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Rockin' with Reagan, or the Mainstreaming of Postmodernity

Author(s): Lawrence Grossberg

Source: Cultural Critique, No. 10, Popular Narrative, Popular Images (Autumn, 1988), pp. 123149
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
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Rockin' with Reagan,

or the Mainstreaming of Postmodernity


Does not the true characterof each epoch come alive in the nature
of its children?
-Karl Marx

here is, in the United States today, a vague discomfort-if not an

outright paranoia-about the new generations of youth, variously
characterized as "conservative," "cynical," "selfish," "complacent,"
"nihilistic," "apolitical," and "mean." Brett Easton Ellis, author of Less

ThanZero2(one of the more chilling representationsof this new generation), offers a vision in which conservativismhas not only engulfed his
beloved aesthetic and political refuge-Bennington-but also his own
abilityto resist:"I'm stayingat Bennington ... because even though it is
1. An earlyversionof thispaperwasdeliveredat a conferenceon PopularMusicin
the University,at CarletonUniversity,Ottawa,in March1985. I would like to thank
FrancoFabbri(who suggestedthe topic to me),James Carey,Jon Crane,and Stuart
Hall (who have made invaluablesuggestionsand criticisms)and all of the "young"
people I havetalkedto overthe yearswho havecontributedto this paper.I hope that
they hearme, at least in part,retellingtheirstories.
2. Brett Easton Ellis, LessThanZero(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

1988 by CulturalCritique.0882-4371 (Fall 1988). All rights reserved.




a place whose original conception and ideology has faded, there is no

place left to go."3 In order to give himself an identity-"we are confused ... because we have no identity"-Ellis is willing to assume that
the current generations of youth are, without any sense of contradiction, conservative and narcissistic. Thus, in the name of true art and
political opposition, he recreates the arguments of generations of conservative cultural critics by assuming that the masses-in this case,
young people-are either inherently conservative, or alternatively,easily duped into conservativism.
But the meaning and politics of youth's actions are not indelibly and
transparentlywritten upon its surface. Cultural interpretationsare never simple or innocent descriptions. Rather, they construct the events
they purport to describe by "articulating" them into particular relationships. I want to weaken the confidence of such ascriptions, to destabilize the links that are already being forged between the practices,
experiences, and cultural representations of contemporary youth. By
absorbing the latter's behavior into traditional political categories, we
reflect those interpretations back to it, and it becomes increasingly
easy, if not reasonable, for today's youth to see itself in such terms. The
question, then, is whether there are alternative interpretations of
youth's realitywhich would both make sense of its experiences and offer viable responses. We need a better description of the gestures, practices, and statements (the "microhabits")of contemporary youth in its
everyday activities and of the ways these are connected to its positions
as agents within the world.
In the effort to rattle the already taken-for-granted connections
among youth's culturaland political practices, its lived experience, and
already established political positions, we must not merely substitute a
different set of assumed connections, which would similarlyreduce the
complexity and apparent otherness of this position into already given
phenomenological categories. How then do we move beyond the elitism of the current denunciations of the new youth: beyond the illusory
neutrality of such descriptions as "yuppies" (young upwardly mobile
professionals) and beyond the patronization implicit in such descriptions as "puppies" (paranoid upwardly mobile professionals), while
3. Ellis, "Down and Out at Bennington College," RollingStone,26 September 1985,

Rockin' with Reagan


yet recognizing the bit of truth in each of these? Appeals to youth's

own self-interpretationsoffer no solution since the question is precisely the lack of fit between its experiences/behavior and the languages
available for representing these experiences to youth and others.
I propose a more hesitant and partial approach: in order to deconstruct the conservative reading of youth, I will examine some of its
practices, events, experiences, statements, and tastes, and will interpret
them as signs of a particularaffectivecontext which plays an important
determining role in how youth is constructed and lived. However,
even this context-fashionably referred to as "postmodemity"-is not
sufficient to understand youth's behavior. If youth lives in postmodernity, it also lives in many other places and contexts. Our interpretation
of youth's behavior must recognize the contradictions generated out of
real historical complexity.
Who is this "new youth" that has become the object of so much
concern? Its sociological and chronological parameters are difficult to
define in advance; there is an increasingly tenuous relationship between age and "youth" in this culture (i.e., where "youth" has become
something to be worked for). David Leavitt captures this ambiguous
relation: "the goal seems to be to get to thirty as fast as possible, and
stay there. Startingout, we are eager, above all else, to be finished."4 If
we startwith the median of the "new youth," we can say that it is a generation too young to believe in the counterculture and too old to believe in the computer utopia. It is the generation of the children of the
silent majority and, in some cases, of the not-so-silent counterculture:
mainstream, middle class, suburban, college and professionally oriented. But this position is too simple, for it ignores the real lines that
connect this mainstream to other groups, forming a complex network
of different social formations of youth. Chronologically, it extends
from the baby-boomers (whether yuppies or "new collar workers")to
the younger generations of computer-literate, MTV-watching,politically naive youth (according to a recent poll, over half of the thirteen
year olds believe that a third party is illegal). Sociologically, it includes
fragments of both working-class and minority youth who seem, similarly, to be espousing "conservative"values. It is this complex interactive and often contradictoryset of social formations of youth-a space
4. David Leavitt, "The New Lost Generation," Esquire,May 1985, 94.



in which I too am included-that is in question, for none of this group

have escaped the scrutiny and condemnation of critics. It may be more
appropriate, then, to think of youth as a field of diverse and contradictory practices, experiences, identities, and discourses. Moreover, at the
present moment, youth is a battlefield on which adolescents, babyboomers, parents, and new-rightistsare strugglingto control its meanings and powers.

I. "I hopeI get old beforeI die"

The experience of "being young" in the United States has been
changing since the end of the Second World War. There are signs of
this in the behavior of youth itself. Consider some of the more frightening examples: the suicide rate for 15-25 year olds has tripled since
1950. In 1982, one youth committed suicide every two hours. (Interestingly, the rates are lower for female and black youths than for white
male youths. Do we understand the real connections involved here?)
Further, according to government estimates, twenty percent of 15-25
year olds are alcoholics. (The figure has doubled in the past decade.)
There is also evidence that the institutionalized relations between
the adult population and youth are changing: the lack of willingness to
support taxation for education and other social welfare needs; the current debates over teachers' rights to use corporal punishment; the increasing infringements of youth's constitutional rights; the increasing
tendency for the courts to treatjuvenile offenders as adults; changing
child-rearing practices (for example, what Elkind has described as the
"theory of hurried childhood" in which the child is given more things
and skills earlier);5and adults' changing perceptions of the everyday
life of youth (for example, a comparison of the major disciplinary
problems in schools in 1940 and 1982 yields rather shocking changes
in perception [whether or not the differences are an accurate representation of school life]-in 1940, the major problems were listed, in order, as talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls,
getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothing, not putting paper
in wastebaskets;in 1982, they were rape, robbery, assault, burglary,
5. David Elkind, TheHurriedChild:Growingup tooFasttooSoon(Reading, Ma.: Addison-Wesley, 1981).

Rockin' with Reagan


arson, bombings, murder, suicide, absenteeism, vandalism, extortion,

drug abuse, alcohol abuse, gang warfare,pregnancy, abortion, venereal disease).6
But these changing conditions and experiences are not innocently
available to us; there is a struggle taking place in a broad range of contemporary cultural texts over how to describe them. We can see it in
the different and, in some cases, new ways in which youth-its experiences, practices and discourses, and the relations amongst these-is
represented. In the dominant media, the choices are quite limited:
youth embodies all of the (negative) characteristicsof adulthood (i.e.,
in the currentlypopular horror/slashermovies, as well as in certain recent television series);youth is radicallydifferentfrom adulthood (what
Carson has described as "alien, inherently Other");7or youth is the repository of adult fantasies (with little effort made to hide this manipulation, i.e., in Spielberg's films and in the AnimalHousegenre). This diversity-from protectionism to victimage to celebration to apotheosis
(where youth becomes the new savior of the world as in TheLastStarfighter8or, of nerdy parents as in Backto theFuture)9-signals, at the very
least, the contradictions in our feelings about youth. Moreover, despite
interest in youth as a topic, the television networks seem unable to
rework the possibilities of a situation comedy built around youth. The
failure of many recent attempts (i.e., "Square Pegs," "Best of Times")
may be partly the result of a refusal to deal with the problematic relation between youth as part of a peer culture (i.e., in school and on the
streets)and as part of a domestic culture (i.e., in the home). In fact, one
might reasonably (and ambiguously) ask whether anyone ever grows
up on television.
There has been a veritable explosion of discourses from a variety of
sources aimed at different fragments of the youth audiences. The current re-emergence of youth-oriented movies crosses a large number of
genres, which is all the more startlinggiven the failure of such movies
(and their stars)in the seventies (i.e., TheWanderers,
6. "BlackboardJungle, 1940-1982," Harpers,March 1985, 25.
7. Tom Carson, "Head 'em up, Move 'em out," VillageVoice,6 November 1984, 73.
Universal-LorimarProductions, 1984.
8. TheLast Starfighter,
9. Backto theFuture,Amblin Entertainment, 1985.
Martin Ransohoff Production, 1979. Overthe Edge, George Litto
10. TheWanderers,
Production, 1979.



ease with which the current generation of young movie stars (the "brat
pack") moves between playing high school students measuring the reality of their lives against the momentary possibility of an almost enforced openness (TheBreakfastClub)" and post-college yuppies confronting a terrifyingly unromanticized reality (St. Elmo'sFire)12marks
their youthfulness by the undecideability of their ages and class loyalties. These new icons are, in fact, surprisingly diverse-from nerds to
tough guys-and, even more surprisingly, articulate (whatever happened to the inarticulateJames Dean type youth?). Never has youth
talked so much, nor has had so much expertise and knowledge. The
fragmented audiences for such movies, as well as their hyper-stereotypical forms, suggest that traditional explanations of the identification
between spectators and characterscannot account for their popularity.
But we are on treacherous ground here. Given the different sources
of production of media texts and the many different audience factions
that make up the "youth market," we can't take for granted the relations between the lived realityof youth, its social identities, and particular cultural representations. This leaves us with a paradox. Even if the
diversity of audiences, determinations, and interpretations make a sociology of culture impossible, we still want to understand the significance of these cultural texts and practices and their relation to the social body of youth.

II. Whois "theBoss"anyway?

Nowhere is the complexity and urgency of the issues surroundingthe
differentyouth formations more evident than in the revival,not only of
rock-and-roll,but of debates and public discussions about it: rock lyrics
and images (whether on albums or MTV)are debated; both their politics and their "psychological effects" are scrutinized with a classic
American paranoia about new technologies and culturalforms. On the
other hand, critics have lauded recent mega-events (i.e., the Live-Aid
and Farm-Aidconcerts)and the broad presence of female starswithin a
revitalizedtop 40. Such events have generated large amounts of contradictory commentary in which writers struggle to define the politics of
11. TheBreakfastClub,A and M Films, 1985.
12. St. Elmo'sFire, Columbia-Delphi IV Productions, 1985.

Rockin' with Reagan


these events by constructing the experiences behind their fans' appreciation. Yet even such an astute commentator as Richard Goldstein,
while rejecting the view that the MTV "market consists of nothing but
Reaganites" and recognizing that "its political loyalties . . . are still up
for grabs," falls back into a hyper-criticalaccount: "But the tube rock
generation does believe in Self, and it loves the spectacle of selves
wrought larger than life.... [M]usic videos promote the oligarchy of
image; it augments the authority of stars.... [I]t's not narrativethese
clips promote but self-image."'3
Perhaps the most controversial event of recent years was the enormous popularity of Bruce Springsteen. His success cannot be explained by pointing to an unequivocally shared meaning nor by appealing to a particular sociologically defined audience-fraction. He
cearly appeals to a new alliance which, in nascent form, had made
groups like REO Speedwagon and the Police commercial successes,
and which is now being constructed as a broader and more fundamental social formation: the site of youth. Yet his audience is not a monolithic, homogeneous collection.
Springsteen'ssuccess embodies many of our questions about the politics and experiences of youth: the contradictionscirculatingaround him
are so stark,and his success is of such a large scale (neithersimply instantaneous nor a constant,progressiveaccumulationof increments).Springsteen: rebel turned patriot? Lyricistturned rocker or, even worse, pop
star? A performer who cherished the sense of intimacy with his audience, playing to audiences of one hundred thousand? The explanations
of the success of the song "Born in the U.S.A." range from those who
think it is a patriot'santhem (i.e., Reagan, and the Chicago
labelled him "the Rambo of Rock"),14to those who think that his popu-

larityis the result of a mishearing of Springsteenas a patriot,15to those

who seem to assume that all of his fans "carepassionatelyabout what his
lyricssay,"16to more cynicalviews of the Americanmyth of authenticity.17
13. Richard Goldstein, "Tube Rock: How Music Video is Changing Music," Village
Voice,17 September 1985, 42.
14. "The Rambo of Rock and Roll," ChicagoTribune,9 August 1985.
15. Greil Marcus, personal conversation, 1983.
16. Jon Pareles, "Bruce Springsteen-Rock's Popular Populist," New YorkTimes,18
August 1985.
17. Simon Frith, SoundEfects:Youth,Leisure,and thePoliticsof Rock'n'Roll (New York:
Pantheon, 1981).



These interpretations fail to recognize that different audiences may

simply interpret his message differently.And, if nothing else, one cannot help but notice the range of ages and styles included within his audience. It goes well beyond the obvious incorporation of a high school
(and even younger) audience (which Sharon Thompson has ironically
described as a "pack of no-good antifeminist post-punk reactionary
hackers, those harbingers of the future, today's teens").18But even this
is too simple since his audience has expanded at every age and across
sociological and gender (although not racial) boundaries.
Springsteen is, quintessentially, an American rock-and-roll star.
While rock in England has largely depended upon the working-class
appropriation of middle-class signs (i.e., fashion), in America the middle-class audience has dominated (especially since the baby-boomers
first reached college where they were, in essence, ghettoized) by appropriating images of working-class styles and aspirations, inflected into
scenes of geographical mobility and fun (partying, sexual pleasure).
This is not to deny that Springsteen sings of and to working-classexperiences, yet his images of unemployment, for example, are somehow
able to speak to middle-class adolescents. His male expressions of
loneliness and sexual desire are somehow able to speak to women
across a wide spectrum of ages and casses. And his American imagery
is apparently capable of striking responsive chords across national
boundaries (for example, at his concerts in England and Japan, audiences sang along to "Born in the USA" with the same passion as their
American counterparts).How is one to make sense of the strength and
range of these identifications, and of the passion of his fans?
The explanation for Springsteen's popularity cannot be ascribed to
his lyrics, anymore than one can read his politics in the iconography of
the flag that appears on the cover: patriotic celebration? Rebellious
desecration? Or, is he, as Bobbie Ann Mason suggests, "studying it,
trying to figure out its meaning. It is such a big flag the stars don't even
show in the picture."19After all, nationalism (and its symbols) is an important part of popular consciousness and not necessarily conservative:it is, like youth itself,a site defined by the struggleto articulatepopular consciousness and transform it into particularpolitical effects. The
18. Sharon Thompson, "Young Lust," Village Voice,27 August 1985, 43.
19. Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 236.

Rockin'with Reagan


problem is that critics have attempted to understand fans' relationship

to music by looking at the texts, rather than by looking at the contexts
within which those relations are enacted and displayed, contexts of
consumption and empowerment.
The concert is the obvious place to begin, for Springsteen's success
has always depended upon his visual and physical presence; television
has made him available to a wider and initially less committed audience. At Chicago's Soldier Field in August 1985, Springsteen played to
a heterogeneous audience, one which was unexpectedly straight, even
polite (this has been noted about many contemporary rock events).
Moreover, this affability serves a purpose--allowing the audience to
exist for a while in a "simulacrum" of community in an alienating
space, perfectly embodied in the frequent "human waves" which
moved across and united the audience of ninety thousand (the "wave"
originated at college football games: it consists of fans leaping from
their seats, arms stretched out in a staggered procession around the
stadium, literally creating a wave effect that is visually stunning, with
opposite sides applauding each other as it continues and booing those
who impede or interrupt its progress). This simulated identity is
embodied in the band's ability to maintain its identification with deep
rock-and-roll roots (the history of rock-and-roll is never relegated to
the past; it is enacted in the present of his music, another example of
Springsteen's explicit desire to "have it all") by integratingboth blacks
and women as a necessary part of the rock-and-rollcommunity even as
it uses the most sophisticated technology to produce that effect.
Sitting in the midst of the audience, surrounded by yuppies, valley
girls, greeks, and bikers, I was struckby the fact everyone sang along to
virtuallyevery song and, moreover, passionately punctuated particular
lines and songs. This participation shows how the vast majority of
Springsteen's fans appropriate his songs despite their different interpretations of content or meaning (in fact, the majority of fans I have
talked to are simply uninterested in the question of Bruce's explicit
messages). Both critics and fans generally agree that Springsteen's appeal depends largely upon his concrete imagery, but they fail to locate
the power of such images. Many of his songs, as well as the stories he
tells during the concert, simultaneously define Springsteen's ordinariness (he is just like us) and difference. This is crucial, for even though
his audiences, may not actually share in his narratives(built as they are



on older male, urban working-class experience), it can identify with

them on some other level. Even though they have not lived the experience, they have shared the particular affective or emotional structure
that permeates his entire performance. Putting it simply, they have felt
like this.
Jay Cocks has described it as the contradiction between dreams and
reality.20The opposition is, of course, never that simple, for our reality
is constructed from our dreams just as our dreams are determined by
our realities. Moreover, this affective paradox is certainly not without
its own history; it is at the root of much of contemporary youth culture
and of rock-and-roll. Nevertheless, it has never been so powerfully
combined with populist imagery and mainstream marketing. It is the
sense of being "trapped" (not coincidentally the title of Springsteen's
popular contribution to the WeArethe Worldalbum) by broken promises. There are many direct expressions of this: i.e., "Is a dream a lie if
it don't come true, or is it something worse?" During the performance, every song-from "Cover Me" to "Dancing in the Dark" to
"Prove it all Night" to "Pink Cadillac"-is used to make this affective
context more and more powerfully felt. I was struckby how many people responded with enormous passion when, in the transition from
"Hungry Hearts" to "Cadillac Ranch," Springsteen demanded, "if
you're hungry inside, shout it out," and how many sang lines like
"And I feel like I'm travelling on a downbound train" with a convincing sense of despair.
Springsteen offers no easy solutions or obvious escapes from this depressing context. But he does offer something, a glimpse outside, a bit
of compensation for the affective terror and emptiness: namely, himself and his performance. For what is obvious, over and over in his
performances, is that Springsteen cares about rock-and-roll and its audiences. Perhaps with an unavoidable touch of romanticism, his audience responds to the fact that he has not broken his promise-albeit a
small one in the context of global struggles. Again, to cite Bobbie Ann
Mason, "So many videos were full of disasters, with everything flying
apart,shifting,in the blink of an eye. The random images on the screen
were swirling, beyond anyone's control; everythingwas falling ... but
Brucewas still dancing in all that darkness,and the heartof rock-and-roll
20. Jay Cocks, "'Round the World, a Boss Boom," Time,26 August 1985, 69.

Rockin' with Reagan


was still beating" (230). Springsteen's performance becomes an image

of surviving this shared affective experience: "This is what I do. I work
on staying together, one day at a time. There's no room for anything
else. It takes all my energy."21Not simply equating survival and politics, nor acquiescing to despair, he evokes this affective structure and
invokes images of empowerment from within it.
Critics and fans often explain this empowerment by appealing to
Springsteen's "authenticity"and contrast it to the "coopted" nature of
the vast majority of commercial rock-and-roll. Yet, that difference has
been eroded (due to punk, disco, and avant-garderock's radical assertion of a politics of style built upon the ambiguity of authenticity and
inauthenticity, and as a response to an economic and/or cultural paranoia). In Springsteen's case, authenticity itself has become a powerful
style, which is to say that the question of authenticity, while of immediate relevance to any fan, is alwaysdisplaced. They know that his act is
rehearsed and repeated, that his authenticity is constructed (although
the authentic is not supposed to be). In fact, they want to see his gestures repeated. Thus it is not true to say that Springsteen "has traded
the immediacy of the theater for the iconography of the screen,"22for
he makes visible their inseparability.
This contradiction has always been at the heart of rock-and- roll. As
Greil Marcus has pointed out, Elvis Presley'spower as the king of rockand-roll was in his image as the self-made (populist) king.23And this is
the site of Springsteen's popularity: to celebrate simultaneously one's
ordinariness and to assert one's fantastic (and even fantasmatic)difference-the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Springsteen's performance celebrates the fans' identity within the mainstream. It gives them
an identity in their very lack of difference, or in the artificialityof a constructeddifference-in their common affectivelives. Springsteenmakes
this more real than their social differences and experiences. We can
hear this, over and over, not only in particularsongs (i.e., "Prove it all
Night" and "I'm on Fire") but also in the very contradictions he invokes, contradictions which empower fans by celebrating the traps
(i.e., even though he attacksnostalgia in "Glory Days" and patriotism
21. Mason, In Country,225.
22. Ariel Swartey, "Chief Executive Officer," VillageVoice,3 September 1985, 65.
23. Greil Marcus, "Lies About Elvis, Lies About Us," VillageVoiceLiterary
December 1981, 16-17.



in "Born in the USA," the songs become emotional affirmations of

those impossible realities).Realityand images slide into one another at
the affective level.
Now we can perhaps begin to make sense of the contradictions in
Springsteen's politics and the ambiguities in his audience's interpretations. Springsteen empowers his fans, energizes them, within their
affective commonality by invoking personal and local images, as if it
were all meant to be shown on television. But even as he recognizes
that one must do more (recreatedin his political raps during the concert and in his support for local groups and struggles), even as he appeals to national imagery, his commitment to the local and the image
prevents him from engaging in larger issues. America, such a powerful
image in his current success, is always invoked as one's "hometown,"
and Springsteen deals with national history by reducing it to the level
of individual lives: "with countries, like people, its easy to let the best
part slip away."As he tries to politicize his audiences by personalizing
politics, his very success depends upon his ability to turn America into
an image, thereby limiting its power to their affective lives.

III. Lifein the PostmodernWarZone

We have no direct access to this affective context. We cannot appeal
directly to our experiences of it, for they are determined by the available languages. In fact, as soon as we try to say something explicit about
this affective structure, we are caught in the gap between event, description, and experience. Nevertheless, we can see its signs-or more
accurately, its billboards-everywhere: not only on T-shirts, buttons,
records, advertisements, movies, and television shows, but also in concrete choices, self-accounts, practices, relationships, and commitments. Let me give a few examples: "Life is hard and then you die;"
"It's hopeless but not serious;" "If you're sailing on the Titanic, go
first class," "No matter where you go, there you are" (Buckaroo
Bonzai)24Other statements are appropriated into the service of this
affectiveorganization: "If you only go around once, go for all the gusto
you can;" "Makemy day" (said originally,of course, by Clint Eastwood
24. Buckaroo
Bonzai,Sherwood Productions, 1984.

Rockin' with Reagan


to someone pointing a very large gun in his face); or even, from Ben
Jonson via Hunter Thompson, "He who makes a beast of himself gets
rid of the pain of being a man." It appears in their everyday humor"Don't need your authority figures; Don't need your bogus attitudes.
Don't want it. Can't stand it. I've got enough of my own" (graffiti,University of Illinois). It is also reflected in their appearance - "They look
menacing but almost practical.They look unkempt but totally deliberate. They look alienated but conformist.... They look like they want to
be attractivebut felt they had to startfrom scratch."25All of these statements exhibit an ironic, knowing distance, coupled with a sense of
emotional urgency. The problem is to understand the historical conditions which have enabled and proliferated such statements and to recognize what is unique in them.
The most direct and powerful description has been offered by
"postmodern" critics. We can use the "postmodernity" of contemporary youth to deconstruct the self-assurance of the right's appropriation of youth's everyday practices. But we shall have to withdraw our
consent in the end if we are to arriveat an adequate and more encouraging prognosis for the political possibilities of the new formations of
youth. I shall argue that such postmodern views not only fail to see the
contradictions into which this structure is inserted, but also fail to recognize that its primary power lies on the affective level.
Since the end of the Second World War, youth has had to confront
the possibility of the end of the world, of no future. It has become a
part of the taken-for-grantedrealitythat youth inhabits (much as television has become a constant feature of its existence). What terrifies
older generations defines the only reality of youth; what threatens to
drive many crazy has become a strategyof sanity for others. This goes
beyond the experience of being "damaged by the recent past and uncertain about the future."26History-both past and future-is neither
rejectednor challenged;it has simply become irrelevant,an unfortunate
but inevitable entanglement with the "cultural debris" of others' lives.
Or as Mason's Vietnam vet says, "You can't learn from the past. The
main thing you learn from history is that you can't learn from history.
That's what history is" (226).
25. Glenn O'Brien, "Why Young People Wear Black," Spin, October 1985, 16.
26. M. Coleman, "New Order's Leap of Faith," VillageVoice,11 January 1983, 61.



Similarly, what once was thought of as an "identity crisis" has become an advertising slogan: "Is there a real me or am I just what you
see." Again, Leavittis helpful, as he defends certain attitudes of youth
by saying, "at least we don't pretend we're not wearing costumes....
At least [we're] not faking it."27What the young are not faking is, of
course, the fact that they are faking. It is a sort of authentic inauthenticity: authenticity as another pose to be taken. It really doesn't matter,
for the only voice it can speak is one of irony, distance, and difference:
it doesn't matter what you are but what you are not. Leavittcontinues,
"If we are without passion or affect, it is because we have decided that
passion and affect are simply not worth the trouble. If we stand
crouched in the shadows of a history in which we refuse to take part, it
is because that's exactly where we've chosen to stand." After all, "characterlessness takes work. It is defiance and defense all at once."28
Consider the image of the Titanic as a substitutefor more traditionally optimistic images of "the spaceship earth." It does not say that things
are falling apart but, rather, that the rules of the game, the game itself,
have changed. It says that the sources of meaning and value are as
much an illusion as the values themselves.Jean Baudrillardargues that
the very possibility of meaning has been lost or imploded because all
differences have become irrelevant. While traditional theories might
have talked about the reduction of realityto the image, Baudrillardtalks
about the supercession of reality by the image.29(Of course, this issue
has a long history, not only in political theory, but also in interpretations of American culture and media.) It is not merely that reality fails
to give up its meaning to us, or even that it no longer has any meaning,
but that it has any meaning we give to it; realityhas disappearedinto its
images. A recent Pepsi commercial-one of the most youth oriented
and postmodern ads on television- offers a clear statement of this collapse. The commercial, for caffeine free Pepsi, is premised upon the
identification of the audience's life with the ad's representation of life
in television land. While the commercial says, "Because your life is already stimulating enough," the life it represents is more accuratelythat
of "Magnum P.I." (Similarly, Lou Reed sings, on a recent album,
27. Leavitt, "The New Lost Generation," 93-94.
28. Ibid., 94.
29. Jean Baudrillard,Simulations,trans. P. Foss, P. Patton and P. Bleitchman (New
York: Semiotexte, 1983).

Rockin'with Reagan


"life is a gamble on videotape.") This is not merely a question of how

the media represent reality (of whether they reflect or shape our interpretations, or of whether they fairlydistribute information) but, rather,
of whether the distinction is functional any longer. The ability to distinguish reality and image has become not only increasingly difficult
but increasingly less relevant: i.e., the common experience of seeing a
news report and vaguely remembering having seen it before as a television movie, only to see it again as a television movie and vaguely remember having heard it on the news. Which is the real, the original
event? At best, "You have to make allowances for the fact that everything we see tonight is real."30Realityis what works on television, what
fits the models of mediation which, consequently, no longer mediate.
As Baudrillardpoints out, between Disneyland and Los Angeles, are
we certainwhich is less real or less crazy as an inhabitable space?31I recently overhead two spectators at Farm-Aidtalking. The first one complained that it was all a P.R. hype. The second responded, "Yes,but then
the whole world's a P.R. hype." The American dream was first transformed into suburbia as the media's image of the "good life" and now,
into a designer label-its own medium, something which is no longer
availableby definition to everyone. Radicalism has become the basis of
stardom, and history has become a best-selling game.
Living in this historical condition does not render one passive; it
does not deny the need for action nor the possibility of commitment,
albeit always an individualized, local commitment (and it does, ironically, stand back from the very idea of commitment). In this postmodern condition, one is neither terrified into, nor terrified of, acting.
"Seek small passions. Big ones are too risky."32People have often
pointed to the devastatingimpact of the increasing divorce rate on the
experience of contemporary youth. But they fail to distinguish two
contexts within which this is experienced: one in which it is nostalgically constructed as a crisis of faith and the other in which it is taken for
granted. While the former produces a "magazine of adult dating"
called Futile(with a touch of both irony and pathos, although it could
be appropriated into the second position by simply erasing the pathos
30. Don DeLillo,WhiteNoise(NewYork:Penguin,1985), 139.
31. Baudrillard,
32. Tom Ward,"Sex and Drugs and Ronald Reagan,"VillageVoice,29 January
1985, 15.



of expectations), the latter produces characters like Chloe in TheBig

Chill,33who characterizes her relationship with a residual countercultural type who has just committed suicide as "wonderful. I had no expectations and he had too many." Such statements are in fact pervasive
throughout the cultural products of this new youth formation. In the
cult film, LiquidSky,34one song defiantly asserts: "Me and my rhythm
box. We're both high. Know why? It's preprogrammed, so what. Who
of your friends are not?"
Thus, despite their lack of faith in a future, youths continue to act,
often in ways that signal a return to more stable, even traditionalvalues
and practices (i.e., the increasing rates of marriage and childbirth, and
the increasingly common but self-consciously naive assertion of heroes). They get married because, as Kathy Acker suggests, "they see
how their parents followed every desire and got totally disrupted and
how the nihilism of 1979 caused nothing but O.D.'s and cancer."35
They get married against the background of the assumption of divorce
as a normal if not likely outcome (whether they maintain their own individual ability to escape the norm, they are confident that others will
not escape it, and, if pressed, are they likely to admit the precariousness of their own confidence).
Their strategy is defined by ambivalence and irreverence. "Ambivalence toward life is their only myth, their only dream, the only context
in which they can find comfort."36 One always hedges one's bets,
holds back a little. Such an attitude produces love songs with titles like
"Don't stand so close" and "Dancing with myself," and heroic movies
with theme songs that claim "we don't need another hero." It's all
right to invest oneself in something as long as you realize that there is
nothing really to invest. You play the game for whatever the stakes,
without taking either the game or the stakes too seriously (although seriousness is a perfectly acceptable game to play as well). In fact, youths
prefer the more traditional forms of behavior where, like retro and
new wave fashions, the rules, the stakes, and their artificialityare all the
more evident. They do not believe that there is any ultimate investment
in them; they do not invest "themselves" in them. "Transcendence

TheBig Chill,Carson Productions Group, 1983.

LiquidSky, Z Films, 1982.
(New York: Grove Press, 1982), 78.
Kathy Acker, GreatExpectations
Phillip Moffitt, "R U Hip, Sixties People?" Esquire,April 1981, 6.

Rockin' with Reagan


may sound silly, but I'm ready to try something new."37Transcendence as a new game? Everything can be taken seriously and, simultaneously, made into a joke.
It is here that we can locate youth's oft-noted dedication to fun and
pleasure, however temporary and artificial the pleasure may be. In
fact, the pleasures of the temporary and the artificial have ironically
displaced the realityof pleasure itself. After all, pleasure is a risky business, and the demand for it is ultimately as unreasonable as any other.
I have noticed, for example, an increasing propensity for youth to describe desires and life-changes in terms of a decrease of boredom rather than an increase of pleasure or excitement. "To be modern is to be
hard-edged, coolly aggressive;to celebrate the synthetic and the artificial; to reject softness and easy intimacy and fuzzy-headed visions of
what life has to offer; to feel the pull of polarization in every fiber....
Modem youth is showing America how to tighten its sphincter-and
like it."38 Tom Ward has recently described the political implications
of this condition: "Never deny yourself a pleasure in the name of a
cause, an ideology, an abstraction. . . . Pace yourself wisely, avoid
burnout syndrome .... Save breath; don't argue with persons who
consider the MacNeil-Lehrer Hour must viewing" (i.e., anyone who
takes information and politics too seriously).39
We are in fact surrounded by signs of this postmoder condition:
from the extremely popular post-"SaturdayNight Live" movies (whose
attitude was, as Bill Murraysays in Meatballs,"Itjust doesn't matter"),40
to the production of comedy (i.e., Andy Kaufman, David Letterman,
and Pee Wee Herman) and pleasure (e.g., wrestling) at precisely the
point where reality and image collapse into one another. As a result,
the diverse formations of youth relate to culture differently:youth refuses to look behind the surface, to read its culture as if there were
some hidden meanings to be deciphered. Rather, youth inserts cultural texts into its public and private lives in complex ways. Youth
approaches communication with either a distracted attention and/or a
total absorption. The surface becomes the site at which reality is collected, the space within which power and pleasure are produced.

Coleman, "New Order's Leap of Faith," 61.

Frank Rose, "Welcome to the Modem World," Esquire,April 1981, 32.
Ward, "Sex and Drugs and Ronald Reagan," 48.
Meatballs,Reitman Productions, 1979.



The surface becomes nothing but a collection of quotations from

youth's own collective historical debris, a mobile game of trivia. The
narrativeis less important than the images. In "Miami Vice," for example, the cops put on a fashion show (not only of clothes and urban
spaces, but of their own "cool attitudes")to a top-40 soundtrack. (An
extended video clip? It undermines the difference between narrative
cinema, video clip, and advertisement.)Young people spend their lives
not so much patrolling Miami as cruising it, only to rediscover the narrative as an afterthought in the last few minutes. Narrativeclosure becomes a convenience of the medium more than a demand of our lives.
The programs seem to ignore the spectator as subject, much like
dreams. Perhaps such programs (like MTV)are the unconscious made
flesh, Freud's magic writing pad projected onto the television screen
and revealed as nothing more than the commodity form. Difference is
erased or, rather, transformed: for example, the television program,
Puttingon theHits, in which people lip-synch hit records and arejudged
by a transfigured notion of originality.
This new set of strategies empowers these youthful cultural subjects
in new ways; their power lies in their ability to appropriate any text, to
undermine the distinction between production and consumption and,
in this way, to deny the power of ideology and of the commodity itself.
Hardcore musician Binky describes this new form of resistance: "the
nature of your oppression is the esthetic of our anger."41 It affirms

one's difference by reaffirming that everything is the same, by becoming even more the same, and by leaving the present behind by entering
into it more fully. Being an object or a commodity becomes a way of
resisting the demand to reaffirm constantly one's subjectivity (i.e., recent slogans like "Born to Buy" and "When the going gets tough, the
tough take a vacation").

IV. Rockin'Aroundthe Post

How does rock-and-roll work for youth living in this postmoder
condition? There has been a lot of discussion about the condition of
rock-and-roll in the eighties. Has the commitment to rock-and-roll
41. Gary Robert, Rob Kulakofsky,and Mike Arrendondo, Loud3D (San Francisco:
IN3D, 1984).

Rockin' with Reagan


decreased? Has its importance in youth's lives diminished, as some

have claimed? There is, I believe, little evidence for this. For example,
given the lengths to which the fans of M6tley Crue are willing to go for
a date,42it is reasonable to assume that the relationship has become
even more powerful, caught as it is in the simultaneous inflation/deflation of postmodern discourses. A number of features of contemporary
rock-and-roll are worth mentioning: first, there is an enormous diversity of styles and sounds; second, rock-and-roll is everywhere, having
replaced the homogeneous background Musak with "foregrounded"
top 40; third, despite the fragmentation of the rock-and-roll audience,
there is a greater sense of a shared center, of commonality, than has
been availablefor some time - different people are listening to a wildly heterodox mix of music (whether on contemporary hits radio, or
MTV, or even "Miami Vice"); fourth, the surface of the fans' lives (i.e.,
their style) has become less of a sign of any identity. In fact, it is increasingly difficult to read any identity-behavioral or political-off
the surface of a fan's appearance or tastes. How do we make sense of
these developments?
The success of Madonna's "MaterialGirl"is an interesting and controversialexample. Those who argue that it is evidence of youth's new
conservatism ignore the audience's very sophisticated recognition of,
and ability to take pleasure in, the contradictions of surfaces. "Material
Girl" is not simply a celebration of materialism and of a particular,
"regressive" image of women. As one fan told me, "She's perfectly
right but totally ironic." Or as Skow wrote in a Timecover story, "Do
the Wanna Be's see materialism glorified here, or mocked? Of course,
they see both, and see no contradiction."43Well, perhaps they see the
contradiction but know that contradictions are alwayspresent, whether
one admits it or not. It is, in fact, a celebration of contradiction which
reinforces their irrelevance. Again, quoting Tom Ward's postmodern
politics, "Put your best face forward and plot your revenge."44And
Madonna is, above all, a face (literally?)to be put on, a pose, a put-on.
This postmodern condition has apparently become the dominant
source of rock-and-roll'spower (although it has always been active). It
42. Bob Greene, "Words of Love," Esquire,May 1985, 112-13.
43. John Skow, "Madonna Rocks the Land," Time,27 May 1985, 77.
44. Ward, "Sex and Drugs and Reagan," 48.



is increasingly a dominant theme (from Springsteen to Talking Heads)

and is the leitmotiv of many contemporary rock images. In fact, the
move from the 70s (punk) to the 80s (new wave) can be metaphorically
represented in the transition from the Gang of Four's "Anthrax"
("Love will get you like a case of anthrax .... Sometimes I feel like a
beetle on its back") to the Human League's "Love Action" ("I believe
in the truth though I lie a lot.... No matter what you put me through,
I'll still believe in love. I love your love action. Love's just a distraction"). In the universe of the Human League, it doesn't matter whether one believes in the truth and lies, or doesn't believe in the truth and
lies, or doesn't believe in the truth and never lies. It is all inscribed on
the slippery surface because any content or depth puts one at risk of
being coopted. (You can't lose what you never claimed to have.)
This may lend some intelligibilityto the return of Top 40 and of the
sudden tendency-across the range of rock-and-roll audiences, in social groups and individual lives, on radio and television-to mix styles
in a way that goes beyond a mere tolerance for difference or laissezfaire individualism; it resembles more a kind of anarchist or situationist strategy.Eclecticism becomes an act of transgression. (In this sense,
MTV is not merely the imperialistic, capitalistic destruction of rockand-roll which has dismantled the difference between authentic and
hyped music or has reduced music to visual style. In fact, it has been a
liberatory medium by giving expression to the postmodern voice implicit in all of rock-and-roll, a voice which the dominant media have
consistently refused to recognize. For example, the Grammy awards
consistently attempt to present rock-and-roll as merely another form
of professional music but, as the presence of Dee Snyder of Twisted
Sister on the last awards show reminded fans, somehow the Grammy
still goes to the likes of Lionel Ritchie,just as Pepsi was airing his commercials.) Difference is simultaneously affirmed and negated, sought
out despite the fact that it doesn't make a difference.

V. PoliticsTiedto the Post

Once we recognize this postmoder context, we can easily deconstructthe conservativeinterpretationof the political practices of the varied youth formations. I will talk about two of the more obvious signs

Rockin'with Reagan


of youth's "conservatism":its support of Reaganand its political apathy.

Is it true that a significantproportion of youth voted for Reagan? If one
looks at the so-calledyouth vote (between the ages of 18 and 35, according to the pollsters)in the last election, only fortypercent of those eligible
voted (less than the national figure). Of those between 18 and 24 who
voted, approximatelysixtypercentvoted for Reagan(the figure for 25-34
year olds was slighty lower). Nevertheless,many of those who voted for
Reagan readily admit that they do not agree with many, if not most, of
his policies and programs. (What,then, were they voting for?) Surveys
suggest that only about twenty-fivepercent of youth in the U.S. have any
interest in, or identification with, institutional politics. (Of those who
were willing to define their position, slightly more claimed to be independent or Democrats than Republicans.)Is a distinctionbetween institutional/media politics and social/normative politics an adequate account? It is obvious that the question of youth's politicalposition within
the contemporaryfield is not decided by its voting behavior.
Is youth today apathetic and inactive? There have been visible and
effective protests against Apartheid (perhaps the result of the media's
interest as much as of the students), but the majority do seem
unwilling to make public political gestures, even when it apparentlyinvolves their own self-interest and/or image. Reagan's educational budget cuts, announced last year, would have had devastating effects on
the student population. When challenged, Secretary of Education
Bennett responded that, since students were so anxious to have
universities divest their holdings in South Africa, it was time they divested themselves of their stereos, televisions, and spring breaks in
Florida. Yet there were few major protests on college campuses to either of these attacks.(There were, of course, symbolic demonstrations
across the country, usually sparsely attended.) But then, the faculty did
not actively protest this attack on the educational infrastructure.
What do such attitudes and actions mean in the context of postmoderity: not that youths do not feel alienated but that they do not make
sense of their alienation in ideological terms, not that traditionalmoral
and political categories are wrong but that they are simply inapplicable. Many of those who voted for Reagan did not vote for a set of
meanings or values that they subscribe to; they voted for the "acting
president." They voted, paradoxically, for the more real of the candidates, the less boring, the one entirely defined as a media object and



who could negotiate that identity successfully-a real measure of success. Reagan is, after all, as a media star, a part of the world they inhabit. His image as hero and defender of American virtues is entirely
played out within the media's terms (almost as a caricature of itself).
Reagan hides nothing below the surface, as the coverage of his health
problems demonstrated. (It is interesting to note that Mondale's
greatestmoment of success came when he too entered into the media's
spaces, appropriating the advertising slogan, "where's the beef?")
Those who are horrified at this reduction of political choices to media
images assume that their own choices are more stably grounded, but
they too are caught in the artificialityof our images of history.
Reagan reiterated,within the ciches of the media's models, the felt
experience that reality had abandoned us-in this case, that the political systems and values of America, embodied in the Democrats, had
abandoned all of us, just as they continued to ignore youth in their
campaign. We must not assume that these youths were misled or manipulated. They often have quite sophisticated understandings of what
Reagan is about. As one of my pro-Reagan students said, "Ronald
Reagan's America is always moving but never going anywhere." After
all, if progress is an illusion, "stagnantprogress" is as real as any other.
Thus, understood as a postmodern response, we take their vote for
Reagan too seriously if we see it as evidence of a conservativepolitical
turn. For it is, in some ways, no different from their choice of Bruce
SpringsteenoverJulio Iglesias, or BeverlyHills Copover Passageto India.45
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to dismiss such choices as
matters of personal taste or cultural enjoyment. They are, in fact, the
very site at which youth attempts to produce its identity and reality. Its
choice of Reagan affirms, not a particular set of truths or values, but
the necessity-however temporary-of choice, meaning, and value.
Need such choices be seen as selfish or conservative? They certainly
cannot be defined or constrained by any appeal to an abstract collectivity. Myths of "the people" as the source or locus of power appear to
be little more than another media hype, with litte reality in the practices of those who constantly appeal to them. But this does not deny
the sense of a generational collectivity defined by their common situation: trapped on the Titanic. The resonance of this image is crucial:
45. BeverlyHills Cop,Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Production, 1984. Passageto
India,John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin Production, 1984.

Rockin'with Reagan


there are no identifiable enemies and no ground for confidence in the

possibilities of change. Yet one feels threatened, under constant attack,
simultaneously antagonistic and powerless. As David Bowie sings in
"Pressure," "It's the terror of knowing what this world is about/
Watching some good friends scream, let me out."

VI. "It isn't supposedto be this way"

But this description is, in the end, as inadequate and incomplete as
the conservative reading. If we take Ellis and Leavitt (both of whom
have been described as the "Salinger"of their generation) as emblems
of these options, both fail to recognize the complexity and contradictions that are as much a part of youth's social and political positions as
anyone else's. If Ellis's aesthetic elitism blinds him to the possibilities
of resistance within youth's everyday practices, Leavitt's postmoder
populism finds political resistance in every act of quotidian survival.
One takes the masses to be dopes; the other takes them to be the vanguard of a new socio-political formation. In fact, there are very real
ambiguities, if not dangers, in the interpretation and the practices
postmodernism engenders. It too easily renders questions of real global threats and relations of power irrelevant. Because postmodernism
assumes a radical rupture in history, it can easily ignore the distinctions between conservativeand progressive political positions. It establishes a space within which politics no longer exists except as, quoting
Schneider, "a luxury of the underprivileged."46Moreover, postmodernism sees this disassociation of the present and the past/future reflected in every event. It transfers such disassociations from cultural
texts onto the experience of the audience, as if it had some privileged
and innocent access to the truth of history.
In fact, the postmodernist's descriptions remain oddly unencumbered by the concrete realities and relations of practices, events, and contexts in youth's everydaylife. Everythingis described as if it existed on
the same level of abstraction.For example, if we consider rock-and-roll
once more, we need to ask what specific groups do with it, what it does
for them, how they listen to it, how it is articulatedin their experiences
46. Peter Schneider, TheWallJumper:A BerlinStory,trans. Leigh Hafrey (New York:
Random House, 1983), 123.



and practices, how it empowers or enervates and disempowers

them?47It is into this context that we must reinsert rock-and-roll'scelebration of fun in opposition to the "economy of seriousness" that is
equated with the responsibilities of adulthood. Of course, we cannot
talk about rock-and-roll in the singular;we must not assume its continuity, unity, or the unity of its audiences. On the other hand, it is not a
series of isolated genres each with its own isolated audiences defining
particularcontents, uses, and gratifications.We must recognize the relations, differences, and developments: differences between the various genres and subcultures, between the mainstreams and the margins, between the commercial and the avant-garde,between the massdistributed and the independents, etc. And yet, these relations, constitutive of the history of rock-and-roll, are becoming harder to make in
the present context.
We must also be careful to acknowledge the contradictory relations
that fans have with the music-affective, ideological, economic, historical, and sociological. Thus, it makes perfect sense that youth realizes
that it is exposed to music more than any other medium of culture
and, yet, it is ironic that young people do not recognize music's influence on their individual lives. At the same time, youth can perceive a
larger social and historical impact: "My father alwaysblamed it on the
rock 'n' roll: the drugs, the sex, the faithless wild boys and girls obeying no authority and bearing no responsibility, playing havoc with
America in a mindless quest for the good time they believed was owed
them by the world. My father's not stupid."48
Thus, we need an alternativestrategyto that posed by both the conservativeand postmoder interpretations.We need to see this historical field as a "contested terrain"where no description is necessary and
the politics of those living within it are not guaranteed. The struggle is
precisely over what language describes this terrain, articulatesthe relations within it, in such a way as to allow us both to recognize the struggles already taking place within it and to extend those sites into viable
and effective political actions and alliances. We need to find a description which enables us to act locally but think globally.We can only begin
47. See Lawrence Grossberg, "I'd Rather Feel Bad than Not Feel at All," Enclitic8,
nos. 1-2 (1984): 94-111.
48. Robert Duncan, TheNoise:Notesfom a Rock'n'RollEra (New York:Ticknor and
Fields, 1984), 1.

Rockin' with Reagan


to define such a position if we are careful to distinguish the events we

describe from the descriptions, and the real historical events from how
they are experienced. The politics of the various youth formations are
not inherent in the young or in their practices, nor is it alreadydefined
and fixed. (Even those forms of rock-and-roll that are most often taken
to be obviously conservative, i.e, heavy metal, are contradictory and,
therefore, the sites of political and cultural struggle.)
We need to seek out new voices and vocabularies,new linkages and
new projects:"Weknowthatourdreamsarenotgoingtocometrue.Arenevergonotbecausethey
ing to cometrue.Wehavelearnedthatourdreamsare important
We need to find new ways
of describing and understandingour obsession with images, our sense
that there are no criteriaby which we can judge, or even predict the future. We also need to develop new moral and political positions which
do not simply deny, condemn, or celebrate such historicalchanges. We
need to tell a better story, one which is more in touch with the concrete
realitiesof youth's historicalrealities,one which offers new possibilities
for youth to take up viable political positions in the modem world.
Obviously youth exists within more than one determining context.
The descriptions offered by the postmodernists must be located within
the broader social and cultural fields of everyday life and the struggles
of power, domination, subordination, and resistance that take place
within them. Moreover, postmodernism's tendency to totalize its own
descriptions, to slide from a description of a determining structure to
the identification of that level with the totality of our lived and historical realities, must be resisted. One cannot ignore the internal contradictions within any structure,or their relations with other determining
structures. In fact, I want to suggest that the postmodemity of our historical moment cannot be located in a single plane of our existence
(despite the fact that I previously described it as an affective structure).
The rupture of postmoderity is not purely within the affective plane
itself but in the relation between affect and signification. It is a crisis,
not of faith, but of the relationship between faith and commonsense. It
is not that nothing matters but that it doesn't matter what matters. It is
as if one has to live two lives, one defined by the meanings and values
49. Michael Ventura, ShadowDancingin the USA (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarchner,
1985), 55.



available to us to make sense of our lives, and the other defined by the
affective sense that life can no longer be made sense of. It is this new
status given to the affective as the unrepresentable which defines the
postmodern rupture of youth. It is not that young people do not live
the ideological values of their parents;rather, they find it impossible to
represent their mood-their own affective relationship to the worldin those terms and, increasingly, to invest themselves seriously in such
values. Postmodernity demands that one live schizophrenically, trying,
on the one hand, to live the inherited meanings and, on the other hand,
recognizing the inability of such meanings to respond to one's own
affectiveexperiences. Their "mattering maps"50no longer correspond
to the availablemaps of meanings. Meaning and affect-historically so
closely intertwined-have broken apart, each going off in its own direction. Each takes on its own autonomy, even as sanity demands that
the two be reintegrated.
This autonomous affectivemood is located in the space between terror (the extreme) and boredom (the null). As early as the mid-fifties,
Elvis Presley described life as "a rat race at a snail's pace." Youth lives
its postmodern affect between the boredom of terror and the terror of
boredom; it is positioned in an ironic play (a celebration of excess?)
between the demand/threat of subjectification (boredom) and of
commodification (terror);it exists within the space between the absolute loss of control and the partial recuperation of that mastery at the
level of its own imagery and imaginary. Youth avoids both boredom
and terror by living them out in the highs and lows of our media culture, which has become a buffer zone between this affectivereality and
the lack of an ideological descriptionwhich would enable us to respond
to it. Culture has become the paradoxical site at which youth lives out
an impossible relation to the future.
We can now acknowledge the contradiction inscribed in the political
and cultural practices of youth. It is a contradiction commonly spoken
but rarelythematized: liberals find themselves enjoying films that they
abhor ideologically (i.e., Ramboand El)51 or secretly enjoying Reagan's
new optimism: "Reagan . . . manages to make you feel good about
your country, and about the times in which you are living. All those
50. Rebecca Goldstein, TheMind-BodyProblem(New York: Laurel, 1983), 272.
Univer51. Rambo:FirstBlood,PartII, Tri-StarPictures, 1985. E., theExtra-Terrestrial,
sal Pictures, 1982.

Rockin' with Reagan


corny feelings that hid inside of you for so long are waved right out in
public by Reagan for everyone to see-and even while you're listing all
the reasons that you shouldn't fall for it, you're glad that you're falling.
If you're a sucker for the act, that's okay."52Reagan uses the media
affectivelyto recharge the political cliches which have lost their power,
but, in the process, he articulates them into larger ideological structures. He uses the very strategies of the autonomous affect, reducing
questions of politics, values, and meanings to individualized images of
morality, self-sacrifice, and community. There is litte difference between these strategies and Live-Aid's attempt, with its powerful media
images of starvation, to substitute charity for politics. (On the other
hand, the fact that Farm-Aidwas unwilling or unable to appeal to such
images and, therefore, had to claim for itself a real sense of political
opposition resulted in its vilification by both the media and the government.) This has become the new strategy of politics in the media
age. The very realityrof America is displaced into its media images (and
thus, youth can adopt it as another surface identity);it makes sense that
there is little difference in the way Springsteen'sfans invest in it regardless of their national identity. Reagan reestablishes a necessary sense of
difference by using the affectivedifferences generated upon the surface
of the media. By reconnecting these affective differences to the ideological labels which have, until recently, proven so ineffective, he has
managed to create a constituency based on affect rather than ideology.
The danger is that, if left unchallenged, the two could easily become
rearticulatedinto a new (albeit simulated) historical conjuncture. This
possibility, alreadyvisible on the horizon, may account for the new political and affective alliances Reagan is forging. Therefore, we cannot
leave the task of articulating youth's political interests and commitments to the mercy of the conservatives and of the commercial languages of the media, both of which are already offering their interpretations as transparent and commonsensical descriptions. Instead, we
must intervene both as critics and educators. But first, we must allow
ourselves to be educated by those we are attempting to understand, by
the music they listen to, by the practices they engage in. We must learn
how to listen to them if we expect them to listen to us.
52. Bob Greene, "It's Confession Time," ChicagoTribune,11 December 1985.