Text of a talk given to Birkbeck College Department of Literature June 2016
Introduction: the youth question then and now
In this talk I am going to be taking a line of thought for a walk in two directions at once. I will stepping back from the present, to retrace an argument about the youth question which I first articulated in the late 1960’s and 70’s at a time when Mods,Rockers and Skinheads, Beats and Hippies were highly visible signs of a deeper shift in the tectonic plates of the British class system. The emergence of these youth cultures also signaled the fact that the fixed positions of gender and generation which had hitherto signposted the key stages of growing up as a boy or a girl, were becoming much more fluid and negotiable, though with a very different impact on each side of the class tracks. New codes of masculinity and femininity were becoming available to middle class adolescents en route to university, whilst their working class peers in transit from school to work found that patriarchal values were becoming increasingly dysfunctional as the masculinist culture of manual labourism went into decline and feminized forms of service economy took its place.
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I want to go back to that conjuncture, not in order to debunk or deconstruct yet again the mythology of a sixties youth revolution ( let along burden you with my own memories of it), but to consider in what way that moment, and its spectacular forms of dis-orientation comes back to haunt us now when the boom years have imploded , and the expectation that the economy will continue to grow year on year, and that life for each generation , whatever the class background, would go on getting better than its predecessor , when that principle of hope was suddenly evaporated for everyone except the super rich and those who had a fast track into the professional salariat. Of course the abrupt transition from New Labour and carnival capitalism to austerity politics took place in very different circumstances from the 1960’s when the long post war and its austerity regime collapsed before the onslaught of hip consumer capitalism, but in both conjunctures the life- historical narratives that hitherto connected biographical trajectories to sedimented structures of family, work and community life became de-stabilised.
Just to remind ourselbves , briefly,In the 1960’s and 70’s Britain was experiencing the first major wave of de-industrialisation , driven first by Wilson’s white hot technological revolution and then by Thatcher’s deregulation of the labour and housing markets; it was the beginning of the end for smokestack industries, and also for life time jobs and social housing; inevitably this destabilized the customary transitions to adulthood for those boys and girls who were continuing to grow up working class. Youth training schemes were hastily created to replace the old apprenticeship system although no amount of social and life skills dented structural youth unemployment in the old industrial areas. Sociologists began to talk about frozen, broken, deferred or extended youth transitions. There was also much excited talk of ‘ ‘embourgeoisement’, of a new generation of working class youth abandoning collective aspirations embedded in strong community and family ties, in favour of more individualistic pleasures and pursuits, especially the instant gratifications offered by commercialized youth culture. The rituals of courtship played out in the dance hall and cinema were supposedly being swept aside by the frenzied promiscuities of the coffee bar and disco where going steady meant dating the same person two weeks running . Meanwhile on other side of the tracks the growth of the global knowledge economy and the expansion of higher education meant that studenthood was becoming stabilized as an extended adolescent moratorium and a platform of middle class aspiration for many more young people. For the fortunate few who passed their 11 plus, social mobility, the transition from a working class to a middle class life course became a central part of their coming of age story.
From the 1960’s onwards then the cultural and institutional links which connected growing up, working and class into something like a coherent and normative narrative were becoming more complicated, more subject to challenge and revision . And moving forward from the past to the present, ,something very similar is happening today, to what has become known as ‘generation X (of Generation Rent)’, the cohort of young people for whom the customary markers of maturity – a secure job, a steady relationship, an affordable place to live have become chimera. Some may look enviously over their shoulders at what they imagine to be the more stable and accessible opportunity structures enjoyed by their parents, the post war baby boomers, some of whom may indeed have got themselves well paid jobs and pensions in economic sectors still protected by unionization, or got their feet on the property ladder through the sale of their council homes , or benefitted from generous student grants, and moved up a rung or two in the social ladder. But for Generation Rent, the pathways to these once promised lands are no longer so apparent, the waypoints are no longer stable co-cordinates of some normative process of development . Once again sociologists are talking about fractured or frozen transitions, of a generation coming up well short of its own expectations, of young people feeling trapped in the foreclosures of an aspirational discourse which is a hollow mockery of the ideals of equal opportunity and social justice that their parents and grandparents grew up with and took for granted.
So if I am going back to the past it is only to be able the better to go forward to examine the present and its bearing on the future; of course, this shuttling back and forth is what we all do as we continually revise and re-edit our life stories as they unfold in time and place. Unless we really get stuck in a rut, we mostly live our lives forward, though we tell them in retrospect. But what happens when the future prospect becomes fraught with uncertainty , when lives begin to make more hopeful sense as back projections , as attempts to reclaim the way things were once upon a time, when the past seems more full of promise than the future . We are used to thinking of that peculiar reversal as a concomitant of the cultural conservatism of old age, when there is so little to look forward to and a more limited capacity to take on change, but we do not normally associate it with youth, not even when we imaginatively put old heads on young shoulders.
It is no coincidence that the youth question is posed most acutely in situations where an ancien regime is in its death throes, but a new order has yet to emerge, and it is here that the bildungsroman, the novel of emergence as it has been called, comes into its own in depicting that transitional crisis in generational terms, as, for example in Dostoevski’s The Adolescent, whose young hero comes of age amidst an acute conflict between the values of old Russia embodied in the Orthodox Church and a modernising Russia open to western influence and ideas. Today we find ourselves once more in what Gramsci called an ‘organic crisis’ , as we find ourselves trapped between a neo-liberal order which is imploding and a neo-conservative agenda which rejects globalizations but offers no alternative to its many discontents.
The Cultures of Modernity
The main idea I want to explore in this lecture is that when youth is no longer experienced or represented as a normative and unproblematic transition, then its very transience, in its adolescent intensity, become congealed , objectified, and not only as a gendered commodity, something you can buy into if you have the right clothes,or listen to the right music, but as a generic condition of ontological precarity that dramatizes a wider set of public anxieties about the direction of society . My second thesis is that this anxiety focuses around the issue of modernity and its effects.
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In particular I want to argue that the youth question is posed in the dialectic between two very different cultures of modernity . In what I call proto-modernism the past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved by the intervention of some special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle of continuity – the plan or law or higher purpose which governs destinies and the unfolding of lives in historical time. The capacity to identify and distinguish between progressive and reactionary historical forces relies on this model. ‘Reactionary’ is whatever wishes to restore the status quo ante associated with an ancien regime of privileged entitlement; ‘Progressive’ is whatever wishes to advance towards a more just, enlightened and democratic future. This can yield a Whig interpretation of life history which optimistically views the future as an improvement on the present which is itself an improvement on the past. Within this narrative frame youth is always seen as a progressive force, a principle of hope which also sustains inter-generational solidarities in struggles of long duration.
The second culture might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved but as something that has never quite happened, is basically elusive and transient, a moment , not a process , and one that can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Within this chrono-topographic frame the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments, split off from a past which never fades but continues to be re-presented and recycled, and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable except as catastrophe. History is de-composed into a series of fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage. At one level this model involves a profound de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which decreases in value over time, and hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the sociological imagination, as principles of hope float free from any real social embedding, encouraging the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, and sponsoring various kinds of retro-chic culture.
Within the culture of retro-modernism Youth comes to figure as a site of chaotic synchronicity characterized by an effervescent churn of stylistic codes, in language, dress, comportment and musical fashion; at the same time youth is also eternalized as a site of profound stasis, a principle of compulsive repetition of patterns of in/subordination vis a vis dominant ideologies of formation relayed by the educational system, the law and the corporate media. In my view this oscillation between poles of chronic instability and fixity increasingly subsumes the more familiar tension between autonomy and dependence which you find as a characteristic of youth within the framework of proto-modernity.
I am interested in how these two sides of the youth question, youth represented as a dynamic and disruptive force for progress, and as a principle of effervescent stasis, struggling to hold on to its frozen assets, how that dialectical opposition is worked through the coming of age story as it in evolves in the 1960 and 70’s, at the turn of the century and today [i].
Even and especially in the age of social media, with its whirling memes and evanescent identifications, we all need to find little life rafts to which to attach a sense of direction, the sense of a life unfolding consequentially in place and time, and where, if needs be, we can swim against the tide of history , no longer drowning but waving. The emergent field of ethno-biography, the comparative study of different cultures of life story telling has as one its main tasks the discovery , or recovery these safe anchorages of meaning. I will be concentrating on four key ethno-biographical codes which have this role: apprenticeship, inheritance, vocation and career. Each code throws a symbolic grid of periodisation and predicament over the life cycle, constituting a kind of hidden curriculum vitae and providing an elementary plot structure for how coming of age stories are constructed and told. In what follows I shall briefly outline the distinctive features of these codes and then give some examples of how they interact and are transformed.
From Bildungsroman to the Modernist Fairy Tale
To give a sense of the range of stories we are dealing I want to start by considering two passages from famous literary coming of age stories, each of them presenting in its own idiom a defining statement about the nature of the journey it takes us on:
The first quote is from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship- which is usually regarded as the first or paradigmatic bildungsroman or novel of formation and characterizes its main protagonist in the following terms:
A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils, is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship 1786
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The story ,which has as many twists and turns as a soap opera, unfolds as a succession of vignettes about the predicament of a young man who is supposed to enter his father’s business but is in love with an actress and with the stage. After being jilted Wilhelm accepts his father’s suggestion to travel about collecting business debts, and sets out on his adventures , joining a troupe of travelling actors and acrobats, where he meets Mignon, whom Victorian commentators used to describe somewhat coyly as a ‘tomboy’ and whom he takes under his wing. His father dies and Wilhelm inherits enough property to support himself and embark on a theatrical career . He joins a secret society of intellectuals ( the Society of the Tower who are dedicated to the pursuit of Enlightenment) but Mignon falls ill and eventually dies. Wilhelm meets and marries Natalia, and with marriage his so called apprenticeship and the story ends.
From the outset of its publication the novel was interpreted as exploring the conflict between the ideal of self determination and the imperious demands of society, the sudden rise of great expectations and lost illusions that the bourgeois world learns to read and to accept as if it were a novel, as Franco Moretti put it in his study of the genre ( ‘Ways of the world’) . Wilhelm’s strivings for autonomy, his desire to pursue an artistic calling and adopt a bohemian life style come up against his dependence on the family business, and he is only able to eventually pursue a theatrical career because he has come into his inheritance. His apprenticeship is completed when he embraces both bourgeois morality (marriage ) and the power of reason. It is by learning to control his own unruly passions , through a process of what would later be called sublimation, that Wilhelm Meister becomes master of his own destiny; yet his transition from an adolescent phase of ‘careering about’ to a professional career, (i.e. a step by step progress up a ladder of incremental accreditation and status achieved in competition with peers) , that formation is here subsumed under the very different developmental logic of vocation, in which an existential quest for an authentic mode of being in the world is driven by a purely inner directed and more self possessed form of individualism.
But this is not the only twist to the tale. The transition to ‘maturity’ is still made conditional on acceptance of a patrimonial legacy and hence falls back on the paradigm of inheritance in which life is unfolded as a teleology of fixed origins and destiny, children are treated as so many chips off the old block, and adventures are conducted by ready made heroes who may change the world, but are never themselves changed in the process. In this way the classical bildungsroman contains and magically resolves the tensions between different ethno-biographic codes which otherwise pull the life and the story in conflicting directions. In the case of Wilhelm Meister this synthesis is conducted under the rubric of apprenticeship , which is here more metaphor than model of actual development; it has nothing to do with being indentured for seven years to a master craftsman in loco parentis to learn a trade while living under his roof; here according to the all too predictably oedipal scenario popularized in many a folk tale the young lad will revenge himself on his oppressive old mentor by seducing his wife or daughter. Instead Goethe’s coming of age story produces the adolescent as a new literary trope within the frame of proto-modernity; the promise of boundless human progress, ambition and productivity represented by Wilhelm is re-inscribed and contained within the fixed compass of a normative life cycle to provide a fragile anchorage of meaning amidst the sturm und drang of modernity. The adolescent project is thus framed within a strictly Hegelian dialectic- it is realized only in and through its suppression with the onset of marriage and maturity.
My second example is from one of the great modernist novels of adolescence, Alain Fournier’s ‘The Lost E state’ .The novel shows what happens to the narrative when the classical bildungsroman can no longer contain the contradictions which brought it into being, when the diachronic orders of apprenticeship or career can no long mediate between the congenital fixities of patriarchal inheritance and the elastic pull of inner callings or drives which lead the young hero to abandon any claims to a place in society in favour of belonging to an imagined community of peers. Instead of depicting coming of age as a developmental process, the modernist narrative pivots around a series of epiphanies – discrete and intense moments of discovery, of sexuality , loss of innocence , disenchantment with the adult world, and above all emergent self- invention.
Fournier’s novel was published in 1913, the year before he died in the trenches of the Western Front. Undoubtedly his premature death has helped to give the book its posthumous reputation; but in any case its charms are continually being rediscovered by successive generations of readers who are beguiled by its magical realism, its lyrical evocations of the French countryside, its oscillation between the logic of fairy tale and boys own adventure story ( Fournier was influenced as much by treasure island and kim as by the French symbolists). This extract gives a flavour of his style:
‘For the first time, I too am on the road to adventure, . I am looking for something still more mysterious. I’m looking for the passage that they write about in books, the one with the entrance that the prince, weary with travelling, cannot find. This is the one you find at the remotest hour of morning, long after you have forgotten that eleven o’clock is coming, or midday. And suddenly, as you part the branches in the dense undergrowth…you see something like a long, dark avenue leading to a tiny circle of light…But while I am intoxicating myself with these hopes and ideas, I suddenly come out into a clearing which turns out to be nothing more than a field’.
There is not much of a plot. It is the story of a boy finding a mysteriously beautiful house then losing it, and finding a mysteriously beautiful girl and then losing her.the story is told by the 15 year old son of the village teacher, who hero worships 17 YO ‘Grand meaulnes’ for his superior savoir faire and this an unrequited love that dare not speak its name gives . The title refers both to the house that cannpt be found on any map, and to “estate” in the sense of a “passage of life”, which is also evanescent. Like W.H. Hudson, Fournier was haunted by the fear of boyhood coming to an end, and the singular fact is that with the notable exception of the narrator, all of the main characters, and especially Meaulnes, refuse to grow up, they live in a dreamland, in which they can enjoy adult pleasures without assuming g adult responsibilities; they play the great game of seduction, there are two love triangles, but conclude, when challenged ‘ we are just children’ . Meaulnes is re-united with his long lost love, Yvonne, at the end of the book, only to disappear on his wedding night. Marriage is not closure in this coming of age story but an unconsummated desire which forecloses any resolution or happy ending.
The theme of arrested development , of youth untethered from the telos of maturity , is an important thematic in the colonial bildingsroman, as young upper class Englishmen are sent overseas to sow their wild oats amongst the natives while young women, carefully chaperoned search for a suitable husband amongst the imperial batchelor class . Hannah Arendt had a caustically precise view of what was entailed:
‘For those who had never been able to outgrow their boyhood ideals , the colonial service was an opportunity to escape a society in which a man had to forget his youth ( and its indiscretions) if he wanted to grow up.A certain petrification of boyhood noblesse preserved and infantilised western moral standards’ ( quoted in Jed Esty’s ‘Unseasonable Youth’)
The modernist novel’s mis- en -scene of formation as moment rather than process dramatises the image of adolescence as moratorium, as a theatre for the enactment of structural irresponsibility. But what happens when that moratorium is subject to space time compression, when it shrinks to vanishing point , or rather the nano second it takes to send a selfie around the world , while the affordances of ‘youth culture ’ are stretched to reach out to both six and sixty year olds and we are told that we are all authors of our own lives. Under these conditions how is it possible to keep little life rafts of meaning afloat which are built by adults but which young people actually see some point of climbing aboard ? Welcome to the world of Young Adult Fiction.
Young Adult Fiction
Young Adult Fiction was born in the late 1960’s, grew up through the 1980’ and 90’s and has reached literary maturity in the last decade. That at least is its own official coming of age story . It is a case study in the creation of a genre, or perhaps rather the production and marketing of a new brand.The initiative came from publishers who became aware of a burgeoning teen consumer culture , teen music, teen movies , teen magazines etc but no teen fiction as such , bridging the gap between children’s stories and adult literature. The enterprise was also cheered on by English teachers, who were inspired by a lofty Leavisite mission to impart what David Holbrook memorably called in his book ‘English for maturity’ ‘ the disciplines of the imagination’ , to a generation whose staple cultural diet was Marvel Comix, Jackie and the Sun newspaper. These teachers were looking for novels that addressed teen issues, were written in teenspeak, and /or from a teen perspective but were nevertheless imbued with high literary values and could serve as pedagogical bridge to the appreciation of more serious fare – Dostoevski’s The Adolescent , Musil’s Young Torless, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Joyce’s The Portrait of the artist as a Young Man, Virginia Woolfs Voyage Out, Dodie Smith’s ‘I capture the castle’ and Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer,to name only a few.
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The interpretive community that has gathered around Young Adult Fiction has been primarily concerned to create a canon – not an easy task in a genre whose commercial viability depends on tapping in to ephemeral youth fashions. But already a considerable number of instant classics have emerged: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Paul Zindel’s the Pigman, Joyce Carol Oates Big mouth Ugly girl, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak , Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, Judy Blume’s Forever .
These books address contemporary social issues such as cyber bullying , homophobia, date rape, racial prejudice, family break up, juvenile crime, gangs and street violence, poverty and social exclusions, disability ,anorexia sex abuse, drug abuse . You name a youth problem and there are several YAF novels about it. Plots are usually centred around an adolescent protagonist/narrator who is directly affected by these issues and who deals with them with resilience and resolution, refuses to be treated as a passive victim and stands up for their rights often against adult authority figures. Many of these coming of age stories echo the triumph over adversity theme so popular in contemporary autobiographical novels and memoirs and their immersive quality makes it difficult for the reader to get much critical distance from the ideological message or ‘line’ being relayed .The reader is expected to identify with the narrator and regard his or her as a role model.
Young Adult fiction is overwhelmingly written from a progressive, feminist and anti-racist standpoint and is a major disseminator of these values to young people. Minority ethnic, immigrant and working class young people feature prominently and are invariably portrayed in a positive light . As part of this the explicit exploration of sexuality is not confined to graphic descriptions of its mechanics but are carefully embedded in identity politics. The more ‘serious’ writers in this genre complicate the politically correct coming of age story line with devices imported from the literary novel- polyphony, double voice, the unreliable narrator, inter-textuality, meta-fiction , in order to explore issues of ambivalence, multiple selves, intra psychic conflict and generally move beyond the manichaen universe of goodies and baddies . Essentially they are attempting to re-invent the bildungsroman in a post modern idiom.
However it is important to note what is missing from these story lines. Marriage and Profession are not on the horizon of possibilities. There is a lot of careering about, but career is not a realistic opportunity structure with which the protagonists are dramatically engaged. There is a lot about dating rituals and peer pressure, but courtship ( or even going steady) as a form of sexual apprenticeship is conspicuous by its absence. Inheritance in its widest sense as a transmission of social, cultural and intellectual capital between the generations, only appears under a negative sign – through symbolic acts of disinheritance either by parents or children, while the notion that biology is destiny ,or blood will out, such a important theme in the Victorian bildungsroman , especially those stories which deal with issues of adoption, illegitimacy and the family romance, is just not in the YAF script. Vocation in contrast is a very strong narrative thread, in the form of quests for authenticity and identity ; however the interiority being explored here is structured around largely narcissistic concerns- the creation of an ideal self, rather than the pursuit of an ego ideal , which in the classical novel of formation usually involves some kind of heroic self- sacrifice in the pursuit of some Great Cause.
One of the most interesting YAF novels I have come across is Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010) who are both seasoned contributors to the genre. This coming of age story takes the form of a dialogue between a gay teenager and his straight alter ego (also called Will Grayson) conducted largely in texting speak. It deals with the perils and pleasure of on-line friendships, cyber bullying and sexual identification. At one point in the dialogue, the figure of Schrödinger’s cat is introduced in a discussion about whether it is possible hypothetically to be both alive and dead at the same time. The two Will Graysons conclude that all the things we keep hidden in sealed boxes are both alive and dead until we open them and that it is important to take risks – if you don’t open the box you will never find out what’s in it. Thats the moral of this particular story.
However the Pandora’s box of adolescent identity politics may not reveal its secrets quite so easily because there remains a radical disjuncture between the official maps of growing up and the actually territories of experience which constitute young people’s horizons of possibility. Explore that gap is perhaps the main raison’d’etre of YAF. One of the characters tiny, who is both very large and very gay, and befriends both Will Grayson’s puts it like this ( Gay Will responds):
tiny : there is this word someone once taught me : weltschmerz.its the depression you feel when the world as it is does not line up with the world you think it should be . I live in a big goddamned weltschmerz ocean, you know? and so do you and so does everyone else. Because everyone thinks it should be possible just to keep falling and falling forever, to feel the rush of air on your face, as you fall, that air pulling your face into a brilliant goddamned smile.
And i think :no. Seriously.no.
Because i have spent my life falling, not the kind tiny’s talking about.he is talking about love. i’m talking about life.in my kind of falling ,there’s no landing, there’s only hitting the ground. Hard. dead, or wanting to be dead, so the whole time you’re falling it’s the worst feeling in the world because you feel you have no control over it , because you know how it ends.
I’don’t want to fall .all i want to do is stand on solid ground
The trope of falling is undoubtedly derived from the myth of Icarus, that cautionary tale about adolescent hubris , in which youthful ambition takes flight and in its extasis does not heed the father’s interdict , so Icarus flies too near the sun , the wax on his wings melts and he plunges to his death in the indifferent ocean below. How then are we to read Will Grayson’s desire to stand on terra firma, when the world is changing under his feet and everything that was solid is melting into air, as Marx famously described the condition of capitalist modernity. In my view what we have here is not just an echo of the familiar injunction to ‘stand on your own two feet’ which has become the mantra of neo-liberal individualism, it is not about the desire for mastery over self and/or others, in order to find ones place in society which lies at the heart of the classical bildungsroman , nor to cling on to what you already have , in the fragile estate of an adolescent dreamworld; rather it stands for an ambition to discover a sound footing on which to formulate realistic principle of hope for the future at a time when daring to hope for a better world , a decent place to live ,a secure and satisfying job, and social acceptance is an increasingly risky business for many young people ,while for those who do not make it there are no soft landings .As for weltschmerz,, world weariness is usually reserved for those who have been around a long time, and are sickened by public hypocrisy ; it is staple of romantic literature from Jean Paul, who first coined the term, to Herman Hesse but here it is updated and given a fresh edge in describing adolescent disenchantment with an adult world which has failed to deliver on its promises.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson is , of course, a kind of coming out story, and lets remember that the coming out story is a key instance of the contemporary coming of age story. The disclosure and affirmation of adolescent gay identity , whether to parents, or friends , has consolidated into a distinctive narrative form , a sub-genre , with its own special protocols: the emergence from a state of alienation and darkness ( in the closet) to a . , and is widely broadcast on You Tube and other social media. As such it offers a rite of passage into the gay community and a supportive platform for the elaboration of a peer to peer pedagogy, a shared way of learning about gay culture. Contrast this with the competitive peer dating cultures of straight teenagers who only have the school prom as major rite of passage now that so many other milestones have become problematic .
This brings me to the final part of my talk, to look at what is happening to coming of age stories which are being enacted and told outside the literary text, in the cultures and everyday lives of working class teenagers who probably do not read Young Adult Fiction , but may draw on the more condensed and fragmentary versions of the bildungroman to be found in films, pop songs , TV soaps, autobiographical videos and peer group gossip circulating via social media. Given the coming of age story constitutes a distinctive literary genre, with its own history, its own set of narrative conventions about how to portray adolescence in terms of sexual awakening, relations with parents and peers, the striving to grasp and/or challenge ones place in the world, how, if at all does that self conscious literary project relate to thesee fragmentary, unwritten autobiographical novels and memoirs which we all carry around in our heads and which we may or may not tell as short stories, jokes, or throwaway comments to our children and our friends?[ii]
Apprenticeships and Inheritances : the changing terms of growing up working class
In order to properly address this question we need to take one step back , to put current changes in historical context ; we have to look at what has been happening to ethno-biographical codes in the long and uneven transition from industrial fordism to post industrial capitalism . And I want to focus in particular on the history of apprenticeship in this transition, its uncoupling from the life historical grid of inheritance and its changing relation to the codes of vocation and career since .
Until the advent of the age of machinofacture the vast majority of people in western societies learnt to labour through mimetic forms of apprenticeship. In the phase of small workshop production, the implements of labour were often thought of as a kind of prosthetic extension of bodily skill, moulded by the customary usages of handicraft . Co-ordinated actions of hand, ear, and eye were initially privileged over other parts or techniques of the body as the medium of apprenticeship; for the early labour aristocracy skill was a function of this specialised dexterity, embodied in a patrimony of skill that was in your blood and bones and transmitted mimetically from generation to generation. Growing up to be skilled always entailed an apprenticeship to this kind of inheritance which also conveyed a privileged social position as the backbone of the nation.
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Those who laboured primarily with their shoulders, backs, thighs genitals or feet were, in contrast, treated as an inferior, ‘species specific’ type of unskilled worker, almost a ‘race apart’. This distinction, which took on moral as well as economic overtones in the Victorian period was found in many trades and industries. There is the contrast between stevedores and dockers, actresses and prostitutes, the hewers and lumpers of coal. Within the ‘race apart’, the musculatures of labour were transvalued through their masculinisation; only as a vehicle for the assertion of virile forms of strength and endurance, (or ‘hardness’) could these otherwise abject forms of labour be invested with a sense of pride in physical prowess .
In both skilled and unskilled forms, learning to labour thus involved apprenticeship to an inheritance governed by strictly patriarchal rules. The apprenticeships that existed within women’s trades tended to be attenuated versions of the masculine forms. As for the ‘domestic’ apprenticeships served by budding housewives and mothers, here the sexual division of labour assumed its most ‘naturalised’ and emotionally-loaded form .
With the advent of industrialised production , learning to labour continued to be an apprenticeship to an inheritance. But the terms and functions of that articulation changed. At first the new technologies of mass production were regarded as simply bigger and better hand tools. Mechanised functions were ‘naturalised’ and compared to those of the body especially in its sexual or reproductive capacities.
It is no coincidence that factory workers were called ‘hands’, but already here the relation is less one of ‘natural symbolism ‘ than a calculated metonymy, which will quickly enough become transformed into metaphor.
With the advent of fully fledged Fordism, and the accelerated trade cycle, the customary rhythms of employment in the manual trades became increasingly at odds with the tempo of mass production. Handicraft processes were marginalised and increasingly replaced by semi-skilled repetition work. As this occurred, artisanal techniques become increasingly aestheticised and/or feminised, and given a new lease of life under the sign of vocation. Morris, Ruskin and the arts and crafts movement attempted to create a vision of socialism around a return to this idealised pre-industrial body of manual labour, now reconfigured as a mimetic medium of creative self expression .
Meanwhile in the real world of mass production and consumption, the structures of imitation/emulation which governed the apprenticeships of the ‘old’ labouring body ossified. and closed around a culture of resistance to dilution and deskilling.
It is no coincidence that boy labour was concentrated not in manufacturing but in the distribution and servicing trades where it was confined to the lowest paid, least skilled positions. This has less to do with any real qualities or lack of them which young workers may possess, more to do with customary practice in confining lads to the fetching and carrying of goods, the servicing of clients or customers, or lending a helping hand to the adult worker. Sometimes all three menial tasks were combined in the same job, sometimes there was a progression from one to the other, but the essential point is that boy labour was proto-domestic labour: it was modelled on women’s work in the home. This was underscored by the social relations of the workplace. The new lad was expected to make the tea, run errands, sweep up and generally serve as a skivvy to the older men, whether he was officially ‘mated’ to them or not. He was also subjected to a good deal of teasing, often of a sexual kind, designed to show him up as soft or incompetent in various ways. All this was part of the initiation of the ‘virgin’ worker, something that had to be endured in order to eventually make the grade as a fully fledged ‘workmate’. Normally this would involve the apprentice demonstrating that he was just as ‘hard’ as the older men, and, by extension, emulating their supposed sexual prowess with women.
Sexual apprenticeships in fact complemented the occupational form. In some trades the sexual initiation of the young worker was undertaken by an older woman at work, egged on by her workmates. Usually the women chosen for this task were unmarried and regarded as especially unattractive; certainly many of the initiation rites contained a definite sadistic element. In the second stage however the sexual apprentice gets his own back in exercising his new found mastery of technique over younger, preferably virgin girls (and/or through rituals that feminise younger weaker boys). Finally the sexual improver finds a steady and graduates to the phase of courtship, essentially a form of apprenticeship to marriage and the role of the family wage earner. This tripartite system is summarised in figure 1 below:
|Gender Identity Narrative||Occupational Identity Narrative|
|Initiation of virgin
boy by older woman
|‘Feminisation’ of virgin worker
‘mated’ to older man
|Practice of sexual mastery
over younger girls
|Counter display of masculine
‘hardness’ vis-à-vis younger lads
as apprenticeship to marriage
|Making the grade as a workmate
amongst the men
Figure One: Traditional Masculine Code Of Apprenticeship: From The Youth Wage To The Family Wage
The linkage between techniques of masculinity and manual labour was thus forged through a radical disavowal of the despised quasi-feminine status assigned to male youth by the generational division of labour and its homo-social forms. The mimetic forms of apprenticeship are split; one way they point to an imposed and ‘regressive’ identification with women’s work (and the world of childhood) and by the other route, they constitute a no less imposed but ‘progressive’ identification with men’s work (and the world of adulthood) entered through an active repudiation of everything associated with the ‘proto-domestic’. The split is resolved through a process of more or less ritualised masquerade in which the boy is mated to : an imaginary sexual division is constructed in order to maintain a real generational one, while displacing the terms of an otherwise all too ‘Oedipal’ confrontation between the ‘old hands ‘and the noviciates whom they are training to one day replace them. It is through this mediation ( and its all too concrete practices of humiliation) that the apprentices’ position of peripheral participation is legitimated within the real community of homo-social practice in the workplace.
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My argument is that this tension between the codes of apprenticeship and inheritance provides a a narrative template for a proletarian version of the classical bildungsroman. In the oral testimonies of young workers and also in some of their written memoirs we can trace the characteristic elements : the struggle for girls to escape the matrilocal pull of domestic apprenticeships and the great indoors, and create their own public space and time of relative feminine autonomy ; the struggle of boys against an oppressive patrimony of skill and the counter assertion of forms of territoriality in which masculine prides of place can be tested and contested outside the ken and control of elders.
I have already suggested that the process of de-industrialisation permanently destabilised this culture with very different consequences for boys and girls. The collapse of customary transition routes from school to work meant that networks of apprenticeship and inheritance increasingly pulled apart, and became enclosed in their own frames of self reference. For an emergent precariat ,the links between growing up, working and class not only weakened, they were stretched between two equally impossible poles of identification: an apprenticeship without closure, an endless deferral of mastery, cut off from any viable inheritance; Or ,on the other side of the coming of age story, an inheritance uncoupled from apprenticeship hollowed out of any substantive content, and reduced to a bio-politics of self-referentiality and the narcissism of minor difference.
The mimetic apprenticeships of manual labour did not however entirely wither away. Some elements were subsumed in the form of shadowing, or mentoring, under the new training regimes. At the same time the material symbols of apprenticeship/inheritance took on a new lease of life, outside production as a source of vicarious identification with techniques of mastery over nature, and the labour process, over self and others, in a kind of defiant masquerade which camouflaged real absences, losses and lacks ( for example of the father as locus of really useful knowledge). In this way, some of the more hidden injuries inflicted by the deskilling/reschooling of labour were neutralised, either by parodying their effect on others, or by projecting an immaculate body image ‘hardened’ by the rigours of manual labour as a new ego and peer group ideal entirely disconnected from the back breaking drudgery of the actual work process.
Through this process of re-embodiment, the productive capacities of disciplined labour are symbolically reclaimed, albeit in a displaced form . In dance, in sport and especially in the more physically punishing kinds of athleticism, the element of degradation in manual labour is transformed into a principle of self gratification. Or to put it another way submission to physical self discipline becomes the body’s own labour of love.
Especially amongst those who could not gain entry to the new post Fordist work regimes , certain types of traditional manual work took on a hyper-inflationary value, not so much because of skill or wage level, but because they required or permitted the public display of masculinities which had otherwise become redundant. Certain types – the building worker, the trucker, the rigger, the cowboy, the steel erector, the miner – are repackaged for homeboy consumption. In Country and Western music, in buddy movies, in soft porn magazines and comics, in corporate advertising, in TV serials, their praises are sung, often with strongly homoerotic overtones. A new kind of bildungsroman is condensed in portrayals of these figures, centred on an ever more macho,phallocentric drama of self-discovery ; they are celebrated for being ruggedly individualistic, and for restoring a collective sense of male fraternity and pride, not as a race part, but as the backbone of a nation that fears it has gone soft.
But what about all those working class boys who reject these ‘ideal types’ of manual labour as sites of masculine identification because they no longer correspond to anyone they could actually become? When apprenticeship is only to and from itself youth ceases to be merely a staging post to adulthood , and becomes instead an allegory of arrested development . In this vacuum performative psycho-dramas around the mastery of quasi ‘feminine’ techniques of impression management and masquerade (and their masculinist disavowal) take centre stage and provide a narrative template for a retro-modernist version of the coming of age story centred on the just- in- time production of the self and the negotiation of peer identities around issues of recognition and respect.
So how does this shift actually work its way through individual adolescents coming of age stories?
In the final section I will draw on some of my work with young people growing up in East London , firstly in the 1980’s in a project called ‘Leaver’s Believers’ which explored transitions from school with a group of early leavers (16 year olds), and secondly from a project fifteen years later with a similar age group on the Isle of Dogs. Both projects used photography, video walk about, art work , guided phantasy story making and life journey mapping as a means of exploring coming of age issues.
The life world Generation X Y Z are having to learn to find their way about is one in which there are no fixed or easily mappable co-ordinates , few readily accessible waypoints, and no internal sat nav to guide them to whatever destination is indicated by their personal dispositions. For many young people the familiar transitions, from school to work, from working class to middle class, from childhood to adulthood , or from youth to age seem no longer so attainable or in some cases even desireable as they were for their parents and grandparents; in particular the long forced march from the polymorphous perversity of infantile sexuality , through oral, anal and genital erogeny to the promised land of heterosexual coupledom , a trajectory Freud associated with the civilising process and its discontents seems today more like an ancient folk tale than a realistic description of any viable process of contemporary formation . In any case the diachronic orders of apprenticeship and career no longer supply milestones or markers of maturity, associated with increments of skill or status; equally,neither vocation nor inheritance can provide a viable road map to coming of age .The endless quest for an ideal self offers no more hope of this than the arrested development entailed in simply following in your parent’s footsteps and assuming their symbolic legacy. Meanwhile the quantified self, measuring out life in coffee spoons, or the number of likes or followers accumulated on social media is too impoverished to give meaning and direction to a life time. The peculiar burden of representation which youth has to bear today, is to signify with peculiar intensity a general crisis experienced across the generations. This crisis turns on the radical disconnect between the institutional scaffolding of political, economic and cultural life which is in a state of permanent transformation an flux, and the chronic insecurities of everyday life which extend from childhood to old age , and trap people in a permanent hiatus between a better past to which there is no return and a worse future from which they anyway excluded.
Perhaps it is because so many of the old transitions are in abeyance for so many people that perhaps most difficult transition of all , from a male to female body, or vice versa has become so significant, and created a platform for so much public debate about the moral anatomy of our society . This is not just about a new post modern sense of fluid identity , which rejects fixity and binarisms of every kind ( whether of class, age, ethnicity or sex); transitioning has become a quasi- natural symbol for the mismatch so many people feel between inherited identities that are ascribed or imposed and the call of who and what we feel we really want to become. Transitioning is a transgressive model of all the transitions we would like but are unable to make. If the youth question is an allegory of a split modernity, then ‘trans’ is an allegory of its Other Scene – the other class, other race, other generation, other sex within the self – whose disavowal makes us strangers to ourselves, and creates the Great Fear of The Other whose consequences for the body politic we have just seen in the referendum debate. The only hopeful sign in the otherwise disastrous outcome is that young people overwhelmingly rejected the various ‘project fears’ on offer, on both sides of the debate and instead voted for a principle of hope . Perhaps here is a possible script for a coming of age story in which exploration of the Unknown once more becomes central to the plot .
Classical and Modernist Bildungsroman
Van Goethe Wilhelm Meister : an apprenticeship
Charles Dickens Great Expectations
Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre
Dostoevski The Adolescent
Rudyard Kipling Kim
Robert Musil Young Torless
Franz Wedekind Spring Awakening
James Joyce the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Virginia Woolf The Voyage Out
Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle
Rumer Godden The Greengage Summer
Alain Fournier The Lost Estate
J.D.Salinger Catcher in the Rye
Alberto Moravia Two Adolescents
Young Adult Fiction
Robert Cormier The Chocolate War (1985)
Paul Zindel The Pigman and me (1991)
Stephen Chbosky The Perks of being a Wallflower (1999)
Laurie Halse Anderson Speak (2001)
S.E. Hinton The Outsiders (2002)
Joyce Carol Oates Big Mouth and Ugly Girl (2002)
Judy Blume Forever (2005)
Jonathon Green and David Levithan Will Grayson,Will Grayson (2010)
Marthe Roberts The Origins of the Novel (1964)
Elizabeth Abel et al ( eds) The Voyage In: fictions of female development (1983)
Mikhail Bakhtin Speech genres and other late essays (1986)
Franco Moretti The Way of the world: the bildungsroman in European Culture (1987)
Tzvetan Todorov Genres in discourse (1990)
Roberta Trites Disturbing the Universe: power and repression in adolescent literature (2000)
Jed Esty Unseasonable Youth :modernism, colonialism and the fiction of development (2012)
Youth history, sociology and cultural studies
David Robins and Phil Cohen Knuckle sandwich: growing up in the working class city (1978)
Paul Willis Learning to Labour: how working class boys get working class jobs (1978)
Angie McRobbie and Mica Nava (eds) Gender and Generation (1982)
Robert Hollands The LongTransition: class, culture and youth training (1990)
Angie McRobbie Feminism and Youth Culture:from Jackie to Just Seventeen (1991)
Patrick Ainley and Helen Rainbird (eds) Apprenticeship : towards a new paradigm of learning (1992)
August Mitterauer A History of Youth (1994)
Les Back New Ethnicities and Racisms in Young Lives (1996)
Phil Cohen Rethinking the Youth Question: education, labour and cultural studies (1998)
Linda Mac Dowell Redundant Masculinities: employment change and white working class youth (2003)
Gillian Evans Educational failure and white working class children in Britain (2006)
Jennifer Silva Coming Up Short :working class adulthood in an age of uncertainty (2013)
[i] In puzzling such conundra I have found the late work of Mikhail Bakhtin and his disciple Tzvetan Todorov to be most illuminating; Bakhtin for his concept of chronotope, the tropes of time and place which organize the armature of the narrative , a concept which he used to great effect in developing a historical typology of the novel in his essay on the Bildungsroman; Todorov for his re-embedding of discoursive genres not only in the social and economic relations of their production but in his focus on the existential structures which they offer to particular speech communities to articulate where they imagine they are coming from and going to.
[ii] This is the starting point for a piece of research I am hoping to carry out and which is both a new departure for me in that it is combining ethnography with methods of literary and narrative analysis, as well as revisiting old ground in terms of youth culture . The study I am proposing will consider, compare and contrast the coming of age stories of three generations , firstly those of my age , whose formative experiences were in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, secondly those whose teenage years spanned the transition from Thatcherism to New Labour, and finally those whose adolescence coincided with the recession and its aftermath . The people whose stories I plan to record, will be drawn from families in the East End of London and from an ex-industrial area of Newcastle-on Tyne; their life stories will thus encompass a rich variety of experience , of social and geographical mobility , or immobility, of many ups and downs or relative stability, of strong bonds of kinship, and friendship, or social isolation, of active community engagement or withdrawal into private areas of fulfillment. Of course I am interested in how these different patterns of experience relate to issues of race and class, gender and generation, but this will not be a sociological study . I am more concerned to create a cartography of different idioms or genres of life story telling, and more specifically coming of age stories, focusing on their narrative forms or generative grammars , rather than simply doing a thematic or content analysis.