The future can be a frightening concept for anyone who steps back from society’s ceaseless wage-slavery and gets caught up in the gravitational tug of tomorrow’s reality. Furthermore, as technological innovations made the socio-cultural construct of today look more and more like that tomorrow, the linearity of time was also called into question. For teenagers, these factors seemed to offer an infinite source of confusion, rebellion, and anxiety. Moreover, with the advent of the industrial revolution which sent modernity hurtling into an age of reason and science, a definite shift in accepted, reactionary adolescent norms occurred. This in turn led to family, institution, and society in general reevaluating its previous (mis)conceptions of youth culture as a whole.
After WWII, this imperative to not only be mindful of what one was doing in the present but also in the future reared its ugly head…and teenagers weren’t immune to such a socio-cerebral overhaul either. In fact, since the youth of today would be the adults of tomorrow, a majority of these expectations of the future were placed upon teenagers. Unsurprisingly, many youth found themselves caught between this societal Scylla and cultural Charybdis while navigating through the rough, murky depths of destiny; ultimately, such blind steering led to rebellious reaction to a predetermination. As Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard state in Generations of Youth, “The contradictions…highlight the bifurcated social identity of youth as a vicious, threatening sign of social decay and “our best hope for the future” (p. 2).
Both of these antithetical extremes arise from the same unforeseen events leading each of us to our own fate. Though, with teenagers this anxiety and uncertainty over one’s future looms ever larger than with adults. Fate can take many forms for us all, but with youth culture the inability to see or control tomorrow often leads to reactionary revolt against familial, institutional, and socio-cultural expectations.
Take, for example, the novel The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In it, Ellison tells the tale of an unidentified young, African-American man who must undertake the expectations that society has placed not only upon his age but also of his race. In the process of dealing with these expectations, the narrator has chosen to not pursue a predetermined future concocted for him by his family, academic institutions, political movements or white culture in general. His choice to “drop out” of modern civilization has led him into a reclusive life of “invisibility”.
The narrator discusses his decision to become a socio-cultural phantom, “Invisibility…gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead” (p. 8). Here, the narrator comprehends and embraces a nonlinearity to his time, avoiding the future altogether.
This evasion of time is a rebellious reaction to the narrator’s previous attempts to fit into preconceived socio-cultural paradigms. He expounds upon this later in the novel by declaring, “I’ve come a long way from those days when, full of illusion, I lived a public life and attempted to function under the assumption that the world was solid and all the relationships therein. Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health…because…there is an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern” (p. 576).
The narrator continues his criticism of these patterns of conformity by explaining how he came to his current state of spectral rebellion, “I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am the invisible man” (p. 573).
As the narrator explains, this rebellion did not simply manifest overnight. Throughout The Invisible Man, the narrator is met with a plethora of possible of futures for himself; however, none of them are his own. For example, during his foray into college life, the narrator is volunteered to chauffeur Mr. Norton, one of the aged, white trustees of his school. Until this point in the novel, the narrator has believed that his attending college was for the betterment of his future, but after driving Mr. Norton around, he begins to re-evaluate this belief. Norton makes it perfectly clear that because the narrator is attending a college that he is a benefactor to, his dreams for a better tomorrow are not solely his own: “So you see, young man, you are involved in my life quite intimately…you are bound to a great dream and to a beautiful monument. If you become a good farmer, a chef, a preacher, doctor, singer, mechanic-whatever you become, and even if you fail, you are my fate” (Ellison, p.43-44).
In response, the narrator thinks to himself, “My feelings were mixed. Was he kidding me? Was he talking to me like someone in a book just to see how I would take it?...How could I tell him his fate?” (Ellison, p.44). He forces himself to address an important self-imposed question, a revelation, which lifts a veil from his shrouded views. Later, the narrator goes on to think, “But you [Mr. Norton] don’t even know my name” (p.45). Norton continues on his naïve self-righteousness: “I suppose it is difficult for you to understand how this [the narrator’s future] concerns me. But as you develop you must remember that I am dependent upon you to learn my fate” (p. 45). The narrator begins to realize that his future isn’t strictly for himself but also for the personal back-patting of a rich, white man.
After shedding this layer of institutional predetermination, the narrator is still confronted with the expectations of his racial heritage. He later rooms with Mary who represents a surrogate mother to the narrator. She emphatically states, “You got to lead and you got to fight and move us [African-Americans] all on up a little higher…it’s you young ones what has to remember and take the lead” (Ellison, p. 255). During this phase of his life, the narrator has run across a few roadblocks of reality, which he fervently attempts to figure his way around, “I had lost my sense of direction…Mary reminded me constantly that something was expected of me, some act of leadership, some newsworthy achievement; and I was torn between resenting her for it and loving her for the nebulous hope she kept alive” (Ellison, p. 258).
This dual love and hate the narrator has for Mary burgeons from the expectations she has placed upon him for simply being a young, black man representing the future of their race and because she forces him to face his uncertain future: “I had no doubt that I could do something, but what, and how? I had no contacts and I believed in nothing…Who was I, how had I come to be? Certainly I couldn’t help being different from when I left campus; but now a new painful, contradictory voice had grown up within me, and between its demands for revengeful action and Mary’s silent pressure I throbbed with guilt and puzzlement” (Ellison, p. 259).
This reactionary tear between revenge and uncertainty that the narrator in The Invisible Man is feeling over what exactly awaits his fate can be paralleled to similar predicaments the zoot-clad hipsters of the 1940’s were feeling. Even Ralph Ellison commented on the zoots, stating, “Much in Negro life remains a mystery; perhaps the zoot suit conceals profound political meaning…if only Negro leaders would solve this riddle” (Kelley, p. 136). With a comment like that, one’s left wondering if the narrator from The Invisible Man may have garbed himself
In his essay, The Riddle of the Zoot: Malcolm Little and Black Cultural Politics during World War II, Robin D. G. Kelley attempts to decode the racial, social, and political meanings behind an often overlooked 20th century youth subculture. As the title suggests, even Malcolm X was a member of this youth movement. Kelley quotes Malcolm X as he reminisces, “the men sharp in their zoot suits and crazy conks, and everybody grinning and greased and gassed” (p. 142).
Within the historical context of WWII, the zoot suit and its wearers were not initially setting out to make a political statement but rather a cultural one. Unlike the narrator from The Invisible Man, the hipsters “represented a subversive refusal to be subservient” (p. 140). However, as Kelley points out, “much of the black community restrained their enthusiasm, for they shared a collective memory of the unfulfilled promises of democracy generated by the First World War” (p. 138). The African-American community had risked their lives (and futures) for WWI without receiving the same respect and honor that their white compatriots in battle had, and “this time around, a victory abroad without annihilating racism at home was unacceptable” (p. 138).
This indifference to WWII originated from a demand for equality, and the zoot suit came to visually symbolize this indifference: “the political and social context of war had added an explicit dimension to the implicit oppositional meaning of the suit into an explicitly un-American style” (p. 140). Black youth weren’t about to give up their lives without having some sort of tomorrow to come back home to. Why should they risk their lives and not receive the same heroes-welcome of rights like their white counterparts would? So, the hipsters transformed their zoot suits from a symbol of leisure and pleasure into a political statement fortified with concerns of their possible immortality and questions regarding their economic future.
Similar reactions over such economic futures still resonate today. Japan is experiencing a “culturebound syndrome” titled hikikomori, “which translates as ‘withdrawal’ and refers to a person sequestered in his room for six months or longer with no social life beyond his home” (Jones, p.1). Unlike the African-American hipsters of the 1940’s who purposely stood out like sore thumbs, the hikikomori choose to confine their existence to the four walls of their bedrooms. Experts cannot seem to agree on just how many Japanese youth are suffering from this illness of the invisible with estimates ranging from 100,000 up to one million, or 1 % of the population. Furthermore, about 80% of hikikomori are males between the ages of 13-28.
As Maggie Jones reports in her New York Times article, Shutting Themeselves In, hikikomori are resisting Japanese cultural expectations of “a set path to an elite university and a top corporation” (p. 3) because they view themselves as failures within contemporary Japanese society. Jones further states that many “young men and women are neither working nor in school. After 15 years of sluggish growth, the full-time salaryman jobs of the previous generation have withered, and in their places are often part-time jobs or no jobs and a sense of hopelessness among many Japanese about the future” (p. 2).
This poor outlook on the future has many Japanese youth loathing themselves and desiring nothing less than shutting their bedroom doors so that their “failures, real or perceived, will be cloaked from the world” (p.4). Make no mistake though, hikikomori is a rebellion that “comes in muted forms” (p. 4) and silently retaliates against familial, institutional, and socio-cultural expectations heaved upon Japanese teenagers.
Although the hikikomori are visually (or lack thereof) comparable to Ralph Ellison’s narrator in The Invisible Man, they share more in common with the reactionary elements that manifested in the foredoomed futures the zoot-suit hipsters of the 1940’s saw for themselves. However, all are/were battling for control over their own destinies. Their desire to break free from familial, institutional, socio-cultural, and racial predetermination was at the forefront of their actions. Whether visible or invisible, their reactions to external and internal expectations placed upon them were the driving force behind their each unique approach to take control of and chart a destiny for their own lives.