Oh, be special

Thanks to Hal Niedzviecki’s new book of cultural criticism, Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity, we now know the age around which the more spiritually honest of the indie class will realize that their refusal to participate in pop culture doesn’t constitute a satisfying answer to the question of how to live the good life in our postmodern, hyper-capitalist, technocratic, hyper-intermediated, ever-changing world.

The epiphany for Niedzviecki came at 31, after his proud Jewish parents, for the second year running, sent him a couple of mass-produced birthday cards celebrating his success at becoming one of Canada’s leading founder-editor-writers of indie-underground-rebel cultural products.

“[T]he cards have an unintended effect,” he writes. “They depress me. They confirm something I’ve long suspected but have never wanted to acknowledge. My primary behavior pattern is, essentially, obsolete. In a world that craves Hallmark greeting cards about over-turning the grey-suited enemies of individuality, the nonconformist has lost his identity. Far from being weird and rebellious, he becomes normal and placid. On my thirty-first birthday I realized that my nonconformity is not merely tolerated, but replicated and accepted.”

For Niedzviecki, this realization brought on more than just a typical dark night of the soul of the culture jammer, because Niedzviecki wasn’t a typical culture jammer. He was the founder of Broken Pencil magazine, dedicated to celebrating the best of Canada’s alternative culture. He was the author of three hip novels and a hip book of short stories. And he was the author of We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture, in which he meditated, with some optimism, on the possibilities of absorbing and repurposing mass culture to underground, rebellious ends.

His self-respect was premised on the possibility that he could be in the vanguard of the cultural revolution (the good, grassroots kind of cultural revolution, not the Maoist kind), and when he realized that the revolution had already happened, and had been televised to excellent ratings, he despaired. Hello, I’m Special is Niedzviecki’s effort to write himself out of his new alienation—same as the old alienation but without an obvious escape route—and “to resolve the conflict within me: the desire to be known in a superficial I’m-special way versus the need to articulate who I am in a manner that runs counter to the all-encompassing precepts of fame and fortune, style and surface flash.”

Niedzviecki’s angst seems genuine, and one could imagine an interestingly narcissistic memoir coming out of it. But, unfortunately, he wrote Hello, I’m Special, which insists on shackling every anecdote to the thesis that our era is suffocated by un-tethered freedom and its consequent yearning for specialness, fame, money, glory, attention and recognition.

It’s true, of course, but it’s been said so many times before, better, by so many wickedly smart people, and Niedzviecki brings no fresh theoretical insights to the big questions and no relish to his writing.

Instead of wit, irony or profundity, we get a slogan—“Hello, I’m Special”—variations on that slogan (“I’m Specialism,” “the virus of the special” and “the new conformity”), lots of other coinages seeking meme-dom (e.g. “neo-trad” for neo-traditionalism), and a sense that Niedzviecki stopped believing in the necessity of this book not long after he started writing it. His purpose with the book, he says toward the end, is to reveal the exhaustion of the thesis/antithesis of capitalist mass culture and underground rebel culture so as to clear the path for a redemptive synthesis. But the book reads as if his purpose is to position himself, once again, as an authentic voice of his generation. And there’s nothing redemptive about that move, unless you happen to be that voice, which Niedzviecki isn’t.