Youth culture is constantly constructed as an object of contemplation and interpretation. There is a certain kind of journalist for whom youth culture provides a wellspring of material to be broken apart, reassembled, framed and offered up as a kind of diagnostic of the condition of society, always for a particular audience. This production of “knowledge” is always an exercise of power: youth are spoken about, interpreted, fretted over, represented, but rarely if ever included in the production of the discourse about them.
For the Right – the tabloids and the stuffier broadsheets – the archetypal narrative form is the moral panic. Youth appears always as the crisis of a liberal society gone too far: a destructive whirlwind of jouissance tearing apart all that remains orderly and good. Of course, the “youth media” – that is media produced by businesses and marketed at youth – is pretty much entirely a marketing apparatus, manipulating and producing youth cultures as revenue streams for various industries (music, fashion, etc.). In these cases, the operation of power is more or less transparent (at least, if viewed from sufficient distance).
But there is a certain type of left/liberal writing about youth culture – by trendy twenty-something journalists, for trendy twenty-somethings, both mutually invested in sustaining the delusion that they’re still part of the adolescent avant-garde – where the operations of power/knowledge are all the more insidious precisely because they represent themselves as sympathetic, and as occupying an “our man in the Orient” position simultaneously within and outside the culture they report on.*
* My own speaking-position on this subject is somewhat suspect also, as a 23-year-old who has never been in any way cool, and who mostly sits in his flat eating ready-meals and arguing about political theory on facebook.
A common feature of this kind of writing is a peculiar kind of historicism around the appearance of youth subcultures and countercultures. At every moment of history, Youth is expected to embody a spirit of rebellion against society, which I am calling the Punkgeist. The Punkgeist is the essence and historical mission of Youth: rebellion against the aesthetic/cultural establishment, the liberation of desire through the construction of a countercultural avante garde and new oppositional collective identities. Rock, punk, goth, rave, et al, are to be understood as particular manifestations of this eternal essence of Youth, which proceeds through a dialectical process: each generation produces its own countercultural forms, which over time are incorporated into the mainstream, becoming stale, clichéd, boring, repressive, only to be overturned by the aesthetic radicalism of the next generation. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis – Hegel reborn as a music journalist.
The puzzle then for those who assemble nostalgic misrepresentations of the youth movements of the past into a dialectic of history is why are the youth of today so docile, conservative, apolitical? Why are their trends not as cool and important as those that came before? This is the question that NekNominations (basically a viral drinking game) posed to one Vice writer, prompting him to write an article titled ‘NekNominations are what this generation has instead of punk or rave’.
The thesis put forward by the article is essentially this: the youth of today exist in a world where a technologically-enabled individuated eclecticism has replaced counterculture, and every rebellion is monetised and reincorporated into capitalism before it can even begin. But “there’s no way to monetise drinking a pint full of grasshoppers or getting your mates to pepper spray you in the face. They remain one of the last things in our society that are essentially unmarketable. Very few brands are going to encourage you to drink engine oil any time soon – they don’t want a shout out at your funeral, they want your money. NekNominate doesn’t, and it remains nihilistically enticing for that.” The old is dying and the new cannot be born, so all that is left to teenagers is to drink, vomit and post the results on facebook.
I didn’t know quite what to make of the piece at first (hence why I’ve ended up writing a whole long thing about it). On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the Capitalist Realism–esque argument: culture is dead, authentic innovation and rebellion within art is now impossible, and all that remains is a depressive hedonism. (Although Adorno said much the same, and then the 60s happened.) But on the other hand, there’s something that feels really forced about the politicisation/intellectualisation of what seems to be a wholly apolitical and anti-intellectual gesture: the imposition of an interpretive framework that at the same moment patronises and gives far too much credit. “You might think you’re downing a pint of cider,” it seems to say, “but I know it’s really a desperate and nihilistic rebellion against postindustrial capitalism.” In any case, drinking games weren’t invented by teenagers in 2014, so I’m not sure why this one needs a special explanation, just because it happened virally on the Internet. (Seriously have none of the people writing the acres of columns on this topic ever necked a pint in their lives?)
Perhaps the problem is this: the Punkgeist doesn’t exist. Perhaps rebellion is not the telos of youth. Perhaps there was always far more involved in counterculture than just teenage hormones. Perhaps punk was not just a generation acting out because they were young, but a far more conscious and political project, and perhaps this generation hasn’t come up with the new punk because punk was a deliberate intervention in particular historical circumstances that no longer exist. In any case, the pop-Hegelianism of the common-currency Punkgeist explanation for countercultural movements has tended to strip away everything authentically dangerous about them, reframing them as purely aesthetic rebellions, and as merely epiphenomena of the maturation of a generation: something to talk about at dinner parties (or in newspaper columns) when you inevitably grow up and get a proper job.
And maybe NekNomination is just a drinking game, not the spirit of punk returning in pathological form.