I have a habit of reading two books at a time, one in the daytime (more serious) and one at night (works with short, easier-to-read sections.) It often happens that the books are of a similar theme, one enriching my appreciation of the other. Such was the case when I read The Orenda and selections from the Jesuit Relations at the same time. I’ve just finished reading another two books that were similarly compatible reads: Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991) and America by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1983).
What could these ostensibly very different books possibly have in common? The Post-modernist Baudrillard is not a household name, but one of his works was the inspiration of something that is: his work Simulacra and Simulation is seen in the film The Matrix and the directors claimed that Baudrillard’s ideas influenced the film (Baudrillard said it was a misreading of his thought.) Canadian Coupland went on to have a solid writing career. This year, 2016, is the 25th anniversary of Generation X, a book that “defined an era” according to the cover of a recent edition.
Both books take to task their contemporary age (1980s/90s); in particular they critique modern American society, with its consumerism, lack of values, lack of traditions, and for the ‘theatre’ that serves as both as governance and culture. What is interesting about these critiques is how deeply dated they are. They read like ancient history reads to Latin majors: interesting, but not particularly important to how we live our lives today.
It’s difficult today to understand how important Coupland’s work was then. Even if, at the time, it was derided and mocked by the generation it supposedly spoke for, it did generate a great deal of response. Writing as someone who read it at 25, it did give voice to concerns about the future and what felt like the emptiness of American culture – the inaccessibility of meaning in a world of shopping malls. It arrived on bookshelves as I was graduating college during a recession, a young man with no direction, no contacts, and no network of family and friends to call on. It had to mean something.
Coupland took down several notches the “yuppies” whose BMWs had become symbolic of all that was wrong with America in the last decades of the 20th century, and who continued to seem to want to take all the best for themselves before the next generation got a crack at anything. Generation X mocked the entitled, and created characters that longed for real connections. The story was centered on people creating ‘stories’ for themselves. Being in the service of a prematurely-retired Hollywood/Wall Street elite was not failure, but a sort of freedom granted to a new generation for whom protest and the so-called “liberation” of the 1960s/70s were not defining events.
Similarly, in America, Baudrillard takes on the facade of the Reagan era, in which all of America became “Californian” — the co-opting of public life by actors who were playing roles. Power was once real, he writes, but now (in 1983), it is soft – an aura. He writes about the end of “the orgy”: that is, the 1960s/70s liberation movements, Woodstock, protests, war, free love. But for Baudrillard the elites of that era, the elites of “the orgy,” transformed into something new: “They are not the militants of happiness and success, but its sympathizers. The generation that has come from the sixties and seventies, but has rid itself of all nostalgia for, all bad conscience about…those wild years. The very last traces of marginality excised as if by plastic surgery…a generation…completely refocused upon themselves…”(p120).
Both works use “the desert” extensively as a metaphor for their times. For Baudrillard, the desert gave birth to all that was unreal: Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Air conditioning in the hottest, lowest point in America. Culture is a mirage in the desert of American civilization. At the same time, Americans are heir to an eternal promise, a land where there is always plenty for everyone. It is a utopia against Europe’s “hangover from bourgeois everyday life borne out of a dying aristocratic culture.” Statistics in Europe, he writes, are always tragic; in America they are an “optimistic stimulus as representing the dimensions of their good fortune, their joyous membership of the majority.”(p94).
Coupland’s characters take refuge in the desert. While they see all around them the excess of Palm Springs, the radical effects of plastic surgery and the atomic age, they come together as Americans do: they have circled their wagons — against the land of plenty. They are heirs to plenty to be sure, but they are opting out. Their picnic in a desert (of the real?) is interrupted by Japanese tourists who want to take their picture. In effect, that is the end of the story. If they are the scene, the evocation of real American life in the American cultural desert of Palm Springs, then they will inevitably exit the stage, leaving the enactment of culture to others.
The apocalyptics of Coupland are balanced with unbiased (but “retarded”) love found on the edge of a charred world; the nihilism of Baudrillard with an eternal optimism for an America he will never be part of. I don’t particularly care for Baudrillard’s analysis of American culture (but I wonder what he would say today) and I find the evacuation of the three protagonists of Generation X to rural Mexico a copout, a fantasy that was never really even a possibility for my generation.
I’ve enjoyed reading Baudrillard for close to 20 years, but I am not trained in philosophy and could very well have it all wrong. I’ve spent the past few years as an ex-pat using social media to try to create a continuity of culture in communities back home. Someone suggested that I was born a hundred years too late because of my dedication to fostering French Canadian and Métis culture. But in answer to that, and contrary to both writers, I do not believe that America is “empty” — it is not a cultural wasteland. I believe Americans actually want a connection to “culture” – a peg to hang their hats on, something deep, something Baudrillard might suggest the Europeans can’t let go of and we, Americans, can’t seem to grasp. But, we’re fighting for something, aren’t we?
And more to the point, I believe that Americans want meaning in their lives. If Baudrillard and Coupland touch on important ways of seeing, they mistake a fascination with illusions and celebrity with a lack of creativity, which is the fruit of optimism. But leaving, metaphorically or literally, is not the answer to finding connection or to finding yourself. Disengagement, even with a circle of friends, is not finding connection. It is abandoning something precious to someone else. It is just a kind of surrender.
Of Coupland’s many neologisms, there is one that I find applies increasingly to my life: Cryptotechnophobia: the secret belief that technology is more of a menace than a boon. I guess it’s not a secret anymore.