Timothy Leary's Dead

A billboard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The mantra of youth and the mantra of capitalism are now completely aligned:
Live to produce shit we can sell.   

When I came to San Francisco in 1991, it was cheap and filled with young freaks and artists. I worked in a used bookstore three days a week and managed to survive. Then, as a grad student, I lived like a king — even making a $12,000 scholarship last me nearly 18 months. I roamed the streets, thinking and writing about Merleau-Ponty and, sometimes, thinking of nothing at all. I was 26 and I was tenuously tethered to the flow of capital.

All this changed. We know the narrative well. The internet came in the late 90s and suddenly there was money everywhere. At first, it was exciting. We all learned so much about technology and money and thought we'd change the world — and we did. I went from never being on the internet — I wrote my dissertation on a MacPlus with floppy disks — directly to working for a start up. It was an experimental arts site, an immersive map to all the arts — literature, painting, puppetry, film, design, television, performance, philosophy. I didn't make much money but it was a party of the highest order. And was the kind of site no one invests in anymore.

This change, of course, meant new people were coming to the city, people who didn't make art and live on food stamps and work in used bookstores. These people had high paying jobs. And so the artists and freaks began to leave, replaced by people who willingly, gladly, work 60 hour weeks.

When the Mission district began to change, I naively believed it was good. A few high end restaurants actually made the neighborhood more diverse. But I didn't yet understand the will of capital to replicate itself at all costs. And so soon all the not-high end restaurants and shops — the car body shops, the Latin bars — began to disappear.

Now, in their stead, are beautiful restaurants serving organic, local food — for $26 a plate. Between the restaurants — which open at an alarming clip — are shops selling precious paper goods and tchotchkes, all selling for absurd amounts of money.

What's disturbing about all this is that the age of the neighborhood has not gone up. Everyone is still 26.   Youth culture, once the bastion of anti-capitalism, has become capitalism's greatest stronghold. All the hip kids with their beards and jeans and tattoos are not just working for Google and Apple (and justifying it somehow — as if Google and Apple were somehow better than other so-called evil corporations), these kids are creating their own businesses.

I just spent a few days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The streets are lined with shops selling organic scones, exquisite coffee, birthing services, super mod furniture (for tens of thousands of dollars), dumplings, local food stuffs. There's a delirium of commodities. All the stuff is nice, enticing, winking and smiling at you as you walk by. The stores themselves are gorgeous — exposed wood, brick, metal.

In some sense, it's amazing, beautiful, welcome. Fuck Starbucks and corporate bullshit. I want local, lovingly prepared food, jeans made by someone I know, coffee roasted right in front of me before it's brewed.

In another sense, it's downright horrifying. The hip kids today are totally square. They are the petty bourgeoisie. They are commodity fetishists. They make and buy and collect little precious knick knacks. They go to this restaurant, then that restaurant, then that bar devouring deviled eggs with sea urchin and cocktails with homemade bitters. And then they talk about the restaurants they went to and their clothes and their bags.

Capitalism tirelessly works to eliminate anything outside the replication of itself. Anti-commodification is folded into the fray so it can become a commodity. It's not just Maya Angelou selling a bank during the Super Bowl (this caged bird ain't singing). And it's not just the commodity fetishism of Williamsburg and the Mission. All our social interactions are mediated by capital. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, GChat: social interactions of the kids today are the commodity of some of the largest corporations in the world. They literally sell our social life.

We live amidst the rise of design culture over art culture. Design is a practice of social and financial capital. It seeks to make things. Art, on the other hand, creates affect — experiences outside of capital. This doesn't mean art is not a commodity; it means the experience of art is not while the experience of design is, necessarily. It's not that design is bad; design is important, improving the quality of everyday life. But design is creativity put to work for capital. And it seems everyone today is a designer and no one is an artist.

Capitalism has thoroughly co-opted youth culture. And it freaks me out.

On the side of a building just off Bedford Ave in this Williamsburg, there's a large billboard that reads, "Live, Work, Create." Which pretty much sums it up. It is the mantra of capitalism: live, so we can use your body to work and create shit we can sell. The billboard reads like the propaganda it is. And the mindless hipster 20-somethings not only embrace it, they're the ones who created the damn thing.

Shouldn't the mantra of youth be Folic, Fuck, Think? Or Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out? Timothy Leary truly is dead.


Lindsay Meisel said...

"Frolic, fuck, and think" is catchy and lovely, but I wonder about the "fuck" part. Indiscriminate, no-strings-attached hooking up is by definition empty of affect. It seems like a perfect illustration of your contrast between design culture vs art culture, no? One kind of sex is a commodity and the other kind full of affect.

But then, I'm not sure I want to say that "hooking up" is always bad and "relationships" are always good. It's more nuanced than that, and I think the flippancy of "fuck" in "frolic, fuck, think" is what bothers me.

It's related to what bugs me about vegetarians: if your goal is to eat ethically, you would need to think about the complex factors involved in every meal. (Did the soy in this veggie burger destroy the habitat for a bunch of innocent birds?) It's easier to just call yourself a vegetarian.

Whether it's "frolic, fuck, think" or "live, work, create," you can't really say what to do, because you can commodify anything. But you can say how to do it, which is slowly, carefully, attentively.

p.s. I think this makes an interesting read with your recent posts about about how to feed & dress yourself. What distinguishes the attention you pay to those things from the hipsters' preoccupation with how they feed and dress themselves? I do think it's different, but expressing that difference precisely is challenging.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Well, that's fair. I think I went with Fuck mostly for the alliteration and then for the flippancy: youth's lack of seriousness is one of its great values. One thing that I notice about these kids today, besides how square they are, is how serious they are.

So: Do I believe kids should be fucking with abandon. Yes and no. No, if it's the gross hook up. Yes if it's the unabashed embracing of mutual pleasure.

As for the what vs. how, I like your take quite a bit. But the how does matter, too. For what you do within the capital economy matters. Turning on and dropping out is different than living and working. And that difference is not for naught. I and my friends avoided work as long as we could; the so-called hipsters today rush into work. That is a what as much as it's a how.

Now, as for what makes my buying shit different: I didn't say all buying and selling of stuff is wrong. I like nice things; I like nice things made well by nice people. That is a respect for thingdom. But, en masss, embracing the selling of everything and having a disdain for the drop out while buying buying buying...well, I think that is profoundly different than me wrestling the reality of what the fuck to wear as an adult.

In fact, my pants dilemma comes out of the obsession with youth which comes, I believe, from youth's productivity: they work, they stay in debt, they are willing slaves to capitalism. So capitalism loves them. I am a fucking Gen Xer. We were called slackers because we slacked, because we didn't want to work. But we still need to wear pants.

Lindsay Meisel said...

Reading your last paragraph, it occurred to me that there is a line waiting to be written about slackers and slacks, as in pants.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I think you just wrote it.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this billboard is also a great example of the rhetoric of the image: for those at the top, the myth that prosperity from living their lives will "trickle down"; for those at the bottom, the myth that innovation and "following one's dream" enables one to climb the staircase of success. (Of course, if this is the case, then it seems that they misspelled 'cremate.')

Cuyler Ballenger said...

I read all your stuff and this stands out. Thanks for being so on, when youre on. -- cuyler

Daniel Coffeen said...

Cuyler! Very nice to see you here. Thanks for the props. This whole blog thing is my on going experiment in me, what my voice can do, what ideas speak to me. Sometimes, it all works: on! Sometimes, it doesn't: not so on. And so it goes.

Cuyler Ballenger said...

There is something very comfortable about the idea of 'work' for my generation. Remember those Levi's ads maybe a couple years ago? They said like "go forth." They were selling farming and a-hard-days-work and blonde people in this very arrogant way: we work and therefore we are, or something. I never really got it. But it continues now, men fetishizing lumberjacks (you must have seen just being in Williamsburg), the concept that working at a certain place is cool (tech), spending $17 on brunch is cool. Im not sure how it happened, but me and my lot seem to be the most controllable generation in some time. Maybe its because we have convinced each other how much we love to work. And we just keep convincing each other. It trips me out. I dont know.

I like the whole blog thing too, messing around with voices. I dig tumblr, too. I write things here http://cuylerballenger.tumblr.com/, but people do all sorts of better stuff all over it.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

On serious:

Being serious is very wise when danger is abound: Crazy ass-lookin' dog is barking at me, no fence in sight = very serious, I'm about to have to fight or flight a dog...

And it's not just physical danger, there's the possibility of emotional trauma, and that is — I think, just maybe — at an all-time-fucking-high. Humiliation and rejection waits around ever corner. One better be serious.

So that's all quite sad. But, I think it's the fear that creates the seriousness, fear of being a "loser".

A word or two on creation:

One nice thing about the "create" in that slogan is the possibility of destroying shitty ways. After all, creating new ways of doing things does, quite often, destroy or damage the old ways. Of course you're right to suggest that the "create" is just as likely to mean: make something salable.

But, on the more pleasant side: If I help create a new means of eating, for instance. And I look soooo God-damned awesome in the eyes of every other person who passes by my house farm, and they want a piece, then by a CSA share from me, or they start planting their own food. What happens? Part of the current model of food gets jammed up. Additionally, people find they like being outside, and their shitty-ass inside all day job is really a racket, and they want out of that too.

Create a way for people to get a good night sleep and wake up wanting more life! That's a very nice "create".

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ CB: Indeed: how far from slackers youth have come. And t tumblr, yes yes, I'm a big fan (I like yours white a bit — it's more articulate and varied than many I see). A friend and I started one you might dig: http://theesthetes.com/

And: that same friend created an art show out of images he found on tumblr; he called the show, "The Tumblr Room" which is pretty fucking cool: http://cargocollective.com/marclafia/The-Tumblr-Room

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ WTTVT: Serious is hard because being serious doesn't mean one's being serious. And, often, when one's joking one is in fact serious. So, yes, serious has its place — and a serious place, at that. Hmn.

As for create, yes yes: One way to read these kids is they're creating a different economy within the corporate economy. And they're creating healthy, quality, made with love goodness. Live, work, create: in this sense, yes, absolutely. Remaking the world by jamming BIG flows and creating new, alterna-flows. Love that, of course.

But looking at these kids in Williamsburg and the Mission, that's not what's going on. The whole project is funded by Google, Apple, Genentech, venture funds, etc. I'm an artisan furniture make and I make and sell a couch for $7000. Who's buying it? Not another furniture maker: he can't afford it. No, it's the Googler.

Creation is, of course, beautiful. It's the goal of the whole thing — to create love, create experiences, and create things. The problem here is the former two have fallen away. The focus is things at the expense of love, experience, delirium, etc.

The rise of artisan crafts has its beauty. But it is also ideology hard at work, keeping the would-be/should-be discontent focused on work. Where are the drugged out buskers? Where are the slackers who play guitar and avoid work at all costs? Where are the art collectives that forge collective experiences? They're gone. Some are working at Google; many are making hand sewn bags and selling them on Bedford Ave for $175.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

Well, I'm certainly with you, but let's agree: the artisan furniture maker has little choice. Because the artisan, the girl or boy who wants to make an extremely nice table, also has to compete with Mexican made tables at Crate and Barrel. Or the junk at Ikea. And yet, our artisan has to pay American rent, and American health care costs, and American student debt.

You've surely noticed that the only workers who can charge a decent rate are the same ones who don't compete with the corporations who can exploit the global poor. So the plumber does okay, a Bangladeshi isn't going to fix your ruptured pipe. And the mechanic does okay, same deal.

So the artisan knows that, rather than aim for making a bunch of pretty nice tables, and charging Crate and Barrel prices (they're going to get stuck with inventory and get fucked), they're better off just aiming for the plutocrat and charge a billion dollars and hope to sell a few handfuls of items a year. Sucks butt, doesn't it. If you're an American who has to compete against the exploited global poor, you're only decent bet is to target the uber-rich.

This is especially true in the big spendy cities from which your examples come. Now, there is the possibility of some bartering in other parts. But this requires relationships. I might give a fancy ass table to my neighborhood plumber, with the agreement he has my pipes covered for the forseeable future. Plenty of people are swingin' that way... but mainly in out of the way places, I think.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I want to be sure I've been clear: I fucking love artisans. I love those who make shit; I love buying things that people around me have made. My shirts are made by the people in the store where I buy said shirts; my produce is sold by a local store that buys only from local farms.

I do this because a) the shit's better; and b) because I believe, in my heart of hearts (as if I had such a thing), that it's proper: to the maker, go the profits.

I don't blame makers ever for anything (well, that might be hyperbole) — certainly not for charging a lot. They deserve every penny.

What I was trying to say is that the epicenters of youth culture have become the epicenters of work. There has been a dramatic shift in my lifetimes from slackers to artisan/dot commers (sp?). Once, corporations avoided the Mission (in SF) because it was all artist freaks. Now, these corporations bus the kids to their factories outside town.

There is no punk youth voice anymore, no fuck you to the establishment; the kids today don't live on food stamps, shoot smack, and write bad poetry. They immediately insinuate themselves into the economy — when we slackers did everything we could to avoid such things.

We did acid; the kids today take Adderall.

And: I believe you're right — I'm looking at expensive cities. There are no doubt bastions, such as yours, where alternaflows flow. They're just getting harder to come by.

And, in all honesty, I thought of you when I was writing this and appreciate your thinking, and words, on the subject.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

Ah, in the beginning you did something like Whitman's Leaves of Grass love-fest, very enjoyable.

My apologies for making you go-through your argument again; I was just rambling on about a little side piece, your larger offering was always intact... and I can see how you thought, that I thought, you were poo-pooing the artisan — so sorry for that confusion.

DeBord has a good riff (#17 in the Spectacle) on how "being" has been downgraded to "having"... that's probably a concept worth utilizing.

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