On a Sunday we exploded.
Or, well, no we didn’t. That much is demonstrable. The buildings remained intact; the students remained upright; the roads still lay there paved with the perfection of their previous imperfections. I can see it all now out the window, historic and unchanged. But last November in the afternoon hours something exploded, and if not the physical structures, then that something must have been our phones, at the very least. Sirens, but reduced ones. The banal and bored whimper of a bomb alert shoving itself out the speakers of our trusty digital devices.
“The university might blow up (we don’t know why) so you should probably move your person if you are currently situated here or here—oh, or also here. Thank you and good night. Actually, our apologies, it is not yet nighttime, but you should please head indoors, just not to the wrong indoors, that might be bad might be fatal might be—something. It’s a dangerous world out there.”
We read it, and we blinked. We packed our bags, and we shuffled our feet. We wandered to our rooms, except for those of us who lived in rooms that might soon find their walls and their floors and their ceilings reconfigured into an abstract array of rubble. We don’t know where those students went. And by “we,” I mean everyone.
I am not making fun of the university; I am making fun of the authorities writ large. Because the dangerous something isn’t simply our reality, or this country, anymore. The danger has seeped out of the Structural, colonized the Quotidian, and has now announced its modern monopoly over the Culture. Perhaps this is the defining feature of Gen Z. We are not “Zoomers,” not “The Social Media Generation.” We are the arbiters of this newfangled culture of violence. I won’t essentialize, but that is our essence.
The morning before that un-Bloody Sunday, an alarm snatched me, unapologetic, from the clutches of sleep. On the lockscreen of my phone awaited a notification banner, announcing a deadly tragedy at a concert in Houston, the city that raised me. First, I assumed bullets, naturally—a thought that washed my supine body with a wave of disgusted exhaustion. Welcome to the remains of a carefree Saturday morning, murdered by Friday night. Second, I wondered if I knew anyone at the festival, a possibility replete with both the nausea of the question and the frustration of knowing it might take a long time to discover the answer.
I was wrong on the first account. No guns; people had trampled each other to death without motive. The supreme actuation of senseless violence. I never understood stampedes because they made no sense, but the illogic retreated to the margins of the matter, usurped by stories of chaos and suffocation. In the hours and the days that followed, I learned that yes, I knew people who had survived Astrofest. My old classmates watched their music fun become mauled by the very thing that brought them there, the mass of people eager to enjoy the event together, their entertainment spontaneously substituted with the feverish will to remain upright and breathing as they guessed their way toward the edge of the crowd. My own brother intended to go with his friends, but he had a school commitment that night. Nearly every attendee and every casualty was a member of Gen Z.
Weeks later, when I returned home for the break, I drove past the stadium that held every concert and cultural event of note in my life. In lieu of giant posters announcing the next lineup, I saw caution tape. Chain-linked and padlocked, the stadium cloaked itself in a fashionable attire. Its exterior alerted the passing drivers of the events that transpired within its gates—gates that have long held the spectacles of a city, but now wear the markings of an atrocity. We saw these articles and we knew intimately the symbol of such a dressing, much as we understood the iconography that announced the Astroworld fest—the ginormous structure of Travis Scott’s golden head, with his mouth agape and severed at the tongue. This image, inimitable and ubiquitous as it may be, is not the ultimate signature of a generational culture.
At the fest, the music and technicolor smoke jets were only openers for the stampede, the headline act. Once the entertainment devolved into the unforgettable tragedy of mayhem, a new ethos took over as the central spirit, the way any culture does. Culture does not need to be a nice thing. The violence became an entity. It became a medium through which the concert goers related to one another. It became something greater than themselves: It became their world.
Today, the violence does not require a motivation, or even a target like in its most common iterations, the product of anger or hatred or other oppressively systemic things. The violence may simply arrive on the scene without explanation, parachuting down from some unseen plane, knowing we will react with instinctive recognition—a shift into a certain mode of terrified yet unfazed interaction with one another. The violence acts as something familiar that orients us together in place and time.
I should be clear. I am not saying that the blanket of spontaneous, everyday violence is new. I am not speaking of any often-critiqued phenomenon like the glorification of violence, like with gory video games or graphic movies or abusive porn. Those are all representations of violence inside conventionally-marketed qualifiers of culture. In our generation the violence needs no medium, no mediation, no artistic expression. The experience itself is enough. Raw and rote, each ensuing destruction etches its despotic name into our culture.
We are no longer transforming violence into art. We are turning art into violence.
Shootings, beatings, storming buildings, sexual assault; Astrofest, Charlottesville, Orlando, Atlanta. The accumulation of these quotidian and monumental incidents melds a diversity of experience into one great fugue state that permeates the shared knowledge and interactions of a depressed generation. “Newsworthy” or otherwise, each incident becomes known as a name, the connotation of the place where it occurred or the force that enacted it. Our ability to recognize those names, to invoke them at appropriate moments and to feel the constant weight of their memory and their future possibility, is itself a culture. If culture is what it means to socialize collectively, to participate in and apply the recognizable signifiers of a community, I express my identity as a young person in reaction to the siren. To be young today is to ache with a keen sense of knowing that originates in the viscera and metastasizes, subsuming the flesh. A body knows to sigh, tremble, flee, amble, to anesthetize itself and to cry in the same instant. As bruises and blood seep into every inch of our interest, Gen Z crafts all the appropriate responses, the behaviors and the emotions to learn personally and practice collectively.
Our reactions become measurable, communicable, along a gradient of all the necessary possibilities between blinking and screaming. We recognize each other in the size and the flavor of our response. It is an aesthetic sort of relating to each other through relating to the constant horrors that arrive without warning. And that is how culture appears: as aesthetics. An engaging exterior which represents the vast and uncontainable idea submerged inside it. Violence is boundless, but it approaches some semblance of shape when our bodies and our conversations reflect its presence.
The violence itself has become a culture. And it is supplemented by a shared understanding. We have chiseled a second culture out of the necessity of responding. Our personal reactions cannot remain personal when we are inundated with the ceaselessness of the public eye. We text pictures and videos around, post infographics on Instagram, and read the articles in the news. We document the stumblings and the tragedies, disseminating the knowledge through the endless vortex of public engagement, from firsthand to secondhand to third, fourth, fifth, on and on as the real contracts and distorts into the imagined. But reality is not the question for now. Our discussion is on this passage between people. Because everyone feels, or hears, or sees, how violence obliterates the borders of its immediate moment. It activates the senses, like any good art. It seeps slowly, then invades quickly, moving without direction but with clear purpose—the entanglement of all our interactions into this miasma.
It is the knowing that we are left with. If nothing else, we know each other as we run from the explosion, or when we take a video of it and blast it across the digital ether. Our responses are virtual, and our responses are embodied. In both, the understanding is collective. At least, each time the next one comes, whether it’s real or only a warning, we are not lonely in the aftershocks.