15 April 2009

Conformist Nonconformity

"Well, why do you go out of your way to look like a bum?

Wouldn't it be more of an act of rebellion if you didn't spend so much time buying blue hair dye and going out to get punky clothes? It seems so petty. You wanna be an individual, right? You look like you're wearing a uniform. You look like a punk."
 -- "Brandy", SLC Punk!

The above quote, I think, defines the very reason I've failed to ever truly identify with any subsect of society; there are so many subcultures, each concerned only with their capacity to differentiate between themselves and "those people" (whoever "they" may be) that we forget that to seek individualism requires an effort of the mind, of a free-thinking self embodied not within a certain fashion, a certain musical taste, a certain communal passtime. We become so very caught up with making sure that we're not something we wouldn't want to be that we forget what it is we do want to be; we cast aside the true flavor of ourselves, replacing it with shock-value driven adherence to something that marks us as being something else -- forgoing any sense of satisfaction that should be gained from that same self-expression. We engage ourselves in efforts to identify with a group of people that we feel are, on some level, like us, either physically, emotionally, mentally, or through whatever shared trait we can cling onto in the hopes that we're not alone in the world, in the universe, that we have this connection with people as forged through the chains that bind each of us to our own personal indulgences.

The most famous expression of this desperate irony comes in the phrase, "I want to be different, just like everyone else" -- something I first encountered in the 1990s when the cynical mood of the grunge era took hold. This became a motif amongst those disenfranchised youths who sought to leave their mark not on the world, but on themselves; they recognized the futility of the other subcultures around them adopting their own uniform, and they developed a uniform of their own based on noncompliance with the existing templates; in so doing, though, they found themselves trapped by the same lack of identity-crisis as all the rest, and this seemingly-inescapable truth brought with it the ennui that has afflicted the formative years of each subsequent class of fresh young faces waiting to find their place in the not-so-hallowed halls of our education system, spurring the resurgence in more recent days of the shock-heavy, overdone uniforms of the new social strata -- the neo-punk, the emo, the nerdcore, etc -- now reliant upon not a sense of individualism, but an intense dedication to the masses, to the culture with which one finds oneself identifying.

Each generation of humans (okay, I'll admit it, I'm mostly talking Americans here) seems to identify itself most strongly by adopting something which defines itself as separate from the generation before it; that is, rather than adopting a unique culture to themselves, they attempt to focus on forming a counter-culture, a contrast to the existing structure meant to stand stark against that structure so as to grasp at a lack of structure entirely; this is evidenced in the Mods of the late 1950s-1960s, the Hippies of the 60s and 70s, the punks of the 80s, and so on; each seeking to find a self-expression through being an entity wholly separate from that which came before it. Even so, these subcultures often find themselves fight for -- or against -- the same ideals as their predecessors, in some grand attempt to overthrow the same system that seemed to oppress the younger years of their forefathers who sought to rebel against their parents, and so on.

Thus, we become an entire culture devoted to nothing more than embracing the taboos of our forebears, eventually assimilating those taboos into the same corporate structure so that we can have the capacity to build a legacy of this "new ideal", bringing about an oppressive structure which will, of course, be the bane of our own progeny as they grow into a world where the system keeps them from expressing themselves as individuals by clinging to outdated mores and archaic customs built on the refusal to succumb to the wisdom of our fathers.

But what else is there? Our only method of distinguishing ourselves is to reject the identities which came before us; we find ourselves becoming that same thing we fought to reject, all the while failing to recognize that at the very core, this system can be nothing but self-replicating. The entire culture of counterculture relies on the principle of breaking new ground when comapred against existent models. We attempt to hash out new ideas by breaking apart ideas that were present before any of us, before any of our progenitors, before any of their parents even knew what ideas could come to be in any given direction, but we can only find frame of reference in the systems that we seek to overthrow; is this cycle the only way we have of experiencing any form of individuality and uniqueness in the world? If the advent of any new era is only capable of rising from the ashes of the prior era, then how could we ever hope to become something other than the same socioeconomic phoenix rebirthed through our own desire to self-terminate, rebuild, and then preserve? We, today, are the suicide of the hippies; not the death of them, but the voluntary compliance of their ideals to the realities of our culturo-economic significance, adherence to which constitutes our only known means of survival.

How long before we can truly find a new way to exist, to survive, to thrive?


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