Looking back on the last 15 years, it’s now clear that it should be seen most sensibly as a long, domino-like succession of crises. In fact it is as if we as a society went to a civilizational Costco and bought it in bulk. And of course we bought the variety pack: the political crisis, the cultural crisis, the martial crisis, the economic crisis, and so on. But just like any other bulk item, the space they take up in our domains far and away outscores both the energy required to consume them and the steal of a discount at which they were purchased. And just like any other bulk purchaser, we return time and again for more. As the saying goes, we’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, one that finds sickness in settlement and comfort in turmoil. That, at least, is the hope certain people have as they seek to make the variety pack more various.
That is how I’ve come to see what is known as the “crisis of the humanities.” A fairly recent occurrence in America, this particular crisis has been haunting the minds of people who are thought to be intellectually sensitive and institutionally serious. They read of it in The Atlantic, or some such thing, and use it to spread conversations thin in between readers at McNally Jackson. Some see it as an inevitable result of the cultural change from analog to digital. Ever a practical nation, America has always encouraged science, technology, engineering, and medicine with the more abstract studies serving as a kind of status marker. But the entrenchment of the internet and related innovations ring to the STEM proponents as a near vindication. Those humanities departments that don’t disappear become more monastic, or incomprehensible, or predatory, attracting the listless and romantic young to amass a mountain of debt for a degree in Bisexual Asian Studies. The problem more generally, however, is the shifting of priorities away from the antiquarian purpose of academic pursuit to the pursuit of pure profit, effectively turning universities into assembly lines for research and diplomas.
Serious as these developments are, my own judgment, admittedly refined by no higher than an undergraduate degree, can’t help but detect something of the manufactured about the crisis as a whole. What do those fretting think the crisis is barreling towards: a technocracy devoid of heart, ruled by a congress of actuaries, and where content of character itself is measured by the nearest decimal? If they can’t see the reality around them perhaps there is some kind of defect in how we teach our young; but from a certain distance, this is more chaos than crisis, an entirely foreseeable chaos at that. We, for good or ill, are living in a period of transition, in which models of business once thought stable, even enshrined, are now anything but. For the professionally dexterous, no time is more heavenly. Every institution seems a trampoline from which they can bounce from one to the other according to mutual needs. But most people don’t have the stomach for that and instead dig their trenches, load their sandbags, and acclimate their jobs to the times as best they can, if this proves adversarial to its original intent then only the spirit of the age is to blame. And in a way this is true. Much of what has come about is a fateful confluence of events—sometimes fortunate, sometimes not—of which we happen to be stuck in the middle. It is more sensible to bemoan the piss poor timing of our parentage than to fight back against a dystopian tsunami because engineering being more profitable than fine arts is semi-official policy rather than a constant, unstated fact of life.
That no one assumes that this chaos will settle and pass as naturally as it came reeks not only of unearned pessimism, but a deep lack of self-awareness about one’s own time and place. There is enough indication that not only will this subside, but something closely, if not perfectly, resembling the old order would make a strident and forceful comeback. A resurgence of the humanities might even be insisted upon by the ensuing waves of institutional lifers. This is doubtless to be due in part to the presently underappreciated resilience of the pursuit of pure knowledge, for its own sake and for its many subtle applications to the conducting of a free, informed society and an enriched, mature culture. Mostly, however, it will prove a useful method by which they will entomb the millennials.
Perhaps “entomb” isn’t the most appropriate word. It might be more accurate to say that the new academians would like to see them drawn and quartered, to have their parts put on display in the four corners of their new dominion, or maybe just to be shoved into a burning ditch somewhere off the beaten path. The resurgence of the humanities will be inevitable, but out of this particular source will it find fortification. Funding will pour in from all directions, student bodies will expand exponentially, professors will be afforded independence and tenure’s value will be at once reinvigorated and free of the gauntlet-like process by which it is presently attained. To wit, they will need it. They have much material to work through, reputations to burnish, and icons (of a sort) to topple.
To say that study of the millennial generation should (a) continue into the subsequent decades and (b) that it quite frankly has barely even been undertaken, would seem maddening to anyone with basic reading comprehension. From thinkpieces in the prestige publications to the most puerile clickbait, many wouldn’t be looked at sideways for suspecting a conspiracy in which a vast majority of consumable content is centered on or geared toward those people born somewhere in the 1980s and the early 1990s. And no one loathes it more than the supposed millennials themselves. For no one has any idea what precisely constitutes the character of such a person besides age, fashion choices, affordable tech, and what the older people around them happen to notice. And in truth it doesn’t matter.
Generations are molded by historical events and cultural phenomena; though we cover them as such, they are not in themselves events or phenomena. They are barometers of the temperament, character and integrity of a given time, which takes decades to access. Take the boomers, who in their original context were assumed to be of extreme temperament, radical character, and maximum integrity; today they’ve settled into moderate temperament, conservative character, and minimum integrity, proving their times were not as monumental as once assumed. Coverage of millennials sees them as an idealized reflection of the modern boomer: moderate temperament, liberal character, maximum integrity. But this might not prove to be the case as the ‘10s give way to the ‘20s. In fact I’m confident it won’t.
If there is anything even approaching a unique trait related to millennials it’s that they are the most expressive set of people born at the same time. The breadth of access they have been given is possibly unprecedented, and overwhelming to possibly anyone born before 1965. This has not been overlooked, but it has been sidestepped as a liability than a legitimate part of the generation’s experience. The internet is a vast oily sea today’s cultural arbiters fish out of with reticence. They went out, hooked xkcd, and were evidently satisfied. This leaves an ever growing number of voices, speaking at various volumes on various platforms, in various guises to audiences ranging from no one to the population equivalent of a small village. To the extent that posts on Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, or DeviantArt can be formally archived is no concern of today’s historian or critic. This will not do for the future humanities professors and degree seekers who, four decades (let’s say) after whatever damage we’ve wrought, will find a treasure trove. In their hunger they will scour this diverse mass of expressions for the most representative of the first quarter of the 21st century. How this will be determined, of course, depends almost entirely on the character and priority of those doing the searching.
The society of millennials is one characterized largely by anxiety. With crises near and far becoming semi-routine, the idea of stability or safety seems elusive, to some even fictional. Even the relatively unscathed millennial, with a decent job and healthy home life, has in him or her the dread of being on the brink of losing everything and the guilt of having not done enough to prevent what was clearly inevitable. This, more than anything else, drives millennial expression, as does the laughable notion that anything will improve conclusively. But let’s, for the sake of speculation, assume that things do improve, that prosperity is restored, industry less volatile, government strong and efficient, ISIS and related terrorist groups defeated (or significantly reduced), wars ended, and no major catastrophes (outside of environmental ones) have upset the general order of things. It is a new era of good feelings, so to speak. Its people tilt decidedly toward contentment and away from restlessness. They are, if not happy per se, then unperturbed. They reject the ideal of freedom in favor of being free enough. The status quo is not to be trifled with if they can avoid it, and the brunt of their creative and innovative energies are dedicated to finding such roundabouts. Naturally this produces an intelligentsia composed mostly of pensive crusaders, benign sentinels, and fusty warriors.
Whether scholars who will specialize in the millennial period go into it with preconceived notions or complete naivety, their characters are such that they will come away from it with much the same reaction and pursue the same course of examination. We will assume that their academic intentions are largely pure and ethical, but to assume that they—not to mention the journalists and artists who will crib off of them—won’t also work to defend their world and views by way of negative contrast would be delusional. With this mindset the achievements of, say, Lena Dunham or Tao Lin or what we have to say about them mean little compared to the vast storage of internet “trash” from which we currently avert our interest. A search for the voice of a generation is flipped by excavations of memes, Tumblr confessions, fire mixtapes, glitchy demos, shit posts, weird tweets, YouTube tirades, and these are mostly the positives. The satirical eloquence we currently find in John Oliver’s tirades will be represented later by the sheer volume of Ted Cruz memes. Whoever our best moralists are now, they are soon to be obscured by any number of tweeters. Writing in First Things in 2009, Joseph Bottum described aphorist La Rochefoucauld as “the true demon of cynicism: saturnine, satanic, and sleek,” nothing is stopping the neofustyist from saying the exact same of @dril. And “woke” will be the umbrella under which any and all religious sentiment will be sheltered.
And after all the research, how, then, is our world to be taught? What shall be on the syllabus for the Female Experience in the Millennial Era, Meme Aesthetics 200, The Death of the Redditor, or The .GIF as Narrative? Who will make the cut as Eminent Millennials? What will be the philosophical underpinnings of the Institute for Post-Woke Studies?
Expect a general lashing in all directions. Neofustyists do one thing really well: scold, in a fashion somewhere in between Peter Viereck and Savonarola. They’ll take the progressives to task not so much for any excess or ideological failing (I suspect their preoccupations will be somewhat resolved or affordably swept aside) but for badly misreading the character of their own times. By contrast, the reactionaries, neo- or otherwise, will have their own style and tendencies laid bare as either pure pretension or pathology by the genuine conservatives judging them after the fact. Our culture as a whole will be seen more as pastiche than expression, postmodern mixing and matching running on fumes. Professions of any belief will not be taken seriously. In the end, we clung to selective versions of the past appealing enough to us to obscure the harshness of the present and to ignore the impossibility of the future. To return to my three-pronged assessment, millennials will turn out, on final judgment, as detached in temperament, ironic in character, and negative in integrity.
Perhaps the most significant stroke that will come out of these post-woke scholars is the redemption of George W. Bush. We are familiar, of course, with the contemporary contrarian attempts to do this from time to time. Even Saturday Night Live’s recent resuscitation of Will Ferrell’s portrayal was strikingly wistful. Yet this future has no time for such playfulness, and seeks fully and earnestly to hoist the great millennial adversary on the pedestal of tragic heroism. To have overseen a decade so tumultuous as the 2000s could only sensibly be the work of destiny, not luck and incompetence. Those who demonized him will in turn be made the demons, undermining him and his vision for greatness, for a land undisturbed and plentiful, and which finally came once the demons were enfeebled. He will be America’s new stand-in for Frederick the Great.
This, to be sure, is a future that is every bit as possible not coming to fruition, and if that is the case then so be it, I will be mocked accordingly. But if it does unravel more or less as I have envisioned it, I can console that there is a kind of hope underlying it. Perhaps we do not fear the future as I have suggested, but perhaps we have still a ways to go in grasping how little we control it. In preparing for it, anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s. But the choice of any future seems preferable to none whatsoever, especially if that future can be trolled, and trolled so hard, at that.