The widely read essay by A.O. Scott, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” argues pretty convincingly that the changing heroes and anti-heroes of contemporary television provide a glimpse into a larger shift in contemporary life, a shift that now means adulthood as we have come to know it, is conceptually untenable. The essay received a critique for its neglect of capitalism and its fundamental modification of the social field as the primary cause of this shift.
While it’s true that the market is a central force in this shift, which also importantly entails a shift at the level of authority, the death of adulthood has been a part of popular culture all along — it’s just now that it’s really rearing its head.
Adorno argued that the very architecture of popular culture, or what he called “the culture industry,” since the rise of public relations following the Second World War, entailed a return to primal structures. This was his Freudian side coming out. He argued that in order for a consumer to participate in the culture industry, it required castration, and in exchange, incorporporation into a type of cult. In Freudian terms, the culture industry produced a number of “death cults” to perform the work of mourning.
For Adorno, (reading Freud) what popular culture showed was not so much that adulthood is conceptually untenable, but rather that mourning is conceptually untenable, which is why we then turn away from adulthood as such. We aren’t fascinated with young adult literature today because we have lost touch with what it means to be an adult, rather, we prefer to inhabit the body of the adolescent to fend off death. All of this is because we have a troubled relation to mourning on a larger scale. Popular culture just magnifies and embodies this experience.
As Larry Rickels, a Freudian cultural commentator puts it, the culture industry presents, “the mourning void left in a million death wish’s.” Inhabiting the body of the adolescent and idolizing it signifies a dream to return to the womb, or a return to the figure of the mother.
This desire to have proximity to the mother is another indication of an impossible proximity that we have developed to death. And this impossible proximity is expressed in the concurrent rise of heroes in contemporary television who themselves are dealing with un-mournable death.
So what I am saying is that it’s not so much that adulthood is conceptually untenable, but that we lack the cognitive mapping to inhabit it (adulthood) and as such, we fall back onto an identification with adolescence to assist us with un-mournable death.
But this is only part of the story. The death of adulthood is also a symptom of the death of the family as a unit of ideological interpellation. The family is no longer able to produce “initiation” into adulthood. I have made this argument by tracking teen dramas that portray father-to-son reconciliation in an essay, here.
Psychoanalysis gives this question of initiation into adulthood the name of Oedipus, and it is the symbolic law of the father that serves to initiate subjects. While the father is on the side of desire, and the mother is on the side of jouissance, there is for some post-Lacanian thinkers, a shift at the level of jouissance and the position of the Other in our current period of capitalism. Whether you want to call this the reign of the inexistence of the Other, or the reign of the name-of-the-father as J.A. Miller does, or as Dany Robert-Dufour calls it, the inexistence of “third Others” that are able to situate subjects in the symbolic — the argument goes that we no longer have a stable ground in the symbolic to situate identities.
Whether we accept this shift as valid may require a revision of the theory of the discourse as the discourses are what imply a new social link that situates subjects in civilization. As one of my psychoanalyst friends recently warned, the theory of the discourses in Lacan were each developed in relation to the institution of the psychoanalytic clinic that he himself developed in France. This means that we must continually test the veracity of these claims about the inexistence of the Other with actual analysands that finish analysis. It is telling, he told me, that every Lacanian that finishes analysis today becomes more and more French.
Because the market has intensified its reach over all spheres of social, political and intimate life, it is the family, which Marx saw as withering away concurrent to the state, that may really be undergoing a death. The reason I say the family is dying is because the family, which had a privileged relation to initiation of subjects into adulthood, is no longer in a position to perform such an initiation due to its own relation to the market. Alain Badiou makes a similar argument in his essay, “The Son’s Aleatory Identity in Today’s World.”
Traditionally, it was the family that was a handmaiden to the state and the state gave the family a certain stability that reinforced patriarchy. Just think of the relationship that was kindled amidst fighting wars between men and their sons for so many generations. The state no longer has a required or necessary relation to the cultivation of the sphere of the family and as an institution. But with this shift one should not take the paranoid fundamentalist approach and claim that the family must be re-molded in its same patriarchal form. The opening that neoliberalism offers in its destructive wake is paradoxically a chance to re-conceive of the family away from the market.
But does the withering away of the family constitute an abandonment of Oedipal structures in social life? I would argue both yes and no. Yes in the sense that initiation is defective, we know that as evidenced by new symptom formations, the intensification of the cult of the adolescent body and with the very shift in relation to adulthood. No because Oedipus as a myth was always itself a failure of symbolic initiation, and we misread Oedipus to think otherwise.
In Lacan’s reading of Oedipus, the very failure of Oedipus to realize his destiny is tied to the failure of the family itself, regardless of the role of the market. In not being able to provide the destiny that situates initiation, in other words, in never being initiated, Oedipus shows the aleatory nature of one’s own procedure of initiation.
As Alenka Zupančič notes, what Oedipus shows is the reversal of Hegel’s maxim ‘spirit is a bone,’ because for Oedipus the bone is a spirit. His failure occurs at the level of the symbolic itself and he was deprived of his very desire and this is why he was not permitted to be guilty for his fate. Thus, what Oedipus shows is not that we are all destined to reproduce his tragedy (we might be) but he is a hero insofar as he murders the symbolic father (remember he is not aware that he killed his biological ‘bone’ of a father). So Oedipus kills the failed symbolic father that we all must invent or at best that we must find for ourselves, but of course this father is a figure that always fails us, so Oedipus is the first anti-hero of the death of adulthood.
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