02 mai 2009

Andrew Calcutt – Arrested Development. Pop culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (note de lectura)

Made by Silviu Man

Cassell, London, 1998


Infantilism is not completely new, but its significance in today’s society is entirely unprecedented.

By celebrating an idea of ourselves as vulnerable and childlike, pop culture has contributed to the development of a society obsessed by safety.

In the 1990s, you can have any sexuality you like as long as it is safe.

From being a word which had connoted an anti-authoritarian stance, “safe” has become a word that sums up the new form of authority, which works by encouraging us to think of ourselves as essentially vulnerable individuals who must pay heed to the never-ending task of making ourselves “safe”.

In the 1950s and 1960s the counterculture was developed by the front-runners of a generation whose lack of faith in existing society was exceeded only by disbelief in their own ability to change it. In retreat from the problems of their age, they created the counterculture as a relatively low-risk play area where high-stakes questions about the future of humanity could be avoided.

What began in the counterculture as a refusal to accept the norms associated with adulthood is now a sad reflection of the successive generations who could not find it in themselves to grow up and instead have lived their entire lives permanently poised on the cusp of the adolescent dilemma.

The post-Second-World-War society proved unable to develop a credible model of adulthood.

The 1960s and the 1970s were also the period in which the clown, symbolizing childish innocence and naïve irrationality, came to be a favoured icon. (Godspell, Blow Up)

With pop culture as its backdrop, the Clinton generation is introducing a new state religion into the United States: counselling.

The basic assumption of the new-policy makers is that we are all victims, in constant need of professional advice and regulation to help us through the bad trip called life.

In short there are no ready-made images of adulthood which we can look to today.

Pop culture tells us, the only avenue for the realization of our humanity is our “free time” in the evening and at the weekends.

So pop-culture begins by submitting to the idea that the active part of the week, the five days from Monday to Friday and the underlying social patterns, are simply immutable.

In E culture we degrade ourselves by performing a caricature of human activity (dancing for eight hours non-stop), a parody of thought (chilling out) and a travesty of collectivity (take a drug which suspends self-interest and enjoy the spurious sense of community which temporary ensues). The E experience lobotomizes what is uniquely human, namely the capacity for purposive activity based on the combination of intuition and rational appraisal.

This [the inability to find a worldview] has been the main theme of pop culture ever since [Jackson Pollock].

Cult of the loser, fetishized youth, lifelong excuse for immaturity and childishness, model of adulthood – stiff-backed and bowler-hatted, a broadly-passive stance on life, society dedicated to self-abasement.

The tryptich everyone/everything/now, the adoration of the present, celebration of movement.


The new alienated defined themselves by cultivating a sense of estrangement.

In The Politics of Experience, the radical psychiatrist Dr. R. D. Laing declared that alienation had become the starting-point of human existence.

When the hippie style lost its alienated edge, punks reinvented it.

David Riesman : “the conservative belief in progress, the belief that no one can stop technological progress has itself become a tradition, indeed a form of realistic insanity”.

Phillip Slater: “The old culture American needs to reconsider his commitment to technological ‘progress’. If he fails to kick the habit he may retain his culture and lose his life. One often hears old culture adherents saying ‘what will you put in its place?’… But what does a surgeon put in the place of a malignant tumor?

The rejection of traditional politics was as central to the new alienation as revulsion against technocratic society.

Kenneth Keniston – 1960: “Alienation characteristically takes the new form of rebellion without a cause, of rejection without a program, of refusal of what is without vision of what should be”.

Marcuse maintained that alienated sensibility was a sign of political subversion.

‘Medievalism’ (rejection of industrial society) and ‘monasticism’ (formation of insulated communities) were two of the trends identified by the British sociologist Jock Young in his investigation into the ‘subterranean values of the bohemins’ at the beginning of the 1970s.

Jeff Nutall, Bomb Culture: “Young people are not correcting society. They are regurgitating it.”

In today’s context the alienated sensibility no longer contains an anti-establishment edge.

Unlike fifty years ago, there are no ideologies for today’s alienated to identify themselves against. Our ‘cool’ predecessors knew who they were by the virtue of the fact that they disbelieved in those singular entities known as Marxist-Leninism and the American/British Way of Life. But nowadays there are no absolute belief systems left to disbelieve in. From priests to politicians, everyone is pragmatic and pluralist as only rebel without causes used to be.

It seems that nowadays alienated rebels can realize themselves only as a pastiche of their previous incarnations – a far cry of the birth of the cool when Brando and Dean were famous because no one had ever looked like them before.

David Harvey: “We can no longer conceive of the individual as alienated in the classical Marxist sense, because to be alienated presupposes a coherent rather than a fragmented sense of self from which to be alienated”.


Gabriel Marcel : “Perhaps I can’t explain this to you but if I had a piano here I could play it”.

Music is the art form best suited to take advantage of discrediting of the intellect.

Charles Reich : “A new sense of existence in immediate present, without being fixed”.

Allan Bloom : “Movement takes the place of progress”.

Abbie Hoffmann : “Reality is a subjective experience. It exists in my head. I am the Revolution”.

With hindsight it is apparent that in the 1960s the left allowed itself to be re-worked in the image of the counterculture. […] The result is that a new generation of politicians (many of them from a countercultural background) is currently inaugurating a new political cycle by applying assumptions and policies arising from the convergence of the counterculture and the left in the 1960s.

The blurring process has in fact been in motion since the 1960s, when, as MacDonald observes, the assumption was first made that “all human problems and divisions were issues not of substance but of perception”.

The excitement at cutting oneself free from the historical failures of capitalism and socialism was inextricably linked to the mounting anxiety about one’s own rootless existence.

In the rebellion of the 1960s the self was made sacrosanct.

Graffito on the walls of Paris, may 1968: “a revolution that asks us to make sacrifices for it is an old-fashioned revolution”.

The search for now can often mean the annihilation of the self.


The rebel male characters of the 1950s did not initiate action as much as respond to situations beyond their control. In this respect they were childlike rather than adult.

The child motif was by no means confined to teenagers and those catering for their tastes. It was also spreading into academia, high culture and high society.

Simon Frith : “pop songs celebrate not the articulate but the inarticulate… they measure the depth and originality of their emotions by reference to their inability to find words for them”.

When Theodore Roszack noted with alarm that “in every family comedy of the last 20 years Dad has ben the buffon”, Greenfield recalled that in children’s TV programmes “the villain was always a grown-up in authority”.

Yippie Leader Jerry Rubin : “We’re gonna take acid with our kids! Our kinds are going to tell us what to do!... We ain’t never grow up! We’re gonna be adolescents forever”.

Jim Haynes: “After World War Two everybody was tired and the Beat movement in America began examining why we are alive?... and one of the answers was : to have fun”.

By the mid-1970s one of the chief complaints against the hippies was that their culture had lost its childlike innocence and mutated into “adult-oriented rock”. […] It became necessary to re-invent the child in pop culture, with its connotations of innocence and authenticity. This the punks duly did, at the same time as they re-presented the alienated sensibility.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the child as represented in punk was succeeded by yet another representation of the child as expressesd by the “shambling” bands of the “indie” scene.

In the 1990s the child motif has appeared in increasingly absurd guises. There are restaurants like The Playroom in Battersea where punters play with toys and Barbie dolls along with their food and drink; and there are “baby adult clubs” where members can play at being infants.

Meanwhile Courtney Love is rumoured to carry the ashes of Kurt Cobain “in a teddy bear in her back pack”.

Joseph J. Schwab: “The very phrase ‘search for identity’ is absurd, because identities are not found lurking in some corner you have not looked in yet… Identity is made when you have located and developed the competencies – the potencial competencies you have got – and have made something of them”.

Jeff Nuttall : “naivety was equated with honesty, ineptitude was equated with sincerity, and merit was gauged in terms of proximity to the animal and the vegetable.”

Robert Bolt : “we no longer have, as past societies have had, any picture of individual Man (Stoic Philosopher, Christian Religious, Rational Gentlemen) by which to recognize ourselves and against which to measure ourselves; we are anything. But if anything, then nothing.”

Eric Konigsberg regards infantilization ‘as an antidote to the uncertainties of the day. Age regression is a protective shield’.

The cult of the child in politics was further illustrated on 2 July 1997 by the first-ever children’s day at 10 Downing Street, when the doors of the prime ministerial home were thrown open to a party of children under the watchful gaze of the supernanny Cherie Blair.

It usually involves hours of frenetic dancing, a parody of activity, followed by a spell in the chill-out room which is given over to thinking thoughts of the utmost banality. Both halves of this experience are said to engender a sense of togetherness. But the dancing is done solo: each to his or her own solipsism, even if we are all solipsists simultaneously. And the chill-out consists of facile exchanges rather than substantial interaction. The ‘community’ created here is equally superficial. It depends on the temporary effects of ingesting the same drug, and disappears as soon as the effects wear off.

Thom Yorke (Radiohead): “feeling like… I don’t have an adult frame of mind, ‘tough I do adult things”.


In ‘an infantilized culture of complaint’, says Robert Hughes, ‘to be vulnerable is [to be] invincible’.

Hughes: “to be infantile is a regressive way to defy the stress of corporate culture: don’t tread on me, I’m vulnerable. The emphasis is on the subjective: how we feel about things".

Their concept of the subjective meant making oneself the subject, i.e. the actor, in the lived experience of history, rather than being subjected to the forces of nature or allowing oneself to become the mere object of someone else’s attention and manipulation.

A subjective culture focusing on ‘how we feel’.

Hughes quoting Goethe:

Epochs which are regressive… are always subjective, whereas the trend in all progressive epochs is subjective.

The trend today is directly opposite to Goethe’s recommendation: i.e. more and more people are turning from the external world to an inner world, which then comes to be celebrated as the only word we have.

The upshot is a subjectivist mindset which is unwilling and increasingly unable to distinguish between perception and objective reality.

In their various ways (‘Clift’s silent stare, Brando’s mumbling and Dean’s giggle’) these three actors communicated a new ‘inarticulacy’.

The Beats were cultivating the notion of vulnerability as a sign of superior consciousness.

In an age that looks to anti-heroes rather than heroes, vulnerability rather than ambition has become the key component in the cultural personality of our times.

Lewis Yablonsky: “the revolution” … is simply a shield of immunity that allows people to act out violent and bizarre behavior.

The gradual eclipse of subjectivity as history-making can be seen as the corollary of the emergence of vulnerability as an acceptable, even desirable, mode of existence.

By the end of the 1970s vulnerability was re-presented in pun, which ‘celebrated its patheticness’, according to Nuttall.

The shaven heads of the skinheads were meant to invite comparison with Nazi storm troopers. But shaven heads and striped pants on the indie scene were more reminiscent of their concentration camp victims.

The connection between sickness and creativity.

It has now reached the point where not to be vulnerable is regarded as a sign of untrustworthiness: if one is not abused, one is taken to be an abuser.

There is nothing substantial or even truly co-operative about this togetherness.

In this respect, political culture functions not as a vehicle for activating change but more as a shelter from consequences of ideological failure. It operates, therefore, in much the same way as the counterculture which preceded it.


Dr. Francis Rigley, according to a study on a Beat enclave in San Francisco: “60 % were so psychotic or crippled by tensions, anxiety and neurosis as to be non-functional in the competitive world”.

Dr. Robert M. Lindner : “a new kind of psychopath: ‘a religious disobeyer of prevailing codes and standards… a rebel without a cause, an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a programme’”.

From the 1950s onwards, in other words, growing numbers of individuals started to play at being mad. First they identified themselves with the label ‘psychopath’. Then in the 1970s they labeled themselves ‘paranoid’, and verified this self-labelling with reference to the Black Sabbath song with the same title.

Madness could be regarded as both a burden and a mission – the countercultural equivalent of Christian vocation.

Artaud’s favourite definition of lunatic : ‘a man who has preffered to become what is socially understood as mad rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honour.’

The first principle of anti-ideology […] has come to be the new orthodoxy.

In the 1990s anti-ideology has now gone mainstream, to the point where ‘ideological’ is the ultimate pejorative term in a political debate which is appropriately bereft of ideas.

The idea of lunacy as lifestyle not only belittles the achievements of human society so far but also wants to dispense with one of the essential tools for achieving more than we have done already – our rationality.


Contemporary spirituality sanctifies the individual and at the same time desecrates his potential.

It would never occur to the Beat to do what the Wright Brothers did; indeed, if the world has always been populated by Beats, the aeroplane would have never been invented.

For them [the Beats] the point was neither to understand the world nor to change it.

Zen’s commitment to paradox and randomness could be conveniently identified with the intellectual confusion of healthily restless but still unformed minds.

It should be noted that the desire to ‘surrender to the rhytm’ is a constant feature of the pop music experience.

Paul Goodman: “the sacramental use of noise”.


In many respects the early 1970s were an absurd re-presentation of the 1960s: flared trousers ballooned outwards; cuban heels became stack heels; and drum breaks grew into interminable solos. Glam rock ironized stardom; and then punk came along and ironized glam rock with the glamour of degradation.

Czeslaw Milosz: ‘irony often corrodes the hand which wields it’.

[Refferring to Rorty’s defence of irony]: Although experiencing increasing difficulty in doing so, there was an anti-establishment element in this trend. But now that absolutism has been disestablished even among the establishment, the ironist’s provisionality (translated as ‘pragmatism’ in current political jargon) is the new orthodoxy, and disaffiliation from ‘a power other than themselves’ turns out to be an affiliation of powerlessness.

Landesman: [irony] ‘it is the nervous tic of those too timid to hold convictions’.

Mark Edwards: ‘irony is a great excuse for anything… in short, irony allows anyone to avoid responsibility for their actions and attitudes’.


The phenomenon of whites identifying with an erroneous idea of being black is indicative of a degraded selfhood rather than the progressive identity with which it is traditionally associated.

Since the 1940s young white tourists have come looking for roots that they themselves do not have. But, in seeking to identify with the perceived rootedness of blacks, they have ascribed to blacks to the very same characteristics which were previously projected on to them by ‘scientific’ racists. Except that where the latter put a cross, the new bohemians put a tick; and congratulated themselves for being ‘broad-minded’ in doing so.

Michael Bane : ‘white America has created a carefully constructed mythology of the American Black’.

Bernard Wolfe described New Orleans jazz as ‘largely an accommodation to the masked placed over blacks by white society’.

If Wolfe was right, then the white negro has never imitated blacks, but only the image of being black that he himself originated.

Alvin Gouldner: ‘at the bottom of the modern plea for authenticity’ is ‘the failure of successful conformity to produce gratification’.

Ned Polsky: ‘The white Negro accepts the real Negro not as a human being in his totality but as the bringer of a highly specified and restricted “cultural dowry”, to use Mailer’s phrase. In so doing, he creates an inverted form of keeping the nigger in his place’.

Calvin C. Hernton (black writer): “these Negroes are diseased by the racist’s grotesque sex image of them, which, after all, is nothing more than a myth”.

Meanwhile, as [Simon] Reynolds noted, black musicians were straining on the leash and trying to move in the opposite direction, to the point where ‘hip-hop’ was by no means concerned with empathy and personal warmth but rather comprised kind of ‘soul on ice, a survivalist retreat from engagement’ which resulted in the ‘frozen shells of a minimal self’.

It is a calculated rendition of the alienated sensibility which blacks have copied from disenchanted whites, who as white negroes then go on to recycle the black version of their own alienation.


Frank Mort: ‘extravagant and aggressive pluralism’.

Polhemus: style is ‘inherently conservative and traditional and it is for the reason that it often makes use of permanent body decorations’.

Linda Grant: ‘limiting human activity is a definition of what we mean by society’.

If rebellion has a philosophy, it ‘would be a philosophy of limits’.

(Colin MacInnes): "the sacred principles: ‘we like this or that, therefore it’s right we do it’".

Mairowitz : ‘some 30,000 humans gathered to demonstrate for no purpose whatever’.

Spencer Dryden : ‘They don’t want the discipline of the home, and yet they want the security. And the only thing what will give them security is to give them what they want’.

Paul Kantner: ‘People were looking for someone to tell them how to run their lives’.

Paul Goodman : ‘In a Beat group it is bad form to assert or deny a position as true or false, probable or improbable, or want to explore its meaning. The aim of conversation is for each one to be able, by speech, to know that he is existing and belonging.’

Idem : the Beats were ‘unable to make the jump to the great international humanist community because, simply, they don’t know anything, neither literature nor politics’.

Lewis S. Feuer (1960s) : ‘the terrorist and the hippie are the commingling alternatives within the next stage of the New Left’.

Throughout the 1970s droves of New Leftists became radical social workers with a mission to raise the consciousness of their clients and convert them to was fast becoming a doctrine of limitations.

If the consumer could not be trusted to make the right choices, the ‘counseling ideology of the personal service professions’ (Geoffrey Pearson/Paul Halmos) would be there to help them.

Christopher Lasch : The cult of personal relations, which becomes increasingly intense as the hope of the political solutions recedes. […] The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic, radiates a profound despair and resignation. It is the faith of those without faith.


Lasch: ‘the victim has come to enjoy a certain moral superiority in our society’.

C.J. Skyes: ‘the claim that one is a victim has become one of the few currencies of intellectual exchange’.

Anita Roddick, co-owner of the Body Shop, was heard to say of Tony Blair : ‘I like the way he looks exhausted’ -> ‘adorably vulnerable’.

Nowadays the victim is among the top personae in today’s society.

Apart from the victim, pre-adulthood is the only other universal unit of cultural currency, while adulthood itself is about as welcome as negative equity.

William Eccleshare, chief executive of the leading advertising agency Amnirati Puris Lintas : ‘If all advertising seems to be directed at the young it’s because we’ve found the most effective way to appeal to everyone is to make commercials which embody attitudes associated with youth’.

This [victim] ethos loses sight of the level playing field of adult autonomy, and replaces it with a two-tier set-up comprising those who are non-adult (the people) and those who are called upon to play a super-adult role (the professionals).

When Patricia Hewitt […] declared that in the interests of children ‘we need a new statement of what parenting means’, she was really suggesting that the state, or a body close to it, should codify a model of parenthood and pressurize parents to adhere to it, thereby removing from them the opportunity to bring up their children as they see fit.

Instead of protection from the state, the term ‘rights’ has been twisted to mean protection by the state.

Victor Lewis Smith : ‘ […] it appears that I am still the only person in Britain who wasn’t sexually abused as a child’.

Stanley Cohen : ‘For victims, if not for deviants (as we thought in the sixties), the personal has indeed become political. The culture of victimization emerges from identity politics: groups defining themselves only in terms of their claims to special identity and suffering. And this trend is given a spurious epistemological dignity by the ethic of multiculturalism. The result of all this is to actually subvert the … politics based on such old fashioned Enlightement meta-narratives as common citizenship and universal rights.

Cohen seems to be suggesting that, by coming down to the level of the personal, politics has been reduced in scale. But instead of thereby expanding the scope of the individual, as was the hope in the 1960s, this has served to reduce the range of humanity.

It seems that in the 1990s the new politics exists on the same narrow terrain of individual behavior which was previously the preserve of the counterculture and its anti-politics.

It would be more accurate to suggest that the anti-politics of the 1960s counterculture was the flowering of the anti-society seeds planted by the previous generation.

Politics as subculture - Phil Cohen described the ‘latent function of subculture’ as follows: ‘to express and resolve, albeit ‘magically’ the contradictions hidden, or unresolved, in the parent culture’.

Politics, in other words, is no longer political. Instead, politics and pop have fused into a new social phenomenon which is as significant and as mystical as religion, although without the sense of purposeful activity which the latter has occasionally encapsulated.

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