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  • The Cynical GenerationA review of Naomi Mandel, Disappear Here: Violence After Generation X
  • Graham J. Matthews (bio)
Mandel, Naomi. Disappear Here: Violence After Generation X. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2015.

The idea that the people who make up a generation share certain characteristics dates back to the mid-nineteenth century French lexicographer and philosopher, Émile Littré, whose authoritative Dictionnaire de la langue française (1863–72) defined a generation as all people coexisting in society at any given time. Descended from the Latin word generāre meaning “to beget,” the word had primarily been used to signify the relationship between fathers and sons. However, the concept’s utility emerged later through the process of dividing contemporaries into different age groups; this inaugurated the notion of social generations and led to claims about shifts in aesthetic taste. Robert Wohl wrote: “The division of society into age-groups occurred because the mass of active and productive adults changed totally and regularly every thirty years. With this change in personnel came a change in sensibility” (19–20). The social generation model studies the intangible development of human sentiments and beliefs. Consequently, the term “generation” has come to demarcate the decline of an old culture and the rise of a new one that remains in place for approximately twenty-five years, occurring with a rhythm whose logic is unknown. Nevertheless, when one generation and its dominant cultural norms are replaced with another, it is typically presumed to be for historically specific reasons. For instance, the Lost Generation, named by Gertrude Stein and popularized by Ernest Hemingway’s epigraph to The Sun Also Rises (1926), defines a generation of people born 1880–1900 who lived through the First World War. Traditional literary fiction appeared ill-equipped to capture the trauma of mechanized violence on an industrial scale as its audience irrevocably changed; the implication is that the link between a generation and culture is not accidental and that each generation is defined in relation to a seismic event. The G.I. Generation (meaning either “General Issue” or “Government Issue”) was born during the years 1901–1924 and fought during the Second World War. The Silent Generation (1925–1942) grew up during the Second World War, and many fought in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers were born in the wake of the Second World War and were defined by a substantial increase in the birth rate due to returning soldiers. Generation X was the first generation to be defined not by world wars or other seismic historical events but by the bonds that arise between individuals through exposure to social and cultural change. Karl Mannheim’s 1927 essay, “The Problems of Generations” argues that the rhythm in the sequence of generations is far more apparent in the literary realm than in institutions: “the aesthetic sphere is perhaps the most appropriate to reflect overall changes of mental climate” (279). With its specific aesthetic and moral preferences, Generation X is a generation defined more than any other by an assemblage of media-focused historical and political events, television shows, films, and music that function as common frames of reference.

Naomi Mandel’s Disappear Here: Violence after Generation X develops further the themes of suffering, identity, and ethics explored in her earlier book, Against the Unspeakable: Complicity, the Holocaust, and Slavery in America (2007), to demonstrate the ways in which Generation X’s particular attitude towards violence has been formed by developments in home media, personal computing, and reality TV. Typically characterized as anomie, boredom, and supine defeatism, Generation Xers’ fixation on negation, ambivalence and multiplicity is presented by Mandel as a revitalization of the hermeneutics of suspicion that is simultaneously antagonistic towards yet disseminated by popular culture. Rather than amoral and disaffected, Xers’ ethical center is integral to their complex and counter-intuitive attitude towards violence and its representation. Unlike previous generations, Xers’ experience is defined by paralysis, menace, and complicity, surrounded by the blurring of the image and the physical world through the saturation of home media, CNN, reality TV and video games, coupled with a heightened cynicism towards authority, media, nationalism, and utopian ideals. Mandel’s scintillating analysis traverses...

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