Comment over on the Chronicle blog, Brainstorm:
The Chronicle commentary is here.
Now, the good people at the New Yorker tend to be knowing and wise, their covers (see here for the complete archive) show fingers on pulses, always of present pertinence and later of historical import.
I would consider them to be one of the best Zeitgeist-monitors.
Here’s the offending article:
Obrienatrix: first reaction was a chuckle. It is funny. Sorry, but one would have to be a very repressed and self-controlled and tortured sort of person (or have no sense of humour at all, or maybe the two are the same) not to. At some level. Even if it’s a teeny tiny short inaudible chuckle with an invisible smile.
Second reaction was sadness and sympathy. Because, like any good cartoon, it’s true. Not universally true, of every PhD. But of some. And I’ve seen that look on many parents’ faces: parents of undergraduates, parents of fellow graduate students, and my own parents. It must be troubling and unhappy to be a parent of that generation nowadays: that generation that had job security, jobs for life, linear careers, structure. A generation that worked, bought houses, all in the appropriate linear progression. My own parents have accused me of mocking and sneering at their values; though we have more in common than not. And it takes many years, many arguments, and much work on both sides to reach some kind of understanding, that’s also an understanding by each side of what the other’s world is, and how these worlds and times are different. Not necessarily better or worse–there’s much that’s bad in 1950s values as concerns women, for instance–just different.
It must be very difficult indeed for someone of that generation to see that their world seems to be ending; a clash between an old world’s invisible attributes (values etc.) and visible reality. The difficulty of coming to terms with one’s own mortality: worse than complete disappearance, it’s fading away into a ghost, haunting, murmuring in the background, impotent, unheard, yet still forced to observe the real world.
Worse still, seeing the next generation as somnambulants not fully in the world and actively engaged with it, just passing through, forever just passing, never touching it or anything or anyone else, or being touched. The only acts of deliberate agency are notes on the door–the imperative “Keep Out”, the territorial “Tim’s Room”–are parodies and pretences. It’s wrong to see them both as just (charmingly) childish and proof of perpetual/perpetuated childhood. They’re pretences: pretending to be an adult, pretending to adult power, the mock assumption of adult power and appropriation of property. No real, actual doing and making, with forethought and consequences; no, this is derivative, second-hand, delusional, and (call it childlike if you will) living in play / playing at life.
Look at the Wall of Pride of Tim’s self-fashioning. Everything there is a representation of something else, there are no original creations, and all are kinds of fictions. There are dreams to be someone else (a rock-star, a sporting hero); the figurative aspiration of a toy car; competitions and awards of a sort that just happened to him, that Tim drifted into and along with. Certificates stating as fact that something happened; these are not histories or chronicles, but the post facto testimony that makes any Medievalist’s sceptical eyebrow twitch when encountered in an account claiming to be true, being a common device in hagiography and romance, used as a rhetorical device since the dawn of time, and integral to narrative itself. True, note, through and because of authority (conflict with the door-notes?). All Tim’s faicts et dits et gestes are passive and none of his oeuvres are pardurable: evanescent, memories/false memories, allusions, dreams, fictions. The only physical thing is the room and its arrangement: temporary exhibition in an art gallery, with delusions of being a museum, and ending up as a mausoleum. All of which will crumble (or can be ripped down rapidly).
There’s talk of the “post-human”: is this it, this lack of existential being? I do hope Facebook and other Web 2.0 phenomena prove the contrary … What’s so touching and true about this cartoon (and as ever it’s uplifting to be touched, and thus know one is a human being) is the pre-post-modern human and the post-human in the same space; the former hovering at the door, their cowering making the fiction of the notes on the door real; the latter in his fictional world, that’s his though constructed by the deliberate acts of others, there as a collection and collage of fictional allusions. The eyes says it all: the parents’ wide-eyed concern, Tim with eyes closed. Blind, locked up inside himself. This is a scene portraying two kinds of living dead.
Vampires and zombies come and go in film fashion, and are very much back in again. The New Yorker cover is a vampire/zombie picture. I wonder how far the target audience is actually The Younger Generation, and how far it is their parents. I also wonder how far these are the creations of wiser members of Older Generations (who always have a hand in such things, even if “merely” as producers). Horror is rarely purely entertaining: like all speculative fictions, it tends to the prescriptive, always has a didactic aim, and almost always a moral heart. Even the most amoral cautionary tales. Especially them.