So the other day, I came across this link while reading an essay online. It’s a Wall Street Journal article from 2008 about our generation… and frankly, it doesn’t seem to like us very much. According to the writer, we…
by Andrew Panebianco
It is the stated policy of this journal that we publish work by or regarding people born between 1973 and 1993. This is the span of years we’ve chosen to refer to as The Splinter Generation – a period or group or collection of voices whose experiences we wish to explore and chronicle.
If you’re reading this, you probably know that already.
So we’re operating on the notion that there’s some cohesion to be found within the guts of this age – some intrinsic sameness crafted by common experience. Sometimes I believe this. Other times I don’t.
I teach English lit to freshmen at a university in Philadelphia, and my students come in every possible variety. I teach students of every race and gender and sexual identity. I have good students, bad students, brilliant students, not-so-brilliant students. Individuals, all. But in spite of that individuality, there is still this one thing I’ve found that serves as the universal constant to which they all adhere. I’ve come to see it as a form of cultural currency – a universal language – a social Esperanto, if you will.
I speak, of course, of Family Guy.
Family Guy is the one thing that all of my students seem to know, believe and understand. The travails of the Griffin family are universally accepted to be the funniest events ever to come into existence, and so, as members of a television-saturated generation, the show for them becomes the spice of ordinary conversation. Family Guy is the wellspring of hundred and hundreds of well-intentioned impressions. It’s the community metaphor well. And they’ve all got buckets. They toss lines back and forth, interrupting each other’s reminiscences with sudden giggles and laughter. They already know the punchline, you see. Because they’ve seen every episode. Twice.
On one level I can understand this. Because like my students, I and others of my age (mid to late 20s) also have a social Esperanto. We have volumes of quotes and references at the ready. Only they don’t come from Family Guy. They come from The Simpsons. And despite my fervent love of that show, it history and the role it has played both in my life and my culture, I have to recognize that when it comes to my students, I’m speaking a dead language. “People still watch that?” they say, “I don’t get it.” Like I’m speaking Aramaic or something.
This, I think, is one of the most important distinctions between the middle splinters (20s) and the late splinters (teens) – they grew up in Quahog, Rhode Island, while we all hail from Springfield, Wherever. For them, Family Guy is the funniest thing on the planet. For me, it’s kinda meh. On some level I just don’t get it. It’s a bunch of references. A whole lot of bawdy, pop culture references tied together by the bickerings of a gay baby and an erudite dog. Funny sometimes, sure. But on par with The Simpsons? Hardly.
Who cares, right? It’s just a TV show. Well, yeah. I see your point. But I want to look closer. I want to know why I find one to be brilliant and the other to be terribly overrated. And I would like you to chime in and tell me what to think – because honestly, I’m not sure.
It leads me to a question though: What do such wide-ranging, culturally resonant shows like these do to our sense of humor as generation? Might it be molded by each show’s respective comic philosophy (which I think generally can be seen as irony and satire vs. randomness and taboo). And since one has begun to wither whereas the other continues to rise, might there be a separation in how we in this generation think in terms of humor?
I think The Simpsons taught me what funny is. And so my brain is too yellow to fully appreciate Family Guy. Maybe my students get bored with The Simpsons because it’s not… splintered… enough. Not enough reference – too demanding of an attention span – too linear. I don’t know.
I think of of this all the time when I consider our generation – when I consider this journal. If what’s funny to some of us isn’t what’s funny to the rest – how alike can we be? Am I a guy like the other guys in my generation? I don’t think I am. I don’t think I can be.
To quote the Gospel According to Homer: I’m a guy like me.
So a few days ago I was watching Angels and Demons (don’t judge me) with my friend Matt. When the movie’s action halted (for the third time) in order to lay down some clumsy exposition, Matt sighed and asked a seemingly obvious, but nevertheless powerful question: “What the hell do people see in this [stuff]?”
It’s a good question. As much of a lit-snob as I can be – I can’t deny that Dan Brown has caught on to something. Nearly everyone I know, from the cognoscenti to the dope-patrol has read at least one Dan Brown novel – or at least they gave it an earnest try.
What does Dan Brown do that makes people like him so much? More pointedly, what might this have to do with The Splinter Generation?
Well, for one – I believe Robert Langdon (the Tom Hanks character) to be a stunning example of the Hipster pinup-girl. He’s the master of the esoteric – a symbologist. A character who knows absolutely everything about subjects we’ve never even heard of. He can (and often does) namedrop obscure figures and events of history in casual conversation. He’s a character whose importance and popularity are directly proportional to how exhaustively pedantic he can be. Robert Langdon is an action hero in rumpled corduroy. I can’t tell you how many people I know who try for this.
More importantly, though – what I find most interesting about Dan Brown’s success, is that it seems to connect to a larger trend in popular entertainment.
Dan Brown is writing about the interconnection of things. In the silly worlds of his literature, history is not just some pile of dusty corpses and yellowed pages. It is instead a trail of breadcrumbs leading to something of unquestionably melodramatic importance (the supposed war between faith and science, for example – or an attempted abduction of Christ’s pouty progeny). History isn’t about the past, according to Dan Brown – it’s about the present. It’s everywhere – in every painting and sculpture – in architecture – in religion. We are all caught and tangled in its web, and it is only our illusion that we exist beyond it. Brown’s Langdon suggests to us that if we look closely at the symbols, we can see how interconnected all things actually are.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that A. he’s doing this on purpose, or B. he’s any good at it (for further evidence on this, I direct you here). But Langdon has been whispering in my ear for a few days now… and I can’t help but see a bit of what he’s talking about.
I think it’s safe to say that over the last decade, our society, in its fervent attempt to digitize absolutely everything on the planet, has grown more and more remote. This is the central irony of the internet generation – we’re all so connected, that we’re disconnected. And yet when I stop to consider the stories we’ve told over the last decade, a large number of them a seem to hinge on the contrary.
Babel, 21 Grams, Black and White, Crash, Magnolia, Signs – each of these movies has spoken to some general sense of interconnection. They suggest to us, like Langdon does, that our disconnection, our remoteness, is merely an illusion. That beneath every choice, every turn, there is an unbreakable causal web.
I see these symbols everywhere – even in crappy disaster movies – which ever since Independence Day (which, I acknowledge, came out prior to the last decade), have revolved around disparate groups of people brought together by calamity.
Everywhere I turn, I see interconnection. So why do I still feel so disconnected?
If my observations are correct, they lead me to a more serious set of questions:
Are these stories we’re telling an attempt to ferret out the truth? Are they a capitulation to Langdon’s condescending, yet hopeful lectures?
Or might they be darker than that – a prolonged period of creative mourning for what we’ve lost? A facsimile of something that once was, but no longer is – like a viewing for a deceased relative?
Are we telling these stories of interconnection because we are, in fact, interconnected? Or are we trying to convince ourselves that we still are, when deep down we know we’re not?
We here at The Splinter Generation would love to hear what you think. So strap on a Tom Hanks, 50-year-old-dad-belly and look at the symbols with us!
Post Script: Splinter editor and Grand Poobah Seth Fischer pointed this out to me – Dan Brown was actually a workshop partner with David Foster Wallace. I can’t get the image of a manuscript covered in scribbled lines and red footnotes out of my mind. x