Friday, March 25, 2005

Douglas Coupland & Generation Alienation

My term for one of Douglas Coupland's primary themes -- certainly his signature theme -- is generation alienation. The title of his widely successful first novel Generation X entered language and, as naming will, gave a sense of separate identity to members (the etymology of that word is important in this context) of society based on mere age. Coupland's fiction -- on the lecture thesis that it is work of true art -- does not celebrate or boost the segmentation that it identifies but rather laments in its depiction of people, born between 1960 and 1975, isolated in some sense from people around them of otherwise shared background and cultural standing.

The cross-division of a society by age began perhaps with the term "baby boomer" (children born after WWII to 1960) and was intensified by "the 60s generation" but the first is more vague and the second, in its reference to a sub-culture within an age group, narrower than Coupland's. With "Generation X" an epistemological change has reached a degree that suggests new ontology: it's identity is certainly cohesive enough create its progeny in "Generation Y," with "Generation Z" (perhaps under different nomenclature) certain to follow.

As Coupland's fiction has progressed, the scope of his canvas has broadened and details added to his portrait of a society increasingly divided to the point of fragmentation. (As detailed in lecture, it is a particular benefit for us that not only Canada but Vancouver specifically is his setting.) Coupland's perceptive readers -- some of you are counted in that number -- recognise that one active cause of the segementation is marketing: the capitalist truth that sales success increases as a market for a product is more specifically identified for targeted advertising. This practice takes heightened importance from its wholesale adaptation into party politics. In this regard, Coupland's fiction presents us with a question of whether Western society can survive the fragmentation that follows ever-increasing segregation. Coupland might conceivably find fertile material for his fiction here in academia with the curent celebration of division over unity. (As an aside, the philosophical opposition here at play is nominalism versus universalism -- link via our Library databases.)

For an intellectual underpinning to Coupland's portrait of generation alienation, I offered in lecture Dr. Bruce Alexander's theory that mass addiction is a consequence of a world-wide free-market. In his article "Finding the Roots of Addiction" (a precis of his upcoming book), Alexander uses the term "dislocation" to describe the effect that Coupland's fiction portrays: an increasingly wide breakdown of healthy "psychosocial integration." Two specific points of contact between Alexander and Coupland in their conceptions are addiction as the consequence of alienation-dislocation and Vancouver as "Terminal City" -- a place where cultural and ethnic strands are sharply terminated: neither capped nor woven together. As lecture detailed, addiction is presented with great artisitic skill in Hey Nostradamus!: it is a ubiquitous element of the story yet it never declares itself openly -- it is "hidden in plain sight;" the elephant in the living room.

I found examples of generation alienation on one of your course group blogs. In my lectures on Hey Nostradamus! I pointed out how Coupland sketches Heather's neurosis by details like her reaction to the child's play area ball-pit in McDonald's as a breeding-ground of plague. Now, my own generation -- like Coupland and his -- shared water bottles at hockey practice and drank water straight from the tap. To us, Heather's attitude is plainly neurotic. To Gen Y, however, trans-fat-aware, Heather is simply being sensible. Similarly, Gen Y is annoyed when the endless hours that students spend at university computers doing MSN Chat are euphonically represented to them by an insightful baby-boomer lecturer .... In a phrase, generation alienation in action!

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