September 20, 2014

Long Conversation: Adulthood

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation.  This month we were asked to explore the idea of adulthood. Here's what I wrote.

Last week marked the ten year anniversary of the release of Arcade Fire’s Funeral. That record arrived just as I was beginning my first year at university and thus marks the beginning of life away from home. While certain rights of passage reinforce the fact that I’ve grown up—or at least that I should have by now—the truth is that I don’t feel much different now than I did at 18.

If you walk in to my current bedroom, you’ll notice a lot of posters and postcards filling up the walls. Most of them are relics acquired during my teenage years. I’ve never had a permanent bedroom (i.e., one that lasted more than three months) without most of them spread around the space. And until I arrive at a place in my life where my bedroom isn’t simply a personal space, I don’t expect this to change. This environment is full of residual signs of youth, now signs that I use, however unconsciously, to reflect my young identity back at me. Yet, as a young person, I certainly didn’t see it that way. The significance of this stuff used to be more aspirational. The images stood for a life that I imagined could exist beyond what I then saw as a dull, rural existence: a youth culture that I could only really glimpse (and sometimes even access) on trips to the city. Now that I’ve been emancipated from my hometown for 10 years, my room looks pretty much the same and I don’t really know what that means.

I’m tempted to draw a line from my bedroom decor to the ongoing condition of being a student; a condition that has persisted off and on for the 10 years since I moved away from home. Of course, I was also a student before I moved out. It’s been one of the biggest constants of my post-adolescent life, but it feels more like a continuation of teenage development than an early stage of adulthood.

Still, I can’t help being reminded of my age at every turn. I’m also aware, however, that many of these reminders are nothing more than projections of my own insecurities. I’m now roughly the age my parents were when they married and I occasionally find myself wondering about what kinds of alternatives might have been possible throughout my twenties. This worry about aging, more than fitting into a certain standard of adulthood, has become a more prominent part of my thinking as I’ve gotten older. In some ways, it’s a ridiculous worry. From early on, we’re trained to see age as a definitive social category, and when you’re young the visible difference between age categories seems to confirm their existence. But after finally leaving secondary school, I quickly realized that age actually matters very little when it comes to things like friendship and compatibility. Perhaps that realization corresponds to a level of maturity or approaches something like adulthood, but I’m skeptical of categories that demand such a linear approach. But there’s something contradictory going on as well: I want to think aging means less in terms of social organization but the weight of years seems to be getting heavier and more daunting as I grow older.

As I’ve considered my own anxieties around aging over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that many of them stem from a linear conception of time as progress or development, from the gap I see between where I am now and where I imagined myself in my younger aspirations. I don’t think I was overly ambitious. Rather, the future seemed open and I saw different possibilities as I imagined myself in different contexts. Like most young people I was pretty naive about my own limitations and my awareness of what came before me was characteristically shallow. Then again, there are plenty of people who fit into the “adult” category who haven’t outgrown this. It leads me to wonder whether the category of adulthood still has influence as an idea. I currently understand it as a way of grouping certain (Western) standards of living, but those standards seem increasingly out of sync with the precarious conditions many of us now experience as we gain independence from the structures of support we were lucky enough to have as kids.

Over the past month, I’ve encountered a wave of media that focuses on the transition we all supposedly make from youth to adulthood. I doubt whether this kind of navel-gazing is unique to my generation, but I am growing increasingly aware of how much speculation on aging and adulthood is regularly produced. A couple weeks ago, I saw Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It was filmed over a 12-year period and follows a young boy’s passage through puberty and into adulthood, managing to compress it all into about two and half hours. I was struck by how the process of aging differs between the children and the adults. Emotional and physical development don’t necessarily work in tandem, and my own experiences seem to confirm that as well. Then there’s Seven Up, a recent discovery on Netflix. It follows a group of kids starting at the age of 7, and interviews each of them every seven years for as long as they’re still living (the most recent release finds them at age 56). I haven’t caught up with all the episodes, but the show’s argument, at least in part, is that there are certain continuities that stretch though a person’s life: characteristics and dispositions, structures and privileges, that are very hard for individuals to shake. Some glide along without much effort while others try to move against the grain and suffer the consequences. In the case of both Boyhood and Seven Up, we’re presented with a linear narrative of development that allows us to easily fill in the gaps between the moments we see caught on film. The form of documentation appears fairly neutral in capturing and ordering these sequences, but, especially in the case of Seven Up, it also invites the audience to measure each person against their past: to search for continuities which can then be identified as successes or failures.

Last week an article written by the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott went into high circulation on the internet. Its lofty, elegiac title, “The Death of the Adult in American Culture,” gives the reader a pretty good sense of what to expect: a survey of contemporary male archetypes in television and film (many of them baby boomer holdovers) alongside a growing number of examples that purportedly take a quite different approach to modern life and the expectations of the American adult. What all these new shows grasp, writes Scott, “is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined.” Scott’s assessment misses its mark for a number of reasons, many of which have to do with his own fairly narrow, obviously privileged perspective; his view of culture takes little account of the social and economic conditions that allow it to exist in the first place.

Articles like A.O. Scott’s paranoid think-piece are part of a growing genre that speculates on millennials, hipsters, boomers, etc. These days, you can’t go far without seeing a headline, debate, or product that has to do with the idea (and in some cases, the “crisis”) of arrested development. It remains unclear whether the paradigm of adulthood has truly shifted or whether the concept was ever truly adequate to our cultural condition in the first place. Development, progress, growth. I find it hard not to see this ideology of aging as a reflection of late capitalism. It’s a relatively seamless fit. Yet those same social and economic forces are also responsible for hollowing out the sort of adulthood that used to inspire a more conventional, middle class way of life.

In my mind, “adulthood” remains remarkably abstract: unattainable but also undesirable, an ideal that used to make sense but now seems like it will be forever deferred. Based on my conversations with friends, I think this has become a common way to understand the category. Less common, however, is the relative security that allows me to welcome that deferral, even with all the uncertainties it brings.

September 4, 2014

The Work of Nostalgia in the Age of Instagram

Following the insights of the German critic Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag once observed that photographs acquire the aura of a work of art by their own visible deterioration. With the advent of mechanical reproduction, artistic images had broken free of the aesthetic regime which once made their value synonymous with their singularity as works of art. No longer context bound, any image can be cropped and made adjacent to any other image. For Sontag, writing in the 1970s, photographs and reproduced images had become so common that they had developed their own type of aura: that of the vintage photograph.

That same aura, the aestheticization of decay and deterioration, is perhaps even more recognizable in its current manifestation on Instagram. With its clear focus on the now, digital photo-sharing has had to evolve in order to accommodate the nostalgic desires of its users. Echoing Sontag’s observation about the acquired aura of the faded photograph, we select from a range of vintage-style filters before posting pictures for the eyes of our Instagram followers. Nathan Jurgensen, writing for The New Inquiry, argues that the filters are a way of coping with the overabundance of images that typifies social medial. It’s a way of convincing ourselves that our photographs are just as worthy of nostalgia as if they belonged to a finite archive from the past. As artificial memory storage becomes more efficient, we are producing more than most of us would deem worth remembering. But this overabundance has not curbed our appetite for images.

Instagram’s filters are meant to instil a sense of nostalgia for the present, a condition of scarcity that digital photography has long surpassed. But, as Jorgensen writes, “Merely making your photos evocative of photo scarcity doesn’t make them actually scarce or make others covet them.” Snapchat, by contrast, he argues, is built upon the idea of real scarcity, where images and videos, once the viewing has started, exist up to ten seconds before disappearing forever. No external memory, no archive. A singular aesthetic experience.

A year before Sontag’s first essay on photography was published in The New York Review of Books, John Berger’s influential documentary about the history of European Art, Ways of Seeing, aired on the BBC. Like Sontag, Berger was deeply indebted to Walter Benjamin’s writing on art and sought to provide his audience with the means to connect the art of the European tradition with contemporary media, advertising, and power structures. Equally impressed with the way images seemed to saturate modern life, Berger argued, “In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages.”

Not surprisingly, Berger’s work has also inspired some timely reflections on the aesthetic discourse of Instagram. In his article “Ways of Seeing Instagram” the art critic Ben Davis begins with a Google trend chart showing that “Instagram” has eclipsed “art” in terms of popular searches. Photosharing on Instagram (or, for that matter, Tumblr, Pintrest, even Flickr) has become a dominant way of seeing, and like all ways of seeing reflects certain social interests. The tradition of oil painting, observed Berger, could credit its subjects (nudes, fruit, and other commodities) to the presentation of a privileged, often opulent lifestyle. The continuities between advertising photos and still lifes, between classical nudes and pin-ups, are laid bare. Despite differences of social and historical context, Davis, like Berger, draws out the similarities between the art Berger works to demystify and the various genres of Instagram photos. Although current technologies have seemingly democratized the image-making that used to exist only at the behest of aristocrats, Davis argues, “images retain their function as game pieces in the competition for social status.”

But social status comes in many forms. It isn’t all just fine dining and selfies. Having a past worth sharing, and a past that’s accessible through other processes of archiving, is what many of us are now flaunting on Instagram. And we do so on a weekly basis. Nostalgia has finally been reconciled with Instagram’s presentism in the form of the hashtag, throwback Thursday (#tbt). The hashtag has existed for over a year, but it’s only recently become a constant in the feeds of our friends and followers. The #tbt image can come in any format, though the proper distance between the image and its posting date remains a mildly contentious topic. For me, and likely for most of my generation, the most enjoyable images tend to be those of old photographs rephotographed. The past returns again, and I don’t have to wait for someone’s wedding slideshow to see their pubescent class photos or an unself-conscious work of art from elementary school. For those who started snapping photos during the internet age, Throwback Thursday is another chance to mine the recent past for a flattering photo; for the rest of us, it’s an opportunity to reassert the aura of an old photo that hasn’t yet been digitized.

I can’t say I dislike seeing the young faces of my friends crop up on my Instagram feed. Bad haircuts, awkward family photos, and the like. And despite the well-publicized “rules” for how one should participate in #tbt, I was also sort of impressed when I saw Barack Obama tweeted, “Throwback to last week when a woman—not her boss—made her own decisions about her health care. #TBT”. The past has its uses. Even a form whose sole purpose is nostalgia can be a way of politicizing the past. More than anything, though, Throwback Thursday reflects a collective sense of nostalgia that runs deep enough to be ritualized, a way of remembering that isn’t likely to be forgotten, whatever the future brings.