Of all of the songs by Nirvana that have been made public, “School” is by far the most fascinating. It represents perhaps the ultimate human contradiction of being exoterically awful and esoterically wise. What is, to the casual listener, one of many abortive attempts on Bleach to ape the Melvins is in fact one of the more broadly relatable of the band’s songs. The “school” in question is, of course, a metaphor for its extension into the adult world. And as with all of the best human wisdom, it need not have been exerted, being born entirely out of bad habits that simply won’t die.
This post, like the song, is not about high school, but about the tendency to perpetuate it beyond the acceptable confines. “School,” roughly speaking, is an attack on the atmosphere of petty hierarchical clique-ishness in pre-Nevermind Seattle grunge, emanating, as ever, from Sub Pop’s proto-hipster ethos. The domination tendency of high school remains freshest in the minds of those who endured it. Those who thrived on it, are subsequently burdened by it; those who toiled under it, subsequently appropriate it. Why this is so often the case is anyone’s guess, and that it has so endured either confirms life’s Spencerian nature, or there’s some grander adult conspiracy everyone is too apathetic—or hormonally contorted—to confront. Anyway, my focus is on an aspect of perpetual high school that is less prevalent, but just as odious, if not more so. But to illustrate, we first need to go back.
In 2010, MTV premiered My Life as Liz, a “quasi-reality” show in the mold of The Hills, focused on Texas teenager Liz Lee, who had forsaken her “preppy” identity for one of proud geekdom. Much of the MTV-concocted drama surrounded Liz’s exploits with her new nerd friends, conflicts with her old popular friends, and trying somehow to manage the two. Also handsome dudes, and so on. Lee’s angsty, sardonic tone was clearly modeled on Daria and Heathers. Conventionally attractive and socially graceful, Lee appeared to have broken the nerd mold. Yet that’s not how it was taken by many viewers. Through the MTV prism, Liz seemed less of a genuine comic book fan with art school aspirations than an embittered mean girl advocating for losers out of some misplaced sense of charity. “Liz embodies the worst parts of nerdom,” Latoya Peterson wrote in Jezebel, “without developing any of the empathy of having been there.” She “pulls rank” with her nerd friends, “condescends” to the vulnerabilities of her old ones, and “doesn’t reveal anything approaching empathy or compassion for other people who may be working on the same transformation she claimed to have gone through a short time ago.” In the first season, Liz covered Band of Horses at a talent show; in the second, she went to Pratt, which viewers cared less about and the show was cancelled. She now does God knows what for over 200,000 Twitter followers and nearly 16,000 Instagram followers.
Lee’s show was a classic case of what I (and probably others) call self-othering. While othering is a knee-jerk psychological marginalization of one group against another, self-othering serves as its perverse variation, in which a person or group of people claim marginalization for themselves. Self-otherers bemoan a sudden feeling of distance from their peers. Quite how that distance was created, or if it is even real, self-otherers cannot say without putting it in the most poetically obfuscating terms. They are “outcasts” or “exiles.” Ejected from the celestial center tables in the cafeteria to the bench with the sketchy smokers outside. The anxious who thrive on personal slights are surely prone to this posturing, as are the intense, the mercurial, and the restless. “We chose to be rejects,” Kurt Cobain said. “I can remember a lot of times the more ‘popular’ people, the jock type of people … always asked me if I wanted to join their little club and I decided not to.” But high school, where a simple shift in attitude and aesthetic is sufficient enough to make a point, is one thing; exploding it onto the national, even international stage with all the consequences that entail is quite another.
In fact, self-othering quite possibly pre-dates modern adolescence. What is the Confederacy but self-othering on a mass scale? There is, when you think about it, little tonally separating the Lost Cause from the Varsity Blues. But what many hoped would be a one-time tantrum of blood and iron has repeatedly cropped up in this culture of perpetual adolescence. Moreover, it seems largely prevalent on that part of the ideological divide that has made perpetual adolescence something of a hobby horse.
The right wing has been more than eager to lob accusations similar to self-othering at people like the recent crop of student protesters, coddled elite brats who care more about their pain than opposing views. They do the same for people who identify as what they consider entirely fabricated subcultures, mainly the transgendered. Perhaps in the abstract there is a case here. Both, after all, are rife with self-dramatizing and the theatrical. Its actors believe themselves to be somehow unique, or otherwise entitled to special treatment that the right, by and large, believes to be nonexistent or undeserved. However, it begins to break down in the concrete.
Self-othering is most of all a kind of self-insulation. Leaving one group to join another does not imply interest in said group, nor does it imply an acceptance of altered or diminished status. Consider being dumped and biding your time with a rebound who you are less interested in getting to know or be with than you are in repeating the old experience as you would have preferred, right down to breaking up with the rebound when it came time to do so. All the while, crisis is averted, self-examination is put off, responsibility is unclaimed. From safety one leaps to the nearest and most lopsidedly hospitable safety. Whatever disagreements I may have with the student protestors, I don’t see this insulation. They are merely exerting the free speech they vehemently want to suppress, and are taking all the risks and responsibility that entail. The same goes for the transgendered. Indeed, the recent plea for a transgender woman in Missouri to have access to the women’s lavatory and locker room in her high school is a plea for inclusion. Yet the town was having none of it, preferring instead to protest and ostracize. Self-otherers are seldom subjected to even vaguely ominous comment. “There is nothing wrong with being different,” a local told was reported as saying. “But when you are different, there are sacrifices.”
Yet I cannot say the same for certain opponents of theirs. I see it in the “Benedict Option,” a movement of conservative Christians who seek a withdrawal from a society that has been on a perpetual slide of state- and market-sanctioned decadence. I see it in the “alt-right” who seek … a lot of things that conflict as much as overlap but who generally see conservatism as an emergent counterculture against fully mainstreamed and unstoppable progressivism. I see it, perhaps most ridiculously of all in mainstream Republicans, nearly every frontrunner and every congressman must, out of reflex at this point, speak as though his or her back were against the wall.
None of these right wing offshoots are of identical mind, yet they are all shrouded in identical gloom. They are despondent over seemingly unprecedented changes to circumstances apparently long assumed to be permanent. “Rising hedonism, waning religious observance, ongoing break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural coherence,” Rod Dreher wrote in 2013, “to traditionalists, these are signs of a possible Dark Age ahead.” It is telling, however, that they are of the same mind on barring war refugees, actual social outcasts, from entry into our country on grounds that, as I see it, are intuitional and existential rather than practical.
Pessimism, in and of itself, is not a worthless outlook to have. It is a greater boon to cheerfulness than the quick fix of optimism. But pessimism must be earned. Simple acts like observing history outside of a strict peak and valley arc are helpful; or not observing one’s own history as one of those peaks or valleys; and just generally shrinking the scope of one’s being within that history from falsely modest to modest. Pessimism is not rooted in panic, nor does it particularly tolerate the utopian flights often enabled by panic: semi-monastic communes, cybermonarchies, interventionist microwars, and so on. Pessimism does not necessarily solve pressing social ills very conclusively, but it does lighten unrealistic burdens on the individual whose bearing on those ills, negatively and positively, is minimal. Pessimism above all is not a pose or an aesthetic, let alone a passable excuse to wave off responsibility or to wall off neighbors. Pessimism is not a safe space for the privileged.
Burning within self-otherers, though, is the desire to return. Not only to return, but to return triumphantly. To return to a wider population, its collective arms open having seen the error of its ways. They seem less like St. Benedict searching for lost civilization in the dark ages and more like George C. Scott searching for his lost daughter in Hardcore: immersing themselves in a forbidden world (in Scott’s case, the sex industry), befriending its lifers, and leaving it all behind once their goals are met. Yes, they can empathize with, be vulnerable to, or otherwise comfort someone who is wholly unlike themselves, but only up to a certain point. They are too distracted, and in the end probably not able to do any of it with an enthusiasm greater than that which they dedicate to paying bills. Too bad for them that that desire will likely never be met.
Left conveniently unsaid in the self-drama is the fact that change has taken place, and that they were on the wrong side of it somehow. Whether it is objectively for the better or for the worse, whether it is the lacrosse team or the American people, doesn’t matter compared to the reality that it is quickly settled regardless of their input. Those who have changed are not going to listen to pleas to revert, nor are they going to be too receptive to being forced. Dealing poorly with change is not uncommon to humans, but few approach it as an affront to their very being, at least not for a sustained period. “Tell me who your enemy is,” Carl Schmitt said, “and I will tell you who you are.” The self-otherer says “Everybody,” and Carl Schmitt would logically answer “Sie sind ein arschloch.”
If dealing with change with some degree of maturity and self-awareness is at the heart of the matter, then there are instructive examples in how to reach those things. Again, it requires a return to high school, but thankfully a more fictive sort.
Heathers holds a special place in the hearts of people of a certain age with a streak more acerbic than most. Rightly so. Released in 1988, the film was a black comic affront to the earnest and sinisterly status conscious teen films of John Hughes. It exposed Biercian irony, one of America’s great cultural achievements, to the shopping mall set, and it stuck. Though unlike Bierce’s work, it actually has a moral endgame, perhaps the simplest and most lasting of its genre.
Winona Ryder’s privileged and gifted Veronica Sawyer is on the outs with her elite clique of Heathers: in order of importance Chandler, McNamara, and Duke. Indeed, in her diary she is driven to violent fantasies related to Chandler. Her dissatisfaction leads her to befriend Christian Slater’s J.D., a tried and true trench coat-wearing nihilist. In his thrall, and with seemingly nothing to lose, she sets off on a revenge campaign that turns her fantasies into an (outwardly) unintentional reality. What catharsis they bring, however, is short-lived when it appears that few of the victims, and certainly their loved ones, may not have deserved their fates, and they she did not know or respect her former friends as well as she thought. (To wit, the film puts such emphasis on the insecurities and intelligence of Shannen Doherty’s Heather Duke that she sometimes seems like the film’s true center.) Moreover, she is not like J.D., a spoiled and disturbed brat with a death wish, and brings herself back from the brink by just barely saving the lives of her fellow students.
With her prom date dead, and her interest in attending exhausted, Veronica opts instead to spend prom night hanging out with a repeat victim of her former friends’ bullying. It seems too pat for some (it sort of is and was improved upon in Mean Girls) and like history repeating itself for others, but I think not.
The brute cynicism of Heathers doubtless attracts self-otherers more than anyone else. But in wanting to shake the iconic feel good drama of The Breakfast Club’s freeze-framed fist pump, they stumble into something more understated but more substantial. Yes, Veronica relieves Heather Duke of the symbolic red scrunchie, declaring that “there’s a new sheriff in town,” but the old hierarchy is gone, as is the desire to maintain it. Veronica thinks little of her new authority, if in fact she is taking it, and walks contently into a further altered existence: status is meaningless and solipsism is cancerous; people are individuals with their own viewpoints and struggles and are deserving of empathy and respect, or at least patience; kindness (as distinct from the flimsier niceness) is good for its own sake; and good faith is a healthy disposition, even—perhaps especially—in a world that will not cease to disappoint and betray no matter how one lives and what one does.