The ‘Me’ Generation: Adultolescents

Almost everyone I know and work with is an “adultolescent” as defined in the book, “Mediated: The Hidden Effects of Media on People, Places, and Things”, myself included. That is one of the issues I’m having with working for a video game company. I feel like I’m ready to work and spend time around mature adults. The problem is I just don’t know any. Maybe they don’t even exist. I’m getting to a point where I’m tired of living in grown-up-kid land where everyone floats around aimlessly dreaming, but not doing anything. You may ask, what is an adult anyway? I guess in my mind it is someone serious and committed to their own life, not busy avoiding life and protecting their child egos at all costs to the point of serious self-deception and fantasy. Again, this is coming from someone who hides out in books and video games, as much as I hate to acknowledge that. I guess I’m expressing a serious doubt about my own way of life. Anyway, here is an interesting article on that and what it means to be “mediated”, which is this guy’s diagnosis on our culture:

There’s a section on “adultolescents” — and they’re also called “twixters” now, I think — the people who drift around deep into their 20s, the people who want to keep their options open at all costs. But the decision to grow up is also an artificial one in the mediated world; it becomes a decision just to be “busy, busy” and to naturalize our little performances. So again, no way out of this dilemma?

Well, you decide. That’s your demographic. But of course “deciding” is the problem itself! Pretty soon, you’ll come to a point and say, “I can’t take this any more,” living like a piece of flotsam, floating around in a sea of options, and you’ll get married, or make some other commitment. Even though it feels arbitrary, you’ll get scared enough to do it. Because you’ll realize that nothing’s going to happen to do it for you or to you. No puberty, no ritual moment when all the elders of the tribe gather around you and slice your penis up the middle or something like that to convince you that you’ve grown up. You just have to do it yourself. Grow up, I mean.

I like your new definition of commitment: throwing your whole self into it and hoping it works out, rather than until death do us part, richer for poorer.

When women say, “You can’t commit,” they’re not complaining that you can’t commit in — what do they call that new kind of marriage down South? — a covenant marriage. No sane, fully mediated, urban blue-state person would expect anybody to commit to the life, death, no matter what, anymore. Women aren’t complaining about that. They’re complaining that you’re not completely there for them, that there’s some little part of you that you’re keeping off the board. Now commitment is a matter of the intensity of your engagement.

But because of the arbitrariness of it all, even a commitment feels like just another one of the billions of options we have.

The second really original idea in this book is that when chance and necessity are all that’s left to you of reality — and there’s not much of it — then the opposite of real is no longer phony or artificial, which is what it has been since the romantics. The opposite of real now is optional. The slight feeling of unreality that attends all the commitments you actually make attends them because they’re made against this horizon of choices. So this plays into the idea that reality is accident and necessity. To the degree that your life is literally furnished with people, things, activities, places that you’ve chosen, there’s a slight feeling of surface-ness about it all. Because on the horizon there is always “Oh, I could have done this other thing, or been this other way, and maybe I still will.” That haunts the way you are. And that’s why real things in your life have this slight feeling of simulacra-ness.

But situations where you’re not mediated, where you haven’t made a choice, are painful ones, in some way. It’s not something you’d want to seek out.

Yes, that is often true, not always, but often. But notice how we actually do make efforts to achieve the pain that makes something real, as long as that pain is part of the choice we made. In our efforts to recover nature, for example, we get more and more extreme: boats across the Atlantic, cliff climbing for three days and nights, sleeping in nylon hangers, Outward Bound-type stuff, vision quest, naked on the mountain overnight. We seek raw experience precisely because it gives the feeling of the real. But the ironies are apparent. You’re choosing to go out there and starve on a mountaintop. Not because your tribe will expel you if you don’t or because you don’t know what else to do, but because you want to feel real. So you take a reality trip, as it were…

The social conservative historian, Jacques Barzun, would say that this is the result of a Western cultural decadence in which our collective creative energies have waned.

He suggests that there have been four principal eras in recent Western history. The first, which started with the Protestant Reformation in 1517, dealt with the issue of “what to believe in religion.” The second, which encompassed the 18th century and ended with the French Revolution in 1789, dealt with the issue of “what to do about the status of the individual and the mode of government.” The third, which started with 19th-century Romanticism and ended with Modernism after World War I, tried to determine “by what means to achieve social and economic equality.”

The fourth is ending now. As he sees it, the fundamental themes are less clear than they were in past eras, partly because old certainties are unraveling. The West may be politically and economically triumphant, but it is plagued by doubts. Postmodern assertions that there are no absolute truths and that all cultural suppositions are relative displace the rigors of scrutiny that marked the development of the West. The nation-state, which evolved out of Western political thought during the last 500 years, is being challenged by separatist passions. The central Western notion of emancipation has now come to mean that “nothing stands in the way of every wish,” in Mr. Barzun’s words. And in the arts, creativity is celebrated as a universal talent, diminishing the achievements of genius. Our age is, in Mr. Barzun’s words, decadent.

A decadent era, in Mr. Barzun’s lexicon, is a period in which there is a kind of “falling off,” a restless period in which “there are no clear lines of advance.” “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal,” he writes, “the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.” And though it often seems a slur in Mr. Barzun’s book, its intimations of decay also provide some reason for hope.

After all, Mr. Barzun suggests, other more extreme periods of decadence — which include the corrupt 17th-century universe of Swift or the 15th century before the Reformation challenged the corruption of the medieval Church — were followed by periods of reconstruction, in which Western culture was re-examined and reconstituted. For example, he says, the Romantic movement of the early 19th century is too often considered a celebration of passion, irrationality or sentiment. Instead, Mr. Barzun argues, it was an attempt to construct a cultural order out of the wreckage of the French Revolution. Romanticism did not destroy an order; it created one.

That is also, in Mr. Barzun’s view, what the West may be looking forward to. If Western traditions are worn and frayed, that is “all to the good, because it clears the ground,” he says, leaving the way open for future construction. This tension between destruction and creation is also, he suggests, an essential aspect of Western culture. The West has itself been so successful, Mr. Barzun says, partly because of “continual debates between orthodoxy and rebellion and the strange ability of individuals to stand out for their accomplishments.” Out of such tensions, decadence may lead to a new dawn.

2 comments

  1. I can definitely see the merit of the “adultescent” argument and I can think of a number of people I know who would probably fit the bill–people who basically refuse to make any hard and fast decisions about their life and end up just kind of going with the flow.

    But I can also think of some examples in my life of people who made important decisions, seemingly for the sake of making a decision. People who thought that marriage would make their life meaningful or that moving to a new town or picking a new career would make them automatically happy. And often those decisions didn’t stick. And even when they did the people who made them ended up feeling a comparable amount of confusion and weirdness to before they made the decision. Though maybe the point is to keep going through that process until you have found things that are important to you and/or learned enough valuable stuff about yourself. You could make that argument.

    When I think about people who are really engaged with life and know what they want, I usually think of people who have one or more big passions in life. Musicians come to mind, because I know a lot of them. (There are a lot of flakey overgrown teenagers in music, too, of course, but I usually find they’re easy to tell apart from the people who have a calling and are committed to what they’re doing.) But also people who have meaningful jobs that are helpful to those around them. I could imagine someone being really engaged in their life through activism but I haven’t really seen that, except maybe with a few anarchists.

    Sorry, tangent…anyways, it’s an interesting thing to think about.

  2. You bring up a good question that is actually addressed in another article I was reading yesterday. Basically, as I think you’re saying you have to really search yourself for what your strengths and weaknesses are and what you could see yourself doing for ten years versus one year.

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