Friday, August 12, 2011

The Cultural Production of Teens (1 July 2010)

Using the "mosquito" -- a device that emits noise that only irritates those under 25 -- as a launching point, Jeffrey Sconce makes some interesting points about how the idea of the teenager has evolved in this essay. He regards the mosquito as part of a two-pronged technological approach to dissipating dissent among the pre-adult set (who can't actually expect to get a job in the kind of economy we have now):

now that they [teens] have become an annoyance en masse for the entire social order, the future seems clear: blast the "bad" ones with ultrasonic frequencies to send them scurrying like cockroaches into the community's most abject nooks and crannies, and cocoon the "good" ones with consumer electronics until they're ready to be fully functional butterflies on the outside.

If you extend "consumer electronics" to include the internet, mobile computing, and social networking, then that seems accurate to me, only I would argue that they are fully functional butterflies as teens, when the capital latent in their youthfulness can be fully exploited in a culture that has transformed "youth" into the transcendent source of value. Sconce suggests that "middle-class kids, meanwhile, unable just yet to reap the occupational inheritance of a middle-class upbringing, find this limbo of quasi-adolescent-adulthood extended into their late 20s or even early 30s -- a place to kill time until the economy has room for them." I don't think kidulthood is a mere holding tank, an ad hoc contrivance to accommodate a population for whom there are no conventional jobs. Rather, teens and 20-somethings must be kept in the cocoon -- adolescence must be prolonged as much as possible structurally -- because the intense self-consciousness of that psychological period is extremely productive and innovative from the culture industry point of view. The teens are swans who become ugly ducklings as they age. Put another way: the skills American kids learn are mainly relevant to their being teenagers; many learn how to produce narcissistic identity ("cool") and nothing else. The product they make is only valuable for as long as they can pass themselves off as young and "relevant" (as Carles likes to say).

In many respects, the teenager represents the ideal worker/consumer for the era of the "social factory" and immaterial labor. Teens inhabit a pitiless social world more relentlessly networked than for anyone else (i.e. the networking they perform and the nodes they inhabit in the network have to do only with their identity and their social life; there are no ulterior motives), and their identity is their most pressing existential concern -- their main job is to produce an identity that can withstand that ceaseless crucible of scrutiny and mockery and rapidly cycling trends, namely the widely vaunted flexible self of postmodernity. (I think this is a subtext of widely reported digital-bullying stories.) Immersed in that hostile environment wherein nothing is at stake but identity, teens become extremely productive of the sort of immaterial tokens and knowledge and practices that go into projecting identity, ideas that are harvested by the culture industries and marketed as the refined ore of "cool". But the harvesting depends on the digital cocoon Sconce posits. Mediatization of teens' social life makes the social factory an exploitable reality; it makes it ultimately accessible to marketers, manufacturers, industry, etc., without anybody actually having to give a teen a job -- they are "noisome" after all.

Basically, the new-model teen is the hypermediated, angsty producer or promoter of trends and attitudes that are then profitably distributed to the rest of culture and back to other teens, since the field of coolness is unevenly developed. Teens make cultural meanings and get paid in a tenuous sense of self-worth (which, however, is perpetually destabilized -- the cultural churn is ongoing, accelerated by the velocity of communication made possible by always being networked). The old-model ideal teen -- the credulous consumer spending discretionary cash on prefabricated junk culture -- has been supplanted by the tween for those old-media behemoths whose business model is still predicated on scale and uniform demand, as opposed to adaptive flexibility and informatization of identity. As Sconce notes:

The recent cultivation of a “tweener” market (pre-adolescents on the threshold of puberty and chronological teendom) suggests the culture industries have had to regroup when it comes to marketing prefabricated crap to a naive and hormonally confused demographic. In 1969, the possibility of finding a 16-year old Monkees fan was slim -- but not necessarily inconceivable.... Once 13-year-olds started listening to Megadeath and N.W.A. many, many years ago, the Disney corporation practically had to invent the tweener in order to better stabilize market predictability.

But the 1950s idea of the teen as a nonproductive delinquent is gone. Basically the mosquito and the technologies that will follow in its wake are meant to scotch that kind of loitering, menacing, non-middle-class teenager out of the public eye for good. The lower-class delinquent-tye teens have become what Sconce terms "lumpenadults" with no place to inhabit in society or in the circulation of goods and services in the above-board economy: They are "those left to fend for themselves as drop-outs, runaways, unskilled laborers, gang bangers, and/or entry-level workers in the drug and sex trades." They are not productive in the construction of identity, mainly because they lack the opportunities and social capital to produce an identity that would be valued. They are predefined as marginal, though arguably, they are the chief source of the "outlaw" modes of selfhood that are modulated into chic, marketable practices by enfranchised teens and young adults who observe and steal them.

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