Death is grievance, and only grievance.
Philip Roth (died 2018)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (film, JJ Abrams, 2019)
The Irishman (film, Martin Scorsese, 2019)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (film, Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
‘ok boomer’ (meme, the New York Times, 2019)
The death of Jeffrey Epstein (hyperobject, Bill and Hillary Clinton, 2019)
YA fiction (genre, JK Rowling et al., 1997)
The 2010s (decade, Time, 2010)
Industrial capitalism (mode of production, the World-Spirit, 1760)
The Earth (planet, God, 4,543,000,000 BC)
Myself (imbecile, God, 1990)
The most interesting images in the new Star Wars films are the ones in which they literally ruin the original trilogy. There’s one in 2015’s The Force Awakens: the collapsed shell of a Star Destroyer, huge in the desert, jammed into the world at the wrong angle. There’s one in the most recent film, The Rise of Skywalker: the Death Star itself, its colossal eye fractured, splattered with seaweed on a savage moon. (2017’s The Last Jedi didn’t have any of these shots, which might be why it’s the worst of the three.) What’s strange is that these images show us something completely different to the films themselves. They mark a recognition of linear time and death: something was here, and now it’s gone; here is the index of its absence. But the films themselves are spastically cyclical. The plot of The Force Awakens is exactly the same as the plot of the 1977 original. The Empire isn’t really in ruins, it’s just been rebranded. Nothing grows, nothing dies, nothing changes. The latest film pushes this even further. Even the mild innovations of the sequels were too much; nobody cared about the new crop of villains, so now it’s Palpatine again. Philip K Dick predicted this. ‘The Empire never ended.’
There’s a sort of Mark Fisher-ish point to be made here. In the modernist 20th century, culture produced novelty: new galaxies, new empires, new images and affects. Now, in the era of neoliberalism, it’s all repetition and pastiche; the best we can do is repeat ourselves. Disney is churning out soulless live-action remakes of its old cartoons at a frightening, industrial rate. These aren’t for children: they’re for people who used to be children, and aren’t any more, but never actually grew up. People who want to remember their childhoods, but this time with lots of CGI. Sappy idiots. Meanwhile, every other major blockbuster is either a sequel or a franchise. Pop music copies the forms of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Literature recoils into tedious 19th century realism. All we can do is rearrange the rubble of the past.
You might remember that this current era of exhaustion was immediately preceded by the Age of Apocalypse. For a few years around the beginning of the 2010s, Hollywood showed us constant images of our own ruin. Skyscrapers squished. Cities splintered. London and New York abandoned, overgrown, and strangely beautiful. Sometimes this was vaguely inflected with 9/11 imagery, but not always. These films didn’t refer to any actual destruction, but a culture that had nowhere else to go. In 2012, we cared about the end of the world, because it really was happening. Now, it’s already over. Around the same time, the big intellectual fad was for accelerationism: forget critique, forget ‘the emergency brake of history,’ let’s just passively will ourselves to get to the moment of crisis faster, and then everything will sort itself out. The moment of crisis is passed. Did you get everything you ever wanted?
The most dramatic example of this isn’t actually Star Wars, which is a bad film, but last year’s The Irishman, which is a good film. This isn’t a question of subject-matter, whatever Scorsese himself might think. There aren’t that many subjects that really matter. American pop culture is capable of telling stories about five different types of people: cowboys, criminals, cops, capes, and couples. Star Wars is about cowboys. The Irishman is about criminals. But The Irishman is a good film because it’s not just a collection of intellectual properties, it’s about people. Again, Scorsese doesn’t really understand his own work: he seems to really think it’s about giving outward visual expression to the inner life of a realistically drawn character. ‘Human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’ He thinks it’s still possible to create decent bourgeois art. But in fact, his real achievement is to turn up the volume on the raging nothingness of subjectivity. De Niro’s character isn’t a fully realised human being; he’s a fleshy instrument who obeys without really knowing why. ‘I deliver steak. I could deliver you steak.’ At the end of the film, he won’t say what really happened to Hoffa, even though every reason to keep his silence died a long time ago. He simply isn’t there, and this is precisely why he’s such a compelling figure. Scorsese’s previous film, Silence, was about the sense – advanced by theologians since Eriugena – of God as a vast, all-powerful nothingness. ‘Am I praying to nothing? Nothing, because you are not there?’ This isn’t Andrew Garfield’s character losing his Christianity, but fully encountering it. The great revelation of Christ is an empty tomb. The absence of God is a religious experience, and the death of God is the condition of faith. And Foucault promised that the death of God would be followed by the death of Man.
Still, a few nods to capital-c Culture and some superficial psychological goodness count for a lot; it’s why I happily sat through all nine hours of The Irishman in the cinema, while after about forty minutes of flashing Star Wars drivel I wanted to scream or puke or both. But The Irishman is also a deeply worrying film. This is Martin Scorsese directing Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in a film about Italian-American gangsters. It’s a McNugget of a Scorsese film; it’s as if his earlier canon had been juiced and then reconstituted. The most arresting thing about the film is its use of digital de-aging, allowing the 76-year-old De Niro to (not entirely convincingly, but still) play a man in his mid-thirties. As a proof of concept, Scorsese had De Niro recreate the Christmas party scene from Goodfellas, and then used the technology to make him look exactly as he did in 1990. This is more than nostalgia, it’s the extermination of time. Scorsese can dip into the past and insert a new item into his 90s crime canon. He can obliterate the last thirty years. In the ‘now’ of the film, the present from which De Niro remembers his life, US jets are bombing Yugoslavia. The most advanced digital technologies are used to keep culture in a permanent stasis.
It’s the end of anything resembling dignity. Look how Star Wars wheels out dead Carrie Fisher for one last sappy CGI-assisted waltz. She deserved better, but there’s no hope now. They’ll resurrect you, spin you backwards through time; they’ll crap in and through your mouth. You can live forever, but the price is a total passivity. Living forever is so much like being dead.
Or take our other great Italian-American auteur. Quentin Tarantino, at least, never made any claims to novelty. Instead, he spent his career referencing and reworking older films, back when this process was known as postmodernism, when it was a valid artistic technique, rather than just a symptom of our total cultural exhaustion. So what does he do now? In last year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s still referencing old movies – but they’re not the 60s cowboy flicks the film is supposedly about, they’re the films from the 90s and 2000s that Tarantino himself made. Viewers thought they were smart because they picked up on his foot fetish from Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown – so now he shows us a whole room full of young female Manson cultists, each with two naked feet and twenty naked toes. It’s not eroticism any more, because eroticism is over. The foot fetish, like the brief moment of brutal teenage-girl murder at the end of the film, has become a static and redeployable signifier, a reference, a husk.
But in fact, I think this kind of analysis doesn’t go far enough. In the Fisherite reading, something (creativity, novelty, etc) was here, and now it’s gone. But let’s go back to those ruined spaceships. The new Star Wars films could have told a new story, one about what happens after the Empire falls; instead, they popped the Hero’s Journey back in the microwave and slopped it out to us again. History gives us some clues to what this new story should look like. The fall of empires is almost always accompanied by a collapse in long-distance trade. Life expectancy falls; material and literary culture is hollowed out. Cities depopulate. The seas are full of monsters and pirates. The barbarian confederations that brought down the empire usually split up into warring factions. But this story has already been told. It’s Star Wars.
George Lucas was the Albert Speer of cinema. Everything he built had extraordinary ruin value; all those spaceships work far better as enormous wrecks than as active fantasies. They were destroyed from the very beginning.
What kind of a state is the Galactic Empire? It’s hollow; it barely exists. It has no cities. It has no signs of a complex literary or material culture. It rules the entire galaxy, but all we see are border-zones; lawless, half-deserted worlds where an agrarian peasantry are continually menaced by criminal gangs and outright savages. A border with what? The only interplanetary trade seems to be carried out by smugglers and outlaws. There’s a military, but even that is only a shell. In the original 1977 film, our heroes blast through the facade of the sleek fascist-modernist Death Star, dart inside, and find themselves in the guts of the Empire. A primordial horror of a waste-disposal system: the room’s full of back sludge, and a huge tentacled monster is waiting for you just beneath the surface. This is a fake empire. It’s already collapsed; it was never anything other than its own collapse. This is why it needs the Death Star. A weapon that destroys entire planets is useless for counterinsurgency warfare, but that’s not the point. The Empire only uses its weapons against itself.
A decade ago, the volume of international trade suddenly collapsed. There’s been a partial recovery, but trade has been stagnating ever since. Huge trade firms like Hanjin Shipping have gone bankrupt; one of the stranger consequences is a sudden surplus in shipping containers, which we’re now expecting the poverty-stricken to actually live in. Economists are genuinely baffled: production keeps on going, but the stuff simply isn’t moving anywhere. Meanwhile, life expectancy is declining in Britain and America. For the first time in centuries, young people now can expect to live shorter lives than their parents. We can still travel in relative safety, but the monsters and pirates are coming. Star Wars accurately diagnosed our present. Everything is still here, and it will stay here forever. We can’t get rid of the empire, because it doesn’t exist.
* * *
Still, new things do happen. For instance, there are new people. They’re happening at a much slower rate, but there are still enough of them that they become impossible to ignore. 2019 was the year in which mass culture finally realised that millennials – my generation – are no longer children; that some of us will soon be forty. We’re over, we’re cancelled, it’s already done. The average millennial is balding now; he has a daughter that he can’t stop posting about on social media (yes! dip your child into the endless stream of digital images! submerge her! nothing could possibly go wrong!), he gets nostalgic about Disney or Pokémon; he’s a defeated sadsack loser, and history has already passed him by. In his place there’s something else. Kids now don’t understand the world by comparing it to The Simpsons, which is the good and correct way to behave; they understand the world by comparing it to SpongeBob SquarePants, which is wrong and terrifying. They are genderless cyborgs, downloading new identities from an internet that now bleeds directly into their flesh. They are – depending on who you listen to – either hysterically woke or veering sharply towards the far right. (Same thing! These two things are the same thing!) And they’ve fired a terrifying and unprovoked shot in a new generational struggle: they say ‘ok boomer.’
Deleuze and Guattari argue that there’s only one class, and it’s the bourgeoisie. ‘To reread history through the class struggle is to read it in terms of the bourgeoisie as the decoding and decoded class. It is the only class as such.’ Similarly, you could make the case that there’s only one generation, the boomers. Who invented the language we use to talk about generational divides? The boomers. Who broke apart multigenerational community? The boomers. Who permanently inscribed mass culture on the substrate of youth rebellion? The boomers. The Futurists wanted to be slaughtered when they got old – but who dreamed of living forever, of staying young forever, of keeping their revolutionary fire lit forever, of wearing blue jeans and smoking weed into an embarrassing senescence, of pumping the corpse of culture full with their drab, deathless, synthetically youthful spurts? The boomers, the fucking unkillable zombie boomers. ‘Ok boomer’ is a boomer slogan. It’s a prison for young people, or an instrument of discipline; a way to force them to constitute themselves as a generation – that is, as boomers. The demand of age and power is to be young and rebel. Hate your parents, in the same way that we hated ours.
I’m sure there are some young people who really have made a habit of saying ‘ok boomer.’ But not many of them. Young people simply don’t share any discursive spaces with the old. Old people spend the last years of their lives getting brain poisoning from Facebook and Twitter; young people are giving themselves vigorous new tumours from TikTok. How many teenagers are spending their time arguing online with septuagenarians? The phrase only became a phenomenon once it had featured in a viral New York Times article, full of frantic praise. ‘”Ok boomer” has become Generation Z’s endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it, a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids.’ Sounds pretty boomery. Are we really supposed to believe that teenagers are taking their cultural cues from the New York Times?
Youth, in our era of exhaustion, is a phantom. It’s something dreamed up by old people; it belongs to them, and they’ll control it until they die; maybe afterwards. In 2019, it was incontrovertibly proved that the world really is governed by a cabal of murderous paedophiles. They murdered Jeffrey Epstein. He was still paying out hush money to his victims from jail, because he wasn’t suicidal, but they murdered him. He had a crate full of DVDs of powerful people having sex with children, and now those tapes might be lost forever, because they murdered him. He could have brought down the entire global ruling class, and to stop this happening, they murdered him. Anyone who pretends to doubt any of this is not just an idiot, but probably dangerous. When Epstein was murdered, my first reaction was to think: ok, what really happened on 9/11? Who did kill JFK? What if the Moon really is a hologram? Because I was wrong, and the conspiracy theorists were right. Because clearly, we’re not living in the world we thought we were. This world isn’t just ruled by surplus value and the declining rate of profit; it’s deeper and stranger than that. Mystery and sacrifice, ugly magics and telluric wars, sunlight and demons, and the Milky Way a star-dark cunt smeared across the sky.
But actually, the most likely explanation is this: the paedophile elite didn’t think they were doing anything wrong by fucking children, because they all believed that they were, in some sense, children themselves. Boomers who never really managed to grow up; not adults, just kids with grey hair and dangling ballsacks. People who, on their deathbeds, will still be worrying about whether they’re cool or not. Monsters. The deadly global paedophile cabal that controls every aspect of our lives is only the highest, cruellest manifestation of a general rule: youth has been privatised by the old. It permeates our culture. Is it really any surprise that only 1.7% of Teen Vogue‘s readership are 17 or younger, and only 4.3% are under 25? Is it any surprise that a solid majority of the readers of ‘young adult’ fiction are, in fact, full-grown adults?
I have to say, I called this one. More than three years ago, I wrote that Harry Potter was ‘never for children, and always for the bored 29-year-old human resources workers they would grow into.’ But I didn’t predict just how viciously youth would be deployed against the young. Late last year, a mob of bestselling young-adult authors, including Jodi Picoult (53), Jennifer Weiner (49), NK Jemisin (47), Roxane Gay (45), and led by Sarah Dessen (49), tried to destroy a college student for not liking their books. The student had been interviewed by a local newspaper article on her involvement in the college’s ‘Common Read’ programme, which assigns one book for all first-year students. Dessen was one of the authors being considered. ‘She’s fine for teen girls,’ the student said, ‘but definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.’ You should know how these things go by now. Thousands of brave women heroically spoke out against this terrible oppression. The student was a cultural elitist, a snob, an agent of the patriarchy, smashing the dreams and aspirations and validity of teenage girls, a fucking bitch, a raggedy ass bitch. Picoult: ‘To not speak up about this incident isn’t just demeaning to Sarah. It’s demeaning to women, period. Want to fight the patriarchy? Start by reminding everyone that stories about women are worthy, that they matter, that they are necessary.‘ The university issued an apology for having failed to eradicate literary taste in everyone who passes through its gates. ‘We are very sorry to Sarah Dessen… we love young adult novels.’ The student suffered all the psychological brutality that goes with this sort of thing. Nobody – for the first few days, at least – seemed too bothered by the fact that she had actually been a teen girl much, much more recently than the people monstering her.
Of course, the tide turned eventually; this thing was just slightly too stupid even for a deeply stupid world. And an instinctive critique – one it’s hard not to sympathise with a little – developed. It goes like this: why are you losers reading books for actual children? Why are you getting so angry about them? Grow up! Read a proper book for adults! Fuck you! Yeah, sure. There’s nothing as grotesque as a forty-year-old millionaire who thinks you have to be nice to her because she’s only a baby. But actually, adults should be reading books for children. Books for children tend to be free of all the tedious conventions of the bourgeois novel. They’ve inherited the legacy of the myth, the epic, and the tale. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, psychological realism will never come as close to the meat of human subjectivity as a good, radically indeterminate fairy-tale metaphor. See how he rails against ‘the dreadful cobbling-together of disparate elements that loosely make for characters in novels of an inferior sort,’ thrown together with ‘the repulsive crust of the psychologically palpable completing the mannequin.’ Children’s stories, and tales more generally, knew how to present things ‘dry, so to speak, drained of all psychological motivation,’ and ‘they lost nothing as a result.’
But there’s hardly any children’s fiction around any more – as an author friend put it to me, we jump straight from picture-books to young adult fiction. And young adult fiction is for adults. It’s fiction that Deals With Issues In People’s Lives; even when it’s about wizards or vampires, it’s always in a realist mode. If we take Derrida’s definition of literature – literature is a text in which the ‘thetic relation to meaning or referent’ is ‘complicated and folded,’ a text that isn’t simply about the thing that it’s about, but which involves you in the processes and difficulties of getting from words to meanings – then none of this stuff is literature. The repeated demand from the adult consumers of YA fiction is that it must always be more socially relevant, more virtuous, more unambiguous, more thetic. A good book is one that means the right things. But the solution isn’t to just read the books for adults that are marketed as being books for adults, because our contemporary prizewinning fiction is all shitty realist thetic non-literature as well. It’s in what I’ve elsewhere called Mfalé, MFA Literary English. All fiction is young-adult fiction now, and none of us are young.
* * *
I turn thirty this year. I knew this sort of thing happened to other people. But how could it happen to me?