Is authentic culture possible in an age of mirrors?

mirror-dimensions-300x225Please forgive me for mentioning the name Miley Cyrus again. In a recent MTV interview, she explained her infamous VMA performance by saying that she just wanted to “make history.” There’s something about that statement that explains a lot about the state of our culture right now in an age of mirrors when rock stars have brands that they strategically develop instead of actual idiosyncratic personalities that no PR consultant has had anything to do with shaping. What was it like in other eras when people simply lived history instead of having the accursed burden of needing to make history? What will have to happen for authentic culture to become possible again or is there no return to the age before meta-discourse?

I’ve been reading this amazing and somewhat frightening book called You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier. He makes a very interesting claim that I somewhat agree with:

Popular music created in the industrialized world in the decade from the late 1990s to the late 2000s doesn’t have a distinct style–that is, one that would provide an identity for the young people who grew up with it. The process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped… I have been trying an experiment. Whenever I’m around “Facebook generation” people and there’s music playing… I ask them a simple question: Can you tell in what decade the music that is playing right now was made?… So, far my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance. [128-130]

Of course, now that I think about it, there is dubstep, and that didn’t really exist ten years ago. But dubstep irritates me the same way that screamo irritated me ten years ago. It’s like screamo except the vocals have been sublimated into the bass. But that’s neither here nor there. The point remains that we live in an era of unusual self-consciousness and meta-analysis. If it is the case that there is no distinct culture for the Twenty-Teens, then that is because the pundits and bloggers would shred it apart with analysis if it ever emerged like a bunch of piranhas ravaging a freshly hatched fish.

I think it’s fair to say that people make real culture when they aren’t burdened with the pressure of making history. So how do we transcend that burden? Am I on the mark in naming it as a special curse that uniquely afflicts the Facebook generation? I don’t think our parents told us that we were supposed to be rock stars when we grew up, but something was in the water (or am I just projecting?).

Okay, here’s my proof of the utter degeneration of our age: selfies. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means taking a picture of yourself trying to look cool, attractive, seductive, or whatever, and posting it on social media. There’s been quite a blow-up in the Christian blogosphere over a fundamentalist Christian mom telling off teenage girls for taking erotic selfies of themselves and posting them on the Internet.

Yes, I’m in total agreement that girls are not responsible for boys’ sexuality. But can we say something about how pathetic selfies are in and of themselves? I’m opposed to “slut-shaming” in the sense of making assumptions about girls’ fashion decisions, but shouldn’t we be ashamed of the fact that we’ve all become “sluts” who are so desperate for others to watch our every move? Are we not allowed to critique the narcissism of constantly taking selfies regardless of whether you’re wearing a towel or an astronaut suit?

I realize that part of what’s going on is a natural phase that teenagers go through, but there are a lot of 35 year old teenagers on facebook. Earlier generations didn’t have the technology to be their own personal paparazzi and maybe that’s why they were able to make authentic culture. The nervousness of obsessively watching ourselves live life keeps us from living it to the fullest.

In any case, if you’d like to see the best selfie I’ve ever taken, here’s one that I took while I was on my one and only rock and roll tour in 2004 at Super Happy Fun Land in Houston, Texas, thinking I was some kind of Ziggy Stardust with a head-wrap and a mustache.

agent starchild at superhappyfunland 2004

Notice that the top button of my pink shirt is not buttoned. Oh and here’s another selfie on that highway that Bob Dylan sang about in Clarksdale, MS, right next to the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.

agent starchild at highway 61

Maybe some day the world will realize I was making history!


8 thoughts on “Is authentic culture possible in an age of mirrors?

  1. You know, having had two teenage daughters I have seen about a million “selfies.” And before I go on, I will say that I am pretty watchful of what kind of pictures they are taking and particularly what kind of pictures they are sending. But I don’t see them as being necessarily narcissistic or pathetic. Sometimes they are funny and occasionally sad or maybe they commemorate a day to be remembered. My youngest daughter loves costumes and once took a picture of herself in a spectacularly goofy hat and plaid umbrella with grapeskins employed as very convincing sad clown makeup. Most of the “selfies” I see, particularly with girls, are a sort of way of figuring out where your self is located in this weird, lonely, anti-communal society we live in.

    Even (and maybe especially) the overly sexualized pictures are a tool to try to be somebody who can be loved for something, someone who is special somehow. In fact, I would venture to say that most of these girls, the ones who take these sultry pictures of themselves, some of them my daughters’ friends, are the ones who are not narcissistic but feeling left out and desperate to find a place in the world. They tend not to think highly of themselves, but just the opposite.

    At best, I think they are some sort of aesthetic endeavor to figure out who you are and to express your thoughts and individuality. At worst, they are a desperate attempt to figure out who you are and get somebody to pay attention to you. They are short and visual but sometimes they are very thoughtful. Even when they are not terribly self-aware, they tend to tell us something about who that kid is and what they need.

    However, if you are 47(my age) and you are constantly taking selfies….maybe there is a problem. Most of us just have blogs instead. ( I actually have one myself so I include myself in the snarkiness.)

    • That’s fair. I guess it’s part of the teenage “figuring things out” process. But I do think that our present technology creates an unnecessarily narcissistic culture (both with blogs and selfies). At least in this particular dimension of human existence, it seems like it was healthier to be a teenager in the era when you had to go to Eckerd’s with your roll of film and drop it off before you could share your pictures with other people.

      • I feel that way too to a certain extent. It seems that we are more and more fragmented. I guess I see narcissism as almost more of a depressive response to lack of community. I think people have a need to belong but few options of places to belong. And a lot of methods of communication are instantaneous and don’t require much thought. Both those things add up to a lot of crap on FB that people are going to be little embarrassed by some day. (I hope).

        • “I guess I see narcissism as almost more of a depressive response to lack of community. I think people have a need to belong but few options of places to belong.” I think you’re right about what’s going on psychologically there.

  2. I think that you have identified the issue without really pointing it out. The facebook generation is the identity of the “post millennial” generation, and it is not a culture because it is self focused. I don’t think that it is all bad, as much as the “counter-culture” of grunge music had a large effect on the culture I grew up in it was still spoon fed to me by corporations. Music doesn’t create culture the way that it used to because of the way that we consume music. It has probably been literally years since I have listened to an actual music radio station for any length of time. The music I listen to is tailored to me, and even when I want to hear something new there are tools out there to help me find things that I might like, and if I don’t I can quickly move on. From things like Napster that allowed me to try new music without committing to purchasing it, to the iPod that allowed me to carry my entire music collection wherever I go, to apps like Spotify that now allow me to have nearly unlimited amounts of music at my fingertips, choice has trumped culture.

    Technology has given us a choice and also a voice that we haven’t had in the past. This very blog is a sign of this culture of one that we have entered into. There was a time that you would have had to be a columnist (or something similar) in order for you to broadcast your thoughts in this way, but technology has allowed anyone to open up a blog and speak their mind. The dark side of this is that when everyone has an opportunity to be heard we also have the instinct to grasp for the most attention possible… to feed our idol for attention, and much like the corporations have been doing as long as we can remember, we ourselves have a tendency to seek the lowest common denominator. Sex, outrage, and profanity sell and too many of us have willingly packaged and sold ourselves as just that.

    The opportunity to have a voice is unrivaled by any other time in history, but like any privilege or blessing we need to be good stewards of that opportunity. People might be listening to what you have to say, so say something worth listening to.

  3. Three things:
    1) thanks for the link – I love and respect your posts and am ticked that I made it onto your site (albeit in the midst of a string of links, but I’ll take what I can get)
    2) your line about dubstep being the new screamo with the vocals moved to the bass is spot on (even though I sort of like dubstep… in small amounts)
    3) your chest hair is making me stumble… and I’m straight!

    Thanks again and keep up the great work,

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