Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Ages After Armageddon

I'm in the middle of George Martin's The Armageddon Rag and i wanted to get this post out before i finish it. It's not a post specifically about the book, which features as a starting point the fairly maudlin odyssey of an ex-hippie wondering how the reforms of the sixties could have failed so badly. I've been meaning to start making posts on this subject for some time and i doubt i'll get everything i want to say out right now. I'm quite fond of looking at the spirit of the past few generations as represented by counterculture traits.

The Rag is not a timeless novel. Many of its references and much of its symbolism is only vaguely accessible to me. I am a child of the 90s. By that i mean that i was born in the early 80s and that my formative sing-along years (mid-adolescence) coincided with the peak of tattered black clothing and harlequin makeup. Angst, muted grief, despair and black derision were our lot. Goths and their less demonstrative fringes of the fringe like myself did not start protest rallies or march on Washington. We brooded.
It's funny to think that we're still talking about a counterculture response to the same authoritarian corporate state which prompted hippie communes, free love and flower power. In general terms, the pattern seems to have gone something like this: the hippies joined the establishment. There followed a lull. Sixties counterculture had been so powerful that it seems to have taken almost a decade for the next wave to get moving. As the former daisy-wearers settled into their accounting jobs and two-car garages, complacency seems to have taken solid root.

When it finally broke, at the start of the 80s, the punk movement was (probably predictably) violent in spirit. Punks fought. They railed, they raged, they burned and smashed. They took to the highways in motorcycle gangs and tried to bring down communication networks. Cyberpunk was punk. Molly Millions from Neuromancer is a punk idol if i've ever seen one.

Well, Molly, you had to tussle, but we had to jack. Punk transitioned fairly smoothly into goth, with the memorable detour through grunge and Cobain's suicide as the pivot. This was in a nutshell the act that delineated the 80s and 90s countercultures. Punk rage was fruitless. Outnumbered, outspent, outvoiced at every turn, that energy turned inwards. The youth of the 90s saw the futility of the past decade of struggle against human nature (and a decade is about as much history as we can handle at fifteen). Brandon Lee gets killed by a blank cartridge. Cobain turns his despair on himself. It wasn't just the gum'mint beating us to death now, but our own nature and the universe itself, the imp of the perverse laughing at human effort.

With all meaningful rebellion revealed as fruitless, all that remained was to internalize the failure, to despair. We jacked out of the world itself and into cyberspace or shallow pagan mysticism. Of those who could not stomach the predominant corporate culture, some, like me, dove into escapist fantasies, greatly aided by computers. The more sociable branded themselves as goths and sat around all-night diners saying 'life sucks'. Others turned up the music and let Trent Reznor give voice to the nihilism they could not express themselves. We revived film noir. Even cartoons turned to melodrama. This was the time when the Batman animated series aired. It was the age of Gargoyles. It was the golden age of grotesque. This was the generation that made self-cutting a trend.

All of it was obviously a bit self-indulgent and maudlin. It may be called cowardly since for all its flash, the 90s counterculture was about as proactive as a street-corner prophet announcing armageddon. This was however, the only response available to the generation that saw the punk-rockers before it beat their heads against the wall of corporate control. The Berlin wall fell but instead of a decrease in tensions, a relaxation of cold-war paranoia and aggression, this only saw to the expansion of already-too-large corporate regimes to new regions, brainwashing entire new areas, obliterating new sets of native cultures who were only too eager to be obliterated. The adolescents of the 90s, instead of fighting a constricting government war-machine, were faced with finding themselves part of the snake-nest, unable to slither out.

There is great value in this. Nihilism is the basis of philosophy. It is the necessary prerequisite to the drive to construct meaning where none was. Throughout its endless creation of macabre illusions, that angsty 90s teen fringe remained open to the possibility of tearing down the old ones. There was a dogged final resistance in it: if action is denied us, thought can at least remain free. If we are powerless and passive, let us at least be decorously, flamboyantly so. If we can't stick it to the man, let's stick it to ourselves. Anything is better than chanting along with the commercials.

So what comes next? The goth craze has been dead for a decade now. It left its mark, just as hippies and punks are part of our collective consciousness, subjects of derision perpetuating their subversive message even as they're popularly ridiculed. "I'm not ashamed you're entertained, but i'm not a puppet, i am a grenade" as the Antichrist Superstar says. The problem is that nothing has really followed.

We could reasonably expect another lull after the punk/goth simmering quasi-rebellion but it's about time we saw something new rising. 'Emo' was little more than a goth aftershock, regardless of how popularized it became. These movements have all found expression primarily in music and i'm sorry to say it is almost impossible to find decent contemporary music. It seems to have nothing to express. All i hear is some vague, wishy-washy whining. It's neither specifically personal, translating the individual to the universal nor grandiosely generic, funneling the universal into personal experience. Not even the despair, the recognition of futility from 90s music is present anymore.

The hippies tried to create and failed. The punks tried to destroy and failed. Goths gave up and somehow managed to fail even at that. Is this really now the eternity after the last chord of the Armageddon Rag?

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