Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Modernity and Youth

Fun.’s “We Are Young” is a pretty song that explores the ragged emotional edges of youthful indulgence. It’s dares you to not sing along, to not feel the elevation that comes with embracing your mistakes, to not have your heart raised by reminiscing about the inconsequential failures that appear heroic both for their smallness and by the passage of time. It asks you­­—like an old, nonjudgmental friend—to remember that time when that person broke your heart and you went on a bender that ended up with you embarrassing yourself around people you barely knew. And whatever happened to that person? And why did it matter so much at the time? And why is it so hard to learn those lessons? As someone who has always gravitated toward the cheap romanticism of excessive emotion and to careless people whiling away late nights in dimly lit places, and who feels a deep and abiding distaste for utilitarian Protestant sobriety, believe me, this attitude appeals to me intensely.

Youth. It’s worth reprising here Moretti’s argument regarding its meaning. Youth is the symbolic form of modernity. If in the classic epic the hero is a mature man, the typical hero of Western culture from the end of the eighteenth century on is young. Because modernity’s radical transformation of social relationships both opened possibilities and generated fears, how better to represent the hopefulness and insecurities of the new age but through the idea of youth? As a result of its ability to represent the dynamic nature of modernity and the instability that it generated, youth became the material sign of modernity. Youth, as Moretti puts it, is modernity’s “essence,” a symbol of the search for significance in the future rather than in the past. The idea of youth is particularly effective in representing a world in flux, a world set adrift on the violent tides of history and emerging into new possibilities. But youth not only represents the restlessness and instability of modernity, it also contains it symbolically, since, after all, we get old. To grow older and become a mature, stable, and well-socialized individual is the ideal endpoint of youth in the social imaginary of modernity.

My impatience with “We Are Young” relates to how it willingly embraces the social construction of youth. “Tonight,” the song says, is the time of youth. Meaning that to youth belong temporary mistakes and indiscretions. Maturity signifies solidity, formation, maturity. Youth is aimless, transient, inconsequential. Both of these statements are untrue. This is a stupid thing to say but it’s worth saying: the important things that happen to you when you are young are important and the unimportant things that happen to you when you are old are unimportant. Youth is not what happens to you before you start living. Perhaps the most aggravating version of this concept is the not-so-secret pride that some bourgeois kids take in being incompetent at basic life tasks. The privilege to be a fuck-up, safe in the knowledge that someone will take care of you, is grounded in the modern understanding of youth as a highly charged but largely unimportant stage of life. Youth is not the anteroom of life; it is simply the life of the young. (Again, this shit seems banal but I have no other way of putting it.)

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