Zooming By

Both my parents and I were born on generational seams. My father was born in 1959, my mom in 1960, right in the last years of the baby boom era. I was born in 1996, two years before the zoomer cut-off (usually put around 1998 or so). The result of this fluke is that, like everyone else born around 1996, my relationship to 2008—likely the defining event in both generations’ lives—is neither fully millennial nor fully zoomer. What I want to do here is use this in-betweenness to sketch a rough schematic of how each generation’s relationship to 2008 manifests in aesthetics and politics, in what decade each generation turned to for fashion and art, as well as each’s commitment to Marxist materialism and tendency to historicism. Before doing so, however, I want to stress that these are generalities, and as with any generation, there’s no hard line between zoomer and millennial.[1] Each generation bleeds into every other. The rough periodization I’m indulging in is nothing more than an attempt to label two different impulses among young-ish people (under 35).

That aesthetically, we both looked backwards is inevitable: the future has been foreclosed, after all, and even if hadn’t, pastiche and recirculation has been the name of the game since at least the 1980’s. But what strikes me as fascinating is not that each generation looked to a different era (millennials looking towards the 1970’s, Zoomers looking towards the early 2000’s/late 90’s), but why. Younger millennials turned toward the 1970’s as an aesthetic touchstone not because of hauntology (as Mark Fisher argues), but because of the similarities between then and the post-2008 era.[2] In my thesis, I attributed this to what is called the secular crisis of capitalism. I still agree with that analysis.[3] But without even getting into that we might say that there’s an obvious kinship: the seventies were the last period of extended stagnation like we saw after 2008. And even when recovery began after the Great Recession, it was only a recovery for a small group of people. The jobs that came back were for the most part more precarious and lower-paying.  You can even in some ways draw a modern parallel to stagflation, the feeling that you’re being left behind as the economy grows: the explosion of rents and home prices across the nation, even in cities with no limitations on housing stock. It’s not stagflation of course (inflation rates are still quite low, though Biden’s administration is talking about raising them), but rather extreme inequality. The feeling, however, might as well be the same. For the average person, wages have been stagnant even as the cost of reproduction (in the Marxist sense of the term) has risen.

The key here is that the turn to the 70’s wasn’t nostalgic as much as sympathetic. That’s not to say there wasn’t any nostalgia—certain cultural products did romanticize the era. One of the more popular bands of the 2010’s was called The 1975, after all. But this nostalgia was rooted in a recognition that the time period was horrid. We were nostalgic because at least the 70’s was producing new culture even as they were mired in the shit. We couldn’t say the same. 1977 alone had Bowie’s Low, the first Star Wars, Eraserhead, Annie Hall, Jubilee, Rumors, Aja, the B-52’s first public performance,  and so much more. We had The Avengers, Mac Demarco, and (a rare bright spot) Kendrick Lamar. Our nostalgia was that back then, despite (or because of) a war everyone wanted to forget about going on in the background, a heroin pandemic, and a crashed economy, there was still something worthwhile going on. Our imitation of the 70’s was only partly mimetic. We don’t want to become the 70’s, a desire usually harbored within acts of mimesis. As a friend pointed out when bitching about the people who were genuinely nostalgic for the era: 1975 almost certainly smelled like shit.

In contrast, the Zoomer turn towards the early 2000’s/late 1990’s is much more straightforwardly nostalgic, not too different from the 80’s obsession with the 1950’s. Part of it is likely due to millennials’ own nostalgia for when we were young. Kid Detective, one of the better films of 2020, sets its nostalgic 1950’s suburban dream in 2002, well after deindustrialization and death of American innocence. The dominant culture of one generation is very often produced by that of the preceding one. 20 year-olds may drive our culture, but the movers and shakers are millennials or (even more likely) generation X. Hang around the internet and you’ll see plenty of millennials reminiscing about LimeWire and burning CD’s and Blockbuster (indeed, there’s now a full-length pean to this last one on Netflix). But there’s something else at play. The recent resurgence of 2000’s aesthetics is centered around their trashiness, their absurdity, how ugly every part of that culture seemed to be. Low-rise jeans and tiny sunglasses don’t flatter celebrities; no normal person wearing either seriously thinks they look good. Instead, it reflects the Zoomer desire that contemporary aesthetics reflect how bankrupt they are. While millennials harbored the desire that alternatives be produced out of suffering—for this what every great work of art is, an acknowledgement of its guilt and the pain of our world and yet refusing to accept this, and out of this quixotic desire grows the haunting knowledge that something better is possible—Zoomers are more pessimistic, more “black-pilled” to use internet parlance. All they can ask for is that culture not pretend it is anything but ugly and evil. The era of bad reality TV and Paris Hilton and Rockabilly and George Bush and illegal wars delivered this; there was no pretending we were better than things appeared, as there would be later, in the era of Peak TV and “Yes We can.” There was just power and Angelina Jolie wearing a vial of Billy Bob’s blood.

On the left, you can see a similar dynamic play out in millennial and zoomer approaches to critiques of capitalism. Those of us who remember the before of the financial crisis (however imperfectly), turned to Marxism because it offered us an analytic framework that explained our own blind spots. The k-shaped recovery makes more sense if you believe David Harvey’s claim that neoliberalism is attempt at the restoration of class power. Bush’s concept of an “ownership society” takes on a new valence if you read it as nothing more than a tool to produce debt that could be packaged and traded, another chapter in capitalism’s quest to commodify all objects and relationships to stave off its own contradictions. At the same time, we saw firsthand the breakdown of what Foucault called an episteme, how 2008 fundamentally changed how we think and the accompanying culture. The early 2000’s was a time when capitalist ideology was working about as smoothly as possible. Due solely to when we were born, we got to encounter this without being fully interpellated as older generations were, making the breakdown particularly obvious. As a result, we tended towards a materialism and historicism—those I know most committed to something like periodizing are mostly in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Zoomers, on the other hand, have little memory of the pre-2008 ideological apparatus. They have grown up almost entirely in an era where capitalism has struggled to paper over its cracks. This is one reason so many young people are taking increasingly polarized positions; they have never seen the status quo “work.” But at the same time, to them Marx looks less like a revelation and more like an old white guy stating the obvious. Millennials (myself included) have occasionally strayed too close to a vulgar Marxist determinism, where all the failures of society are laid at capital’s feet. But if you came of age only watching capital flail and its ideological defenders twist themselves into increasingly absurd knots, this vision of capital as such a force that it not only touches everything in life but shapes it all is harder to swallow. In conversations with people slightly younger than me, I see a tendency to ontologize, to attribute everything to an ahistorical essence. Or rather, that’s not quite right. It’s not purely ahistorical. Rather, it is a tendency to freeze one historical dimension of an object and claim that this is its pure being, what it is at its heart. Of course, this could be a product of youth. It’s a (true) cliché that when we’re young, we tend to see things as black and white, as eternal and clear. Perhaps they will grow out of this tendency. Certainly, this would be better for society; as Adorno, Levinas, Derrida, and more have argued, there is something fascistic in the very concept of ontology, and so to indulge in ontological thinking is to allow fascism to enter into your politics, whether you mean to or not.

At the end of the day, however, these generational impulses are not clear cut. Afro-pessimism (which relies on ontological thinking) is particularly popular among people in their late 20’s and early 30’s, and I see plenty of people old enough to know better imitating kids who are in turn imitating 90’s fashions. And certainly, despite my reticence to talk about it, our differing relationship to the internet matters. But despite all this, I do believe that over the next couple years, it will become increasingly clear that 2008 still reverberates, not only in the Neighborhood’s “Sweater Weather” (2013) but also in 100 Gecs and Billie Eilish and whatever else the teens are listening to.

[1] I half joke that it comes down to Fortnight, the popular Battle Royal game. If you can play it well, you’re a zoomer. If not, you’re a millennial.

[2] Or rather, hauntology is not entirely the reason.

[3] This is not the place to get into it, but it essentially means that we’ve been in a crisis for fifty years now, and the reason the full extent of this crisis wasn’t apparent through the 80’s-2008 was because of the rise of debt and the accompanying bundling and trading. In short, financialization.