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Arguments Against What I’m Doing Here

“One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.”

     -Milan Kundera

“Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagaras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at that moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstores to homes to second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum. I suddenly felt a surge of genuine respect for Gould.”

     -Joseph Mitchell

“Everyone’s a critic and most people are DJs.”

     -The Hold Steady

I was on the Internet today and ran into frantic torrents of commentary about Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, Girls. This article, by John Cook, was angry and funny and seemed to invoke WWIMD (What Would Ian MacKaye Do?). There are certain topics that the Internet is both ideally suited to handle and far too excitable to calmly process; Girls is clearly one of those topics, saturated as it is in the many layers of awareness and meaning that fuel blog posts and clever tweets. I haven’t seen Girls but I’ve learned a lot about it from the Internet, and I probably will watch at least one episode, maybe tonight.

I realized two things while reading about Girls and Lena Dunham: First, many people feel uneasy about deriving entertainment from privilege in the many forms it takes (here, privilege assumes the form of college-educated 25-year-old white people who receive allowances from their parents and have frivolous good times in Brooklyn). Second, many people need to feel like they’re different from and better than the objects of their vitriol. Cook’s article sags under the weight of his affirmations of superiority to the characters in Girls.  The entire dialogue about hipsters—an Internet conversation if anything is—revolves around its participants’ inability to recognize how close on the cultural spectrum they are to their targets (hence the genius of Carles and Hipster Runoff, who acknowledges this). Everyone at Coachella right now thinks everyone else at Coachella is dressed like an asshole.

The second realization, to me, is most emblematic of Internet culture and the generation now in our twenties and thirties. Snarky knowingness is the Internet’s default tone, and criticism—however facile—is what that tone accommodates best. Virtually everyone online is writing something, whether YouTube comments, Facebook wall posts, or Vanity Fair articles, and most of this commentary takes the shape of criticism, as Craig Finn sing-shouts. Because no one wants to feel like just another sarcastic voice in the Internet chorus, differentiating oneself from everyone else assumes paramount importance, no matter how similar the various parties really are.

The most interesting part of John Cook’s Girls article is not the article itself but the comments section below, where a debate rages about whether Gen Y is spoiled and useless or tolerable and misunderstood. Witty and well-written pieces like this one are a dime a dozen, not acknowledging that they’re natural, predictable phenomena within an ecosystem, like mushrooms sprouting after heavy rainfall. Read three or four articles about Girls, and it becomes clear that all possible opinions and angles are covered, and that the points of contention are mostly semantic minutiae. Criticism of things wrapped so completely in pop culture and the Internet loses the foothold it might find beyond those worlds, and a state of pure entropy arrives—what would exist without any discussion at all. Comments sections have the same problem, but their participants at least seem to grasp this and imply the condition to their readers. It’s hard for me to read that Gawker article’s comments section without thinking about the age of universal deafness and incomprehension that Kundera describes, but at least I’m being forced to think about it. Of course, I’m posting this to a blog, so I’m part of the problem.

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