Elizabeth Bruenig has written an excellent piece in the Washington Post entitled “Why is millennial humor so weird?” While Bruenig is not the first person to diagnose the millennial condition through humor, her piece is the most clearheaded and insightful I’ve seen on the topic.
Bruenig focuses in particular on the aesthetics of absurdity in millennial cultural production, which, in contrast to absurdist aesthetics of the past, is not accented with outright pessimism:
Surrealism and its anarchic cousin dadaism are nothing new; neither is absurdism or weirdness in art. ‘The absurd,’ Albert Camus wrote in 1942, ‘is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ Absurdity is the compulsion to go looking for meaning that simply isn’t there. Today’s surrealism draws aspects of all of these threads together with humor, creating an aesthetic world where (in common internet parlance) ‘lol, nothing matters,’ but things may turn out all right anyway.
I would add that millennial absurdism can further be defined against the cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural products (those belonging to baby boomers and gen x’ers). In postmodern culture, the central trope was self-referentiality–the practice of acknowledging production from within the production (think of the “S.O.B.s” episode of Arrested Development when the show found out it was going to be canceled). Here, we can go back to McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media. The postmodern aesthetic of self-referentiality was a bit like hot media in that its consumption was profoundly passive. It was so passive that its producers (writers, onscreen talent, etc.) positioned themselves as members of the audience, watching the production right along side us. In other words, even the producers removed themselves from the production. There was no need to go looking for meaning in context because, as the audience, we were the context. There was no meaning to be found outside of ourselves. Millennial absurdism by contrast takes the attitude that context is always yet to come; the audience must actively create the context by distorting the product.
It’s the fourth month of my pseudo-retirement from scholarly pursuits. It’s been a sort of reverse-sabbatical, I suppose. Not that I’ve been idle. Besides the increasing demands of a job at an institution whose future is uncertain, I have been trying to make up in four months what students in Ireland have fourteen years to do. I doubt very seriously that I could pass the Certs at this point, but that’s a goal for the not-too-distant future.
Part of the joy of learning a new language is that you get an insight into a culture that would otherwise be unavailable to you. Saying that you get an insight into a culture by learning its language is, of course, as meaningless as it is true. But I would say that in the case of Irish, it is more meaningful than true. It must be said that here in the 21st century, Gaelic is much more a part of Ireland’s politics than its culture. I’m not sure I’d have any better handle on Irish customs and traditions if I spent a year there trí Ghaeilge (if such a thing were even possible) than I’d have through English. Even the weakest version of Sapir-Whorf won’t hold up in Ireland.
I’m finally going after my lifelong dream of learning Irish. I had several chances in the past to do this, but I always put it off. It might have been the “Never meet your heroes” principle. I’m very much in the honeymoon phase right now, so we’ll have to see in a few months how I feel. But for the moment, it’s like a warm, loving blanket, albeit with a lot of velar fricatives.
It’s true that languages have individual personalities. Some of those personality traits must be more or less common to all learners of a language, but most, I’m sure, depend upon the learner’s own encounter with the language. English and Romani are, at this point, water for fish. I feel different from one to the other, but I can’t easily see outside myself from within them (if that makes sense). Languages I’ve studied in a sustained way are French, Thai, and Russian, and my relationships with each of them couldn’t be more different.
It always seemed to me like French sits at the cool kids’ table. Being able to speak and read it opens up a lot of doors, but it’s hard to bootstrap your way into it. Unlike English, it reads a whole lot easier than it speaks. Or perhaps I should say that it’s a particularly difficult language to pick up if, like many learners, you associate individual words with textual units. The boundaries between spoken words are of course blurry in any language for the learner, but I’ve never been able to completely shake that problem in French. Plus, French is deeply idiomatic, which, again, is a problem for anyone trying to begin from the ground up. Mind you, all natural languages are idiomatic (every language is an eccentric poet), but, man, you really feel it in French. I’ve gotten better, then worse, then better, and then worse at it over the years. But from those few glimpses inside, I can say that it’s considerably warmer and more vulnerable than its cool, cerebral exterior would suggest.
There are two myths about literacy which refuse to die. The first is that writing is simply recorded speech, and the second is that since the emergence of so-called “Internet 2.0,” we are moving back to an oral culture.
I’m sorry to say that linguists are among the main propagators of that first myth. Linguists are always quick to point out that writing came along at the eleventh hour in the overall story of human language, and that any impact writing has on speech is minimal. Both of those things are true, but neither of them warrant the further assumption that writing is just a derivative of speech. If that were true, writing—particularly alphabetical writing—would be much easier to do than it is. (As I always tell my students, writing never gets easier but you do get better at it.) More to the point, as David Olson argued, writing is a model of speech which therefore involves interpretation rather than coding and decoding.
I just got into my mom’s place a couple of days ago. We stayed up until two in the morning last night, talking, sipping on Jameson’s, and talking. Mom has always had the gift of gab, but since Dad passed away two years ago, she’s got more to say than ever. This is probably because my father was usefully employed as a ‘round the clock sounding board for forty years. Mom has since had to find new places to put her words. As Dad got older, he said less and less. He could speak and speak well when he needed to, but he was far more comfortable as a listener. That’s the way Dad’s people are. The older you are, the less verbal flexing you need to do.
But Mom is Irish. They’re drunk on words and there’s no sobering up with age.