Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Arbitrary Irony

Reading: Paul Fussell's Wartime.

Fussell's history of World War II follows the same pattern as his The Great War and Modern Memory, deriving a pattern of mass cultural change from the introduction of new words and ways of talking about the self. Mass-mobilization changes the homefront. Mass experience of systematic authority changes the mind and the image of efficient power.

Fussell is pretty sure that WWII invented the word "fucking" as an adjective. It degraded and drained the hope out of the experience of the army as a unit. "Fucking" implied that one was a god in one's submarine but a plumber in real life, that the rituals of war were certain and fatal in the moment and meaningless once peace came. All one's little powers were chicken shit and one knew it.

So it goes, writes Vonnegut. So I remember graduate students in Berkeley waxing sentimental over Slaughterhouse Five and the great meaninglessness of the universe. Turtle-necked eye-linered out women who pouted and spat for the semester were emailing the class poetry after Vonnegut. "Fucking" got them somewhere regency couplets never did.

Fussell is right, so far as I can tell, about the total transformation of language in a moment like World War II, the total shape it gives identity, hope, apathy, irony, courage. And Fussell is at least a little ironic and nostalgic himself, being first the author of a book about how World War I had really destroyed for good the elite-run universe that prayed and hoped and made love over each posy and poppy in the countryside. Such sincerity and glossy hope for inter-class collaboration died in the first Great War. What died in the second World War seems to have been faith in the ability of individuals.

Which makes the present moment so strange. There's a lyric of the meaningless void. The New Yorker has been seen using "soul crushing" as a positive adjectival phrase. And yet, as Danah Boyd has remarked, our generation (age 26 to 30) graduated in the middle of the boom, and has high expectations. Great expectations for selfish gain and for accomplishments. Few hopes for what the soul can do. As if all that soul culture crap Raymond Williams talks about had been utterly beaten out of us.

Yeah, i don't know what it means. Someone tell me please: what forces are changing language now on this deep level -- of anathemizing courage in the name of irony, for instance. And someone else please tell me what facing the meaningless void does for civilization: poison? gift? nothing at all? remarkable face lift, making the client feel some twenty years younger? monastic humility in the face of grandiose expectations of the previous century?


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