What does Mark Twain’s classic outsider hero Huck Finn have to do with the small army of affable manchildren that actor Seth Rogen has played in Judd Apatow films? And while we’re at it, what does second-wave feminism have to do with the decline of the fictional Don Draper from “Mad Men,” along with the retro-patriarchal mentality he embodies, and the rise of the fictional Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City,” the televised byproduct of some unholy alliance involving Erica Jong, Clintonomics and the collected works of Madonna?

The New York Times’ A.O. Scott takes on these heady questions, which at first glance might show the telltale signs of yet another trend piece that takes popular culture (and itself) too seriously and extrapolates wildly from a handful of entertainment products. While that ultimately could be true, Scott seems to be on to something worth considering in his reading of the cultural tea leaves. In short, he suggests that adolescence now represents the final stage of development for the contemporary American, for reasons that have much to do with changes in the expectations and responsibilities taken up (or not) by men as well as shifts in the roles women now inhabit or abandon.

Just look at the number of chronologically defined adults who have contributed to the unrelenting success of the young adult (Y.A.) genre in fiction, he offers, before taking a turn in tone to mimic another pop-cultural trope: the happy ending (via The New York Times Magazine on Thursday):

The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.

Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.

But that’s not quite the end, if Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir has a say in the matter — and he does, with a little help from Karl Marx. Here’s a key moment from his response to Scott’s story, posted Friday:

This fundamental confusion and ambivalence reflects a deep-seated blind spot, I would argue, one that’s endemic to the culture-vulture trade. Scott carefully anatomizes the trees but misses the forest, or to speak more precisely ignores the condition of the soil. There really is something beneath his “death of adulthood” premise, whether or not you like the prejudicial phrase. But to coin a phrase: It’s the economy, stupid. Scott’s essay appears to treat “culture” as a sealed and self-referential system, one that shapes and reflects human consciousness but has only an incidental relationship with economic, political and social factors that lie outside its purview. We have moved so far from the old Marxist view of culture as an ideological “superstructure” erected upon the economic base of society that we now pretend it’s an entirely autonomous force, or a mystical-cum-psychological shadow play that gives “human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations,” in Scott’s phrase. There are clues in his article suggesting that he doesn’t entirely buy that, and we need to remember that he works at the Times, where critics are not encouraged to venture into contentious ideological terrain or to suggest that they may have political opinions.

With this setup, it’s clear where O’Hehir is heading, but it’s worth following his take to the end. “Well, if Scott gets to play frustrated English professor in his article, I get to play former college Marxist in mine, and insist that sometimes economic forces really do shape the cultural zone,” O’Hehir writes, and though he dims Scott’s rosy glow, at least there’s a bit more reality mixed in with all that Hollywood fiction.

–Posted by Kasia Anderson

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