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The Get Lost Generation

April 23, 2011

Fulfilling the first law of David Brooks (nature abhors a terminological void), the label “lost generation” has reappeared in the cultural zeitgeist. Huff Post ran a slide-show of reasons America’s youths are screwed under the singular title “The Lost Generation,” as if Hemingway and Fitzgerald hadn’t run drunkenly through half the bars in Europe under the same moniker. Unfortunately the youths of today are not lucky enough to be lost in a morass of sex, art, booze and politics (not necessarily in that order), but rather find ourselves unable to see a path through a haze of economic insecurity. Current use of “Lost Generation” draws less from the American ex-pats in post-WWI Europe than from the “Lost Decade,” the name for Japan’s period of economic stagnation during the 90′s. It is unclear what exactly is “lost” about my generation, whether the label refers to the seemingly misdirected lives of contemporary 20-somethings or our potential productivity that will go unrealized as a result of the recession and employment crisis.

Of course the absent jobs that would make us productive members of society go a long way toward answering the question of direction. Young people are semi-autonomous when it comes to our life choices, but we are subject as a population to economic conditions; one could say we are lost because we have been lost. And yet, we don’t seem to be going anywhere. The new phase of “emerging adulthood” described in the New York Times Magazine article on 20-somethings involves a return to the parents’ home. Nothing could be more found. There is also some irony in calling the most connected generation in the history of mankind “lost.” The phone in my pocket can not only tell me where I am, but the fastest way to get to the nearest Starbucks via public transportation. There are ways in which we could not get lost if we tried to.

Or could we? If the directions through which productive potential is traditionally realized (stable jobs) are not going to be open to many of us, as the situation indicates they will not, then we will need new ones. “Make it new” is an old phrase but, from one Lost Generation to another, it’s still good advice. The original Lost Generation produced its enduring works of art in flophouses and dive bars, not offices or writing workshops. For the modernists, being lost was a precondition for creation, not a barrier. We must cease to think of exploration as a bounded time in which we are to “find” ourselves before we are put to work, since that end may never come. If the roads are closed, getting lost becomes the only way to move. The alternative is stagnation and the bare-life instrumentality of on-demand contract labor. We have better things to do with our productive capacities than depress wages for those who are employed.

We are lost to capital, but capital has not yet become lost to us. The obvious but tricky question is where can we wander that is away from this dominant relationship? Both the alienated suburbs of my childhood and the costly cities of my adolescent dreams seem unlikely sites. Walter Benjamin’s exploration of “The Destructive Character” is useful here: “The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. . . . Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. . . . What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.” I think of this character as someone lost, not because he does not know where he’s going, but because he has yet to create it. This destructive process of getting lost necessitates the production of cracks, fissures in the seemingly solid facade of everyday life. There are places capital and the state move too slowly to assimilate: the warehouse shells of an exhausted industrialism, the foreclosed homes that hold the ghosts of a dreamed America that never came to be. Such a life will be against the law, but more importantly, lost to it. We must be suspicious of everything we do not build, of everything handed down from an empire in decline.

Instead of “finding ourselves,” I think my generation would be better off losing ourselves. The selves we can hope to find ready-made and waiting are not what we’ve been promised nor what we’ve prepared for. Rather, like the destructive character, we can seek the selves we wish to build in the rubble of what is.


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One Comment
  1. “The destructive character lives from the feeling not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.”

    Sounds like Benjamin was having a bad day.

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