Generic objects appear to be self-contained, self-evident, pre-packaged, readymade. But below the glossy surface is an endless web of citations, annotations, connections, events, anecdotes, riffs, inklings, live wires.1 They appear here in a companion piece to my writing about the generic published in MARCH. Here the concept is illuminated through a plurality of voices. I think of it as a kind of compost bin: references that have stayed with me for years, some fresh stuff on top, eggshells that remain intact, herb stems and ideas that are on their way to breaking down, a fertile mess that may give rise to something else.
1. The generic is what you think it is.
iii “The hotel room does not provide any point of reference. Climatized air, minibar carrying the usual brands, stock photography on the walls, satellite television on a plasma screen, the view, usually a fire wall or another generic building. It looks the same as all the other hotel rooms, and I suspect that this generic sameness is, in fact, intentional, intending to overcome distance, to melt down the distinctions and discrepancies between places into a ‘Not Other.’”5
iv In Amsterdam, with a group of people who mostly did not live in Amsterdam,6 I asked them what they think is a generic beer. Someone mentioned a plain white label marked BEER, designed as an anti-brand. That one was a thing for a while in Berlin but people are over it. Someone argued Heineken, the Amsterdam beer. I said no, it’s too iconic. It’s more like Jupiler, because the signs for it are all over town and yet I’ve never heard anything about it. It almost blends into the street view. They have it at all the post-show receptions.
v “Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation, but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life.”7
vi “As my previous work on the case study makes explicit, I am extremely interested in generalization: how the singular becomes delaminated from its location in someone’s story or some locale’s irreducibly local history and circulated as evidence of something shared. This is part of my method, to track the becoming general of singular things, and to give those things materiality by tracking their resonances across many scenes, including the ones made by nonverbal but still linguistic activities, like gestures.”8
2. The generic is so common it is unappealing.
vii A generic product is not created to be an object of desire. It’s something you know you have to have anyway, and so you might as well get the cheapest one. The most efficient. The roll of paper towels under my sink is functionally a placeholder for all the more remarkable paper towels, and at the same time, the most “paper towel” of all.
viii “Objects that give us pleasure take up residence within our bodily horizon. We come to have our likes, which might even establish what we are like. The bodily horizon could be redescribed as a horizon of likes. To have our likes means certain things are gathered around us.”9
ix Compare to: cliche. A cliche announces itself, triggers an eye roll. A generic slips under the radar until perhaps someone mentions it, and then you can’t stop seeing it. A cliche is speaking too loudly and the generic is just the tone of background noise. See also: trope, a cliche in action, a cliche personified.
3. The generic is so saturated it is invisible.
x “We mean really generic—milk crates, plastic buckets, shipping containers, wooden palettes, traffic barricades, decorative concrete blocks, urban trash cans and dumpsters, rubber tires, scaffolding, Scotch tape. It’s not that any of these aren’t designed, but rather that they are designed so incredibly well as to function with unparalleled efficiency within the systems of circulation for which they are intended. Their most telling quality is that they have slipped below the threshold of what would otherwise mark their identity as designed artifacts.”10
xi The recipe book in spidery handwriting. The old love letters. The yearbooks. The plants that need repotting. The takeout tupperwares. The CD-ROMs and folders marked in Sharpie “financial.” The plates that have been passed down. So many t-shirts, from that one place that one time. The small arrangement of smooth stones sitting in front of the mirror. Jar of utensils, entryway shoes, flip the switch and the door locks behind you.
xii “One of the visual ‘frequencies’ transmitted by generic objects metonymically signals the massive and elastic systems to which they belong. These are systems to which we often remain physically, if not cognitively, blind.”11
xiii Compare to: everyday. The everyday points to the objects of daily life, the quotidian, the maintenance of the body and its mundane routines. It’s humble and it’s also very close to us. But the art world has commodified and solidified the everyday, nudging it closer to the cheap sheen of the generic. But the generic is still a bit more otherworldly.
xiv “Generic objects are synthetic genetic objects: a genome or a strict chain of codes, a tight script of metric chromosomes, cuts across them and the systems to which they are attached. The shipping container, for instance, like the bucket and the milk crate, is marked by multiple conventions, by a global consensus—a genome—established between all the parts of the system in which it functions. This guarantees compatibility at every interface.… It’s an alliance that generates, in proportion to the efficiency of the system, an internal violence—a force, like that of genetic coding, which imposes morphologies, from the minutest detail of the object to the very edges of the system. Everything is determined by everything else.”12
4. The generic is so cheap that everyone has their own.
xvi “Public and private spheres are drawn into a tight circuit, giving the ordinary the fantasy quality of a private life writ large on the world. Publicly circulating styles, sensibilities, and affects simultaneously snap into place in hearts all over the country.”14
xvii ”This is yet another striking paradox: we are frequently ourselves in exactly the same way in very large numbers, and our emotional self-expression is often ready-made. Even the culture of authenticity is, to a certain extent, standardized mass culture.”15
xviii You might wonder whether your inner life is the same as everyone else’s. You might believe that it’s truly, uniquely your own. You might have had others remind you of this from a young age: your difference, the ways you don’t fit into the standard. Or you might have spun this story on your own. How did you learn the routes you know for arriving at yourself?
xix You might have noticed that I am speaking to you in second person. The pronoun is slippery: it’s not always clear whether I am speaking to you personally, whether I am speaking to someone else, or whether I am speaking to all of you together. (And sometimes when I say “you,” I really mean “we.” I really mean me.)
xx “Like a live wire, the subject channels what’s going on around it in the process of its own self-composition. Formed by the coagulation of intensities, surfaces, sensations, perceptions, and expressions, it’s a thing composed of encounters and the spaces and events it traverses or inhabits.”16
xxii Electronic billing. An old friend texts you and you don’t respond. Ungodly counter of unread emails. Software update. Incognito windows for porn and embarrassing songs. [First name] clearance… Is… E-X-T-E-N-D-E-D ! ! ! I’m just following up. Just checking in. Select all the boxes with traffic lights. Restore all tabs. An alarm is going off—what for?
5. The generic is so blank that it is actually typical.
xxiii “A track pant is the single article of clothing as likely to be worn in a refugee camp in Calais, or by a south London DJ, an Asian grandfather on a walk, or a supermodel. Today’s track pants are not a ‘new trend,’ they’re a culture shift. Like denim jeans before them, which were once only strictly for cowboys, we’ve reached full saturation of the tracksuit. For an object to permeate all society it needs to undergo two steps; genre collapse and genre reinscription…. Today’s track pants have lost their specificity and are the jeans of the late 20teens: available at every price point and fit, no longer strictly an identifier for anything except the times.”18
6. The generic is so normalized that it requires violence.
xxiv I’m thinking about Glissant, and I’m also thinking about being read. You keep fitting in, or not fitting in, and as you do so, you become something. You might land in a city where you don’t speak the language, but you’re still able to blend in on the street. Or people might lean out their car window, point at you and shout at you what they think you are.
xxv “In her essay, [Aria] Dean builds on François Laruelle’s idea of the generic as “an average universal or middle ground between the One-All and singularity or individuality” that may allow us to “get out from under the dialectical burden that perpetually distills the polarities between representation/abstraction.” She argues that Blackness, as a sign of negation and symbolic death, is the ur-case of such a dialectical burden; as such, a generic approach can sidestep binaries like abstraction/representation, individual/collective, and (we could add) art/non-art.”19
xxvi And here I have to add: what a privilege to be able to contend with the universal.20 To say yes or no to it. I’m wrestling with the generic generic, and there is no easy way out. I’m not going to take the black generic and run with it, but I see it pointing in another direction, towards understanding the generic not only as an expression or operation of power, but a conscious tactic for evading it, or evading capture, or refusing the modes of representation that are given.
7. The generic belongs to no one, so it belongs to everyone.
xxvii Technically a generic drug is in the public domain, but it’s not really accessible to everyone—the product or the profit. In rehearsal21 we looked up Zumba videos on YouTube and followed along. We noted a key feature of the generic: Zumba can seemingly take any dance, feed it into the global machine, and it comes out as…Zumba. So salsa isn’t really salsa anymore. Or whatever. Does that mean it becomes open source? No, it’s more like whitewashing.
xxviii “Instead, to understand dance as a dynamic, transhistorical, and intersubjective system of incorporations and excorporations is to understand dance not only as that which passes away (in time and across space) but also as that which passes around (between and across bodies of dancers, viewers, choreographers) and as that which also, always comes back around. Dance is the passing around and the coming around of corporeal formations and transformations by means of excorporations and incorporations of jets of affects.… This kind of dynamics found a particular economy, where bodies intertwine, or intermingle, across time—in an endless chain of reciprocal emissions, transmissions, receptions, and exchanges of times, gestures, steps, affects, sweat, breathing, historical and political particles.”22
xxix Copying in dance can of course be enforced, disciplinary. There is the ballet mistress with the yardstick trying to mold your angles into the ideal, but there is also this true, social thing. It’s how you know that you’re connected, that you’re in the same time. The rhythm pulses. You hear me and you call back. (And even naming that example as generic speaks to the widespread appropriation of Black dance forms in the United States.)23
xxx So in the arena of choreography, which is “by” someone, anyone who is paying attention will acknowledge that this shit didn’t come from nowhere. It’s by your dancers, it’s by your teachers, it’s by that internet article, it’s by the thousands of times you have rolled down your spine. Your instincts are inseparable from everything your body has ever done.24
8. The generic is so embarrassing that you love it.
xxxiii Close your eyes again. I’d like to ask you to recall some kind of heightened feeling. It could be any kind of feeling, good or bad, just a time you were totally saturated with it. Take a moment and bring the sensation back into your body. Now. Does this feeling have a soundtrack? A song or a type of music? Hear it for a moment. Wait. How many people in the world do you think know this music? Do you think they have ever listened to it, feeling the same type of way?
9. The generic moves so fast, it disappears.
xxxiv “The objects of mass desire enact the dream of sheer circulation itself—travel, instant communication, movies, catalogues, the lure of new lifestyles patched together from commodities gathered into scenes of a possible life. The experience of being ‘in the mainstream’ is a concrete sensory experience of literally being in tune with a ‘something’ that’s happening.”27
xxxv Compare to: ordinary. The ordinary comes in wafts and waves; the ordinary can be the current that the generic travels on. Once the ordinary coheres into an object, then it can be generic. When a thing becomes a thing. The ordinary is when you detect a smell but you can’t put a name to it. The generic is definitely fishy.
xxxvi So it’s come to this. We’re wading through all this shit, and we have to decide how to act. When so much is given, what is the possibility of agency? It isn’t the same as freedom, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What is possible is determined by what is around you and you act in relation to that. We’ve focused so much on recognizing the generic as a trap, or as a script that seems inescapable. And I do think it’s sneaky, but it’s also fundamentally unstable.
xxxvii “Agency can be strange, twisted, caught up in things, passive, or exhausted. Not the way we like to think about it. Not usually a simple projection toward a future…. It’s lived through a series of dilemmas: that action is always a reaction; that the potential to act always includes the potential to be acted on, or to submit; that the move to gather a self to act is also a move to lose the self; that one choices precludes others; that actions can have as unintended and disastrous consequences; and that all agency is frustrated and unstable and attracted to the potential in things.”28
xxxix Not “the” body but “a” body, my body, your body, bodies that have names, first names and last names. Things become specific when they’re actually happening. There is the idea of line dancing, but then if you look up examples, you see the bodies and you read them. You see the bar or church basement or dance studio and you read it; you hear the song and it came out of someone’s actual mouth on an actual date and time. If it lands it gets located. It seems impossible to keep it general.
10. The generic is so over and over and over it’s something else.
xxxxiii Like the ordinary, the classic is similarly saturated, a standard-bearer, but the classic is never not itself. Take the classic far enough back and it will become an original. This is where the Mobius strip loops back on itself.33 It only becomes necessary to claim an origin point when the object itself has proliferated enough.
xxxxiv And now we’re going to hit the brakes and come to a stop at: the genuine. It comes from the same root as the generic, and can also be found on cans of beer. It’s real, it’s true, it’s honest, it’s authentic.34 Which is really to say: it comes from somewhere.