Quirk, Wonder, the Middle Mind, Generation Q; there has been an identifiable backlash against the ascendant social aesthetic in American culture as of late. In the pages of the Atlantic, the New York Times, and other places, the graying Boomers especially are asking, what is wrong with the kids today? What is going on in American society? Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic announces like a ship steward on the Titanic, “We are drowning in quirk.”
Hirschorn’s “Quirked Around” in The Atlantic
More often than not, I found myself agreeing with Hirschorn and his self-selected allies in piecemeal, but rarely can I stand behind their awkward, fusty umbrella terms. Note my use of “fusty,” because that’s exactly how fusty some of them write, like old men with cane in hand and hair up ass about the kids and their damn quirk!
Many complaints have been, at root, generational. Some of the arguments smell of Boomer cluelessness and others stink of Boomer resentment. If I have a generational theory, it is this. Currently, Boomers top the triangle, running the government, the economy, what your Marxist teacher derided as, “the base.” Generation X is ascendant in cultural production, advertising, marketing, music, and TV, while Generation Y is the consumer generation. Each generation, obviously shares aspects of the others, but each as a whole, fulfills their own broad social role.
If this is even remotely true, it is easy to see that Boomers are reacting against the fact that Generation Xers, the cool, older brothers with kids who still smoke dope, the Jon Stewarts of the world, have so much influence on their kids, the Gen Yers. This has led various columnists to fulminate and promulgate labels, such as Friedman’s latest, Generation Q for quiet.
But does Generation Quiet have anything to do with Hirschorn’s quirk?
Many of the quirky things Hirschorn takes aim at are, I agree, annoying. Zach Braff’s crappy Garden State to Napoleon Dynamite’s almost criminal popularity; at the risk of sounding like an elitist, I agree. And I’ll go further and say, in this polluted cultural environment, it is vital to be able to sniff out poisonous pretenders. I, like many, have grown tired of cheap quirk, though I often still occasionally give it a longingly, nostalgic over the shoulder glance the way one might an old girlfriend you spot during last call.
Those are his softball targets. His real goal is a fastball special at Ira Glass and This American Life. I could care less about this show, though I think he’s fundamentally correct that it enforces its own narrative closure and meaning, rendering it insincere, artistically amoral, and just clueless.
I am more interested in the larger cultural diagnosis, the cry for help of the drowning man adrift without a life preserver in a sea of quirk. Quirk has obscured something, which I guess is the trouble; it is hard to name. Like Surrealism or Dada, 80s/90s countercultural American quirk is no longer vital or transgressive it has been co-opted; not a harmless adoption either, but one that allows the tentacles of the mainstream Moloch to toss opposition into its slathering maw. I have what I consider a more enlightened, more nuanced view of media, but I still insist some meaningful countercultural notion persists, though it is drowning and voiceless in the current environment. Proof that culture is not synonymous with media!
Hirschorn claims quirk is traceable back to David Byrne, and that may be true, although I doubt it; nonetheless, Byrne’s quirky vision has become the norm. Watch his movie, True Stories, sometime and tell me you don’t see the germ of everything from “Arrested Development” to “Flight of the Conchords” in it.
What is it, is it the hat?
In defense of Byrne and similar artists, his quirk began as gentle irony, or the appearance of gentle irony; a disguise meant to disarm his audience. The implicit critique of True Stories remains every bit as true and uncompromising.
The Trouble with Quirk
Quirk used to come packaged in small doses or remained festering in the underground. It typically had a point of view and an ambition, like Byrne in True Stories. Without a point of view, without something to contrast against, quirk becomes tiresome, and is too often, too easily, used to coat an utterly bland, utterly conventional story.
Quirks are by definition, meaningless. They are impairments, not powers, but they aren’t disabilities either. Self, once a reflexive interiority, once a historical actor, once a moral agent, is now an individual quirk. Quirks avoid meaning at all cost. Quirks occasionally rise to the level, almost, of significance, or more rightly, occasionally your quirks are validated alongside the quirks of others, in a dance of quirks.
The real danger in quirk, which seems by definition so declawed, so harmless, if overly cute and annoying, is that it actually drains meaning out of life, is ahistorical, and fundamentally an ideology of no ideology.
Quirk does not lay naked and bare the absurd human condition in its vanity to discover meaning in the universe ala Beckett; quirk is fuzzy, suburban, and nihilistic, in that it suggests any attempt to produce meaning is futile.
A precursor to Hirschorn’s takedown of Ira Glass is Curtis White’s less-read “The Middle Mind.” According to White, the right-left cultural debate in America disguises a greater consensus, that of the Middle Mind.
White sees, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air on NPR as emblematic of this Middle Mind, in all its “charm and banality.” http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no9/white.html
“The Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both the traditionalist Right and the academic Left.” Which doesn’t sound so bad (proving it really is a cultural zeitgeist) until one absorbs the breath of its “pornographic” vapidity.
White’s point is that the Middle Mind simulates intellectual content without discrimination or taste. He points to Gross’s indecent interests in an author’s biography more than their books. He gives the example of a woman who wrote a book in which a woman wishes her husband dead and he dies, then, sometime later her own husband dies. Terry asks:
“What did it feel like to suspect you’d killed your own husband with your art?”
Fresh Air?” he retorts, “ How about Lurid Speculations? It’s like Dr. Laura for people with bachelor degrees.”
White then attacks Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse:
In the first thirty-five pages of this novel its heroine is in a convent, falls in love with Chopin while playing his music at the piano, moves in with a rugged but tender farmer, has torrid (and tormented) sex with same, is kidnapped by a bank robber, is shot in the hip (by the Sheriff!) and witnesses the death of her-lover-the-farmer, shot by the bank robber, but not before he gouges out the robber’s eyes with his thumbs and buries him with the sheer force of his own dying body weight in soggy prairie loam.
According to White, Gross,and her brethren in the Middle Mind cultural engine room, can’t and don’t distinguish between genre fiction disguising itself as serious fiction, and serious fiction. They can’t. Furthermore, she does not distinguish real questions about art from trivia. It is a middlebrow simulation. I should say here, I like plenty of genre fiction, and I feel that genre fiction can aspire to serious fiction, but it does so not by aping forms, but through engagement with what it means to be alive.
Shortly thereafter, novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet wrote “Wonderbread,” for The American Scholar as a diagnosis of what he calls Brooklyn Books of Wonder, or BBoW. Putting aside the clumsiness of this term, nevermind its inaccuracy, let’s look beyond his obvious artistic ressentiment, (raise your hand if you’ve heard of him or read his books before) at his argument, because several points are solid, if poorly clothed.
Bukiet is NOT a Morlock.
Essentially, Bukiet takes issue with the kitsch rampant in the writing of many leading American writers. He identifies their spiritual home in Brooklyn, a place he characterizes as a Neverland for would-be Pan’s who can’t hack reality or rents in the adult world of Manhattan. This is probably Bukiet at his least sympathetic and least persuasive. He sounds ugly. And he sounds old. In Bukiet’s fantasy, Brooklyners sport goatees and ponytails! Not since, maybe 1993, though the goatee is still alive in the Midwest, it hasn’t been a signifier for hipsters in Brooklyn in a long time, if ever. Now, if only he’d said something about ironic mustaches and dancepants….
Scratch Brooklyn off, and you’re left with Books of Wonder, still hardly catchy. I assume Bukiet was inspired in part by Michael Chabon’s first novel, Wonder Boys, and I think this idea of forced, unearned, dishonest, premature, overeager, breathless Wonderment, at the heart of his argument is strong and recognizable by anyone with good sense.
So why not call them Wonderbooks! Or BoyWonderBooks! Or really anything, but Brooklyn Books of Wonder.
Bukiet is right, however, about one thing: McSweeney’s, Believer, N+1, et al. are formulating a new generation of literary culture that is fundamentally dishonest and cheap. At all levels, we are a culture of unearned optimism; one in which anything less is actually punishable.
He relies on Kundera for authority, a risky, unhip idea. Kundera is not a wonderboy, he is a curmudgeon. However, like it or not, Kundera is also a smart guy. ‘Kitsch” according to Kundera is “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling [that] moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.”
Let’s unpack Kundera and by extension Bukiet’s use of kitsch. It may confuse many that kitsch is even used as an insult. Isn’t kitsch, like, trashy fun, isn’t that shop full of kitsch accoutrements funny? Camp and kitsch, though tightly bound together are two different things. Camp is, as Susan Sontag defines it, “the failed attempt at seriousness.” It is also camp to recognize kitsch as kitsch, but to be kitsch is to obscure rather then reveal the contradictions and complexities of life, so it is more than a case of bad taste, it a case of immorally bad taste; and is often allied with repressive societies and cultural values for that very reason.
To tie this discussion back into that of quirk. Quirk initially began as a genuine element of legitimate artistic projects; now quirkiness has been co-opted by kitsch, much as Surrealism, or Dada, like any other process or technique. Quirk, like kitsch before it, sections off the complications and complexities of real-life beneath a gauzy haze of meaningless, trivial quirk. Bukiet’s complaint about wonder, regarding its kitschiness, apply equally to quirk. Together, quirk and wonder, the inverts of shock and awe, form two guiding lode stars in a grand constellation of 21st century kitsch.
So, we have a series of cultural diagnoses, having to do with quirk, the middle mind, and cheap wonderment, is there some common equation? Yes. These articles all suffer from an obsession with buzzworthy phrases, without quite understanding how buzzwords work. All the same, yes, we really are drowning in quirk.
I’m not punker than thou, but I’m punker than most
Okay, not half as punk as this shit.
A Loose, Baggy Conclusion
Born in 1977, recently 30; I am either the lead edge of Y or the long tail of X. People my age fall into this narrow, but deep crack between the two. A netherworld of mixed allegiances.
I think much of the generational griping is a ruse. I think Boomers fail to understand the level of either: A. indifference that protest generates and B. danger serious protesters face (“Don’t Tase Me, Bro!”). The fact is, this is a far more competitive and unstable world than the Boomers grew up in. There are no guarantees and class anxiety is rampant. Increasingly, nearly everyone at all levels of society finds it appropriate even natural to judge people moral solely on their social success. And they fail to understand their complicity in the repressive society we live in, one that circulates a dizzying proliferation of kitschy, quirky, middle mind, what-have-you ideas.
You could also argue, I guess I’m putting forward the possibility, that they are a symptomatic masks used to hide our identity, not from others, but ourselves. The dishonesty of our art, our intellect, and our beliefs is powerful. If the Generation Q feels no particular call to speak out it may be because there is no meaningful references available any longer to speak for or against, no value to uphold, no archetypes to inhabit that have not been disinherited and discredited. Americans grow up essentially as naive and childlike as the upperclass race in Orwell’s Time Machine. The good are fragile and privileged beyond all good.