Yesterday I accused boomers of being out of touch with contemporary culture. I am right in this accusation, but I am wrong to be scornful.
The fact of the matter I am a boomer and I would be out of touch were it not for the fact that I am an anthropologist charged with the study of contemporary culture.
For some (and only some) purposes, we are most sentient about contemporary culture in our teen years. Not me. No, I managed to pass through my adolescence without learning very much about contemporary culture at all.
Oh, I had heard popular music and I watched TV And I had one friend who was a gifted blues guitarist and another who started one of Vancouver’s early Punk bands. But somehow none of this made much of an impression.
It was as if I was living in a bubble. I am not sure what I was thinking but I was not thinking about culture. (I do remember complaining to the blues guitarist that contemporary music didn’t have enough words.)
It wasn’t until I took a job as the Director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture that I began to get a clue. It was clear that I couldn’t run an ICC unless I had one, a clue that is. Research assistants Jeff Brown and Nick Harney, sat me down and took me through the culture of the moment. Together we created an exhibit on teens called "Coming of Age in the 1990s.
This means that I began to know about culture because someone paid me to learn it. This has not happens, I dare say, to many other boomers, so they can be forgiven having lost touch. They should be expected to have lost touch.
Since then I have studied culture for my own purposes and for various clients. Mark Earls and I did a fantastic ethnography of "cocktail culture" in Boston and New York. A great florescence has happened here and I have missed it entirely had a spirits company not paid me to go have a look. I have interviewed factory workers in the deep south, construction works in the North east, amateur investors in Kansas City, new media users in San Francisco, bar patrons in Chicago and London, photographers in Paris and Moscow, and householders in Belgium, China and Singapore.
I spend my professional life being pushed out of ignorance and being forced to notice that the world has changed. For a guy who came of age in a bubble, it’s been a really useful experience.
So I am wrong to sneer at boomers. I am wrong to be accusatory.
And this raises the question: how to get boomers back in the loop.
We are adding a new name to our blog roll. Please welcome Ruby Kariela. Ruby is 10 and I believe this makes her the youngest ethnographer working today. I like to think of her as "reporting from childhood" but she will have her own way of describing what she does. Please visit her blog at here.
Anecdotally, rare is the individual that seeks out disconfirming information about their currently held beliefs and opinions. Similarly, rare is the individual that fully appreciates the evolution of cultural values and ideas that have led to a current milieu (or milieux). Perhaps you were paid to pay attention, but I think there is value for everyone to be aware, even if only broadly, of how the changes going on around us fit together.
You might be wrong to sneer at boomers, but I might suggest a need to sneer at millennials, Gen X, boomers, and most everyone else. If millennials don’t understand the cultural icons of boomers, to me that as big a sin as boomers not understanding the cultural icons of millenials. Why give so much reverence to newer generations? Focusing on their particular cultural interests and tastes, I think in part, legitimizes their ignorance of previous generations, and vice versa. The old “doomed to repeat” phrase is ringing in my head. Now it could be argued that boomers have been emphasized due to their numbers, and their creation myths (post war etc etc), and maybe their dominance of contemporary consciousness needs to come down a peg or three, but that shouldn’t make them any less culturally relevant to newer generations.
“Newness” has certain qualities that elevate its relevance, perhaps unduly. The technology industry could write the defining work in this area. But contextualizing the newness by grounding it in history, I think, goes a long way towards pointing to the truly relevant trends, while helping to discount the “noise”. I feel like the average person doesn’t care about this kind of thing though. They’d rather jump from new to new to new, and then suddenly they’ve lost he thread of how they got there (like repeated Google/Wikipedia searches of which everyone is guilty). This is a problem because knowing the threads (the links and the why those links were followed), I think, helps foster improved cross-group and cross-generation understanding (a tremendous social value).
I feel like maybe I’m parroting ideas of yours back at you, so apologies if all I am doing here is using different words to describe ideas you’ve already expressed. Selfishly, writing this down here in this manner is helping me think through my own new to new to new adventures, and the blind spots they have created …
Alex, very useful and welcome. I think the emphasis on newness and a clean slate, and the authority of each new generation is a modernist mandate and we know that this mandate is now under challenge. Indeed, we could take the artisanal thing as a reflection of our unease with the old model of change. Thanks, Grant
Welcome Ruby. I look forward to your unobstructed view of the world.
Grant – Your comments could be interpreted to suggest that you are a mono-culturalist; that you believe there exists a singular version of contemporary culture. Have I read you properly? If yes, is mono-culturalism an ethnographically grounded perspective? Tomaso Shibutani famously characterized each individual as residing in a unique node in the socio-cultural communication matrix. An implication is that each of inhabits a world slightly different from everyone else. This reflects and is reflected in what we encounter and what we express. For example, the conversations I encounter on Facebook are radically different than the conversations my daughters encounter on facebook; as a consequence of our differing social networks and activities. Same communication platform, different cultural content. Are you suggesting that to be ‘up’ on contemporary culture, that I, too, should be spending hours perusing MyLifeIsAverage.com in search of entries such as:
It was the first time I was meeting my college roommate and I didn’t know what to expect. When she came in the room she smiled and said hello, then started unpacking her bag. And what were the first things she unpacked? A Cruella DeVille wig, a pink rubber duck, and a Dora the Explorer coloring book. New best friend? I think so. MLIA.
And then texting bits to friends or posting links on my FB page? (Cultural activities). Or, does the mono-culturalism mask (deny) cohort variation in the content of contemporary culture? For example, why are performers given such a privileged position? What about the guys that designed the long board? (very cool guys to some guys I know) or how about the team at Cannondale that has taken techniques conventionally used to form bike frames out of carbon fiber and are applying them to aluminum frames? What about 16 year olds that have a “Billy Joel” channel in their Pandora account?
In short, your post has me wondering about contemporary culture cohorts in contrast to contemporary mono-culturalism.
Rob, nice spot and good question. It forces me to see that I believe I am a monoculturalist. I think all that variety and diversity comes from the operation of the principals we hold dear. That we, usually, learn to live with the outcome says that we expect and accept all the variety. We are a field of fields, a house of houses, various and generative. a conversation for a talk over drinks some day! Best, Grant
I seem to recall this fascinating book called Plenitude about the subcultural explosion of our era and how diverse and complex our society has become.
It’s hard to know about things if you have no reason to find out. Curiosity by itself isn’t enough–you have to have an occasion to find out about, say, the hex-grid wargaming culture of the 1970s-80s or modern Calvinists or western swing dancing enthusiasts.