On a blustery February morning in 2009 I found myself stranded in Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5. My flight was delayed indefinitely due to the UK’s biggest snowstorm in 18 years, leaving me to wander aimlessly against a backdrop of scrolling cancellations and panicky commuters. Outside the billowing airport architecture London was deadlocked, its citizens sabotaged by an absentee polar jet stream.
As I wandered through the terminal I watched groups of temporary refugees from across the world form micro-communes, emptying their luggage onto the floor and building little nests out of coats and sweaters. It was a surreal image: The typically bustling and optimistic concourse was transformed into something that looked more like a deportation centre.
Having been mugged at knifepoint in a dodgy Parisian stairwell earlier that week, I was without cash or plastic. No big deal at first, but after ten hours of hunger pangs, desperation set in. After a few embarrassing and unsuccessful attempts to flog the contents of my carry-on (two books and a used disposable camera), I set up camp near an abandoned Krispy Kreme and tried to distract my brain from my stomach with J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come:
“People feel they can rely on the irrational. It offers the only guarantee of freedom from all the cant and bullshit and sales commercials fed to us by politicians, bishops and academics. People are deliberately re-primitivizing themselves. They yearn for magic and unreason, which served them well in the past and might help them again. They’re keen to enter a new Dark Age. The lights are on, but they’re retreating into the inner darkness, into superstition and unreason. The future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathies, all of them willed and deliberate, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism.”
Mmm … consumerism. I couldn’t help but imagine dipping a giant-sized iced donut in a pot of boiling coffee and have it gently melt away in my mouth, warm sugar dripping from my lips and running down my chin, bear claws and fritters, jellies and …
Then someone tapped me on the shoulder and I was shaken from the comforts of my fantasy.
“Is that seat free?”
“Ah yes, it’s all yours”
He was a pensive Danish gentleman, anxious to get to Brazil where his pregnant wife was set to deliver within the next 24 hours. He turned out to be Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, from the art collective Superflex, and was generous enough to lend me some euros for food and drink. After filling my stomach we discussed the focus of his work: copyright issues and intellectual property law. We talked about how elite fashion brands like Louis Vuitton had become ubiquitous through counterfeiting and about the copyleft revolution, peer-generated content and the emergence of free culture as a real movement.
Across a snowy London cityscape the Tate Modern was preparing for the opening of its 2009 triennial: Altermodern. As defined by the triennial’s curator, French cultural theorist Nicolas Bourriaud, Altermodernism is what comes after postmodernism. It’s an “attempt to reexamine our present, by replacing one periodizing tool with another.”
When I first learned of the exhibit it struck me as a campaign to re-brand a failed business model. Throughout the zeros up until the ’08 market crash, contemporary art had become little more than an investment scheme for the funny money of the hyper-rich: the overpriced wallpaper of late capitalism. On reading Bourriaud’s Altermodern Manifesto, I was reminded of the great Pepsi re-branding debacle of 2008, when PepsiCo paid an embarrassing amount of money to one Peter Arnell, renowned corporate image guru, to take their brand into the 21st century.
In a 30-page user manual, Arnell detailed how his new logo was based on “the magnetic contours of Earth,” and how it would create a “breathtaking trajectory of innovation.” Alongside mock diagrams he detailed how the “establishment of a gravitational pull” would allow Pepsi to “shift from a transactional experience to an invitational expression.” Same Pepsi taste, but a slightly different logo that was supposed to revolutionize how consumers relate to cola. But once his fee was in the bank, Arnell came out and openly mocked PepsiCo, boasting that it was “all bullshit.”
Unlike Arnell, Bourriaud appears to be sincere in his effort to re-brand the blahblahblah-modern notion. His manifesto posits that art will cease to be a tool of deconstruction and will instead become an “editing table” for reality, enabling alt-artists to transform art galleries into globalized research labs for a more plastic tomorrow.
This is modern art’s theoretical bailout: a rhetorical restructuring that shouts “New! Better!” but preserves the original formula. It’s a more egalitarian xxxx-modernism that will complement a leaner, meaner, greener global capitalist machine – a machine running on fumes that’s about to grind to a halt, burst into flames and then just sit there and burn while we all eat popcorn and watch. But although altermodernism amounts to little more than shift in a prefix, Bourriaud is correct when he says that “postmodernism is dead,” because it is. Finally.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and when it died, but I’d venture a guess that it choked on its own vomit somewhere between Kanye West’s gradual descent and Lady Gaga’s meteoric rise. Mr. West and his Murakami-grubbing, Jetson-worshipping, DaftPunking, Auto-Tuning barf parade brought postmodernism to its absurd conclusion, and now Gaga is nailing the coffin shut with her hypnotic transmedia brand of nihilistic marketing gimmicks.
Gaga refers to her music as “soulless electronic pop” and says things like “we’ve already killed everything” and “the apocalypse has already happened.” Her sensational aesthetic has a divisive effect and tends to generate one of two reactions: She is either the most awful, most infuriating cretin ever to crawl out of corporate entertainment, or she’s an ingenious Warholian synthesis of David Bowie and Madonna with admirable Jay-Z-style business savvy.
Both positions overlook why the Gaga “fame monster” is a significant development in pop culture: Her persona is so infectious because it is the most accurate reflection we have of capitalism’s mutagenic effects on the human form and psyche. Her music is just a pretense, a rationale for her celebrity. She is the bizarro Paris Hilton. The manipulation of capital is her true art, and the “Haus of Gaga” is not a fashion/performance collective but a new breed of PR firm.
Even more crucial is the cultlike passion that she inspires in her followers. It demonstrates how, even long after its death, postmodernism’s specter will continue to beckon us toward the apocalyptic future that the “fame monster” so wantonly desires.
Thus we should consider postmodernism today as analogous to the counter science of the renaissance-era Catholic church. That is to say, anyone caught wearing shutter shades in 2010 shouldn’t be considered just a hipster douche bag but an obsolete zealot. The reemergence of the grand narrative in the form of global ecological disaster has rendered all forms of postmodern thought dangerous anachronisms.
Regardless of how climate change does come to affect our lives, the postmodernists will carry on as if nothing is happening, because capitalism has come to depend on postmodern abstraction.
Obama, whose logo-driven election utilized Soviet iconography to win over the Gen Y vote, is America’s first postmodern president. The war in Afghanistan, Iraq’s prequel-sequel, is not a war to be won but an account to be exhausted: a war of attrition on the attention spans and pocket books of the NATO citizenry. “Talqaeda” is not an enemy that can be defeated but a nebulous global brand that increases its market share every time a missile loses it way.
The whole sordid affair would be comical if the six o’clock news used a laugh track, but it doesn’t so it’s just awkward and unnerving. How could our governments not recognize that the Afghan war is a rerun of Vietnam? Perhaps the boomers in charge of NATO watched too many episodes of M*A*S*H* and have come to believe that shitty wars should drag on until all possible plot devices have been thoroughly exhausted.
The Copenhagen Climate Conference was another boring rerun, a tiresome reenactment of the Hague Climate Conference that took place nine years earlier. Both conferences failed to produce any real results, and until carbon-reduction markets develop to a point where they can rival the carbon producers, a climate deal will remain out of reach.
This situation is a byproduct of what British scholar Mark Fisher, aka k-punk, refers to as “capitalist realism”: the process through which the ideology of capital has monopolized all areas of contemporary experience. As a result resistance becomes unimaginable, dissent becomes commodified and buying a $5 latte becomes a deed of selfless charity.
It is also in this sense that the twin climate conference failures run parallel to the failure of the Iraq War protest movement. Rather than threaten those in power, the protests of the zeros validated their doctrine. Protesters were greeted not by a sneering Nixon but by a smiling Bush, who looked down upon the dissidents and congratulated them on expressing their freedom of assembly – a freedom Iraq would also enjoy once it became a capitalist democracy too.
A protest is no longer an act of defiance but a confirmation that one’s democracy is functional. Everyone’s political appetite is satisfied – hawks fight a futile war overseas while liberals fight a futile war against that war from the comfort of their laptops. When revolt is not a possibility, the results of political events are predetermined by focus groups and socio-mapped by think-tank polling data.
This is why no one was surprised when Obama name-dropped Martin Luther King and Gandhi in his defense of the “war on evil” before picking up his Nobel Peace Prize. We understand that politicians are required to pander to public opinion, even if it means betraying one’s ideals with populist newspeak. Democracy under postmodern capitalism has become little more than a pageant of personas tuning their brand to the pet fancies of consumer percentiles. And for the last 20 years, that consumer has been the boomer – the age demographic that assumed absolute primacy over the political marketplace through its sheer numbers.
In their wild youth the boomers were supposedly radical agents of change – at least that’s what all their shitty sentimental pop-propaganda has led us to believe. But as the boomers aged their concerns evolved, and not without a few ironic twists. They went from being Maoist acidheads who could taste the hefty licks of a Hendrix 8-track to Tupperware partiers who sprayed I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter on their children’s Eggos. The “I’m gonna live forever!” generation, grown fat and paranoid off cheap Chinese goods and cable news, consented to a politics of fear and an economics of absurdity while an adolescent Gen Y and a marginalized Gen X looked on in vain.
Now that so many Western economies are trapped in a deepening recession with no end in sight, Gen Y faces the possibility of becoming a lost generation, plagued by un- and underemployment for the whole of their adult life. We were born into Spielbergian dreams and all-you-can-eat promises of prosperity, but now we’ll be lucky if we can scrape together a scrap of the half-eaten capital pop tart.
But gradually we’re waking up to realize that our place in history is uncertain, that our destiny is no longer predetermined by perpetual growth. The greatest generation, which weathered the depression and defeated fascism, is considered exceptional because it was willing to sacrifice itself for the benefit of future generations. By this standard, the boomers are the worst generation because they have sacrificed the economies and environs of the future for their own comfort and security. But what of Gen Y?
Unlike Gen Xers, many of whom found ways to express anticapitalist sentiment through subculture, Gen Y has nowhere to run or hide. All forms of cultural rebellion have long since been appropriated and integrated into the ideology of capital. Marketing firms and advertising agencies now enjoy an unprecedented relationship with the avant-garde, so much so that they’ve become one and the same.
Gen Y only has one choice if it wants to avoid becoming a lost generation: push the boomer way of life onto an ice floe and let it die. Rather than Bourriaud’s altermodernism, we should pursue an alter-realism: dispense with the art gallery altogether and make reality our experimentation lab.
There is a revolutionary current running through the subconscious of this generation that has yet to be realized or defined. We champion piracy, instinctively believing that information should be free and open, that intellectual property law is contra-progress and that capital is not a necessary intermediary for social organization. Postcapital collaboration is our daily bread, and we hold a distinctly global worldview, void of class, race or nation. But we grew up too comfortable, played too much Nintendo, watched too much Saved by the Bell, read too much Chuck Klosterman and not enough Frantz Fanon. We naïvely drank the consumerist-credit card Kool-Aid, and now that the Final Fantasy is upon us, we’re in danger of sliding into a delusional techno-utopianism.
This is our decisive moment. Either we wallow in debt as passive observers of history and pray that technology will eventually solve all our problems or we actively seize power and deal with the consequences. While Gen Y outnumbers the boomers, we won’t hold the balance of power for another ten years, at which point the climate may be all but lost. So democracy is not an option.
We should take our cue from the likes of the Brazilian Pixadores, a disenfranchised group of graffiti artists from the favelas of Rio who storm and vandalize art galleries and universities to proclaim their existence against the society that excludes them. But rather than storm art galleries we should pursue a policy of strife: storm and occupy whatever political and economic space we can.
In the next ten years Gen Y will inherit the ownership of something commonly referred to as “the West,” but what will that even be worth? The West has become its own worst enemy, creating global conflict in order to promote a failed socioeconomic doctrine – a corrupt corporatism that bails out its banks and then gives its thieving rich million-dollar bonuses for bankrupting the working class. How could such a dysfunctional system possibly compete with China’s monolithic authoritarian model?
The only hope for the West is if we tear our current system apart piece by piece from the inside out, replacing what we destroy with viable alternatives. Starting with the renunciation of the label “Gen Y” – a hollow marketing term thought up by a balding boomer advertising executive. Instead we should refer to ourselves as the “Barbarian Generation,” because that’s what we are: the greatest threat yet to capitalist civilization.
Douglas Haddow is 28-year-old Canadian writer, designer, video artist and general media enthusiast. He has a blog: PBLKS.com.