-curricular,” “extra-mural” (as in, outside of the walls of the academy), but I think “vernacular” works best. For centuries, depending on the part of the world in question, vernacular language, the types of language spoken in homes, fields, and markets, was generally not the language of serious, engaged thought. Sacred languages, learned mostly by elites and special castes, seldom used for quotidian business or personal life – Latin, Greek, Slavonic among Christians, Pali in the Buddhist world, Sanskrit in India, pre-Zionist-revival Hebrew among Jews, specialized forms of Arabic and Chinese – were the language of scholars. There were some times and places of intellectual ferment in the premodern world where the vernacular language was also the language of scholarship – Plato’s Greek would not have been that different from the Greek spoken by most Athenians, or the Arabic of many of the great thinkers of the flowering of Islamic philosophy from the people in the bazaar – but the assumption that scholars will speak and work in the same language as their host society was not one anyone could make prior to a few recent centuries. 

It wasn’t just snobbery that led to this division within languages. Scholars believed that the linguistic qualities of vernacular language suited these languages to vernacular purposes, and that the languages they used in scholarly doings were suited to the proper subject of scholarship, which they understood to be the divine and eternal. Sacred languages had specialized vocabulary and grammatical structures that seemed more suited to discuss abstract ideas and unchanging verities in a rigorous fashion. Often enough, people believed these languages to be the tongue with which God himself spoke to humanity. Vernacular languages, on the other hand, were the language of the contingent, the chance-based, the slippery, labile, unrigorous, of the “restless motion” that Thomas Browne observed in the nematodes and gnatworms. 

I would put it to the reader that most intellectual history discusses, as it were, intellectual history in the register of the sacred scholarly languages of old. This is true even when a given work of intellectual history exclusively concerns itself with intellectual artifacts written in vernacular languages, i.e. almost all of modern intellectual history, now that the sacred/vernacular writing distinction has mostly collapsed. Most intellectual history, that is, concerns itself with ideas produced by professional producers of ideas. These are often academics, but even where the subjects never held an academic position, they are usually the producers of intellectual material that academics would read as part of their work- well-regarded literary artifacts, serious philosophy, etc. 

These works — both the mainstream of intellectual history, and the works they draw from and analyze — tend to ask questions about the sort of issues that once would have been deemed appropriate to the sacred languages, and usually take approaches that reflect that orientation. They grapple with ideas that seek to illuminate high-level problems, whose authors intend them to last the test of time, to be applicable outside of the welter of context and contingency. Even where determinedly secular, as in the history of, say, post-Cartesian science or post-Marx leftist movements, the orientation towards the eternal, towards something that points towards an order that transcends the mundane and quotidian, lingers in intellectual history. 

As it happens, the intellectual history of ideas produced by people we could call “vernacular,” that is, people who produce ideas, but whose primary social roles is not to produce ideas, often deals with the same transcendent topics – life and death, good and evil, morality, metaphysics, the right ordering of societies – as the most determinedly “sacred” philosophers. Arguably, contemporary vernacular thought is more concerned with the sacred than academic thought is these days… but, I would put it to you that even the religious speculations of the Five Percenters, the metaphysics of the New Age (or, darker, QAnon), and the thoroughgoing, whatever else you’d call it, political theory of the Sovereign Citizen movement can still be called “vernacular” in this “vernacular-sacred” dichotomy I am using. Even where the thinker in question takes the transcendent as its subject matter, it still usually uses more of the approach of the vernacular. It speaks vernacular language, thinks vernacular thoughts, applies vernacular operations to its subject- not always exclusively, but reliably. Especially given the collapse of the sacred-vernacular distinction between different languages, and the rise of mass education that this collapse helped enable, concepts and vocabulary from the academic realm find their way into vernacular thinking… and vice-versa. That said, the walls of the academy make for a decent rough and ready demarcation point for our purposes. 

Vernacular thought does not belong strictly to the poor or downtrodden, nor does academic or sacred thought belong strictly to the elite. The records most billionaires choose to leave of their thoughts would be the subject of vernacular intellectual history, even if they mix in half-remembered lessons from the colleges they dropped out of. The grad student who served you your coffee today has likely written work that would fit in well into traditional academic intellectual history. To be absolutely clear, I do not subscribe to any model that purports that the contemporary academy can easily be slotted into the role that the Catholic Church or other religious institutions did in times and places where their political and cultural power waxed, and certainly do not mean to suggest that vernacular literature is, always and everywhere, populist, subversive, or anything other than linguistically and structurally inclined towards the contingent and contextual. I also do not see one tradition as superior to the other. I do tend to find vernacular thought a little more interesting, and more of a challenge in the historiographical sense. 

Let me propose a literary metaphor: most intellectual history, almost all of it in the sacred/academic mode, resembles, in subjects and structure, canonical literature. Some intellectual history recapitulates the literary theme of the quest, extended efforts to overcome difficulties to attain some goal. Others resemble the classic bourgeois novel of marriage and inheritance, with its overwhelming concern for reconciling feeling with legitimacy. Still others, like concept histories, echo modernist and postmodernist explorations of form and medium. 

Perhaps this is vain, but I think a worthwhile vernacular intellectual history more closely resembles genre fiction, and in particular, the two forms of genre fiction that most reliably mount a challenge, both to their readerships and to literature and society in general: science fiction and crime fiction. From science fiction, vernacular intellectual history can draw countless examples of how to understand and depict strange worlds, and a century of experiments in the art of making the familiar strange and vice versa. From crime fiction, we can take the methodology of both characters and authors, the use of manifold, in some cases specialized, unpredictable, or improvised, tools and techniques to illuminate obscurity — who is the killer? — or pry open what has been denied to us — how are we going to get these jewels? 

This could just be own taste, but many of the best mixtures of scifi and crime came about in times fruitful for the study of vernacular ideas: Bester’s “The Demolished Man” as the McCarthyite freeze began to thaw but before hype overtook the sixties, and Dick’s “Ubik” as the era spiraled out of anyone’s control; Gibson’s “Neuromancer” at the gloaming period that wasn’t quite the Cold War and wasn’t quite the End of History; the work of writers like Madeline Ashby, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ayize Jama-Everett in our confusing time. It feels… right, somehow. 

II – The Structure of Feeling

Intellectual history as a subfield has its giants, lineages, debates (such as the one between whether we ought to call it “intellectual history” or “history of ideas”), and so on. Vernacular intellectual history doesn’t really exist as a sub (sub-sub?) field with all of those accoutrements, so we try to collect own forebears catch as catch can. One I would name is the great Welsh critic, novelist, and historian Raymond Williams.

Raymond Williams belonged to a group of brilliant British Marxist historians in the mid-twentieth century: E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and so on. Unlike these luminaries, Williams came from a working class background. He grew up in rural Wales, the son of a railroad worker, and he spent almost as much time working in adult education as he did teaching at Cambridge. Perhaps this has something to do with Williams’ abiding interest in acquiring a synoptic view of cultural moments in history, understanding how all of the relevant parts of a culture at a given time operated to create a coherent whole, very much including what we could call “popular,” or even “vernacular,” culture. Williams was one of the first people to open up popular culture as a field of sustained academic study. One of the terms he created to describe what he studied was “structures of feeling.” This phrase has made its way into general discourse, though often in vague and unhelpful ways.

You can see why it might get vague- how do you make a structure out of feelings? I think it’s important to think of the structure of feeling less like a physical structure and more like a medium of communication- not the structure of a barn, but the structure of a TV network. The structure of feeling is all of the infrastructure – ranging from widely-held societal values, to artistic works, to the actual physical infrastructure of communication and its influence on how ideas are communicated – that allow for some things to be communicated in a broader community in a given time and place, and which render other things impossible to communicate. The structure of feeling is the way historical conditions express themselves in a given cultural period and vice-versa. 

Two things are worth noting here. First, in his 1961 work “The Long Revolution,” Raymond Williams, when introducing the concept of “structures of feeling,” specifically cited generations as examples, arguably the paradigmatic example, of a structure of feeling, a means of communicating values and ideas that shift with the times and that are not formally established, or even consciously learned. The next is that Williams stood at a cusp, of sorts, in how generations were understood. The aforementioned elite idea of generations, as being made up of those who went to universities or were university-aged together at a given time when such distinctions were only for the elite, eventually gave way to a more broad-based idea of what a generation was, inspired by such society-wide common experiences for given age groups as world wars and global depressions. 

So! The works of Raymond Williams should provide a model for studying generations, Generation X included, right? Well- yes and no. Williams is certainly a model in terms of breadth of scope, sensitivity and thoughtfulness of analysis, and the interweaving of the cultural and the material. But I think it is something of a weakness of his generation of Marxist scholars that they essentially tried to turn the vernacular into something like the sacred- think of E.P. Thompson’s line about rescuing the history of the English working class from “the enormous condescension of history.” It’s hard to overstate the importance of the project of social historians like Thompson, Williams, and the others in their cohort mounted to explore the lives of common people in history. But they did this in large part because of an ennobling instinct. As Marxists, they believed the working people are the protagonists of history. Arguably, they had the highest – one might say most sacred – goals of any historians of their century.

Raymond Williams in particular sought to embed all meaningful culture into a communicative framework, where the communicants, the framework itself, and Williams himself in explicating this framework were all elevating the practice of communication – the basis of all organized life, starting from the cellular and on to whole human civilizations – to greater and greater heights. As a Marxist and as a man dedicated to the working class from which he came, he believed that these heights were only attainable if the people as a whole participated in this ever-scaling journey up the heights towards perfect communication and comprehension, hence his efforts to wrest intellectual history towards a broader base outside of the academy. 

It’s not so much that I disagree with any of this – though many of my main disagreements within Marxism are of the teleological variety – so much as I’m intrigued by the possibilities of other approaches. At the heart of my approach to vernacular history lies this supposition: that miscommunication is as important, as critical to the making of culture, if not more, than communication. Every medium of communication, which Williams treats as, if not solely existing for the purpose of communicating truth than mainly existing for the communication of sincerely meant ideas, is also a medium for misprision. Any medium for communicating truth is also a medium for propagating falsehoods, intentional or unintentional, elaborate or plain, aimed towards a wide variety of others or towards self, or simply yawped into the universe. In short, we need to take the lesson of the internet, the supposedly neutral and free communication forum-of-fora that turned into… well, the internet… to Williams’s concept of the structure of feeling. 

Raymond Williams specifically cited generations as examples of structures of feeling, the kind of structure that allowed for some communications to have a kind of meaning and impact within the structure that the same communication could not have outside of it. He discusses generations both in the elite sense – generations of writers, scholars, other opinion-forming types – and in the then-ascending mass sense, the idea that being born in a specific time unites everyone born in said time, not just the people who went to college together.

Among other things, self-conscious generational definition was ramping up to a fever pitch as the Baby Boom generation approached adulthood simultaneously with Williams’s work in this area. Between Williams’s own blessings, and the ways in which we have all seen generational discourse be used for obfuscation, bullshit, salesmanship, ideology, and simple cretinism, I think looking at generations as structures of feeling is as good a place as any to introduce some of the muck of misprision into the gleaming palace of communication that Williams sometimes wrote as though structures of feeling are. 

III – Some Basic Lineaments of the Case of Generation X

Let’s start with a basic premise, then, that will root the generational structure of feeling where it belongs, in the fertile muck of misprision: despite being notionally based in time of birth, generations are not born, they are made. Yes, there is such a thing as shared experience based on being a certain age for certain events or phenomena. But as the case of Generation X will demonstrate, the concepts of generations that are promulgated by writers, artists, and thinkers invariably create major exclusions within their age cohorts. As such, it joins numerous other identity categories of dubious origins, such as race and nationality, but lacks the gravitas of history, or millions dead as the case may be, behind it that those two categories have. Much like with race, nationality, religion, and so on, it is the belief in the concept that people have come to invest in the idea of generation that gives some weight to the category, not what few intrinsic merits it has.

Here’s a way to get across the artifice of generational identity, using Generation X, our sometimes missing subject: where were the black people? Think of any of the cultural touchstones of Generation X and what you see is blindingly white. Then consider that the cultural ascendance of Generation X also saw some of the most important black cultural accomplishments of the twentieth century, including the epochal musical change that was the birth of hip hop! If anything, Generation X, understood as a cultural artifact and structure of feeling, is considerably whiter than the Baby Boom generation, whose cultural and political trajectory is unimaginable without the influence of civil rights and black power, as well as of soul and r and b music. This is remarkable, when considering that by population, Generation X was considerably less white than their baby boom forebears, and saw things like the aforementioned rise of hip hop, the career of Michael Jackson, several substantial black uprisings like that in South Central LA in 1992, arguably the first serious black presidential campaign, mounted by Jesse Jackson, and that the first and so far only US President elected from Generation X was Barack Obama. 

Here’s another: who are the definitional writers of any given generation? Writers only yield to musicians and possibly filmmakers as the creators of definitional imagery for any given generation. Given that writers usually come to prominence at a later part of their life than musicians do, it’s not too unusual that many generation-defining writers are, in fact, older than the generation they supposedly define. 

But consider what Generation X literature would look like without William S. Burroughs (born 1947), Kathy Acker (born 1947), Charles Bukowski (born 1920), Tom Robbins (born 1932), William Gibson (born 1949), Bruce Sterling (born 1954)? The situation is even starker with the Baby Boom generation. Quick, think “Baby Boomer writers.” The names come quick and fast: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Marilyn French, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac. Definers of literary modes and attitudes we associate with the Baby Boom generation, all of them, and born in 1933, 1923, 1934, 1937, 1929, 1922, and 1922 again, respectively. That’s not even getting into the racial dimension- why such major black writers from the generational cohort born between 1960 and 1980 as Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward and who knows who else aren’t considered Gen X writers in the same way as Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and Jonathan Lethem… the latter three not only all bring white, but literally all having belonged to the same freshman class at tiny Bennington College. 

Lastly, on the definitional space: even leaving aside the question of how sensible it is to group people by birth cohort this way, who decides on the size of the cohort? In my conversations with people about this topic, almost all of them understood generations as encompassing everyone born within a given fifteen to twenty year span. Like other aspects of generational identity, the holes are obvious when you think about it, and the provenance of this common sense is a lot closer in time than one might think. 

If the logic of generations is that of shared experience, of being a given age for a given event, then there’s nothing obvious about arguing that, to take one example drawn from Gen X, the early sexual experiences of someone born in 1965, coming of age in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and someone born in 1979, coming to the same age as AIDS treatments became available (at least to those with means and access), and in any event, AIDS ceased to be a looming media phantom, would be at all similar. You can extend that to numerous other generational touchstones- and a millennial reader probably doesn’t need to be reminded of the gap in experience between people born in 1984 versus, say, 1996. 

Assigning generational labels to ever-larger age cohorts seems, from what I can tell, to be an artifact of efforts on the part of vaguely social-scientific scribblers to create a coherent historical theory of generations. This actually coincided with what would become the defining of Generation X as a body with a discourse around it. In most cases, any given generational discourse starts with previous generations trying to define those who come after. For all this is supposed to be a lecture about Generation X, much of the story is about people from earlier generations – mostly people who are Baby Boomers, and who embraced what that generational self-definition is supposed to mean – crafting a discourse about them, attempting to define and give meaning to the experience of a cohort over whom they had some degree of power. 

And, boy howdy, you will not run into too many Boomers more Boomer-ish than William Strauss and Neil Howe. That’s not just me being hypocritical and using the generational lens I decry, but cannot entirely avoid: they’ll tell you that themselves. Both dabbled in the student movement, if I understand the biographical snippets they include, before becoming Capitol Hill types, staffers turned consultants turned pundits. Howe affected seriousness before his death in 2007; Strauss, who is still with us, was one of the founders of the Capitol Steps, the political musical comedy troupe made up of Capitol staffers who make up doggerel songs about the electoral doings of the day and travel the land performing them. 

The pair are best known for the Strauss-Howe generational theory, first propagated in their massive door-stop book, called, boringly enough, “Generations,” published in 1991. It’s become a commonplace to compare dubious ideas to astrology. But I’m not the first to make that comparison between the Strauss-Howe theory and the horoscope pages. Not only do Strauss and Howe purport to define all thirteen generations that have passed since the first English settlers came to America, but they insist that all generations follow a four-slot pattern. Generations of “Heroes” are followed by generations of “artists,” then by “prophets” and “nomads” before the cycle goes back up to heroes again, each cohort about twenty years in length. Strauss and Howe might not have invented the concept of long generations, but they certainly popularized it.  

Much like the lecture where I discussed Traditionalists like Julius Evola, actually explaining what Strauss and Howe meant by all this would take too long, and is too stupid to really belabor. And unlike Evola, Strauss, Howe, and their beliefs are boring- the Capitol Steps thing is the funniest thing about them. There’s these special conjunctions of epicycles and combinations of which sort of generations are when in their life cycle with whatever other generations that are supposed to have significance. This is where Strauss and Howe’s many friends in high places come into the narrative. When the book was published, Strauss’s main project was writing little ditties about the deficit; Howe’s main project was working with Peter Peterson on selling deficit hawk politics and pushing entitlement privatization as the solution. Peterson wasn’t alone- there was a genuinely bipartisan enthusiasm for Strauss and Howe’s ideas in the early nineties, with many copies of the paperback exclaiming how “Generations” was a book Al Gore and Newt Gingrich could agree on! 

It became a truism that the generation of “nomads” that Strauss and Howe identified coming of age as they wrote would be the ones to impose their austere, practical values on the bold but impractical moralistic schema of their “prophet” Baby Boomer elders, and finally privatize social security and force through something like a balanced budget amendment. The early Baffler magazine, led by Tom Frank and Rick Perlstein, cut their teeth savaging the cultural flak thrown up by obvious political grifters pursuing this end, the numerous tergiversations they employed as they simultaneously midwifed and exploited new tropes for their generation: Gen Xers, as they came to be known around this time, having grown up in the scary, unstable seventies, craved solidity and so simply could not believe that Social Security could remain solvent; Gen Xers were individualists and risk-takers who were disinclined to the stultifying stability of company-man life that PR flaks managed to memetically associate with adequate pay and benefits, the welfare state, and unions around this time. 

Many of these same concepts found their way into the hype for the first internet bubble and the rise of techno-libertarianism in the 1990s more generally. The feeling put abroad was that something was changing, and even if we weren’t clear on what that something was and how it was changing, people were assured by business writers and glossy magazine contributors that the only proper reaction to these changes was slashing the welfare state and piling more money and power at the feet of the rich. This was the period where Tom Friedman came to prominence, which says most of what needs to be said. 

As is the case with a lot of neoliberal dreams thirty years later, the only ones enthusiastic for Strauss and Howe’s esoterica, and for many of these early ideas associated with Gen X identity, are now fascists. Steve Bannon, a man who has dabbled in numerous vaguely occult ideas, had at one point triangulated from the turnings of the Strauss-Howe theory that the coming of the millennial generation would signal the rise of his kind of nationalist reactionary politics, and that the election of Trump to the presidency was proof of this. This concerns the generation of heroes that supposedly follows, inevitably, nomads- that is, us Millennials. This comes up in the recent play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, which is about Millennial tradcath intellectuals making each other miserable as they prepare to be these heroes. For anyone keeping score, given that Gen Z has also been called, by some, a uniquely conservative generation, this is three generations in a row that pundits have attempted to say would make America great again… arguably, convincing anyone at all of this is not the Baby Boomer’s least trick, given the single biggest demographic behind the Trump movement…

It’s a mistake to think that any of these men- Republican, Democrat, notionally “independent” pedants like Peterson or fascist goons like Bannon, really let Strauss and Howe, or any other writer or thinker, dictate plans to them, act as a guidebook. That’s something that people who write about the intellectual influences of politicians and other non-academic figures often flub. They often seize upon a given thinker as the singular guide to a given politician’s ideas and behavior, treating them not unlike a rather unflattering portrait of how Marxists supposedly treat Marx. From my own research and experience, the construction of vernacular ideas of the political usually involve more eclectic patterns of borrowing, collage, and rapid cycling of thinkers and ideas in and out of the rosters and toolboxes of practical people. That’s not to say that these thinkers and ideas are irrelevant to the people who look to them. Just that they’re relevant in a different way. 

IV – The Generation X Structure of Feeling

Beyond finally stepping a foot in the concrete history of Generation X, I want to get a point across, here, by relating a high level overview of the sordid story of the Strauss-Howe theory and its uses: that the structure of feeling that is any generation, and certainly Generation X, is constructed, by people, not according to some master plan, but through the push and pull of numerous actors making use of the found parts left them by history. I tend to see the dimensions and dynamics of this space — the architecture of the structure of feeling, what communications it amplifies, multiplies, muffles, disallows, garbles — as being made up of numerous switches and spectra between discursive points, answers to questions and postures relative to concepts, that actors in the space can switch between, or slide along the spectra amongst, depending on whether we see a given discursive line as binary or spectral.

The lines or other shapes created by these interacting dimensions point in assorted directions, though I would say that in most generational discourse, and in Gen X discourse more than most, most lines of discourse point to one of two spaces, or both of them simultaneously: to each other, and to success in the market. I think this is one reason a vernacular approach to intellectual history ought to be distinguished from a standard, sacral approach. The standard approach tends to assume that the lines of discourse tend to run towards some standard point- up, generally, towards greater and more universal truth, however conceived. For the most part, we are not looking at such arrangements here. I’m sure people with better senses of physical space than I have — which is to say, most people — could come up with more and better metaphors here. But these should suffice for now. 

Whether we imbue it with the intention of the censor or the innocence of the cinematographer framing their shot, the sum of the lines and shapes that go into a structure of feeling include some things and necessarily exclude others. At whatever level of intent, actors in the space will make use of these exclusions and inclusions, modifying them as possible or as they see fit or otherwise making use of what they find there. This is one of the key entryways through which misprision makes itself known in the space of intellectual history. A simple lie — saying I have eleven fingers when I have ten — is the least interesting form of misprision for our purposes. What I want to explore is ways that users of a structure of feeling can make use of the structure to communicate with something other than an intention to arrive at truth, or even how they can shape structures of feeling to encourage their misprision of choice. 

In a time of surplus, it seems logical to think that misprision would often make use of surplus materials. As numerous observers of the late twentieth century have informed us, it was indeed an age of surplus- not just surplus money and consumer goods, but surplus ideas, surplus images, surplus art, surplus discourse, surplus purveyors of all of these things. So, a lot of the misprision we see in Generation X discourse involves substitutions, making use of the many available cultural materials to efface, distract, or obfuscate. Two types of this operation I want to highlight are simple substitutions-as-obfuscations, and somewhat more sophisticated mimicry-substitutions. It’s possible to use one cultural material to obfuscate, crowd out, or demote another, a narrative, movement, or artifact that actors in the cultural space would prefer not to interact with in favor of something else. It’s also possible to mimic a given cultural artifact, to deliver part of whatever message an original concept was supposed to convey but not all of it, or with extra appendages not in the original. 

“We’re not talking about X because we are so busy talking about Y” is an unfortunate reflexive trope of contemporary, often internet-based, discussions. But cliches come from somewhere. I think that the ways in which the constructors of the Generation X structure of feeling came to place grunge at the center of the cultural conversation they were having with themselves served, above all else, as an obfuscation. Namely, grunge discourse is an obfuscation of what turned out to be the more long-lasting trend in music and youth culture, the rise of hip hop. It’s not like commentators, then or now, pretended hip hop didn’t exist, and most would have granted that it was important. But we still see Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and the rest as generational voices in a way that we don’t see Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Nas, or dozens of other epoch-defining rappers. In a way not too dissimilar to how Obama became a generational touchstone, you could say Jay-Z and Beyonce did at around the same time Obama rose to prominence- but less for their artistic merits and more as aspirational figures, the first hip hop billionaires. All of these figures are big deals born as part of Generation X. But they’re not big Generation X deals, if that makes sense. 

There’s a lot of reasons that this could be. Race almost certainly plays a part, as does the evident desire of music critics to establish a clear line of transmission from the rock music that defined their generation to something similar – something prominently featuring guitars and existentialism – in the one upcoming. I think, especially given the ways in which the conversation about music and the conversation about broader social trends were intertwined at the time – arguably, more so, with less ironic distance, than they are today – that it makes sense to argue that what grunge was meant to represent acted to obfuscate what hip hop was meant to represent, in a social sense. Hip hop, for all of the nihilism in gangster rap, is vibrant music coming out of a culture that saw hopes raised and brutally dashed within the lifetimes of many of the people who brought it to mass popularity. It’s not just the immiseration, the crack trade and the gang wars, the mass incarceration and abandonment of black and brown communities by the rest of society that informs this music- it’s the previous generation of hope and accomplishment, whose music provided many of the hooks and samples that hip hop uses so well, that provide much of the historical piquancy of hip hop. Hip hop was a record of a people who had experienced defeat, and lived with its circumstances. 

That is not to say that grunge was happy, hopeful music, as anyone who has ever listened to it could attest. But the focus was different. Kurt Cobain and other grunge heroes often enough came from families buffeted by the receding economic tides of neoliberalism, and grunge rose to prominence during the early nineties recession. Still, the focus of grunge music, and much of the culture we think of as specifically Gen X culture – that which is most commonly spoken through the communication medium we can call the Gen X structure of feeling – understood the defeat and decay of the times as essentially personal, a matter of individual and familial circumstance. It’s not that grunge thought society was fair. Rather, grunge’s concept of society essentially reflected a dark and irrational view of the individual. And so, we see an essentially individualist and ahistorical concept of the decay of the end of the twentieth century occlude one considerably more rooted in the realities of the moment.

You see this pattern in many, many places in Gen X discourse, both the discourse of who Gen X is and what characterizes them, and in the discourse generated – sometimes to this day – by members, self-identified or not, of that cohort. I think it is sufficiently prevalent that we can call it a basic element of the Gen X structure of feeling. I’ve used physical metaphors to explain what is actually in a structure of feeling elsewhere in this lecture, so I suppose doing so again might help. We have the metaphor of occultation – of something covering something else from view. I use “occultation” rather than other, simpler words — hide, conceal, mask, etc — because, coming from astronomy, where celestial bodies are said to occlude each other from observation, occultation does not imply intent or a plan. I don’t think the occlusions in the cultural space of Generation X were the work of a master plan, of grunge acts, social scientists, journalists etc meeting in secret to make sure hip hop didn’t get its due or some such thing. But I do think that many of these occlusions, as though they were reacting to the same gravitational pull, worked to obscure the possibilities of collective power, of meaningful historical change, of the idea there is some vitality outside of the ruts in which the culture seems to have had landed. 

Occlusion is one metaphor- mimicry is another. Here, intent is unavoidable. Why does something mimic something else? Generally, to fit into a niche where otherwise the mimic would be unwelcome. As it turned out, there were few time periods with more vacant cultural niches than the end of the twentieth century. 

We sometimes talk about the nineties as a time of triumphant neoliberalism capitalism. Some people clearly felt pretty pleased about the state of affairs. But clearly a lot of people did not. And it wasn’t just depressed grunge rockers, alienated slackers, and rioting inhabitants of Los Angeles, either. A cultural artifact often conjured to summon the supposedly triumphant mood of the time is Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man.” That book does, indeed, proclaim that liberal democratic capitalism, as represented by the United States, had ended the cycle of ideological conflict and with it, capital “H” History the way that Hegel and philosophers who followed from him, like Fukuyama, understood it. But the tone of the book is not the sort of end zone dance you might expect. You get that from Tom Friedman and other writers of the period, but not Fukuyama. Fukuyama, a neoconservative, was pleased by the fall of state communism, but was actually a little bummed out by what he saw around him. Without ideological conflict, what would give society meaning? He foresaw life in the west as the reshuffling of exhibits in the museum of its glorious past. In a very odd passage, he praised the street gangs of Los Angeles, the Crips and the Bloods, as representing the man motivated by “thymos,” of pride and honor, as conceived of by the Homeric Greeks, the sort of man you weren’t going to get much of anymore.

That strangely autumnal mood — of a triumph that isn’t triumphant — stalks the culture of the nineties. So, too, do strange growths across the cultural horizon. Grunge made a certain degree of sense, as a terminal point for rock and roll. I would ascribe a certain fixation one sees in Gen X culture on high school, with an attendant idea that adult life is basically high school but sadder and with more pretensions, fits into this pattern as well. But there were other, less gainly cultural forms developing as Gen X reached maturity, and I think they owe some of their strangeness to the ways in which they came to fruition in this sort of historical nether-zone. Whether or not the parties involved agreed with Fukuyama, or even knew who he was, by and by, cultural actors came to fill the niches vacated by the actors in the grand drama upon which Fukuyama thought he had seen the curtain fall. 

Whatever else it is, the aforementioned Strauss-Howe generational theory, with all its grandiosity, is a sort of mimic — somewhere between an off-brand imitator and a methadone substitute — of the kind of social theory that might produce rigorous, challenging, or simply coherent ideas. Generational theory was hardly alone in playing this role. I’m unwilling to turn this essay into an effort to adjudicate the theory wars of the late twentieth century. But whatever one wants to say about the potentials of the theoretical interventions of this period emerging from the academy, the debates themselves over things like poststructuralism and postmodernism, especially when they spilled outside of the little hobbit village of academia, provided a sort of mimic substitute for the more thoroughgoing, mass-based radicalism of times both before and after. 

These things filled niches. Clearly, despite the advertised deaths of “metanarratives” like dialectical materialism, someone still wanted grand theories of history, and Strauss and Howe could sell you their birth-order astrology. Fukuyama might have thought the conflicts over ideas that characterized modern history were over, but you could still make a living writing op-eds about what was going on campus. Few of these ideas were truly new. They were mostly third-string liberal ideas, products of the fecund frenzy of twentieth century liberals to make up ways to understand history and society that kept them off of the grounds of the left- or sometimes the right. The late twentieth century was their time to shine.

One deviation from that pattern among the mimic-niche-fillers is what we see in terms of an artistic avant-garde in this period. The idea that art had a “front” at which the avant-garde could be at implied it had a direction, that it was going somewhere. Even if a given artistic avant-garde insisted the direction of their art had nothing to do with politics, it usually at least implied some kind of challenge to the status quo. Human history is full of subcultures of artistically-inclined people living differently from those around them. But for most of history, these subcultures were not understood, by themselves or by those around them, as challenging established hierarchies, either of power or of cultural values. If anything, artistic subcultures were usually quite close to power- that’s where the money came from, and usually the people with taste, too. An avant-garde that does challenge these things is an artifact of modernity, the period of change and ideological strife whose passing Fukuyama marked. 

So… what would avant-garde mean in a historical period where there was no more “front” to the process of history? Where either it had got where it was going, or had never existed in the first place? Well, that turned out to be pretty simple. You just sort of swan about in similar ways to how earlier avant-grades — surrealists and dada, abstract expressionists and futurists, etc etc — did, and let cultural presentation of self do the work for you.

When I say this, I mean it less as a judgment on the talent or acumen of artists of the last quarter of the twentieth century – though, in the one area where I have much ability to judge, literature, they didn’t amount to much – and more on the claims made for their work to be something really new and revolutionary. Most participants in these avant-gardes would gladly admit that all of them were just shuffling ingredients that came before, usually well within living memory. Even if you would argue that the original literary modernists, or the surrealists, or the futurists, or whoever else a nineties artist could model themselves after, were doing the same thing, the originals almost never would have admitted to it. 

If I’m being honest, the plastic visual arts of this period seem like nothing so much as a set of bad pranks elevated to a sort of vitiated pseudo-religious importance by truly bored rich people and those who cater to them. But I will admit I don’t know painting, sculpture, etc very well. I do know prose writing a bit better, so to illustrate this dynamic, I will use the example of the “literary brat pack” that came to some prominence in the mid-1980s, some members of which are still prominent in literature today. 

Of course, no one described as being part of the literary brat pack liked that term themselves, and insisted they just hung out a few times, that it wasn’t a real literary movement. You don’t need to know much art history to know that most movements either insist on their nonexistence, or else act like something between a small political party and a cult, complete with excommunications- and the former is a lot easier. 

Among the most insistent of the brat packers with regards to the nonexistence of the pack as a unitary body was Bret Easton Ellis, the member of the group whose literary career has lasted the longest- you don’t hear much from Jay McInerney or Tama Janowitz these days. Ellis was anointed an important new literary voice on the strength of his 1985 debut novel, “Less Than Zero,” a tale of nihilist teens in Los Angeles that Ellis started writing when he was, well, a nihilist teen in Los Angeles. It’s remarkable to think that in the eighties, gossip sections and tabloids would dedicate space to writers, just as writers, not as writers who are, say, dating a more famous person. I have been assured by fans of gossip blogs that this doesn’t generally happen anymore (interesting, when you consider that the content mill would presumably take, demand even, ever more grist!). But back in the eighties, Ellis and company made it on there, sometimes, partying and posturing with a certain jaded-beyond-their-years loucheness. 

While “Less Than Zero,” with its child sex slaves and implication that rich LA kids had the life expectancy of then-starving Ethiopian children, as a friend of mine liked to put it, is a little more extreme than comparable works, the work of the Literary Brat Pack shared many characteristics: all of the protagonists were contemporary young adults (usually about the same age  and the same gender as the given writer), all of the prose was studiedly flat, all had a general tone of decadence and doom. Fukuyama probably would have chewed his own arm off rather than depict some of the things Ellis has his characters casually observe, but both saw this end of history period as, at the very least, sad, and somewhat bereft.

There were two reference points for the packaging of the literary brat pack by the publishing industry. One was, obviously, the Hollywood brat pack, young stars like Charlie Sheen who became tabloid favorites. But the other was the so-called Lost Generation writers of the period immediately following World War One. Youth without moorings, writing minimalist prose about dark and traumatic things, imbued with that Hemingway/Fitzgerald glamor… you can see why publicists would want to run with that, and they did, not just for the actual social circle around Ellis and McInerney, but for Ellis’s Bennington classmate Donna Tartt when she came out with “The Secret History” well after the shine had started to come off for most of the crowd. References to the twenties were a gift that kept on giving, at least until readers of literary fiction gave up on caring about that kind of thing altogether.

Here’s the funny thing with that: none of the Brat Pack writers read very much like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, or Stein. And they don’t really claim them as influences, either, as I’ve seen. Bret Easton Ellis worships at the temple of Joan Didion. McInerney was basically doing WASP-y dissolution-and-divorce, think Louis Auchincloss with the volume turned up. Donna Tartt cited influences from seemingly everywhere — Evelyn Waugh, classical drama, southern gothic writing, horror paperbacks — other than the literary modernism that the Lost Generation ushered into the American consciousness. And what exactly did any of the literary brat pack lose? In their fiction, their sense of loss typically stems from being raised fecklessly, usually in comfortable circumstances, and general post-adolescent ennui. They did not see a catastrophe like the First World War. 

Most of them did not claim to, so they are not entirely to blame — whatever one may think of gadflies like Ellis — for the impression that all it took to be considered avant-garde after the late seventies or so was to look bored and disaffected and have a good publicist. That’s before even getting into how an avant-garde based on an earlier avant-garde would even make sense, in geometric terms if nothing else. So why did anyone bother? 

Here it’s worth noting that the Gen X age cohort might have been the first to come to adulthood after the establishment of vertically and horizontally integrated corporate media. I’m well aware that prior generations of artists, like the rock stars of old and the jazz singers before them, had to struggle with the money game in their respective fields. What I am saying is that what we see emerge in the seventies are considerably more consolidated, professional, and just bigger and more powerful media conglomerates. These had a more rational approach to turning culture into profit than such actors as, say, Elvis’s Colonel Parker. That’s not to say the Colonel was not interested in profit. Just that he could not pursue it the way modern record labels, movie studios, and publishers could and can. So, the likes of Ellis, et al – Cobain, too, for that matter, and the Gen X filmmakers, Linklater, Tarantino, and so on – were put through a considerably more advanced image-making machine than earlier generations of artists. It must have been a simple answer for publicists: a bit of glamor, a bit of terseness, a bit of transgression, and a lot of appeal to the distinctly limited historical reference base of the late-twentieth century reading public, et voila! We have a new Lost Generation. Never mind the context. Never mind the actual texts, and how they don’t fit!

V – Of Flat Worlds, Edges, and End Times

It’s important we don’t let our discussion of forms – the shapes of cultural operations within the structure of feeling of Generation X – lead us into a sterile formalism. Context and content still matter, and interact with each other and with the patterns of form we have laid out in many-fold complex ways. But, I’m afraid I’m going to have to make these discussions brief, more of a sketch. I tried to sketch the formal discussion above, too, but I think at that level of abstraction, I needed to expand on things to make them clear. I think to serve as this lecture intends to, we need to bring up some of the elements one has a right to expect when discussing the intellectual history of Generation X, and the context that helps define and contain their formal relationships.

Maybe because I’m used to sharing my ideas in spaces like these birthday lectures and social media, I tend to expect more immediate reaction to the things I say than most academics do, and I expect that reaction to be blunter, less guarded by convention. So whenever I make a generalization about a time period, I am prepared to hear a “what about.” While sometimes frustrating, I actually think this has been helpful. If I say, “high ‘End of History’ period, the decade from the fall of the Soviet Union to 9/11, was a time of feelings of decay and defeat,” there are obvious counterpoints. There’s the capitalist ecstasy of the prophets of globalization and the early world wide web, the idea of a triumphant Pax Americana that would spread peace and prosperity the world over, the idea of a liberation from old, deadly conflicts between nations and ideologies, etc., and from cultural hierarchies as pop culture advanced across the globe and into acceptance as important art, etc. 

It doesn’t do to dismiss these as irrelevant. It might be appropriate to bracket them, on the idea that any given study needs to limit itself. But I do see myself as trying to create a prologue to a study of this period, and the generation that came to maturity in it, in Anglophone culture as a whole, so that bracketing maneuver would be a cop out. Instead, consider the two emotional registers at either end — say, the apocalypticism of a Kathy Acker or the despair of a Kurt Cobain on one side, and the ecstasy of a Tom Friedman or some of the early cyberculture enthusiasts as the other — as poles, points that circumscribe a space. Affectively, these poles may be opposites. But between them, they cooperate to define what is in, and crucially, what is outside of a given space. 

The peculiar versions of both pessimism and optimism we see in this structure of feeling aren’t the only polar dyads in the space, but they seem to be an important one. Consider what they exclude: agency, especially collective agency. The pessimism of grunge culture; the sense of exhaustion, barely masked by giddy theoretical excesses, in most academic fields; the cynicism in the arts from literary brat pack sneering to the increasingly obvious prankish pointlessness of much of the plastic arts; the elegiac wistfulness you find in Fukuyama and many of the other boosters of the Pax Americana… none of those promised the ability of people to do great things, to change the reality in which they live, and promise even less for the possibilities of collective power to change. 

Where there was such a thing as change it was individual, or at best familial, often enough in the context of chosen family. You and your buddies could joke away the collapse of meaning (away from your feckless and/or abusive actual family and community ties) in the Palm Springs desert, around the faded glamour of the twentieth century, like the protagonists in the Doug Coupland novel that helped give Generation X its name. This, or the promise of “fuck you money” by getting in early on an internet startup, or learning the Supreme Mathematics of the Five Percenters, which such hip hop artists as the Wu Tang Clan saw as key to a stoic acceptance of the nature of the universe, was the liberation on offer. And things weren’t much better as far as the optimists were concerned, except they thought no one could possibly need or want the power to change, beyond perhaps the wisdom to see their situation as already optimal- to stop asking “who moved my cheese?” as a business bestseller of the time put it, and simply follow the cheese wherever the cheese chooses to go. 

“The world is flat,” as Tom Friedman put it at the time, from the editorial page of the New York Times (he’s still there, folks!) and from the title of one of his several bestsellers that attempted to explain our brave new post-Cold War globalized world. The literary figures we’ve discussed – “brat pack” members like Bret Easton Ellis, accidental generation-namer Douglas Coupland – would likely want little to do with Friedman, his exuberant, emotive, disorganized writing (perhaps an unacknowledged father to some literary styles today?), or his optimism. But it would be hard for them to disagree with the central premise, as far as their writing is concerned. Their worlds, too, were flat, and described in fitting language. And they were as impossible to escape as Friedman thought his version of liberal democratic capitalist globalization was- he referred to it as “the golden straitjacket,” and everyone would soon be wearing it. So it was in Gen X literature. If you escaped from Ellis’s world of emotional deadness, commodity fetishism, and just regular old fetishism, you ceased to exist, as far as he was concerned. His worlds are as hermetically sealed as any secondary world fantasy- more so, arguably, given the relatively small number of real-world influences that have bearing on Ellisland, especially compared to the wider bases of reference from history and mythology from which fantasists generally draw. If you read any of Ellis’s nonfiction, you’ll see how his cool vanishes as soon as he’s expected, even momentarily, to acknowledge the existence of people outside of his chosen realm of the affectless rich. Doug Coupland’s blithe Gen Xers, for their part, would see anything outside their ambit as trivia, a genocide just as much as an old movie star’s sexual pecadillos, all facts with more or less piquancy to catch and launch at each other like so many conversational pokeballs. 

If the world is flat, where else to go but the edge? I did not have time or space to do the history that the concept of “edginess” deserves in this lecture. From what I can glean, it seems like the concept of edginess, to the extent it was ever meant sincerely, came to the fore once it became good and certain that any counterculture could and would get “appropriated” by mass culture, packaged up and sold. The only debate would be whether this was a tragedy, or whether every given counterculture was always already a consumer product, as Thomas Frank argued at the time. 

So edginess could be a few things: it could be the desperate lunge for a frontier, where you’d have to pick up sticks and leave every few years as the culture took what had once been edgy and defanged it, like how some American frontiersmen supposedly used to light out a few hundred miles further west whenever they could hear neighbors. Or it could be a kind of catch-all, a reticule where assorted off-brand ideas, aesthetics, cultural/political movements could be placed in arrays that seem baffling now. Take a gander through the “Apocalypse Culture” or “Gone to Croatan” collections, sold through alternative bookstores or mail order catalogs at the time, or cast your mind back to the internet before contemporary social media did its magic. In certain respects, the grab bags of ideas — conspiracy theory next to social theory, Nazis next to communists and anarchists, “extreme” genres of music, obsessions with cults, killers, UFOs, reinterpretations of history and cosmology — you see in these spaces were more the results of low editorial standards than any intentional strategy. 

But you could argue “low editorial standards” was a key part of the worldview of nineties edginess culture, that it’s precisely that that allows for freedom and flourishing of expression, whatever its implications may be socially or politically, as far as the edgy were concerned. Anti-globalization thought and activism lingered — all too long, possibly fatally long — in the edginess space, but this was still very much a cultural formation for the flat world Friedman proclaimed. As aging Gen Xer Jez from the British sitcom Peep Show put it, when calling a Nazi on his racism would momentarily inconvenience him: “Aren’t we supposed to be living in a multicultural democracy? And isn’t that the point? You know, the Jews, the Muslims and the racists all living together happily side by side, doing and saying whatever the hell they like?” 

And here is where I want to give something of a fillip to my readers/listeners, most of them, like me, millennials, from the generation that came after Gen X. We have, supposedly, the smarter millennials anyway, left behind edginess culture, the idea that the world is flat and that difference is just so many meaningless aesthetic markers that carry with them no historical or political charge. For their part, it seems that Gen Xers, as a cohort, have clung less to a generational identity than have baby boomers, which I think is an admirable decision. But many Gen Xers who have decided to lean on their age cohort as part of their presentation of self have done so specifically in studied contrast to what they see as the failings of millennials. This mostly has to do with our supposed moralism, with we dispatched the edginess culture, and who knows what else- chain restaurants, engagement rings, etc etc. A number of prominent contemporary  crusaders against “woke culture,” ranging from Matt Taibbi to Megan Daum to Wesley Yang to Thomas Chatterton Williams to Bret Easton Ellis to, on the extreme end of things, Gavin McInnes, all either cite their generational identity or, much the same thing, the specific times and circumstances in which they came to maturity as a mark of superiority to millennials, one of the things that elevates them above woke moralism (you would figure that they had literally no say over what year they were born might inculcate a certain modesty about this accomplishment, and yet!). 

Even if you don’t subscribe to the sort of cultural-revolution theory of wokeness implicit in the more grandiose anti-woke worldviews, I do think that the structure of feeling that has grown up since the second decade of the twenty-first century has some pretty substantial differences from the one that Gen X made and/or had handed to it by its elders. Using the sort of spatial metaphors we were using before, a lot of valuations within the space got rearranged. It would be hard to think why they wouldn’t, over the passage of time and the many important events, technical and economic changes, etc. A lot of matters that Gen Xers understood as switches came to become spectra (gender being the most notable), and various things that Gen Xers typically understood to be spectra tended to get simplified into something more like switches (the distinction between ideas and actions that are and aren’t acceptable stands out). The Gen X critics aren’t just being dramatic when they say they can’t speak anymore, even though they continue to palaver. Structures of feeling are a communication medium, and the structure of feeling of my generation is different enough that a lot of what they try to say doesn’t translate. 

These differences are real, and relevant. But I would put it to the reader — mostly from my generation but it might be relevant to those who came before and come after, too — that things have not changed as much as they appear to have done. To me, the single greatest piece of evidence for this is the stuckness of culture, especially in literature. I said a fair few negative things about Gen X writers, and have plenty more to say — I didn’t even really get into David Foster Wallace here — for other occasions. But with all the differences in ideas between millennials and Xers, for all of the many-fold changes in technology that you’d figure would allow for new voices to come forward, it’s impossible to say much more for millennial literature, now that the oldest of the generation approach their forties, than you can for Gen X. There’s still the same failures of nerve and imagination, the same promotion of mediocrity (this time more from insisting writers engage with social media than getting writers onto the pages of tabloids), the same palpable sense of exhaustion as we try to pick out a good standard-bearer- even the better candidates, your Sally Rooneys or whoever, exude fatigue. 

This is remarkable, when you think about it- we’ve witnessed history, proclaimed over in our lifetime, come roaring back to life. We have this undeniable sword of Damocles dangling over our collective heads in the form of climate change and attendant disasters. We have seen real changes in how many people think about many basic ideas- about gender and race, about love, about the future. We have the opportunity that comes to every generation with the changing of the times! And yet, and yet! We replicate the same navel-gazing, the same sterile aping of either early-20th century modernism or later postmodernism dressed up as avant-garde, the same limits on the imagination, that made Gen X literature such a wasteland. 

To me, the lesson is clear- we make culture, but we do not make it just as we please. The Gen Xers understood themselves as living in a sort of imaginary Alexandria of heterodoxy and freedom, done in by the Jerusalem of millennial moral fanaticism and the Rome of power-mad boomer revanchism. But here’s the deal: all those cities were in the same damn empire, often enough not even really supervised that closely by the supposed capital. Above all, inhabitants of all of them — and of the Babylon one is tempted to consign this whole period of history to — all wiped their asses with a sponge on a stick kept in a pot of vinegar, if they were lucky, and a third of their kids died before they were five. 

My point is: we cannot break through the limits on our collective imaginations because they are, in part, material. They are material in many-fold ways, from the ways in which it is increasingly difficult for a working person to get their foot in the door of culture to the near-instant cooptation of counterculture or oppositional culture. Numerous material factors, from the price of rent to the construction of the carceral state, have helped keep us where we are. If you want a real irony, consider the sort of feckless idealism that animates much of both Gen X and Millennial literature, and the massive weight of materiality behind that enforced sense of nothing truly mattering, that commonality between our respective structures of feeling that make the concept of material change, directed by people, so difficult to meaningfully communicate…

Well! At the end of the day imagination translates to reality with the staking of a claim- I believe something, and am willing to risk something based on said belief. I said earlier that vernacular discourse points in many directions, whereas sacred discourse points “upward,” however upward is conceived in a given culture, towards the universal. Were I to point upward here, it would be that as long as we live with the paradox of infinite imagination and distinctly finite physical reality, the staking of a claim, of risking what is finite to gain something we can only imagine, is always an option open to us. Vast arrays of cultural formations, many of which have survived the decades from Gen X coming up during the end of history, to our own period of history’s return, exist to convince us to not stake claims, or to pretend to do so while not doing so at all. But it seems as though some people, somewhere, are going to anyway, despite how late the hour is getting. The owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk. Let’s fly.

2022 Birthday Lecture: Notes Towards an Intellectual History of Generation X

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