Surburbia and the solace of Spin magazine in the mid-1980s

The problems of Pleasant Valley are being replicated all over America. The government payroll is being cut at the same time that the unemployment rate is higher than it has been in two generations. There is wealth, but it doesn’t find itself in the production of government services. Besides, government services don’t seem to work. The schools don’t seem to educate. Welfare is hated by everybody: the social workers, the recipients, and the general public who provides the money … and heath care is a travesty, especially in public institutions.

That sounds sort of familiar, as if could be from an op-ed from last week, but it comes from Suburban Youth in Cultural Crisis, a 1979 book by Ralph Larkin. The book is an ethnography of a suburban high school not unlike the one I went to, with some Marcusean analysis sprinkled on top. So far it has provided enough criticism of “parasitic and wasteful” suburban life to make Joel Kotkin‘s head explode.

I don’t think we are repeating the problems of the 1970s per se, but I wonder if the unemployment now reflects the same sort of underlying structural change: capital needs fewer workers; we must begin marketing ourselves more directly, valorize our own human capital to survive.

I’m also curious to see both if Larkin’s book harmonizes with my memory of suburbia and also to see what sociologists were saying about the sort of upbringing children like me were receiving. I wouldn’t have said at the time that I was living through a “cultural crisis” but obviously a significant and dislocating transformation took place in the 1980s — Reagan/Thatcher ideas became common sense as a post-industrial economy took shape. Maybe every generation of kids feels as though they face some unique historical transformation (see Joshua Glenn’s periodization of generations for more on that), but it seems in retrospect that teenagers in the 1980s were “consumer natives” in the sense that kids today are sometimes called digital natives, rightly or wrongly. The mall was a given for us in a way it hadn’t been before and perhaps hasn’t been since. Long commutes, meaningless work, monotonous housing developments, car culture, fast food, throwaway goods — all of that was essentially fixed like the constellations.

Consumerism seemed to embrace all of life’s possibilities, it was the field in which everyday life took place, yet our ability to operate within it seemed curtailed. It was experienced as a form of domination, whereas for earlier generations consumerism and purchasing power and so on were probably gratifying novelties. We took the benefits of consumerism for granted and chafed at its limitations — the top-down way it implemented trends and appropriate personae, the familiar stereotypes that the suburban teens in John Hughes movies try to escape from. Prepackaged identities were more pervasive than ever, and thus there was more pressure to accomplish the prevalent post-1960s goal of “being yourself” — not by rejecting the identities but by learning how to manipulate them. This sort of alienation was the cultural crisis, as far as I’m concerned, and I expect Larkin, in his assessment of “an economy based on capital expansion and waste consumption,” will bear this out.

Growing up in suburbia, we didn’t have an “outside” of suburban life that could be plausibly imagined; it didn’t occur to anybody that identity wouldn’t be constructed along the lines of the Baudrillardian code, signifying who we were with clothes and music tastes and so on. The pressing issue was staking out some tactical advantage on that consumerist field. Gathering information about signifying cultural product was inordinately important, but sources were fleeting and few, something that is sort of impossible to imagine now. I recently reread the first issue of Spin magazine and it shocked and embarrassed me a bit how much of it was still familiar, how many turns of phrase in it I had committed to memory, how many avenues for exploration it had opened for me, some of which I wouldn’t even follow up on until years later. That magazine is how I ended up being a pretentious fan of Hüsker Dü and Sade (“pronounced Sharday, not like the Marquis” — another avenue opened) concurrently; both were reviewed positively in it. Reading through it was like examining the blueprint to my teenage personality — to some extent my current personality, such as it is.

Nostalgia aside, I think the cultural crisis was a matter of finding a way out of the dead-end that suburbia had become in producing anxious consumers overly invested in the meanings of what they consume. Larkin sees this as the ramifications of the “post-scarcity society” — in which more labor is spent consuming the surplus than producing it. A way to turn that angst to account had to be developed, a new form of immaterial labor that could complement a changing economic landscape in the U.S. had to emerge, since there were far fewer jobs in industrial production. Consumption had to become a mode of information production.

The imperative to consume massive amounts of information and turn over culture, to accelerate through the cycling of its meanings, seems born of suburban anomie and the utopian idealization of an “alternative” that went along with it. From that has stemmed the institutional production of a series of alternatives — cultural information manufactured by volunteers for their personal identity’s sake but commercially deployed in the social sphere for the sake of corporate profit. Now this evolution is culminating in the contemporaneous explosion of manufactured alternatives in social networks. In effect, everyone is obliged to produce their own potentially influential Spin magazine, which sounds like a great opportunity but is also a lot of hard, anxious, non-remunerative work. It occludes the respite, the haven that friendship might otherwise provide.

Anyway, that’s the thesis I am going into Larkin’s book with. Suburbia was in the painful process of learning how to produce self-branding cultural entrepreneurs to fit with the broader celebration of creative destruction.