Generationalism

I’m not sure if last week’s Facebook post on Hal Foster and generationalism was wrong or I just have a lot of friends getting older but nevertheless it was unpopular so let me try the argument another way (again, those with knowledge please correct my inexpert cereal-box developmental psychoanalysis): As infants we learn to sense a world that is timed and spaced in specific ways, written by the mother/family as a language. We learn to translate our gestures in turn, developing repertoires of movement/grabbing that cohere in us as subjects and become our more or less individualised patterns of sensing and engaging the world as we enter the social order. Underwriting the shared languages of the clan are the technologies of reading/writing/speech that pre-exist birth and outlive death and are bound prosthetically to us and structure our mechanisms for sensing the world. Affect thus has a grammar, and particular technologies of inscription (“media”) spatialise specific repertoires of grammar and gesture across clans, via the historical motors of industry and the state, interrupting intergenerational transmission of a symbolic order.

For example – the emergence of Michael Jackson’s Thriller -> rap and late-night telecasts of NBA basketball on Australian television in the mid-1980s trained my sensorial world in productised African American gesture in a way far less accessible to a previous generation of my class and regional location [unfortunately we did not get Adrian Piper’s “Funk Lessons”]. [Though at the same time, I remember watching 5 days of test cricket on television – another language]. Similarly, I can use a touch-screen, but I will never live in my nephew’s world where a wide range of gestures of interaction with the screen are mastered at the age of two, even if I deliberately “learned” to get faster at using a tablet by spending hours a day on it. His world is both already here and yet to come, and I hope that he translates something of my grammar into it, but there are no guarantees.

All that is commonsensical (?) but professionally, the authoritative gestures of the critic encourage us to forget that our time is already gone, resulting in claustrophobic rituals of pronouncing on what the world is or isn’t as if it were able to be sensed with our legacy equipment (thus requiring punk or other forms of generational rebellion). For example, I grew up with the personal computer and became an adult at the birth of the Web 25 years ago – even as a “new media” practitioner and scholar I struggle to escape my default relation to the Internet as one of accessing archival documents, even though intellectually I know that the document metaphor is broken by the content streams of the social platform.

That sense of struggle should complicate the process of making cultural explanations, to open a gap between our world and the one-to-come-already-here, and thus to open the ethical relation to next generation. This was completely missing in Foster, who looked at the parts of a world he could recognise, felt fear, and thought it was his job to revise his own explanation of the times. And it is his “job” as the visiting professorial public lecture, and somewhat interesting for those of us who share something of his practice and trajectory, but also simply in the time-honoured tradition of patriarchal complaints about epochal decay that aren’t much use to anyone. Of course one should not grow old, and continue to participate in emergent forms and try and make sense of them  for our own sake, but I think the only way to do this without trampling on those who are becoming institutional adults in the contemporary world is to recognise that the emergent grammar and gestures that constitute new times are structured by differences that are unseen and unseeable by us. Yes, the legacies of our own times of emergence remain part of the contemporary – my knowledge of XML is perhaps a bit like knowing Latin in the 19th century, almost deprecated but still with explanatory power – but I think it is more useful to document the codes we know well rather than telling the young what their world is. As Gramsci has it, there are a lot of voices “organically” connected to that world that we should be listening to.