It appears that there is a theme among a lot of “think pieces” within the last ten years or so, one that I certainly am not immune from; These big-brand name article-mills, Twitter Blue Checkmark officialised pieces of writing often start out with an indulgent personal anecdote, then proceeds to a set of grandiose claims about such and such an issue. Now, these writers can afford to be (or pretend to be) lofty about the subjects and issues that float through their very manicured cerebellums. After all, they write for The Atlantic, or Vox, or Salon, Slate, etc. you name it. Us lowly proles in the dark corners of the blogsphere and Twitter-verse however, must be eternally caste aside as pseudo-intellects, firebrand ramblers, histrionic utopians, and anti-official class Neanderthals. We congregate around our impotent rage, hoping in vain to paper cut the Blue Checkmark brahmin caste with every quote tweet or blog post hit piece from way below.
To mimic the think piece style of the preferred establishment “high brow” publications is of course “pseudo”. But perhaps, in the age of irony, or rather, post-irony, one must be sufficiently brazening enough to mimic this style, appropriate it, and wear it as an ironic-yet-not-so-ironic mask. I once again tend to reveal my cards, and perhaps lay out how things are in the current year plus 3 in terms of actual “journalism”. The cards are this: I will once again, ironically (but sincerely) give you dear reader, a personal anecdote of mine, and then proceed to some grandiose claims!
I remember when I was young, having this odd sense of wonder and awe at the more recent generations before Me. Perhaps this is the reason millennials are so nostalgic for the 80s and 90s, we were young enough to just remember the closing of the 90s, but no old enough to experience it like our older relatives and siblings in Generation-X. Almost all my Cousins were older than me, some ranging from deep into Gen-X territory, to the earliest wave of millennials. You see, they had lived through the 90s as older children and teens, as I am Generation-Y, a child of the early 2000s. A fond memory of mine was going over to my Aunt’s house for Thanksgiving and hanging out in my Cousin’s bedroom. Me and my other Cousin of the same age used to marvel at the walls, covered in layers and layers of posters and regalia of the time, especially with an attic style rising ceiling. Looking back, my mind tends to romanticise it as a cathedral display to the cultural zeitgeist of the 90s, a miniature glossy paper pantheon to the decade of decadence.
Alas, my Cousins moved on, the posters get taken down, but it seems in the bedrooms of teens and millennials of all stripes throughout the western world, they tend never to go back up; a few months ago, I stumbled upon an interesting collection of photographs whilst on a deep-night aesthetic images crawl through Google. While 90s jungle and vaporwave subtly bounce around in the background, I see these images of teen bedrooms from the late 80s and 90s, the collection is entitled “In My Room: Teenagers in their bedrooms” (1995) by Adrienne Salinger. At the time, this intriguing takes on investigative photo-journalism became quite popular and has experienced a revival on the nostalgia-addled “introverted” corridors of millennial Tumblr. The concept was simple, she would go out to find random teens in different places and ask to see their bedrooms, she then would photograph them among the ruins (pun intended) of their creative detritus that constituted unique lives and identities. Perhaps these teens will more likely grow up to lead mundane lives, having their only claim to fame being subject to a random photo art/journalism project, and then to be gawked at by random angsty teens a few generations after them, but a fine immortalization never the less.
The photographs are interesting on several levels that pertains to the “being-with” of these teens, and life in general during the 90s. the onto-existential makeup of one’s living space is an often-neglected subject of study in terms of every day experience and living, and recently modern philosophy has only begun to catch up. Perhaps we need not dwell on the everyday, for that is debasing, exploitative, inauthentic, or even just proletarian for the celestial stars of abstract issues in western philosophy. however, this aside, the actual merit of such a project is (as Salinger points out) to expose the most intimate spaces of teen life during this transformative age. The 90s was teen everything, teens in revolt, teens in malaise and depression as a chic social pose, teens in music, the “nomad” Generation-X trailblazing a path of individualism whilst mainstream society still looked down on Them. Gen-X eventually, like their boomer parents before them, dropped all of this to be handed over the keys of society. Boomers were placing all their stock on us millennials, to only be bitterly disappointed for many reasons. We now know the poisoned fruits that grew from the consumerist brand of atomized individualism that was celebrated in the 80s and 90s, but more on that later.
The being-with of the bedroom reveals our relation to the world in subtle ways, how we relate to others for example, grounds our being itself. our aesthetic self-image is important for gauging the types of narratives one inhabits in their thinking space, and the types of interactions they will have, especially in the world of teens. In the bedroom collection, we see images of teens with highly diverse and unique rooms, filled with posters and paraphernalia that defines them. The walls are an adoration of the self, every piece has a backstory, every stich a collection that completes the whole, as Benjamin stated about collections, they are a morphological entity with a unique face. The room is a private escape, but in this time in the 90s, it was also a facet of social life for the youth-in-angst. The space of the bed room is unique in its ability to provide refuse as well as conduct vital to social relations. Everyone remembers the various sleep overs and meetings of hanging out with friends, and everyone, at least in this time, has a unique experience of each friend’s room.
All those nights alone in one’s room awash in somber tunes, seeing the glowing lights and hearing the sounds outside, all the while walled in your very own citadel of the self. The consciousness of these teens in the 90s was outwardly focused, the aesthetic was physical, the self’s “brand” and persona was an outward expression of navigating private space, but all of this has changed; it seems that today, there is an odd sameness to the physical aesthetics of western youths. Look around, you see everyone wearing roughly the same style of clothing, and if a mass study or even photo art project of the same nature as Salinger’s were to be conducted today, one could only imagine that the rooms of teenagers on average have become blander and utilitarian.
The world inside is a pixilated world.
Millennials, and to a greater extend generation Z after them, find self-expression, connectedness and aesthetic appeal through the mediation of digital simulacra. No longer do we adorn the walls with our unique debris, but the virtual walls of our Facebooks, our Twitter Timelines, our unique Tumblr templates, Instagram photo taking, blogs, etc. the outside world of immanent space is further abstracted and mediated by technology, and there is a good and bad to this new reality.
The younger generations have grown up in a rapidly changing online environment, processing information and living through trends at lightening speeds. Memes constitute the reality of one form of poster, and then fade into oblivion. Online identification is struck with a sense of ephemeralness to it all, your identity is just as fleeting as the memes you use to s**t post with, but at the same time you cling on to unique brand markers, like virtual signposts of a fragile and shifting identity (especially if you are a Brand™ Youtuber or Twitter aficionado). The downsides to this are only realized in hindsight, and even then, there is the question as to whether form of expression is better than the other, physical vs. virtual aesthetic brand-building, etc.
Leaving this aside, the most obvious detriment to the new inner virtual life of western youth, is that there is no solid sense of “room-making”, in a literal sense (not to imply Taoist Wu-Wei directly). Perhaps the teen flicks of the 80s and 90s were a caricature, and young people were more like each other than Hollywood leads us to believe, but despite this, there is a seeming intensification of sameness that was alluded to earlier. Everyone surly looks the same on the outside, but what about the virtual “inside” of the everyday? I would argue that even in this realm, sameness has imbedded itself and intensifies as the youth drift further away from their own external spaces; Surly there is a glut of articles and think pieces that lament the loss of direct interaction between young people in the age of mass telecommunication technology, and again, there is a good and bad to this (the opening of one’s world online, vs. the direct loss of intimacy between friends and acquaintances).
On a deeper level, this alienation between the self and the direct (as opposed to the abstracted online) other is having detrimental effects on the capacity for originality among millennials, as well as poor social skill development. You share the same memes as other people, you identify with the same online personalities, everyone tires to built that dreaded brand™, but follow the same patters to greater recognition, etc. even in-group identity has imploded. You have an online clique, a Discord server or direct-message group, but still, can we compare this to having a close-knit group of friends that build a collective tribal identity for each other? Perhaps not. Everyone is stylistically a hipster, or a plain westerner, or a plain hip hop aesthetic, or the physical (see virtual) embodiment of a vast interchangeable set of intangible qualifications to one’s identity that never seems to have a lasting effect. A nice-poster one day? Sure, how about an anime avatar to go with that? A proponent of some obscure ideology from the early 20th century? Go to this discord server! There are no longer goths, Emos, vampire kids, club kids, “townies”, Mods, thrash metal kids, etc. or any other distinct external brand of youth subculture that remains unironic or faithful in the mass age of entertainment/social media simulacra, they all have seemed to disappear into the void. Now youth subcultures have become so vast and abstract that they have no meaningful connectedness at all, or remain so obscure that they die out like a tiny burning Christmas light, to only become pale replicas placed upon deviant art profiles and Twitter timeline bios, don’t forget to snapchat that moment as well.
The MMORPG we call life.
Let me forsake this purple language with a bit of brevity provided by a stunningly acute and picture-perfect quote by the famed curmudgeon social theorist Christopher Lasch, that summarizes current life among millennials in a nutshell:
“Our growing dependence on technologies no one seems to understand, or control has given rise to feelings of powerlessness and victimization. We find it more and more difficult to achieve a sense of continuity, permanence, or connection with the world around us. Relationships with others are notably fragile; goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.”.
The loss of the physical act of building an environment, rather than building a virtual environment through the mediation of the digital screen, has lead to even greater feelings of loneliness, alienation, and restlessness among western youths. Chaos within, and chaos without; life takes on the resemblance of a game, a “mass multiplayer online role-playing game”. Everything can be viewed from this lens, politics, family, identity, etc. everything is quite literally a game to which you have an avatar that establishes a brand, (or Karma points if you are a Redditor), you then interact with people around the world and eventually wall each other in with a group or with a common set of interests and beliefs, etc… What is missing is the dynamic interactions and intimacy of “meat space”. We soon cannot even be intimate with our inner selves, let alone others, when the very picture of our own subjectivity is outside of our control. In a sense, our feelings and thoughts around our own subjectivity was never wholly in our own control, that is a solipsistic fantasy, but the common reprieve used to be the intimacy of the physical worlds we build around ourselves. These inner worlds are now stretched and vivisected for the internet to see, hidden only by the shadows of anonymity, which presents its own problems all together…
The biggest defence against the lurid invasion of our personal lives is the strategic use of anonymity. Now this term, “personal life”, simply does not connote the same meaning it once did. Where our personal, professional, social, “online” lives begin and end is a serious question, the distinctions have (like everything else) become blurred or have faded away all together; that being said, anonymity on the internet has in one way enabled a proliferation of free-association content creation, to the point of obscenity and perversity (depending on which parts of the internet, or more specifically, 4chan that you frequent). On the other hand, anonymity increases the grip of power, of alienation, of the furthering of what I have termed the MMORPG-ification of all life. Take for instance, the anonymity of 4chan. A mass of Anons debating, posting, S**t posting, lewd, crude, somewhat thoughtful, somber, intelligent, horrid, etc. All the thoughts and feelings and memes are mediated by a mutual understanding of anonymity and of evanescent content, considering threads 404, and if not archived or screen captured, disappear into the digital ether. We can express anonymously what we would not dare put on our walls or in the view of others. This creates on odd feedback loop: you contribute to a set of memes, or a trend, and then get swept up in the collective meme, the mass-internet trend, in short, you are ANON in toto. Nothing about you is truly unique, apart from what you post, but even then, it is just pure content. Even hiding behind avatars means your life is mediated, not authentic in the visceral sense of it being out in the open, and of you being a “face”. There are numerous reasons for online anonymity, and this is perfectly fine, but one must also recognize the dangers of it, as well as its liberatory capacities.
We have discussed personal alienation, but what do we mean by the MMORPG-ification of all life on the internet being a way of furthering power and even political alienation? think of it this way. There is a persistent barrier for a lot of groups, but in reality, mostly groups on the political right, to carry their ideas and discourses from the internet into the penumbra of “IRL” or “in real life”. When this does occur, it is often disastrous, and even certain elements of the political left suffer from this. The reality is that without physical outreach and building up of communities, then there can be no headway made in terms of translating disjointed and chaotic discourse or “theory” into action or “praxis”. I have touched upon this before, but by adopting an online persona out of fear of social persecution, you become just another anon, just another avatar player in a game where the internet enables you to live out lurid and wild fantasies, and express equally lurid or out-there ideas, all the while the modern world and the totalizing managerial state grind away towards their preferred version of the end of history. Online activism, to the surprise of many, but to the absolute expectation of the few wise ones who saw it coming, does little in the way of instigating meaningful social change or disrupting the institutional discourses of certain power structures.
What am I saying in conclusion, that we should “clean our rooms Bucko” as JB Peterson says? Is this just a meme where I say the solution is to adorn your bedroom walls once more with posters and icons and personal memorabilia while listening to 90s shoegaze? Perhaps that’s a good idea, but rather, the bedroom of our younger years is a metaphor of sorts, an allegory if you will; the bedroom is that multiple plateau of rhizomatic interactions, it is the darkly lite chamber of quiet in those equally dark inner states, and it is a vibrant meeting house of sorts between confidants, basking in the cathedral of one’s own unique self. It is the growth of inner life through the external parameters of one’s environment. Life under the MMORPG territorializes inner life and colonizes it, promising the same level of intimacy, yet exposes your inner self to the cybernetic winds of chaos, of perpetually shifting trend, and even the changing face of the internet itself. Things are lost, things are found, and there is no order to it, certain chatrooms fade into oblivion and DM groups dissolve, not even the “way back machine” of the internet is not capable of recovering everything in the end.
We cannot simply turn it all off and go back to some romanticised previous state, that is foolish and unrealistic, being a cyber luddite has its own unique set of ironies attached to it. What we can do is realize the dangers of a life mediated exclusively by the anti-intimacy of the online sphere, and do balance out a plunging of the collective digital seas with a solid foundation in the external, in the “meat space” of a close circle of friends and loved ones, in even a political/religious/cultural community, to not “bowl alone” as Putnam stated in his seminal work on modern self-alienation and the disappearance of community in western life (and its disastrous consequences). The so-called internet traditionalist types talk intricately and persistently about the loss of community and the collective, and the rootless state of the modern atomized, consumer-orientated individual in liberal society. Yet the key to remedy our situation, regardless of which side and of which aspect you articulate our modern malaise from whatever political-ideological you happen to fall under, is to do the work of cultivating a sense of community, and in turn a more mature inner life that is honest in its psychic parts. One cannot simply rely on anonymity, but on the honesty of exposing yourself to those physically around you. We cannot live under the unreality of irony, but of the maturity that comes about with sincerity. Take for example, talking to someone who happens to disagree with you: the internet facilitates the type of ultra-vulgar nastiness, vindictiveness and complete lack of humility we all lament about. In “real life” situations, only the most virulent of ideologue would act in such a manner face to face, so to speak.
Sometimes the solution for alienated and atomized young people is to simply work on the environments around them, and to learn value skills of communication, intimacy-building and outwardly driven expression that simply cannot be replicated in the MMORPG life of the internet.
(artwork done by me, entitled “Emin’s Bedroom”, acrylic on paper, 5×9, feb, 2018.https://www.facebook.com/giantartproductions/photos/a.1258791580825653.1073741836.1254797357891742/1703358099702330/?type=3&theater ).
 Lasch, Christopher. The Culture Of Narcissism: American Life In The Age Of Diminishing Expectations. (London, New York: Abacus Books, 1980).