by Rob Horning

8 June 2006


Advertising blog AdPulp is worried about the youth of America:

Marketers everywhere are trying to figure out the best way to reach the teen and twenty-something markets. Perhaps, we ought to drop that pursuit and instead focus on why this generation is busy hurting themselves.
According to Associated Press:

  Nearly 1 in 5 students at two Ivy League schools say they have purposely injured themselves by cutting, burning or other methods, a disturbing phenomenon that psychologists say they are hearing about more often. For some young people, self-abuse is an extreme coping mechanism that seems to help relieve stress; for others, it’s a way to make deep emotional wounds more visible. The results of the survey at Cornell and Princeton are similar to other estimates on this frightening behavior. Counselors say it’s happening at colleges, high schools and middle schools across the country. Separate research found more than 400 Web sites devoted to the subject, including many that glorify self-injury.

I immediately wondered if these two seemingly disparate ideas are related: that this generation is turning to self-harm as a result of being the most-marketed-to generation in the history of humankind. Self-harm would be an attempt at achieving authenticty, some sense of real feeling, in the face of the perpetual reinforcement of the importance of surface charm, the continual insincere flattery the media basks them in, and the instrumentalization and commodification of emotion (feelings become on-demand, like an episode of The Sopranos or a porn flick). Media culture—entirely given over to marketing impulses at this point—thrives by inducing insecurity and then offering ersatz solutions for the feelings of inadequacy that invite you to become even more alienated. No wonder they are so miserable. Culture, doing the bidding of consumer-goods markets, rationalizes the phoniness, the passivity, the sheepishness, the shallow notion of individuality on offer via shopping for identityas natural; self-harm becomes an irrational response trying to shatter that consensus, make ones rejection plain and irrevocable. Self-harm is the one thing you can’t buy on the market, it’s one thing you can never feel like a sucker for buying, it’s one thing you own completely—an act that can’t be traced directly back to some form of cynical manipulation on the part of some corporation. Thus the fact that websites have begun to “glorify” ritual self-abuse suggests that perhaps it’s exhausting itself as a viable retreat from media culture; that it too has been co-opted. Once you can cut on yourself to be cool, you can’t really cut on yourself for relief from the pressures to be cool.

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