Thoughts on the end of an era, its "main characters", web 2.0 & the real difference between Gen Z and Millenials, with friend & New Inquiry editor Charlie Markbreiter
Ayesha: Every cultural object has a ratio of amount it should entertain vs amount it should be analyzed. I think there's a hard limit to how much Sally Rooney’s novels merit analysis. People kept trying to use her books to make some larger comment about “culture today.” Their attempts look goofy because they’re reaching so hard. However, the attempts themselves can be analyzed towards wider cultural observations. As ever I’m more interested in what the trend is informed by than the trend itself. I’m a fan of Sally Rooney. I think she’s intelligent and skilled and makes thoughtful and consistent choices. And while she’s judged as a novelist, I think her talents actually make her a good screenwriter. Good screenwriters can be good novelists, but good novelists cannot necessarily be screenwriters. Sally Rooney is Lena Dunham for empaths.
Charlie: “Sally Rooney is Lena Dunham for empaths”—I literally laughed out loud. You’re so right about the ratios. The question is, why do certain cultural objects get analyzed past the ratio they deserve? It’s like a genre error. Perpetuated partly by her being a skinny cis winsome white woman. But also not just that, since there are other people in that demographic who write books?
Ayesha: The winsome of it all is a very big factor. If a picture of her smiling was ever leaked to the public, the resulting identity crisis in her readers would cancel her. All these people are obsessed with her because they relate to her, but not enough that they don’t also feel insecure about her talent and their own writerly aesthetic but lack of writing ability. And so they want to say things like, “You know Marianne and Felix aren’t even real communists and Rooney isn’t even making bombs for the IRA.” And it’s like, yea…they know…Sally knows too…that’s the point…they voice that constantly…and so do you…which is why her books are treated the way they are…somethings leaking from your tote bag did you notice?
I think there was a moment where certain people felt threatened, because she’s like them (she herself insists) but they’re not celebrated young authors, even though they were in the gifted and talented program too. That’s the vibe I get from her detractors, who engage primarily with their idea of her than the books themselves. She’s an introverted bookish intellectual, and introverted bookish intellectuals are struggling with the concept of her being massively popular. She didn’t have to write Twilight to be a phenomenon that led to screenrights. It must be hard for them to process. Maybe it makes them feel they have fewer excuses for themselves.
Charlie: True. It just sucks that instead of examining the structural reasons which enable so few people to succeed in the culture industry, they individuate by blaming Rooney for her “undeserved success.” To quote health justice scholar and Death Panel co-host Beatrice Adler-Bolton, it’s a case of being “austerity-pilled.”
Ayesha: They shouldn’t be so down about it. Everyone else is either not interested or “these books are nice i like them :)” I read two reviews I thought were good critiques that did in fact review the novel itself, but it says a lot they stood out for not being about the author.
Charlie: I think maybe it’s also that she isn’t also a critic. There are critics whose whole reputation is Coming for People. And so when they write books, people want to come for them in return, because they are already on the defensive. But Sally Rooney clearly has critical thoughts; they are all just in her fiction books. I don’t know enough about her Journey as a Writer, but it is interesting that she didn’t start out as a critic, since that is how many novelists do get started. That’s like how you build a writer’s profile if you don’t do an MFA, because people will pay for reviews in a way they won’t pay for short stories
Ayesha: There’s also this weird insistence on elevating a certain type of white woman every so often as a stand in for the insecurities people have about the “millennial’ identity.” And it’s an elevation in the most literal sense—putting up on a pedestal to laud and throw tomatoes at. I think Rooney is the last bastion of the cultural obsession with millennials. Finally, the cottage industry of commentary supposedly about “us” can end. People are wringing the last of their takes on millenials through Sally Rooney. Every take cycle of the last decade about millennials being narcissistic, navel-gazing, hypocritical, apolitically political, aspiring to a radicalism they don’t live, over-educated and underemployed, what else...oh, romantically awkward and emotionally stunted. It’s the final dance for the dated stereotypes Rooney’s characters seem to provoke. I’m not sure what people expect. Every era has its themes. I thought Normal People was well drawn, even if I’d wished more for the characters. But isn’t that a testament to her writing, to feel for the people she invents? They’re more interesting to me than their contemporaries, but not by much.
The last decade of fiction starring single late 20s-early 30s white women recycles different iterations of the same boring, selfish, reckless, cynical and unmoored depressive figure with a dissatisfying sex life that they organize the rest of their lives around. The self-sabotaging white woman is to the 20teens what the flailing dad was to 90s family comedies, an era defining trope. These women are always unhappy in the same ways, always vying for love in places they are guaranteed not to receive it. The list includes: Hannah Horvath, Fleabag, the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the protagonist of The Worst Person In the World, and a litany of less-acclaimed versions of the same. They’re about as relatable to me as aliens, but it makes me sad how many white women seem to feel seen by them. Which is strange, because these protagonists are all relatively privileged people who could easily avoid the choices that are making their lives miserable, and usually hurting many others in the process. These aren’t stories of women burdened by circumstance.
Maybe that’s the appeal. It relieves the audience of examining their responsibility to themselves by casting the ways they fail themselves as romantic, glamorous even, or at least according to the culture—appropriately on trend, correct for their age. But so needlessly harming. I don’t think depression or the trauma characters like Fleabag experience is trivial or unworthy of artistic exploration. Like many people, I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote a remarkable series. And as much as people might hate to admit it, Lena Dunhum did too. But it’s the appetite for these tropes I find curious. Don’t we all already know this story by now? Rather than saying something more, something different, we’re being inundated with successively less dimensional versions. Like this year’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature, The Worst Person In The World.
Charlie: The protagonists must first act as badly as possible because this makes them seem “relatable.” Although, as you point out, relatable to whom? Who can afford unhappiness? Collective liberation does not exist in these worlds. For these unhappy white women, “freedom” is just the freedom to act out as much as white men do. And, in a way, they can. Their choices will be “humanized” by the end of the thirty minute TV slot. It’s a strategically recuperative gesture. I wonder how much of it stems from Christian notions of forgiveness and sin. That is: do whatever you want, because as long as you repent, God will forgive you in the end. Patricia Stuelke’s recent book, The Ruse of Repair, also shows how what Eve Sedgwick famously called “reparative reading” has also historically facilitated US empire by making us stay attached to things we actually…shouldn’t stay attached to.
One question I had for you: do Sally Rooney protagonists know that they’re Sally Rooney protagonists?
Ayesha: Her readers know they're Sally Roony protagonists. The book protagonists are just vehicles to communicate that to the readers. It’s like the opposite of Choose Your Own Adventure.
Charlie: It’s like an Instagram filter for your life. A literary Instagram filter. You can project onto the characters and imagine that they are you and it makes your life feel more Criterion Collection than life.
Ayesha: The Wong Kar-wai effect. Wong Kar-wai and Sally Rooney offer the same filter via their capture of modern metropolitan melancholy diffused with romance.
Charlie: Is Sally Rooney the white Wong Kar-wai? Or if Elena Ferrante wrote the Neapolitan trilogy about the 21st century. The most chic books about alienation ever lol.
Ayesha: Do you think millennials have exhausted alienation as a theme to explore? Gen Z seems so much more practical. They didn’t spend their childhood in a world that was over by the time that they had to be adults. Even for me to say “had to be adults” vs became adults is so...millennial. It’s probably the case that alienation is simply part of the human condition and only the backdrops change over the years. I can't think of any works in which people were happily “at home” in their times and unalienated except for like, post-9/11 reality television.
Charlie: They probably have to be more practical because the world is ending so rapidly and everyone has to make their game plan for the End. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, I like the emails (which are semi-criticism) better than the fiction. Not that the criticism parts all give “wow amazing I have never thought of any of these ideas before,” but I am like, “this is smart and well written and makes me wonder if you’re dumbing the narrative parts down.” I don’t know the genre of “ metropolitan alienation” novels well enough to answer your question. But one critique people make of Rooney’s books is that they’re main character lit, which speaks to the kind of glamorization you pointed to. Vs analyzing it as a structural force that affects everyone. But maybe that’s also just because this is a novel and like historically that’s a bourgeois individualist genre. Thank you CIA lol. I mean, I don’t blame her.
Ayesha: I'd sooner believe she dumbs down her fiction than believe she's not as smart as everyone says. One of the criticisms I read of the emails in Beautiful World, Where Are You was that the voices weren't dissimilar enough to speak to who the characters are. But I think one could make the argument that’s a faithful representation, that the people she's depicting do sound alike. Aping each other's style and diction is part of how they signal their mutual belonging in each others’ in groups. And yea maybe analyzing it as a structural force that affects everyone just isn't good story telling. It’s a TNI essay lol.
I think comparing this genre to a filter is astute, because that's one of the roles novels and film play. We want to be “seen,” but in the most flattering light. To paraphrase something I’ve said before, if the characters’ loves and loses and quotidian aches and joys have meaning, then that's one way of generating meaning for your own. By siphoning and transposing it. In that way it reminds me of tumblr more than Instagram. Because it's not about curating an image of your life for others but about directing a moodboard as a way of finding meaning for yourself. “It me” but, aesthetic (as an adjective, which it has now become through how it’s used instead of simply a noun.) Which reminds me why I have such strong disdain for those “mumblecore” Noah Baumbach movies.
Charlie: Wait, say more about your disdain for Noah Baumbach movies lol
Ayesha: It’s very off-putting to watch adults behave like children and have it sold to you as a way of living more authentically. It’s unwholesome whimsy. The stakes are still adult while the antics aren't just accidentally immature but intentionally so. As if everyone else has life wrong for not indulging white people who've found a more niche way of living without care towards others. Mumblecore characters endlessly explore their conviction that they’re more authentically individual. As if Americans needed to come up with another way of being aggressively self-centered. It’s one thing to be boring; it’s another thing to create propaganda for living a life that requires a lot of others, but insists all it can give is...an identity performance.
An example of what I’m trying to describe, by being the opposite, is 8th Grade—a beautiful film. It includes a scene where the central protagonist is invited to have dinner with a young boy in her class who is a little autistic. They have chicken nuggets with all the formality of a white cloth restaurant. It is exactly the type of scene a mumblecore film would offer with adults instead of children. And by doing so, it'd ruin everything charming and emotionally authentic to that scene.
The kids are fumbling their way through social interaction because they're still learning many of the basic fundamentals of how to comfortably interact with others, and they’re trying to show care for one another the only ways they know how. So their awkwardness isn’t affected or a resistance to conformity but an approximation of adult behavior that ends up being very touching.
They’re very sincerely trying to offer each other genuine friendship, but through social rituals they aren’t yet adept in. We’re watching them learn how to be. It’s an investment in life and others rather than the mumblecore rejection of it. In the film, the girl accepts the boy’s mannerisms without judgment and reciprocates his vulnerability. In a mumblecore film, we'd have adults mumbling their way through pretensions––not because they're guilelessly learning how to be good to others, but because they're avoiding doing so, and nurturing it as an eccentricity. It’d be like, a guy played by Adam Driver saying, “I only eat chicken nuggets” in a way that inconveniences those around him. And a girl falling in love with him because he’s “different,” and being chosen by him would mean she’s special. It’d be corny and emotionally vacuous.
The entire ethos of mumblecore as a genre strikes me as an aesthetic for white liberal evasion of responsibility and fetishization of an innocence they don't have but want to claim. No wonder it developed during the Obama era. It reflects its audience. These were people who came of age during the Obama years, and genuinely felt like things were fine, even as everything about the Bush era accelerated. The War on Terror expanded, the reactionary far right organized, the wealth gap grew. Rather than expanding the middle class, the gig economy absorbed those falling out of it into even more precarity, while the pyramid scheme of content creator culture entrenched a new form of serfdom in the US. Meanwhile, my generation was dressing up as the kid from Where The Wild Things Are and reading Hipster Runoff to know how they should feel about Converse versus Vans.
Which is just an observation, not really a complaint. Because what else were suburban white kids who considered themselves the most cultured and creative in their hometowns finally moving out to “the big city” supposed to do? Think they weren’t special? I wouldn’t say my choices were any more productive. I spent those years wracked with horror at what I felt was a coming fascist resurgence. Being more aware, and ultimately correct, in my views neither positively affected my life, nor did it aid the issues I felt at stake. In short, I dislike mumblecore, because it mistakes self-centeredness with self-reflection, and it’s wrong to recommend (through romanticizing) the former in lieu of the latter.
Charlie: None of Rooney’s characters ever seem to exist in “community” in any way. They are atomized individuals whose only vector for intensity is each other. There’s literally a scene where one of the characters is like, “All there is to care about is sex and friendship.” The novel of ideas and meta-commentary moments try to break from bourgeois values formally, but the tradness is reified by individualist lines like that. In a way, I’m just glossing “The Loves of Others,” which Hannah Black did for TNI in 2018. Black describes the couple form as the “fullest expression of love and proximity available to us,” which means that it also “bears all the insufficiencies of present social relations.” In Beautiful World, Rooney expands the couple form, which now includes “best friend” and “biological offspring.” It’s a less privatized framework, but barely so. As Sophie Lewis would tell us, when it comes to family abolition, we should always ask ourselves why we aren’t asking for more.
Another way of putting this: Why don’t Sally Rooney characters ever have more than one friend? They’re always like “life is so meaningless” and it’s like uh yeah my life would also be totally meaningless if it was just about socially reproducing myself lol? Goes back to the lack of community thing, which is partly a function of everyone’s cisness and whiteness etc. No wonder it’s hard for Alice (/ Rooney) to make her work feel meaningful as well. Because who is it for? For a mass public that she likes conceptually but has no real relationship to? No wonder it’s always very sad for Sally Rooney protagonists to realize that they’re not special. But realizing that you’re not special can actually be a cool thing. Not because it confirms that life is meaningless, but because it means you have stuff in common with someone else. With many other people, in fact. All this means her books are weirdly Trad in the end, because all they can imagine as a salve for alienation is the couple form, a child, or a best friend lol.
Ayesha: I think her characters (and the people who read them in the Western world) may also be frustrated by the possibility of intimate relationships being their only salve. I’m not so sure it’s an endorsement of intimate relationships being the height of human experience as much as it’s a product of a society that forecloses upon so many other types of experiences. I’ll save my thoughts on Trad since it’s the subject of a forthcoming TNI issue.
But the limitations of her stories connect to what I think is the misdirected impulse to admonish her, to see her character's choices as her own. Over the last decade, it became en vogue to read representations of certain ideas as endorsements of them. That style of reading pop culture resulted from two concurrent trends. One, quite suddenly and intensely, people kept being told “representation matters.” And it does to the extent it shapes public views. The denial or misrepresentation of certain identities affects how people treat those identities in real life. I’m a muslim, you’re trans. We both know what people are told about “us” by others becomes our problem. But that fairly simple concept has been reduced to the perception that “representing” everyone at all times is a solution. Literally no one has ever asked for this, and it’d be ridiculous to do so.
The limits of that are obvious. Goodfellas, for example, does not need a muslim girl character. That doesn’t serve art or society. Martin Scorcese’s championing of international films is a much more effective method of furthering societal equality and fairness in the arts and the production of richer, more representative, art about the world we all share. He seems to be doing what he can with what he has in the ways most appropriate: material, not symbolic. He’d rather screen an Asian director’s films than chair a “diversity and inclusion” initiative, and I wish more people would do the same. But then again, some people really do just want to chair things more than change them.
I don’t need the characters of Sally Rooney’s books to have friends that “look like me,” although it may not be a stretch—there are muslim English majors at Trinity College. But if there is any obligation, it is to not misrepresent reality...not to capture all of it in one story.
The second force confusing people’s ability to receive works as more than ads for what they contain is that, “now more than ever,” personal subjectivity is leveraged to sell and be sold to. People have grown trained to understand who someone is—their values and beliefs—through whatever they “post” (or publish or film etc.) which has now become synonymous with selling. How many of us have links to our Patreons or Substacks in our bios?
The entire function of the social web was to dissolve the barriers between self expression and commerce. Instagram is functionally a mall now. Google’s search engine powers ad placements, not information access. The social web draws on our expression of ourselves to marry us to a marketplace that sells us back to ourselves. I don’t just mean by data harvesting and targeted ads placed next to photos of our friends and family. I mean that America was already a society shaped by conspicuous consumption—expressing who you are by what you buy. Now we’re pressured to express who we are by what we sell too. It’s a strange return to a very medieval style of self identification, the way your job was who you are. The way so many blacksmiths last names became Smith, or tailors became Tailor etc. Our society prioritizes the flow of capital above all else.
That’s what “influencer” culture is predicated on too. Sure, there are now “all kinds” of people sharing their stories online, but only because a significant portion of them can do so “in partnership with [insert brand here].” That’s the market we’re in. What I find interesting about the criticism of Sally Rooney is that there was so much discomfort around her “authenticity.” The implication was that her authenticity was in competition with her commercial success and all involved with it, like the Sally Rooney merch and Sally Rooney pop-up shops. It’s such an anachronistic debate, considering how “authenticity” has always been about determining market value more than assessing reality. But it’s worth remarking upon because it encapsulates the end of Millennial pop cultural relevance.
Millennials didn’t have a counter-cultural figure. I know we had protest movements––some of the biggest in American history—but I’m talking about generational self-perception. I’m talking about iconography. We had a target market archetype instead: the Hipster. If you were in highschool/college between 2006-16, the dominant response to the world growing more unequal was the perception that it wasn’t; the way to be unlike the uncool, the way to distinguish yourself as someone who “gets it,” was to cry to Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem and feel like your ennui was historically unprecedented. That’s what the hipster was. Not the “dead end of western civilization,” but just the classic and inevitable cycle of one generation gathering their cultural touchstones when it was their time to do so, and reacting to the culture that preceded them—the one they were raised in.
The Bush era was the last time there was anything close to a coherent, homogenous, cultural experience. After 9/11, even Disney Channel played patriotic interstitials urging the value and necessity of being a “proud American.” And after a decade of the vapid and aggressively white masculine misogynist homophobic nationalist pop culture of 2002-2010, the way millenials found cultural refuge and alternative spaces for identity formation was web 2.0 and the scenes it made possible. Shoutout to bloghouse, but I’ll forever eye roll at Twee. Millennials suddenly had access to tastemakers in major cities beyond where they lived. And it was a relief to discover everything the mainstream had so dedicatedly ignored had an avenue. Finally there was a sense of there being more out there for people who didn’t watch The Hills or care about teen sex comedies or thought all the flag waving was a bit too earnest. Is it any surprise then Millennials were so precious about “authenticity”? For them, aesthetic choices were relatively hardwon. We were the best thing to happen to the advertising industry since the invention of the teenager post-WWII, second only to the invention of the diamond engagement ring.
Millennials chose their “favorite fonts” and borrowed opinions about pour-over coffee and vinyl from the designers blogging online. They nurtured the types of niche interests that mumblecore and Wes Anderson characters/fans enjoy (but only when they can be observed doing so). It sounds like I’m judging their indulgence, but it was cool to have access to more information than the people before us did, and to be able to refine our tastes as a result. The people whose thoughts and opinions were sourced from other people were always going to do that; at least they were now able to copy people who knew what they were talking about.
Expertise is far harder to come by now. The digital landscape is more overrun. Algorithms, SEO, and tech platformization have all made the internet less independently navigable. There are no hyperlink rabbit holes. There are just hundred million dollar deals for Joe Rogan to sow vaccine denial. Name one subject you can watch a Youtube video on without three videos later being recommended a men’s rights activist’s dissertation on the declining white American birth rate. That’s what the corporate internet accomplished. We grew up with websites. Gen Z is growing up with platforms. All the democratic promise of the early internet was extinguished relatively quickly with tech platformization.
When Millennials complain about Gen Z not being as pop culturally literate, I feel we can’t really blame them. They don’t have TV the way we did.There’s so much I learned, even as an immigrant, through like, The Simpsons, because that’s what was on air after school. It forced us to become fluent in the perspectives and references of the generations preceding us––albeit the very narrow perspectives and references of upper middle class white men. And this is not a defense of that era, any movement diffusing its influence is an improvement. But there was some linearity to inheriting knowledge. It’s not like those same people aren’t still the ones writing the majority of TV. Only they’re now showrunners telling their token staff writers of color to write dialogue in the style of Twitter threads. Which isn’t to discount all the real talent that managed to still break through from the internet, like Issa Rae, Quinta Brunson, Zack Fox, so many other creatives; it’s to recognize that things didn’t magically get as easy for them as it may appear. Every person who originally found an audience online had to be more than original: they had to be talented in multiple creative fields simultaneously, and still only just made it by being at the right place at the right time.
Gen Z has a completely different relationship to popular and digital culture. Those blonde TikTokers whose names are always some combination of two first names don’t represent Gen Z the way we were told Mischa Barton and Adam Brody “represented” us. There are social media celebrities with millions of followers whose names no one reading this would recognize. What we’ve finally reached now is the end of any possibility of monoculture.
The atomization of the cultural experience over the last two decades has significant consequences good and bad; it’s the subject of my book. But what we’ve gained is a generation relieved of a lot of bullshit and preciousness about aesthetics, with a greater awareness of how the digital can be just as fake if not faker than the mainstream. It started with the post hipster embrace of Lana Del Rey; it’s ending with ambivalence over Sally Rooney. It’s the same authenticity test our generation applied to “indie musicians” when the tide first started turning. With conversation around whether Rooney’s books are diverse enough, leftist enough, sincere enough.
Gen Z is better able to treat culture as a playground with less self-conscious dissonance because it’s not as central to their identity formation as it was for us. For them, the digital is the mainstream. And it’s disposable. Being “alternative” doesn’t have the same currency since it’s an identity accessible to anyone.
Charlie: It’s like when things are #alt on Tik Tok
Ayesha: Being a “normie” also doesn't have the same stigma because it usually just signals an enviable neurotypicality. Again I’m speaking about and to a very narrow segment of people, but they were my peers in favoring four member indie rock bands above Fergie, who I appreciate a lot more now. That’s what was driving pop culture, not Occupy. Watching older millennials buy “heritage brand” axes made by graphic designers in 2010, when they literally lived in a walk up in Williamsburg––all just to distinguish themselves from finance bros––was so cringe. Because guess what those finance bros do now? Go to axe-throwing bars. Everything Millennials clung to as a signifier of what made them more uniquely informed and sophisticated is finally being recognized as banal and unimportant.
Charlie: Instead of chiding “normies” for failing to live up to signifiers of cultural authenticity, those signifiers are instead revealed to be as inauthentic as anything else.
Ayesha: Well, we’re just more honest about “authenticity ” not being a relevant metric for evaluation. Gen Z don’t need it because they’re not as put upon as we were. The e-girl and the Christian girl autumn aesthetics aren’t in competition with each other. People know each has its lane. For Millennials, aesthetic categories felt fraught and were strictly pursued and guarded because we were embattled. And we were the last generation for whom that was true. In the present era, what’s actually passé is discouraging personal preference in favor of trends.You no longer “have” to look like Paris Hilton, and you’re less likely to be judged if you do. We’re more encouraged to enjoy our own tastes and expression and theres less gatekeeping. In 2010, Patton Oswalt practically had a meltdown because it no longer was as hard to be into comic books as it was, I guess, for him. The increasing accessibility of everything he held dear to his identity struck him as a personal loss rather than a society wide gain. And a lot of people who similarly couldn’t grasp what was happening but sensed it affected their social cache agreed with him.
Aughts culture had dominated so much while being for and by so few. Emo kids were in competition with everyone else. Gen Z doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up with Paris Hilton held up as the beauty ideal and pummeled for the same reasons. There was a sense of social consequences for both not being like her and being like her. So the irony is while material scarcity has increased, the perception of it culturally has decreased. This is why I spent 2012-2015 saying visibility in a surveillance state is not power. It’s from a talk I gave on social media, “diversity”, and labor.
The assumption is there’s less scarcity because there’s more diversity. It’s an illusion of opportunity. While we’re being told we’re one viral piece of content away from success, that it’s an asset to belong to a marginal identity, the people who aren’t experiencing scarcity are preemptively grieving losses they haven’t actually incurred. They’re upset about the illusion of gains for others. You can catch it anytime someone with a major well-funded media platform complains about cancel culture. Or when a tenured professor expresses their fear of the Me Too movement, or when, most gallingly, cops say movements for social justice endanger their lives.
We only achieved these pyrrhic victories over “representation” politics once they were more thoroughly divorced from actual political victories. And that scales across the culture industries. Hollywood productions are finally hiring fresh talent scouted online, but only once the streaming wars were already eroding union power. Media companies are hiring more writers of color, but once it was no longer a financially viable career. It’s visible across Instagram influencers desperately mining themselves for content, completely beholden to a platform they don’t own and an attention stream they can’t control. A few years after trans women began appearing in fashion magazines, the legislated violence against them has gained more ground. Isn’t it such a scam, replacing material assets with opportunities for clout for all different body types?
A few years ago, being someone who creates social media for a living was being hailed as the new normal. But the full time influencer/content creator was just a trend that benefitted a handful, not a sea change. It didn’t represent the emergence of a new economy; it was the death throes of an old one. The actual legacy of the “content creator” boom is the rise of individual traders on apps like Robin Hood, it’s crypto culture and NFTs. It’s asset production in the age of hyper devaluation of labor. In short, it’s the affirmation of the ability to “make it big.”
People are chasing what they mistake to be paradigm shifts in a more democratic direction, when they’re just attempts to escape the strain of living as neoliberal subjects in failing states spiraling towards reactionary fascism. It was obvious back then too. The platformization of everything, the emergence of the “gig” economy, did not challenge old models of employment. It accelerated and entrenched wealth gaps by pretending there was an escape valve. And there was, for a few. Less than half of one percent of Youtubers make money. Even fewer make enough money to quit whatever else they may be doing or have to. Of all the top earning podcasts with big audiences, not a single one is new. It’s been the same top earning productions for a decade now. They were the exception not the rule. As a friend recently said to me, all pyramid schemes need to pay a few people tons of money to get free labor from everyone else. And thats what social media users do, they create value for free. I’m not saying social media is a pyramid scheme, I’m saying the same capitalism that exists off of it has been more effectively reproduced on it. Eventually, people will catch on to the fact that “decentralization” doesn’t solve the problems of centralization. It just spreads them across a more atomized landscape with less regulatory power. If it matches the timeline of when the pundits catch on to things I post they’ll write their op eds on the subject about five years from me saying this.
But if you ask me if I think we live in a worse world, I wouldn’t hesitate to say no. We live in a better one. The effect of the internet on the world doesn’t uniquely harm the world as much as it exposes and amplifies what was already wrong with it. Racism, sexism, misinformation. Sure, there is a misinformation crisis, but that’s exactly what Fox, CNN, and NYT produced in the lead up to the War on Terror too; they continue to produce that world. The internet accelerates and it fills in the gaps. Nothing that’s gotten worse in recent years was something new or unprecedented––it all had historical points of origin. Meanwhile, a lot of what is better about the world now is new. It is unprecedented. We’ve made so many gains.
And every genuine gain facilitated by social media I credit to people, not platforms. I credit it to people building digital alternatives to what was missing in the physical world; spheres of influence, access, connection, empowerment. I think of people who made it possible for sexual violence to have social consequence. I think of the students using Discord to organize school walkouts. I think of all the people getting help through therapists posting on Instagram and life coaches on Tiktok. Sure, the quality varies, but that’s true of the healthcare system too. ADHD and autism is under-diagnosed in girls and people of color. These individuals have been better able to access life improving guidance online. Some of the best culture writers today came up on tumblr and Twitter; we would’ve missed out on so many valuable perspectives without them. I’m sure the people reading this can think of many more examples. The work I do now is with people who are trying to build better digital tools. They’re asking what furthers the public interest and how to meet needs of expression, connection, knowledge production and entertainment.
The conversation around books like Normal People, and all the material we’re the aging target market for, is significant to me in how it represents the end of an era. Which means we’re at the point of opportunity for meaningful structural change. Everything people are experiencing right now as chaos is a sign of breakdown. And there is so much that needed to breakdown. I have no interest in reinforcing the foundations of this world. It needed to be rebuilt. This is the chance to decide who we’re going to let do it this time. Because we’ve seen the result of who we allowed before. And those people are scared. That’s what “reactionary fascism” is a reaction to. Every time the world is made anew, there is a battle for it. Nazis are getting bolder. I hope that means more of the rest of us will too.
And to think amidst all this people want to talk about “indie sleaze” as an aspiration towards 2004 decadence rather than away from 2014 neuroticism. It’s so pathetic. It’s people wanting to discover the next “normcore” ahead of time. The “phenomenon” of indie sleaze is connected to us only in that its a reaction to the neuroses of painstainkingly tidy “millenial” aesthetics. Pastels and mostera plants. Immaculate bathroom tiles with pristine “top shelfs” of prestige beauty brands. “Clean” lines and “minimalism”. Ultra white Stan Smiths and Common Projects.
Amongst all else Gen Z is dealing with I’m so thrilled they’re not also pressed about getting their white shoes (Air Force 1s) dirty. “Geriatric” millennials misidentifying any of this as something that has to do with them are so desperate and arrogant. It’s like…millennials, , stop flattering yourselves. No one wants to recreate your college era looks. You looked bad. We don’t need to look to Gen Z to represent nostalgia for our youth; we already embody it. I’m happy for us to retire with our romantic little novels and leave pop cultural relevance to those the coming era belongs to.
The people that can’t handle not being the most interesting people at a party are always the least interesting anyway. And the people most defensive of their views usually don’t have a very strong case for them. Whether it’s about a particular cultural object being popular or not, or what that might mean.
Aesthetic analysis is about nothing deeper than consumption habits; but consumer habits reveal public appetites and the interests of capital and the state and that..can run deep.
Charlie: Thanks for this conversation, Ayesha. I have, as always, so enjoyed speaking with you.
Ayesha: Likewise Charlie :)
Charlie Markbreiter is The New Inquiry’s Managing Editor. His first book, Gossip Girl Fanfic Novella, is out from Kenning Editions this fall. You can find him on Twitter as @BerlantBro
Liked this ? Let me know by becoming a subscriber, or even supporting in kind through venmo @ayeshaasiddiqi