When I came into graduate school last spring, one of the more constants joke I heard dealt with money. Everything, it seemed, from low wages to slip-n-slides, came down to this one word: capitalism. Or, as the grad students would say, “Capitalism, man.” I assumed it was some rippling effect of lit criticism – maybe Marxism had been making the rounds in the semester previous. Nevertheless, I laughed along and finished the semester, copping the joke when appropriate.
Then this fall I began teaching as a Teaching Assistant. One day I brought several boxes of Lucky Charms cereal into class to rhetorically analyze.
“Why is this box on the shelves?” I asked, halfway into the process.
“To feed people!” my students cried.
“Then why isn’t it outside, being given away?”
“Why is every single thing on every shelf in the entire grocery store there?”
Capitalism. I hadn’t really understood that myself until I started discussing the issue with my students. The realization was mind blowing – every single creation, from cereal boxes to coffee shop price-tagged wall art, was just a transactional method of pulling money from one bank account to another. It’s like that quote – all we do is stand, sit and lay down – except simpler – all we do is buy and sell. All the motions in between are byproducts.
Our class discussion of Absolute Beginners, and especially the readings I dug up for our annotated bibliography, are the first interactions I’ve had with the idea of capitalism since my mind blowing experience teaching. Specifically, one of the articles deals with the double vision culture has when looking at youth subcultures.
On the one hand, youth subcultures are viewed as terrors because they actively critique and opt out of large parts of culture, saying no to viewpoints adult culture find crucial and saying yes to activities adult cultures find unsavory. Youth culture is always billed as the death of culture – when the truth is, of course they are. Current culture and the proponents of current culture absolutely die – and the critiques and changes of youth subcultures quietly become the new main. This has been experienced in my lifetime with the emergence of indie music, which as a young teen was never on the radios and yet is a staple now. The mainstream acceptance of videogame culture is also new – shy of ten years ago there was no such thing as videogame character tee-shirts available for purchase in local malls.
On the other hand (the hand that links back to capitalism), youths are viewed as naive, powerless individuals who blindly accept and perpetuate the media. This includes everything from pop singers to social values.
The argument that is attempted here states that teenagers are dangerous, and their ignorance and acceptance of unwholesome values actively cause the destruction of culture. But this is incorrect. If teenagers are disengaging with their parents’ views yet are unable to say no to what the media tells them, whose fault is this actually? Teenagers or the media who uses their ethos? Teenagers for whatever reason actively critique and disregard popular, mainstream culture as given to them by their parents. And yet they are seduced by the ethos of media into believing whatever they are told. Parents are lame, but televisions are cool, it seems.
And what drives the media? The same transactional relationship that drives everything else.
Capitalism, man. And therefore it is not the youth culture we should fear or hold responsible, but the media for any supposed destruction of culture. Or perhaps media is still the middle-man, and capitalism is both the birth and death of every culture, always one step ahead, jumping from profitable culture to profitable culture.