No heroes

There aren’t any heroes anymore, it seems. According to some, this is much to the loss of today’s youth who are in sore need of heroes and heroism to inspire them. Media critic Thomas de Zengotita explains it like this:

The favoured explanation says that real heroes have been replaced by sports and entertainment stars. And that’s right, as far as it goes, but it would be better to phrase it this way: in today’s environment, real heroes must become stars if they are to exist in public culture. That is, they must perform. But as soon as they do, they can’t compete with real stars – who are performers. How neat is that?

The essence of real heroes in the good old days – Newton and Napoleon and Goethe – was that they were essentially unreal. They were not known as people. They were their works and deeds, their myths. They were fictional constructs, even in their own lifetimes, invented by the people who idolized them, on the basis of a few stories and images – so few. The whole dynamic is a function of representational quantity and quality.
… as soon as real heroes are represented publicly, repeatedly, they are doomed. In effect, virtual heroes – the real performers – present themselves so fabulously and consistently across the decades they make it impossible for hero-candidates to succeed. We don’t have real heroes anymore because they are too real; representations of them are too rich and detailed. There is no room for us to supply them with mythic life.”

Instead we immerse ourselves in sports and entertainment stars who generally seem more akin to fiction than reality: Madonna, Tiger Woods, Carrie Bradshaw, James Bond, Lara Croft …

Pop-music stars who stand something across their appearances come as close as a mediated culture allows to genuine heroic stature. […] There is no cause they are summoning their fans to serve – other than the cause of being whoever you are.

We give these stars our attention so that they can confirm the ideals that we seek. Of what we want to be like. In the end they help us to define ourselves, since even though it may seem to be all about them, they are merely reflections of your own model self. The stars dance for our amusement so we don’t have to. It is all about you.

So in our hyper-specialized, mediated modern society it is the people who specialize in working the media who are cast to be the heroes. Those whose careers revolve around gathering our attention. It is the actors, pop stars and even politicians who want us to do adore them. But they can only win our fancy by giving us what we want: Something that we can relate to. Something like ourselves.

De Zengotita argues that we are becoming method actors ourselves. Not being ourselves but rather playing ourselves. Constantly posing and building ourselves into a narrative, exaggerating our feelings and experiences to make them feel more like an adventure, constantly exposing ourselves through Myspace, Youtube and blogs like this, constantly mediating ourselves to match our overexposed fictional heroes from TV, magazines and cinema. Or alternatively choosing an escapistic departure from reality all together, refashioning themselves as the fictional hero through computer and role-playing games, adopting the stance of Don Quijote in denying reality in order to bring their own, hidden safely away from whoever might ask.

“I’m not a revolutionary, but I play one on TV”

Some commentators have used this line of argument as an explanation of why the Copenhagen Youth House activists feel so strongly for their cause yet have managed to make little impact with it. Expounding this view in Politiken, Lars Trier Mogensen writes:

For years, the activists have staged, dressed, and made up themselves to be exponents of a radical political counter culture. But they haven’t brought any revolutionary projects into being, apart from what can be sung into a microphone and discussed in closed gatherings. The Youth House has been a popular culture centre, not a revolutionary command centre.

Mogensen argues that in fact, these young protesters aren’t revolutionaries at all. Rather, they are just acting out a romantic vision of the revolutionary activist as they recognize from eras gone by, comparing themselves to medieval peasant uprisings and the resistance movement of World War II, fighting for their ideals against totalitarian regimes.

But Mogensen claims that these activists are merely pirated copies of those heroes of yore. There is no great ideological battle to fight. There is no struggle that justifies violence. As it is, they have nothing to say. Their only message is a cry for attention staged as political action which only becomes real in front of the TV cameras when it is already too late. As Mogensen concludes with a tinge of unsettled wonder at the opinions expressed by the activists in the special supplement to Danish newspaper Information written by Youth House activists:

Aside from writing furiously about the “correct people with empty promises” in Information, the activist writers exhibited a strange longing for an actual project: “You cannot escape. Everything can be sold and you wonder whether it would better to stop struggling so they can’t sell the struggle? Are we a necessity for this structure? We are more paralyzed than we would be in a totalitarian dictatorship. There at least there there would be something to fight and die for.”

According to Mogensen, these young activists have adopted the role of the revolutionary to play a live role playing game, escaping reality by opposing society, defining themselves through their opposition to mainstream society. Yet finding themselves frustrated that it does not allow for a clearly defined struggle.

Unfortunately, Mogensen and de Zengotita’s arguments seem to lead to a fairly cynical outlook on life. As love and hope and other human emotions are no longer original but rather copies to be acted out as if in some method acting workshop, we seem to cease to be human, but rather just mediated copies of copies trapped in some labyrinthine post-modern mirror-reality which even our would-be heroes can do nothing but perpetuate, not only strengthening its grip on us but also making it seemingly impervious to change.

It is this fear that the activist essayist is trying to convey in the above quote picked by Mogensen: How do you oppose a system so penetrating that even your opposition becomes part of it as well as a struggle to be reported, analyzed, mediated and sold? Would it be better to stop struggling?

Rather than stop, they try other tactics to negate the effects of the system. They adopt DIY ethics for their cultural production. They resist copyright law, distributing text, music and images for free. They present themselves to the media only rarely, and as a group rather than as individuals. They wear black ski masks or pink wigs to disguise their identities like superheroes like Batman, Daredevil or Subcomandante Marcos (heh). They become an outwardly uniform group where all are as one to avoid building anyone up as leaders or heroes, consciously making themselves less mediated, less “real” in order to turn themselves into mythical symbols of the ideals for which they fight.

Those ideals are what Mogensen cynically labels as copies of old passion. But they can also be seen as a rebellious desperation caused by that same lack of passion. It is with such a cry for pure, unmediated human emotion that the activist essay ends:

At times you come close to real emotion. In moments you make a difference. It is enough to make it worth living. It is enough to make you feel human. It is more than most can hope for. So once in a while we throw our hearts through the windows. Because we have to. And at times, they beat.

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Reading yet another Danish newspaper today, I found an interview with a few of the original founders of the Youth House, now in their mid-forties, settled down with lucrative jobs in the culture industry.

They agree that it was much more political in the early days, but that it was never solely about the politics. As one of them puts it, “Basically, it has never been anything more than a cultural centre – which of course had connections to the political movements around it.” And they express disappointment at the lack of direction and discipline among the Youth House activists:

There are many random bullies involved in the youth house today, and they haven’t got their own means in order. They have become a monumental frustrated torrent of emotion instead of having a serious plan and purpose.

Still, the old vanguard hope that the loss of the Youth House will supply the movement with a myth which the activists can rally around and create something new and stronger.

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