Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Young Love Rebellion:
Fight Against Capitalism While You Still Can

“Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, we will grieve not; rather find strength in what remains behind.”-William Wordsworth

Since the science of filmmaking was first put to use, we have looked to the movies for inspiration, entertainment, and adventure. At the movies we can become different people and see the world in which we live in from numerous angles, all without leaving the comfort of a plush seat. All over the world films are seen as a mirror of the societies we call home as well. Films from genres spanning horror to drama and everything in between, become much more than moving pictures on a screen; they morph into vital looking glasses which, when gazed upon, can reveal often unsettling truths about our world.

For this piece, in homage to our semester-long examination of “The Radical Romance”, I will take a look at romantic films which shed light upon the society we live in. Specifically, the money-making zeitgeist which is the realm of teen films reveals various elements of modern society for what they truly are. A sample of these films gives insight into the state of contemporary consumerist society and the ills which exist within it by way of romance. Ultimately, the result of these various commentaries reveals what seems to be a recurrent truth: that youth, despite passionately rebelling against it, cannot escape immersion into the pool of capitalism once adulthood settles in.

Before I begin expounding upon which films reveal this ultimate failure of youth rebellion through romance, there is something that needs attending to. Films are snapshots of the time periods which they come from. A film from the 1960s will not fully shed light upon circumstances from an era prior to or after it. However, myriad facets of the human condition explored in film tend to be universal connectors when analysis of movies across decades comes into the fore. Young people are rebellious regardless of the time period they live in. Being in their most formative years, teenagers regularly rebel as they experience the difficulty of transforming from childhood ease to the adult responsibilities and concerns which await us all (Barker, 408). Young people are also rebellious regardless of class, race, religion and place. From “Rebel Without A Cause” to “Superbad” movies explore the excitement and danger involved with acting against the accepted societal mores of a particular era when the agents acting against it are young people.

But let’s take a few steps back for a moment. The designation of a sector of society as “youth” is a relatively new one which came about when enormous cultural shifts took place in the world (Barker, 407). Indeed, according to sociologist Talcott Parsons, the term “youth” is a designation which only became normalized with the emergence of capitalism. Capitalism is a ceiling stratified into place by way of money-generating occupations and careers. Adults take up these trades and jobs in order to make money and supply the necessary if not accommodating things we live to consume and consume to live. Teenagers, who are too old to treat as children but not old enough to make their own money, are bred to someday occupy these professions and become little capitalists themselves.

So then, why do young people find ways to rebel against the society their parents work in and reinvigorate daily, the one they will soon supply the same spirit to? One theory makes the reason clear, in my opinion, and also stands relevant to the topic at hand. Chris Barker in his book, Cultural Studies: Theory& Practice, points to a “sociology of delinquency” which became a study of the Chicago School (411). Here, a select group of varying characteristics of delinquency in young people are named. All of these characteristics are tied to class struggles between those who have and those who don’t. Rebellion is seen as a way to cope with the lack of power which comes along with being of the working classes. To harness some of this power which they are deficient in, teenagers invert middle-class, consumerist values of work, money-making and achievement by capitalist standards; they create their own values which are sometimes anti- goals which deviate from those of the dominating middle and upper classes; and they go about self-fulfillment, accumulating wealth and gaining power in deviant ways to those used by the middle and upper class because they are regularly excluded from these methods by way of strict class stratification. In essence, working-class youths create sub-cultures and deviant values to those of society in order to reach what is perceived as virtual “success” by all.

Since films are a great way to watch the world through all kinds of eyes, it seems fitting to analyze youth rebellion via romance through this medium. It is a time-old concept: star-crossed lovers who are not supposed to be together for various reasons based in societal values, going against parents and the entire world as they wag collective fingers at them. The movies are enthralled by this dynamic as evidenced by the recent success of a certain vampire romance and, indeed, countless other more human romances put on film before that. To reveal how movie-makers see youth rebellion through romance and its ultimate effectiveness, though, a variety of films from the past and recent cinema will be analyzed. Specifically, the camera will be set fully upon the films Splendor in the Grass, Flirting, and Summer Palace.

Elia Kazan’s 1961 film Splendor in the Grass is considered by most movie hounds to be a landmark film. Made during a time when sexual frankness was not particularly in fashion within the entertainment realm, this film more dutifully addresses the topic. Don Willmott, in his review for, calls it Kazan’s “most notorious” in that it places sensuality on the screen in a more flagrant way than any of his other works. Just to express this movie’s level of importance in the history of film all the more, it is ranked number 47 on the American Film Institute’s top one hundred most passionate romances of the century list.

The film centers on Wilma Dean, portrayed by Natalie Wood, and Bud, played by Warren Beatty. They are a young high school couple living in a rural Kansas town during a time when America was on the precipice of entering the Great Depression. They first meet us in Bud’s car kissing, having to stop before they go any further because Wilma Dean is “afraid”. Bud moves on towards frustration and resorts to declaring, “I better take you home”, thus beginning a rather vicious cycle between the two: intense passion coming to a climax which is never realized because both of them are too “afraid”.

Although this observation might sound too simplistic, to say that neither of these characters has the guts to consummate their romance is a fact. However, I do not say this in a sneering way. Bud and Wilma Dean do not live in a literal bubble where being influenced is an unknown terror. Indeed, Bud is the son of a wealthy oil man who has invested a great deal of stock in the American market and seems to be riding high on the wave this success brings at the start of the film. The family business will be passed on to Bud (whose flapper sister as an heir is out the question not just because she is female, but also “too low for the dogs to bite” since she is sexually active). Daddy’s plan for Bud is a nice four-year stint at Yale University before he takes over, and, therefore, no marriage until those years are up. This means he should not have sex with Deanie (the nickname everyone in the film has given Wilma Dean). What if he were to impregnate her? Well, if that were to happen Bud would have to marry her, and that is not the plan his father has made for his oil field heir.

Deanie, on the other hand, is from a much more working-class family who owns stock in Stamp Oil, ironically. Her mother is the parent who makes the plans for Deanie’s particular life, which also does not involve pre-marital sex. The plan for Deanie is to get married a virgin to someone just like Bud Stamper, if he himself cannot be wrangled. She doesn’t want her child “spoiled” by sex and actually goes so far as to deem Deanie’s sexual desire to be unusual for a woman and unusual usually means wrong. At one point she tells her daughter, “A woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children.” Feeling that she is abnormal for wanting Bud as a woman does not, Deanie resorts to steadily allowing her desire to change her.

Here, I mean really change her. Deanie soon suffers a nervous breakdown following the pivotal break-up between her and Bud. He decides they are not managing their lust well, that things are getting much too hot and heavy for two people whose futures are all planned out and do not involve the complications of pre-marital sex. She is sent to a rehabilitation facility for two years. When she seems to be cured of her desire for sex, Deanie is released only to find that Bud is married with children to take care of, running his father’s oil fields. His father is dead now, having committed suicide after finding out that his stocks had not just plummeted in value, but dissolved. He did not finish those four years at Yale.

With nothing left to do, Deanie resolves to accept a marriage proposal from a fellow rehabilitated person from the facility she called home for two years.

Many things are afoot here. Societal mores and values all create frustration between these two people solely based on their desire for one another. The rebellion was in being together despite the risk of someday losing their will to resist and consummating their passion. The rebellion would have been all the more pronounced had they consummated it at all. This was their rebellion at a time when sex was for the private realm of life, unlike how we deal with it today (aka, the porn industry and cinematic romantic works from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “The Piano”). All of this passion left unreleased resulted in the dissipation of their romance and thus, the beginning of their induction into the capitalist society which their parents had so thoroughly planned for them to enter. Bud finds himself married anyway, despite his father’s admonishment to keep from doing so before college life had spent itself. He isn’t married to Deanie, though we hear him repeat over and over how much he loves her, how much he wants to marry her. He is living in a tiny cottage of a house on his father’s oil field when Deanie comes to visit him, having succumbed to the continuation of the family business, awaiting an upturn in the economy and resurgence in the success of Stamper Oil in the clobbered American stock exchange. Deanie will become a wife as her mother planned, probably a housewife like her mother. She will have children who will someday do the same: follow in their parents’ footsteps, depending on their sex. It turns out that their parents wanted them to keep from having pre-marital sex because that was not a road which any productive citizen would have wanted to take at the time. A woman would have been deemed unfit for marriage, her primary goal in life obliterated, and a man would be possibly saddled with an unwanted pregnancy and an unwanted marriage before he could get the education necessary to acquiring a good profession which would pay for a family’s maintenance. Deanie’s mother’s words sum up this phenomenon. Children from good homes make a prolific labor force. Capitalism needs more workers to be maintained, and at the time, one went about making more workers in the most socially accepted way: through marriage unions. Unions, from Deanie’s mother’s view, which were more contract than the passion which this young couple felt between themselves.

Foucault puts it beautifully in “The History of Sexuality” when he goes on about saying that we speak of sex all the time, as repressed as we are in action. To speak of it, even in an admonishing way rather than frankly, shows that we are repressed as Deanie and Bud were. This is cultivated, this societal shunning of sex-talk in the most frank sense, in the search for an establishment of power. Power is necessary in the maintenance of a regulated, consumerist- led, capitalist society where government tells us what is good and bad in law and society does the same in practice and discourse. These rules reinvigorate capitalist societies in that they maintain status quos and order: women are for the production of children, the next consumerists and money-generators, and men are the workers, the present money-generators which capitalism needs to remain intact. Foucault puts it this way by asking the question: “All of this garrulous attention which has us in a stew over sexuality, is it motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations… in short to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative?” Though he does not put an answer to his question to keep from being stuck in one mode of discourse about our treatment of sex, I will say the answer is: yes.

Another film I like to consider when thinking about the way youth’s are thwarted in romance when adulthood settles in to place them in the world of capitalism is Flirting, directed by John Duigan. This 1991 film explores a very radical romance between two students attending two boarding schools separated by a lake in 1970s Australia. A philosophically inclined boy named Danny whose classmates do not understand him, is white. The girl, another very philosophical and intelligent teen, is a black Ugandan girl named Thandiwe. Both are attracted to one another because they are so different from their peers, both rebelling against their own generation as well as that of their parents and teachers. Throughout the film they experience all kinds of funny, touching, life-altering situations which cultivate intensity in their relationship which more superficial romances would not have.

Then, fighting in Uganda breaks out under the terrorizing rule of Idi Amin and Thandiwe, whose father is a diplomat for this country, must return with her family there. The two, deciding to make their love count, break every rule in place at their two schools by running away together. They find a motel where they do the deed and are found in bed by the headmaster and headmistress of their two respective schools. Danny is kicked out and sent back to his rural hometown. Thandiwe returns to Uganda, loses both her father and stepmother to the violence there, but sends him a letter which describes her hopes for the future in the closing, visually stunning final scene.

Danny and Thandiwe’s romance is clearly of a different time than that of Bud and Deanie, and the difference shows. The fact that they are not of the same race profoundly points to the changing climate of the world. Globalization and civil rights were profoundly dominating the agents of this change. They are rebelling all at once against capitalist ideals such as racism and order simply by being together. Prejudices form in capital-driven societies, I believe, based on the need to compete. Many times, though not always, we are made prejudiced because we fear our neighbors, who might look, act, or speak differently from us, will surpass our success in this race we run towards accumulating more wealth. They rebel against order by breaking the rules of their respective schools time and time again to see one another, culminating in their ultimate rebellion in completely abandoning the two campuses to have a private time together before Thandiwe leaves. Order is necessary in schools which, according to Barker when he cites a study in which British working-class boys were the subject, “promise personal and social advancement in return for compliance and docility” (417). This growth will make them acceptable to the society they live in, one in which capitalism is king. Danny is thrown out of school for this deed, thus, he won’t be made ready for this induction.

However, the couple is torn apart, despite their persistent rebellion. Despite its successes as well, the dissemination of their romance occurs and we at last see Danny alone and Thandiewe victimized by political unrest which jilted Uganda and continues to cause major quakes throughout the continent of Africa to this day. Conflicts which, I dare say are spawned by this quest for capital which has become a global one.

Our final film and one of the primary texts viewed and discussed during this semester of “The Radical Romance” is the Lou Ye film Summer Palace which takes place in China during the late 1980’s and follows its characters on into the early years of the most recent decade. Released to the viewing public in 2006 (not in America until 2008) without the blessing of the Chinese government, this film revolves around a very unique and resilient young woman named Yu Hong as she is moved from her rural home to the bustling streets of Beijing when she is accepted to the university there. She meets a few good friends and soon falls in love with a fellow student named Zhou Wei. Theirs is a turbulent romance nearly from its inception riddled with infidelities, misunderstandings and the clashing of forces when gender roles and stereotypes are brought thundering down upon the two of them (and expertly resisted by Yu Hong). To add all the more insult to the injuries this internal conflict causes, the Tiananmen Square incident takes place and further distances the two while also augmenting the longing harbored between them.

Unlike with Splendor in the Grass, Yu Hong and Zhou Wei are not exactly repressed by societal rules against sex outside of marriage. For this is a different time and rules change. This time, rules have changed on a global basis, though, more closely reflecting the current state of societal mores in our world. And unlike our young lovers in Flirting, these two characters are only partially separated due to the outside insanity surrounding them; instead, they are torn apart because they cannot reconcile the differences between them. Yu Hong is not a girl who accepts being led, nor the kind of woman who greets her life sitting, waiting for parents, teachers and society to tell her how to live it. That is, she is not this way when she is young, but I’ll save that bit for later. Zhou Wei feels intimidated by her and the expressed goal she has to, “live and live more intensely.” Her determination to reach this goal ultimately creates a power struggle between the two which they cannot resolve. The uproar and following mayhem which takes place at Tiananmen Square serves as the catalyst, the breaking point in their relationship. Yu Hong leaves because she simply cannot take any more violence when a war has already been raging between her and Zhou Wei.

The film follows these two young people into adulthood. All of the optimism, the passion, the deep feeling which consumed their relationship and youth slowly dims to darkness. A close friend of theirs from the colorful days of their stint in college commits suicide. Zhou Wei works jobs here and there around China, goes away to Germany, comes back to work in China. Yu Hong continues to passionately seek the intensity she yearns for in life with high hopes for her future, all while having various affairs with the men she meets. In the end, we find that she is married and working at a gas station in the early years of the new millennium. She and Zhou Wei reunite again, but the passion they felt as teens is gone. The last scene finds them separating, unable to re-harness the urgency and vigor of their youth.

These two succumb to the now global capitalist society we live in simply by growing up. I believe the fact that director Lou Ye placed Yu Hong at a gas station is a very pivotal and intentional decision on his part. She has succumbed to the dull existence she did not want as a teenager, now occupying the roles of society which perpetuate the generation of capital. She is married, thus, children might be in her future. She is working with her husband to make money which will someday provide the bare necessities of life for the children they have. Maybe Zhou Wei will also marry. He is already working, making money. All that is left is to make more capitalists someday.

Their loss of the fight against society is riveting here and I think it is the connector between all three of these films. To “live intensely” as a teenager means losing that intensity as an adult. One might lose this rebellious fight due to being defeated by the accepted social and moral codes of their particular society and era as Bud and Deanie did. Others might not lose their fervor immediately and, indeed, it might be so strong that they never will. However, greater forces, forces as powerful as the determinants for life or death, might separate them. The separation of these kinds of young people, young people like Danny and Thandiwe, seems to speak to more broad phenomena. They are torn apart by outside forces too powerful to resist as young people might be torn from their passion due to the same or vastly different, yet just as earth-shattering forces. On the other hand, the internal conflict which comes with age might be the shredding force, as it was with Yu Hong and Zhou Wei. Maybe it is innate. To lose the vigor of youth, materialized in rebellion, once reality and responsibility settles in. Essentially, all of these youths, regardless of how, lose. Their rebellions are not agents in battles that are won.

I believe these directors, spanning fifty years of filmmaking, are trying to tell us something: the idealistic outlook, the passion, the sheer excitement it is to be young (and in this case in love) comes to an end with age. Even if we do not see their characters into adulthood sometimes, as with the couple in Flirting, we can still assume that this romance was one moment in their lives, the one filled with the passion youth holds. The fact that these romances come to an end is akin to declaring the passion of youth ended. Surely joy does not end with youth and neither does a person stop “living” when they grow older. But, if we take the message of these three directors’ films to heart, one might assume that the same joy and the same kind of living which takes place during the teenage years cannot be replicated once a person must become a bread-winner in this society, a capitalist society. What these films end up doing is coming to a certain risk: they might influence the public to believe youth is the prime of life and no other can be.

One fact is certain though: capitalism has created a general, though not at all total, uniformity of the human experience, just as it spawned the creation of the term “youth” itself. We all experience the things these six young people experience in the realm of the movies, magnified or lessened in intensity, manifesting in various forms depending on time and place. We resist by dying our hair purple or having sex in our parents’ car or latching on to trends such as anorexia and rock n’ roll and consuming cough medicine to get high. Then, we grow up. We make money. We have children who rebel as we did and the cycle continues. We are in an age of relative uniformity because capitalism calls for it in order to succeed. It has led to, “the effacement of [the] individual and cultural difference”, in the words of Susan Bordo in her piece “’Material Girl’: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture”, an age in which our society tends to, “circumscribe our choices”. But I think there is a ray of hope. If we can retain the passion of our youth and continue to inspire little rebellions in our individual spheres to keep us living intensely, maybe some of that rebellion will regenerate the importance of being and remaining unique in our homogenized society. I will do this, find a way to, my own little way. And I hope you will too.

Works Cited
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality.
Bordo, Susan. ‘Material Girl’: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture.
Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory & Practice, 3rd Edition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications,2008

Kazan, Elia. Splendor in the Grass. VHS. 1961
Duigan, John. Flirting. DVD. 1991
Ye, Lou. Summer Palace. DVD. 2008
The Internet Movie Database.
The American Film Institute.
“Splendor in the Grass: A Film Review by Don Willmott”. Don Willmott. 2000
“Those Chaotic College Years in Beiging”. A.O. Scott. The New York Times. January 18, 2008

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Summer Palace Group Presentation
For my group’s Primary Text Class Presentation, we focused on the film Summer Palace directed by Lou Ye. We wanted to focus on the characters in particular and how their lives and the situations they go through lend meaning to the story in its historical context. Also, we wanted to encourage the class during the discussion to consider the differences and similarities between the young main characters of this film, which takes place in China during the 1980s, and youth represented in our Western culture. I thought it would encourage more discussion to show something which would jog everybody’s memory of the ways we in America are shown representations of youth. I wanted to compile a kind of video montage but I’m not particularly skilled at the overly technical aspects of working with a PC. Thus, I searched the internet for a large amount of images which showed youth in various ways. I then whittled the number down to about forty-five images to make a slide show on PowerPoint. The song “Teenagers” by My Chemical Romance was the one I wanted to play during the show, which was difficult to do on PowerPoint at first. Thanks to advice from my group mate Loretta, we accessed the music video for the song on YouTube so that it could play concurrently with the slides. With the timing of animation in place, this ended up working out fairly well. That way, I was able to show the familiar representations of youth in American popular culture and play the song, which has some of the best lyrics about teenage isolation and resistance against the society we all as teens dread to join and love to scoff at.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

“Cultural Economics” In the City

Whether a person has watched any episodes of the hit television series turned film “Sex in the City” or not, that person might know that the titled “City” happens to be New York. Maybe that person who has not seen any episodes of the series has seen the various instances of entertainment news coverage of the show, whose anchors frequently reiterate the city’s identity in one way or another. Perhaps that simple word “City” implies the sprawling metropolis as its setting in the minds of Americans and thus, need not be stated.
New York stands to benefit much from its association with the said show’s primary setting. Indeed, I assume, New York can be called one of the series’ main characters along with its four-female cast mates. This association comes into visible play when one thinks upon the economic benefits such a city would reap as a result of being a main player in a widely viewed and well-loved television show.
In our text book, Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, author Chris Baker sites the work of sociologist Sharon Zukin in his examination of the cities and spaces in which culture abides (Chapter 12). One of Zukin’s set forth conclusions on the symbolic economy of cities include an examination of how culture is used in our urban areas to create capital and circulate it thus (page 386). Cities are shown through media outlets in positive ways in order to generate interest and eventual tourism or relocation of individuals from all over the world, associating them with “desirable goods” (page 386). In this way, cities are glamorized and glorified. With “Sex In The City” New York has an entire television show which promotes its attractive characteristics.

For example, to use a specific instance, take this scene from an episode of the show entitled “Gender Artifact” by the YouTube post. In it, the four main characters hold a discussion about whether intelligent, independent and (which goes without saying) affluent women still want a relationship in which they can feel like a princess saved by their fairytale prince. Americans and much of the world would associate these women, who fulfill all of the above criteria for the successful urban female, with the city from which they hail. They are intelligent, holding a thoughtful, rather frank conversation about sex, wearing very fashionable clothing. In essence, they represent the best New York has to offer its inhabitants, or at least a little bit of what one would want to strive for: independence, individuality and self-fulfillment. Especially, and perhaps most profoundly, women are the target audience who might be wrangled into the city with this kind of promise. If one wants to be well-dressed and sexually powerful, one can venture to New York and expect to possibly achieve such goals. In creating an entire show which displays multiple instances just like this one, television executives have created the most dynamic of postcards to the rest of America’s female population. And, in many instances, the perfect beckoning tool to women all over the world, who might be watching.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Consumerism and the Symptoms of Youth

Modern philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s “The System of Objects”, a philosophical assessment of the virtual indispensability of consuming in our society, very well serves as a finishing touch accessory to Bret Easton Ellis’ provocative satire on college life in the 1980s, The Rules of Attraction. To the novel’s Burberry suit it is the Chanel broach, adding that much more significance to some of its most overarching themes of isolation, the relativity of perception and the quest for (or absence of, in many characters’ cases) an identity and purpose in such a world. In every way imaginable it adds to Ellis’ observation of these affluent young adults in their many adventures, wasting the excess of time they own on fruitless actions at the liberal arts college whose halls they haunt with a constant bottle of Becks in hand. Does the weighty impact of mass consumerism merely show itself in the 1980s, though? In many ways one can answer “no”. Decades before and after it hold representations of youth lost in the expectations their society deems prudent as a result of our total swallowing of the consumerist pill. Across eras, across regions, even across socio-economic lines, consumption rules and augments some of the symptoms of youth: rebellion, dissatisfaction, fear.
Baudrillard’s put-forth gathering of evidence in his “Objects” leads to the virtual conclusion which states that we each are only what the things in our possession, all signs of who we are and where we stand, make us to be (page 418). Through advertising we are fed images of these objects which signify “wealth” or “beauty”, leading us to purchase them in order to create an identity for ourselves. Our stuff is what we use to set ourselves apart; in doing so, we substitute purchases and consumption for the inherent qualities we possess (page 411). In my understanding of this assessment then, buying fosters a kind of apathy in terms of us as members of consumerist society venturing to gather ourselves, know ourselves. We desire to be different from our neighbor, so we (not all the time, for I do not want to generalize) buy a red sports car or purchase some other object which they don’t have. Through this process we feel satisfied for the moment and victorious, unique, apart from the masses. This, while another person buys the red sports car’s twin and feels the same way as a result of it.
Very acutely one sees the impact this embracing of mass consumerism has on the students at Ellis’ Camden College. Affluent young people without a need in sight participate in drugs, sex, and other wild activities without the hint of a purpose for doing so. Their disconnect from the world around them can be felt throughout the piece as three main characters, Sean, Lauren and Paul navigate their lives during the course of a term. Each one experiences things which would heavily impact any person, young or old. All of which they handle with a general response of, “Deal with it. Rock n’ roll,” phrased one way or another. Moments of emotion are juxtaposed with conversations and new situations revealing little feeling at all, namely in the form of their various sexual encounters. Their parents in all three cases are at differing levels of disconnect from them, supplying the means to live without the values to live by. After everything from the impending loss of a parent to abortion, each main character finally observes themselves by realizing, “I haven’t changed” (page 283). Already made by the stuff they own, including their sexuality and partners, whom they wish to own, these young people have no reason to find their place in the world, their purpose or identity. Not with mother and father having already made one for them in the status their possessions have fostered.
Camden’s students serve as a sometimes disturbing example of how consumerism can make a person lose or, in their case never know, themselves. It induces them to various attempts at rebellion, an instinctive response of youth to societal mores. But these rebellious acts prove to be fruitless and unsubstantial. The booze, the drugs, the sex, do nothing but alienate each character from one another and themselves. It numbs them when they need a goal to work towards and a passion to harbor. The product of consumerism’s eventual monotony is young people making no impact on their world and the wrong ones on themselves and others stuck in the same desert.
This method of coping with the state of mass society’s consumerist design is not unique to the 1980s or Camden College, however. It is not even unique to wealthy young people. For instance, the film “Dazed and Confused,” directed by Richard Linklater, follows average adolescents in their escapades over one evening, the end of the final day of school beginning summer. They drink, commit random acts of hazing upon lower classmen, have sexual encounters, for seemingly no other reason but to enjoy themselves and celebrate the end of the school year. However, upon closer examination, one can see the purpose behind such behavior. They fear what adulthood will presumably force upon them. This is particularly visible in one car scene towards the middle of the film in which three friends, Mike, Tony and Cynthia hold a conversation about their futures. College is the path which Tony and Cynthia speak optimistically about. Mike, however, raises the point that he might not want to go the typical route which society deems necessary for success, monetary and prestige-wise, one in the same. He does not want law school, rather, choices decided upon without fear backing up initiative for each.
Not only does this particular character serve as an example of youth fearing the ambiguity of a future resting on whether one can amass enough fortune to live a good life. One character known as Wooderson has been out of high school for years, yet he still befriends the high school kids and participates in their various escapades. He does not want to grow up. At one point he says, “The older you get, the more rules they are going to try and get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man. L-I-V-I-N.” Rules, I think, which condition society towards adhering to the established consumerist mantle which we all must don in order to stay afloat when youth escapes us.
Despite their differing time periods and socio-economic status (since the kids from “Dazed and Confused” live in a visibly middle class Texas town), both cases of youth observation show them trying to resist. Without any real success, they disobey parents and societal rules by participating in various devious acts, raging against what they fear will soon shackle them. In that our entire society is based on consumerism, these young people will someday uphold the standard and re-affirm its existence. But for now, they do not want to. The characters in “Dazed and Confused” will have to enter this race for things once high school ends, left with no other choices but to work, go to college, or become another Wooderson. Ellis’ characters are in that much more deeply, their security set with no need to want for and, thus, nothing to work for with parents taking care of that for them. This one difference gives just a hint more purpose to the lives of Linklater’s brood than Ellis’ as a result. With these two time periods in mind, the 1970s and 1980s, we see the continuity of this epidemic of lost identity and how it spans over many generations because consumerism is just as continuous. The pathogen is contagious, I think, and could be for generations to come.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Transit Culture: Ethnography of the L.A. Transit System

Los Angeles is well represented by its interwoven public transit system. An array of individuals exhibiting their own understanding and appreciation of various cultures utilize these services each day. In doing so, they create another culture which I am able to see as I take the usual route from Los Angeles to the Valley.
Every day I travel this same route: a course from the Blue Line to the Red to the Orange to one of two buses all the way to CSUN. Each day there are usually the same kind of people riding the various trains and buses. These are professionals on their way to work and students on their way to school. On this day, there was no difference though none of the faces looked very familiar. Most people sat while a few, both male and female, stood. When a woman pushing her child in a stroller boarded, the man sitting on one of the seats stood to offer her a place. This does not happen again for the remainder of the Blue Line trip. When there were no seats, boarders simply held onto the safety rails and stood. None of these were mothers, however.
On the Red Line, a broader range of individuals come within view. On this day there was a homeless man seated with his large bundle of worldly possessions. None of us boarding took the seat beside him. From where I sat, I assessed the oncoming traffic at each of the many stops until my destination was reached. The younger people boarding were sometimes with skateboards and lobe-elongating earrings. Others held books or carried what looked like heavy backpacks without much of an identifiable style to their dress (neither goth, preppy, skater, glam, or anything else). Most of the girls, myself included, wore some form of makeup. I noticed a considerable amount of these young adults, male and female, displayed some kind of tattoo sported upon their bodies. This while the adults carried sack lunches, more times than not, the women, purses and the men maybe a messenger bag. One man wore a fannie pack.
What I noticed in transitioning from my ride on the Red Line to the Orange was how most people were silent, even with the overwhelming noise of the train passing through the tunnel all around. On the Orange Line this silence continued, only broken by a group of teenagers boarding at Ventura. They talked and laughed above the noise of the transit line’s passage and many of the silent riders stole glances their way. A few of the very same silent people on this route, in fact many of them, turned out to be headed exactly where I was headed: CSUN.
Though I have gone this route for… a while, I’ve never paid much attention to the silence and disconnect heavily imposed upon the bus riders. I never considered how this and the other typical characteristics of a long transit route reveal just how many cultures can be cultivated in any situation which holds an amount of people forming a group. Culture needs only people to formulate it. These people of all different backgrounds both socially and culturally, come together each morning to constitute the necessaries which make up a culture.
From what I understand, “culture” is the product of our various systems of language. According to the philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure, we live in a system of signs, signifiers, and those things which are signified, the framework for language in substance and purpose. The signs are a composition of concepts and vocal representations/images we see. Saussure breaks down this term by using the words “signifier” and “signified”. What we say, or the accepted word we use to identify some object or thing we see, is the signifier, while what is tangible represents the signified. This is an arbitrary relationship, in his view.
In understanding this I was able to consider that we use language comprised of these signifiers to go beyond labeling things we see. We use it to build up a system of the acceptable and anathema as well. Our parents tell us not to touch the stove, a box-shaped object we see with knobs and other things adorning it, and we know not to touch it for fear of being burned. But then, we also know not to do certain things just through observation. One man stands up for a mother and her small child on the train, and the rest of us riders understand that this is just the right thing to do. Some of us will do just that when we see a woman in need of a seat for herself and child, others may not. But it is well known that this is spelled out in the “Rider’s Etiquette Handbook”. We see a homeless man seated and automatically all boarders know to avoid him. He could be smelly, or hostile, or… most of us don’t get close enough to know, understanding that he is one to be avoided, given culture’s rules about making something of oneself to be worth something. There is silence, relative quiet at the least, because this too is the right way to conduct oneself around strangers unknown.
Because the signifiers and signified are so arbitrary, it seems, a consensus can be easily reached which associates a homeless man with the negative nature behind such a label and, thus, the more positive term “business man” is made positive. The same with “student” and “mother” and “worker”. All are more positively conceived of than “homeless man” because of the arbitrary relationship between them. Just as Saussure says, there cannot be a positive sign without the negative to compare it with. On the bus, “loud”, “and, “bawdy” all mean the same bad things. “Silent” and “quiet” on the other hand, are good.
What I mean by all of this is that the places we go have their own culture within their walls and vitals which becomes engendered within us the moment we mix ourselves into that particular community. The transit system, at least on my route, has these particular elements comprising its culture. Though the relationship between the signifiers and signified aspects made here on the train are arbitrary, they are weighty enough to convince each rider each day to adhere to the rules. I abandon my Transit culture the moment I enter campus or come home each day. And in so doing I and all my fellow riders abandon one system, one culture, in exchange for another until the next day.