The consumer culture of self-containment

By Martin Bosworth

Matt Zoller Seitz yesterday linked to Boston University professor Ray Carney’s voluminous film and media Web site, who in turn had posted an excerpted essay from Mark Edmundson’s “Why Read?” Edmundson, in this particular excerpt, uses his student evaluations as a metaphor for the commercialization of universities and the detached indifference of the modern generations:

More and more, we Americans like to watch (and not to do). In fact watching is our ultimate addiction. My students were the progeny of two hundred available cable channels and omnipresent Blockbuster outlets. They grew up with their noses pressed against the window of that second spectral world that spins parallel to our own, the World Wide Web. There they met life at second or third hand, peering eagerly, taking in the passing show, but staying remote, apparently untouched by it. So conditioned, they found it almost natural to come at the rest of life with a sense of aristocratic expectation: “What have you to show me that I haven’t yet seen?”….

I think Edmundsen is dead on the money with much of what he says, but the idea of bread and circuses as a sop to the masses is hardly a new one–ask the Christians getting fed to the lions if you disagree. 😉 I also think that, were he to write his book in 2006 or 2007, he would see that the same Internet he derides has also opened doors to expression the likes of which people could not possibly conceive of.

Video sites like YouTube not only democratize entertainment, but they also give a sort of “escape valve” to people who want to express themselves passionately, no matter how silly or trivial the subject matter may be. Everyone who puts up a video of themselves doing something dumb, or a silly cat trick, or a badly spliced video homage to their favorite show, does so because they have something they need to express or share. The Internet enables people to create entirely new identities and personae, uncoupled from what Jim Harper would call “meatspace.” This enables them to say whatever is on their mind, and do as they wish, without fear of embarrassment. (It also provokes some truly reprehensible behavior, but that’s another post.)

And what are blogs, wikis, bulletin boards, and the like but the ultimate form of self-expression? Even something as trivial as telling your friends what a shitty day you had helps us escape the (imposed?) idea of coolness and self-containment as the apex of a social identity. We want to feel. We want to share. We want to express. And every time we are told that this is not what people do, we simply find another way to do it.

Edmundsen is right to be cynical and depressed about the state of the younger generations as unthinking consumer drones who are excellent at group think, but fail at critical thinking–something Sam has railed against on many occasions himself. 🙂 But I don’t think he gives us enough credit for seeing through the shams of commercialism and building our own means to share our passions with the world.

Remember, it’s never the cool hipsters sitting on the sidelines who are remembered. The heroes of history are the ones who dared to stand out, to stand up, and put their idea out there, for better or worse.

14 replies »

  1. It’s about context. Sure, we all want to express. We have things to say, ideas to share, etc., just as you say.

    But the issue is about the QUALITY of those expressions. No, not everything I see on YouTube needs to be Proust – anybody who follows my blogs knows that I do teh silly, too. But is inane, vapid, and corrosively stupid the RULE or the exception? Put another way, there’s a difference between being stupid and knowing it and being stupid because, well, you’re stupid. Is shallow an act of choice and intent or is it simply all you have?

    This is why I rant a lot about education. I like laughing with people, but more often than not I find myself laughing AT them.

    Student evals, huh? I got to where I stopped reading them. Had to. I left teaching, in large part, because I realized that I had a choice. I could please my students or I could teach them. (Well, I could TRY to teach them.) There were wonderful exceptions, like a couple of people I know follow S&R, but by and large if I had done what needed to be done to insure that I got decent evals, I’d have been unable to live with myself because I’d have been guilty of malpractice.

    I suppose there are teachers out there who are capable of doing both with this cohort, and my hat’s off to them. Pat is better at it than I was and so is Denny. But I was as bad at teaching Millennials as I was great at teaching Xers.

  2. An enjoyable post, Martin, and I must say that apart from the minority most of the Millennials I encounter seem to be team players, doers and think, WE, not, I.

    Personally, I cannot wait to see them launch themselves into public life because I believe in their wake will come some huge changes everywhere…for the better.

    The youtube generation are smart, quick, do not think institutionally and can multi task like many a female has had to traditionally.

    Give me raw talent any day of the week. 🙂

  3. Sam,

    Oh, I agree. I just think you tend to err on the side of “they’re eff ups” a little more than is healthy. 🙂 I don’t blame you–if I’d had your experiences, I might feel the same. I suppose one reason why I never got into teaching is because I wanted to preserve my idealism.


    YES! Exactly. That’s precisely what I’m saying. There’s a lot of stupid out there, but there is also a great amount of genius and passion for commitment. If we can fuse the Millenials’ passion for teamwork and ‘”can-do” with the smarts of the preceding generation, we will be able to enact true, lasting, honest change for years to come.

  4. Martin,

    I think people probably read me as more negative than I really am. It seems natural in our society when you say things that are critical and then, in the next graf, say things that are positive, people tend to only hear the negative. I’ve been pretty honest about what I’ve seen, good and bad – as Elaine says, Mills are very team-focused, for instance, and there’s great strength in that. They’re also the most volunteerist cohort we’ve ever had – they’re getting their hands dirty on behalf of causes they believe in at rates that blow away even the Boomer Gen at the peak of Flower Power.

    So if you’ve really listened to what I’ve had to say over the long haul, you have to realize that I treat Mills like I do any other gen, including my own. I’ve been pretty honest about the shortcomings of X, too – and we have more than our share.

    I agree with Howe & Strauss, who say that the Mills have the potential to be a truly great generation. A lot depends on what challenges are set before them, of course. And as H&S acknowledge, that teamwork thing can be harnessed to bad causes, too. I’d feel better if their parents hadn’t filtered the critical thinking out of them so completely (and let’s be clear, even when I do criticize Mills, I understand than most of what’s wrong with them isn’t their fault). Tremendous collective action in the absence of powerful critical thought is something to be uneasy around.

  5. Here’s a question for you, then–do you think the differences between generations are distinct and unique to those generations, or are they the types of changes you’ll encounter in any cultural cycle?

    Reason why I ask is because people have been cussing out “those darn kids” as soon as they were old enough to not be kids themselves. Hell, I find myself doing it at times, because much of the teen generation engages in practices that I’m a bit befuddled by–and I’m not even 35! 🙂

  6. We have a four-gen cycle in the US, and as you’d imagine, each one seems uniquely tailored to piss off the one before it. We Xers are so feral in our individuality that we gripe the shizzle out of Boomers – remarkably, we’re too cynical even by their standards. And for a gen like ours, which was the least-wanted generation in history, the precious Mills, who have been worshiped to death since they were born, are just about more than we can take. And round it goes.

    Millennials are the reincarnation of the GI Generation – what Brokaw calls the “Greatest Generation.” The kids being born now – say about 7 years old and down – are going to be like my parents gen, the Silents – they were the actual Me Generation, the ones who were instrumental in things like Civil Rights and divorce and searching for themselves (a lot of things the Boomers got erroneously credited with/blamed for).

    You really gotta read Howe & Strauss. Start with GENERATIONS. Then 13TH GEN. Then MILLENNIALS RISING.

  7. For the record. I have never thought of Sam as negative and he is always an enjoyable read.

    …I wish I had his smarts but I have not. Just glad someone has got them. 🙂

  8. Sam,

    I don’t think you’re negative either–anyone who doesn’t have hope wouldn’t have spearheaded an enterprise like this. 🙂

  9. Elaine is being way too nice. Mostly I just have a lot of attitude.

    As I was saying in an e-mail to the rest of the S&R crew a few days ago, though, it’s sobering to read the sheer quality of things that some of my colleagues are posting here. It focuses you a bit, because if you don’t bring the A-game you can look slack by comparison – in a HURRY.

  10. “We have a four-gen cycle in the US…” Apparently, the U.S. is the leader in analyzing the psychologies of multiple generations as opposed to differing psychologies along racial or class lines. Because we’re the first country in modern history (ie since these kinds of analyses were possible) to have a flat enough culture that race and class matter less than generation.

    Now, this is from a upper middle class white male, and the person who I heard this from was a upper middle class white female responsible for corporate education about generational differences in a corp that was probably 85% white. So feel free to take it with a grain of salt, especially if you’re not white or middle/upper class.

  11. I try to be as aware as I can of how these narratives diverge along and class lines – at a minimum, the grand generational narratives iterate in different ways along these other paths. This is especially true since, while I’m white and male, I grew up Southern and working class – a far cry from influence or power of any sort.

    That said, there’s no doubt a lot of nuance that I miss. I’m more than happy to have some of those gaps filled in for me.

  12. Brian,

    Given the sharp uptick I’ve seen in anti-corporatist sentiment I’ve seen in recent years (especially since the most egregious abuses of the Bush regime regarding business have come to light), I wonder how true this is still perceived to be.


    I am definitely putting that series on my reading list. Knowing what has come before is essential to understanding where we’re going next.