Monday, 2 September 2013

Eating Innocence: Collective, Cultural Memories of Childhood

Okay so I realised that I have no recent examples of my writing up here, like all I have is old CSM essays. This is partly because my main writing this year has been my novel which isn't out yet and I'm pretty precious and mommy-ish about it.  So yeah am trying to rectify that this week! Here is a recent-ish essay type thing I did for a friend's newspaper. Tavi was kind enough to let me quote her. So um yeah enjoy! xox 

“When I remember eighth grade, I recall scenes my mind illustrated while reading Norwegian Wood, just as well as, and in some cases more vividly than, classmate interactions and walks to school.”
-Tavi Gevinson, Style Rookie, April 2013

My childhood is worthless. I have spent six hours cataloguing the value of my pre-adolescent trinkets, hoping to prostitute my infancy in an attempt to defer my adulthood. If my creepy ass Mr Mime shiny unexpectedly sells for $$$$$ I can quit my job and quit my Golden Raspberry winning performance for Being a Real Human Adult. Sounds like a plan stan. Spoiler alert: this did not work out so good. Beanie babies and Pokémon cards are exchanged for small change on Ebay. The only thing I achieved in that six hours was selling off the last slice of my childhood self.  Good news kid Beth! You know that toy puppy that you loved so much? Oh you know the one, brown and white, with the floppy ears? I’ve sold him on Ebay for £1.50 (plus shipping). That an encyclopedic knowledge of the different yarn toy manufacturers use, which is um, cool, I guess. Sorta. Kinda.

Ironically, the precise reason why the stuff in my attic is worth so little is because it was precious to so many. The imagined identity of pop culture, whether it is manifests in tangible artifacts or Technicolor television screens, transcends the individual and lives, curled up, all warm and fuzzy in the collective memory. We adore the act of nostalgia because it is the only form of memory that erases the physical self, whilst still anchoring us to the precise coordinates of our time on earth. I can honestly say that I’m happier talking about nineties children’s television than any actual memories of childhood. The bizarre insistence that people must worship their childhood as some kind of magical golden age is not only delusional, but also kind of fascist. Childhood is not universally happy because life isn’t universally happy. Sorry. (That came out as sarcastic but I really am sorry).

As a survivor of child abuse, I gravitate closer towards the collective cultural memory of childhood over my own lived experience than is, at times, entirely healthy. A safe and scripted portrait of growing up, which ties you to other people your age and is available to purchase in a six disc box set on Amazon is more appealing than an unreliable reality, which you are too traumatized to relive and too scared to retell in fear that the listener’s response will be ‘I don’t believe you’. After all whilst other teenagers were threatened with being grounded I was threatened with being institutionalized. I didn’t blink because my freedom was not being threatened. There were pens and paper and a well-stocked library in the Shawshank Redemption. And, in my undergraduate brain, prisons and mental institutions seemed kinda similar in an ‘I wikied Madness and Civilization before going to my lecture’ sort of way. At that time my world was not rooted to this world. When life becomes unbearable, I knew that I could always let a third party, whether it’s the protagonist in a novel or a photographer in LOVE Magazine, do the job for me. This is not entirely disassociation. Unclouded from trauma or humiliation these collective cultural memories can provide us with a sense of clarity that our real memories, memories that are constantly being rewritten to remain coherent and complementary with our present selves, cannot. Tavi Gevinson articulates this much better than I could, in a recent post on the nature of memory, for Style Rookie’s fifth year anniversary. It’s super tempting to just paste the whole thing here but I will restrain myself to one quote, and I will choose this one. “I don't actually think these events [story telling, films, television etc.] really happened to me, but they'll still come to mind when I think back on a time when a secondhand event seemed to hold some kind of truth that reality did not.” Holds ‘a truth that reality did not’ is such a good way of putting it. I mean it is so much easier to see yourself in a scene where the protagonist does not share your features.

Tavi's work also shows that the culture that shapes you, when growing up, does not, necessarily, have to be contained to your own lifetime. You can see this when reading Rookie, the online magazine for teenage girls, which Tavi founded, edits and writes for. Despite the fact that many of her readers, realistically, would have been born in the early noughties, Rookie is a wonderful resource for cool stuff from any decade (topics range from fashion in the Harlem Renaissance to the public safety information films of the 1950s). The clever way Rookie’s contributors exploits the potential of their digital platform, embedding media from other sites such as YouTube and using hyperlinks to send any reader down a digital rabbit hole, illustrates how collective cultural identity is no longer so closely linked to the fixed boundaries of the years. Here the Internet is a flashlight, allowing us to access to secret corners in time that we might have missed otherwise. Yet, the popularity of teenagers appreciating cultures past has attracted a certain amount of backlash. ‘How could you possibly understand? You weren’t there man!’ However, this argument proves nothing, other than that the critics did not understand the culture in question the first time around. Pop culture is intrinsically detached from ones lived experience. It is a blank canvas to live vicariously through, allowing you to be there without, literally,  ‘being there’. If Clueless is dear to you it makes no difference if you saw it at the cinema, or streamed it online eighteen years later. These new fans should not detract from the original audience’s enjoyment, if anything it should strengthen it, reminding of us of the delicate threads that link us together in this strange place we call home. So yes, my childhood is (technically) worthless. A pile of Pokémon cards for a childhood. How original. Hardly a unique cultural reference point. Don’t you have any memories of your own? No I do not. But that is not a bad thing. It is not a bad thing at all. Better to have beanie babies in your attic than skeletons in your closet. Or something like that.

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