Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The iPod Generation

I’m sitting at Winning Coffee, in the University area of Albuquerque, on Election Day 2008. I had just motorcycled from a mile up Central Avenue, in the Nob Hill district, where I finished off a roll of slide film on the street life around the Obama campaign headquarters.

Whereas Nob Hill is eclectic in a sort of up-scale yuppification (boutique shops and restaurants,) the area around the University of New Mexico, especially south of Central Avenue (and known as the Student Ghetto) is more like bohemian-meets-grunge. This is especially true in that last great bastion of bohemia, Winning Coffee, where the aroma of fresh roasted espresso grind is tinged with an aura of the unwashed, both literal and figuratively. Here is to be found a unique-to-Albuquerque sidewalk café culture of students, low-rent minions, street beggars, cyclists, eccentric intellectuals and bohemian wanna-bes (such as myself,) smoking hand-rolled and otherwise, drinking coffee and having a bite to eat.

I really don’t fit in, at least in theory. I earn a middle class income, live across town in an established suburban neighborhood, own my own house, make no car payments, and come downtown on off days to soak up a touch of street culture, what little there is to find in this most conventional of western cities.

Like most communities that experienced explosive growth post WWII, the infrastructure of Albuquerque is built around the automobile. This is in contravention to the kind of condensed urban environment required to produce the sort of vibrant street life that writers, photographers, artists and bohemians of all ilks have gathered to for generations.

Lest we forget, ideas such as Marxism also arose out of the bohemian café culture of mid-18th century Europe, along with most of the seeds of modern art. The stew of culture that is the bohemian café society is a true melting pot of social intercourse, giving birth to entirely novel conventions of thinking. This is in direct contrast to what we in contemporary America have come to call “popular culture,” which has nothing to do with true culture because it is not a melting pot of human social intercourse, but rather a marketing experiment for Corporate America.

Before we wax excessively on the apparent aesthetic freedom of 21st century American Bohemia, let us be reminded that a sizable percentage of the customers at Winning sport retro-grunge-pseudo-non corporate-branded clothing, designed to appear off-grid and disconnected from the mainstream of consumer culture; laptop computers both PC and Mac; Bluetooth enabled cellular phones; ear-bud-sprouting MP3 players and other detritus of mass-marketed consumer culture. This is a generation that has taken to the products of 21st century manufacturing technology with an unbridled zeal that is wholly ironic compared to the gaping dichotomy between what they profess to believe and what mass-consumption-driven consumerism implies. This is not the hippie generation of the 1960s, the children of those who fought WWII, who were prepared to truly go “off-grid,” roughing it in communes and geodesic domes planted on some hillside far removed from the conveniences of modern urban living. These neo-bohemians eschew the values of corporate America that engineered and built the mechanized civilization that they take for granted, assuming that these systems have always been here and will ever be, like some law of nature; no maintenance required, no cost necessary, provided for the social benefit of all by the omni-present Supreme Deity whom they, en masse, deny. This is the naiveté of socialism with none of the realism.

One gets the feeling that what is needed is a good, old-fashioned, totalitarian crack-down to bring this naïve generation to their senses and make them realize that nothing is sustained with little or no effort; that civilization in its truest sense is a precious, fragile, precarious thing whose mere existence is in contravention to the laws of nature and thermodynamics. Left to it, the world is in a continual process of decay; creativity alone can reverse the tide of degradation, if only for a moment.

What I do find refreshing in the spirit of many of the youth I see represented at Winning is a healthy skepticism of the dominant paradigm. Yes, they are quick to embrace some new trend or fad; that is the mere folly of youth. But they also can look upon this rock-strewn cultural landscape and see many of the same pitfalls that my generation was too reckless to avoid.

The culture of the Baby Boom generation has been documented, dissected, researched, strained, sifted and every thread torn asunder in an attempt at understanding. It is now time for the Baby Boomers to make that supreme sacrifice: we must quit gazing into the mirror long enough to pay some attention to our offspring. They are desperate for our attention.

Those who are entrusted to write our cultural history hold as it were the very keys to civilization itself, for if a culture forgets its past then it is nothing, it is done for good. Culture by definition is a continually evolving process of ever-changing contexts, whereby the future becomes the present becomes the past; new futures always on the horizon; new presents ever appearing; recent pasts always in flux. Culture therefore is a method agreed upon by which the ever-changing present is kept in continual focus. In order for this to continue functioning there has to be some direct comparison with the non-present, the past. Social and cultural historians are entrusted to document these changes, ever reinterpreting the past in light of an ever-changing present, while simultaneously being faithful to permit the facts of the past to speak for themselves.

Those who fail in this task, either intentionally or by accident, become by default propagandists, whose only usefulness is for those with empire-building agendas.

As I finish my coffee and scone, and prepare to depart for more errands to run, I reflect upon this eclectic cultural mix found at Winning. These neo-bohemians: who will speak for them? Have they no voice? Who will be the documentarians of their culture? Or will they merely be known to historians as anonymous consumers of popular culture, the iPod Generation?


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