What Was “Random”?

November 23, 2016   •   By Rod Bastanmehr

THERE WAS A SPLIT in the American psyche on the morning of September 11, 2001, and it was partially, if not entirely, related to time zones. For me, living in a foggy enclave in Northern California, that morning was chaos incarnate, watching a city that felt, at the tender age of 12, a universe away. The news was that two planes had been flown into the World Trade Center, important buildings that I had honestly never heard of. The news was framed as an attack, though just by who and over what would remain murky for some time, even after we figured out the basic narrative.


By 7:00 a.m. in California, the facts were in place. Whatever had happened had been, in some sense, intentional. But for those watching as the story broke on East Coast time, the air was a bit murkier. The towers had fallen 30 minutes apart and until that second plane hit, the mood wasn’t quite all-hands-on-deck. The newscasters across the country were using language that struck me as decidedly ambiguous; it was clear they thought of the event as a tragic oddity. Before the second tower fell, most considered the American Airlines Flight 11 crash to be something of an accident. It was momentarily, definitively non-political; it was instead entirely random.


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There is a tone that every generation comes to embody, a result usually of its actual tenor and the projections of the media. In the 1980s, it was a certain degree of excess, buoyed by the Gekkonian notion that “greed is good.” Shopping malls birthed new town squares; Wall Street gained cachet. Consumerism became central in a way that had either been lightly touched on or rejected outright in the 1960s and 1970s.


This eventually gave way to the nagging cynicism of the 1990s. During that last decade of the 20th century, apathy and youthful revolt against corporate structure birthed a dour, though undeniably marketable, sensibility. This was, at times, in conflict with a creeping kind of sincerity. The rise of eco-awareness, fair trade, slave labor: all of these hot button issues became, in an act of rebellion against the decade that predated it, cool as signs of anti-capitalist sentiment.


The 2000s, however, started largely with a bust. Y2K panic came and went, leaving nothing in its wake except a renewed faith in technology and a bevy of homes stocked to the gills with water bottles. But Y2K coupled with 9/11 does seem to get at the contradiction that catapulted the century: we were prepared for something that never came, only to then be undone by the unexpected. How random.


Randomness was, in a sense, right on time. It was everything my peers and I knew, everything that had no place anywhere else. Randomness provided its own context. Kittens and lasers felt of a single sphere. Stony silence became its own laugh track. A pervading idea of uncoolness became cool, and in effect undid traditional social etiquette. Charm became secondary to a kind of aloofness; the younger brother was suddenly the enviable lothario in a family tree.


In its quiet irony, the aesthetics of girlhood would later come to embody a more internet-savvy randomness (the lowbrow pastiche of Lisa Frank proving just as relevant as the dreamy mood-boarding of Sophia Coppola), but in its earlier iterations, to be random was to be imbued most with the affects of young boyishness. Comedians like Tom Green and television shows like MTV’s Jackass built upon the immature synapses of the teenage male, with Green humping moose and Johnny Knoxville, the deranged ringleader, obsessively endangering his penis. There was, simply, no precedent for the deranged lunacy of this era, because the thrill of it was found in its lack of nostalgia. It was irrevocably a product of the here and now, born randomly of the present.


Films like Napoleon Dynamite traded off a comedic flat line, never fluctuating beyond a monotone; the film’s comedy was quiet, and its build slow. The stoic weirdness was seen as satire of Midwestern doldrums, a protective agent that allowed the film to awash itself in absurdity, but intentionally. Elsewhere, Cartoon Network’s late night television block, Adult Swim, defined the anti-comedy of the era, subverting traditional programming or, in the case of Fox’s Family Guy, resurrecting it by imbuing it with a new sense of place and unpredictability.


Randomness was even, at turns, strangely political. As the decade trudged along, patriotism and newfound jingoism would often be infused with a sense of camp, as with the ironic popularity of Chuck Norris — specifically Walker Texas Ranger, which became, in its new appropriation, a mirroring of the United States’s own hyper-masculine identity, and a proxy of its dense commitment to action without consequence. (That both Walker and George W. Bush hailed from Texas was surely no coincidence.) And on the level of optics alone, seeing Walker trudge around a desert landscape was, even in the abstract, a relevant aesthetic palate during the initial wave of footage from Operation: Iraqi Freedom.


More than anything else, the left’s distaste for the then-sitting president, who had become a mix of super-villain and Alfred E. Neuman, created a new intellectual framework for the country’s view of itself. Randomness appeared, in its fusion of immaturity and purposeful naïveté, both a tenor of comedy and the sum total of Bush 43’s term. Each of the president’s blunders and gaffes brought with it a sense that anything else was possible and everything was arbitrary.


Thus, the chaos of late night comedy required more than the Carson-lite prodding of Jay Leno, or the slightly more bitter jabs of David Letterman — it took the post-midnight slot of Conan O’Brien to really seize on the wide-eyed surprise that this was the era we were living in. It was more than setups and punchlines; politics had been labeled, rather prematurely in hindsight, a kind of sideshow. And so the wackiness of Conan’s doings — his own obsession with Chuck Norris, the masturbating bear, In The Year 2000, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and others — became a touchstone for a generation that had learned not to take anything too seriously, and not trust anything too serious.


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Depending on whom you ask, randomness might be the catalyst for life on this planet. In the 14th century, the word came to refer to “impetuosity, great speed, force or violence” in movement. It wasn’t until the 17th century that random came to imply a lack of logic, sense, or purpose. By the 19th century, randomness became a governing variable in the sciences, one that sat like a splinter in Einstein’s brain due to the “randomness” of quantum uncertainty.


Growing up in the aughts, however, “random” became a go-to label for anything and everything that felt both of the moment and decidedly outside of it. Whereas much of the decade prior framed the more sideways among us as outcast and sidelined, there was, slowly but surely, a radical embrace of weirdness happening across many fronts. Narratives once rooted in the absurd or surrealism were no longer fringe, but part of a widespread sensibility. A rush of awkward humor, predicated on discomfort, turned into an all-out generational signifier.


Its tenets stretched far and wide. The extremely popular yet much-loathed “manic pixie dream girl” character trope borrows heavily from the era’s penchant for quirk and male fantasy. The rise of file-sharing created a newly democratic relationship between music and genre. This eventually birthed mash-up culture, with artists like Girl Talk and projects like The Grey Album cementing a fascination with the purposeful clashing of texts and ideas. Even horror became imbued with a more thoroughgoing sense of randomness. The extremity of the “torture porn” subgenre could be read as a response to a prevailing state of violence and dread, but the violence was, in and of itself, almost absurd in its theatricality. Films like Saw built a marketing campaign around both the terror and ridiculousness of a severed foot.


Randomness was part of a larger move toward unpredictability, a cultural mood translated through the nation’s youth. The end of one millennium and the beginning of the next brought with it a sense of endless possibility and what seemed a blank canvas on which to start. Of course, the decade that followed was hardly a clean slate; many of its defining events had been set in motion years, if not decades, prior. But for a generation coming of age during a moment of pervasive adult turmoil and uncertainty, young people’s anxiety manifested as a kind of wonder. If American exceptionalism was in question, perhaps everything else was up for negotiation. What if things “just happening” could be a new way to live? What if it already was?


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Today, apathy and cynicism feel long gone. Instead, contemporary youth inhabit a more sincere relationship to the realities of the moment: a permanent woke-ness. Randomness more than ever seems like some mechanism designed to keep reality at bay. To view the world as lacking rhyme or reason now seems to itself lack rhyme or reason.


Still, this dissipation of randomness comes at a moment in which unpredictability endures. For a generation raised on subversion, it now manifests as a rabid mistrust of the culture at large. Seventy-four percent of millennials aged 18 to 29 stated in a poll conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics that they do not trust in the American congressional system. That same poll found that 86 percent mistrust Wall Street; 88 percent “sometimes” or “never” trust the press — over half, 58 percent, mistrust the Supreme Court.


Additionally, a historically higher percentage of young Americans are expressing not just depression (19 percent, according to the American Psychological Association — up five percent from Generation X and seven percent from the Baby Boomers), but anxiety. Twelve percent of millennials report to suffer from diagnosed anxiety disorders, stemming in part from stress, which has also seen an uptick: those between 18 and 33 report to have an average stress level of 5.4 out of 10. The APA generally considered 3.6 to be the average stress level to be considered healthy.


Millennials identify their anxiety as stemming from the unknowingness of daily life, the uncertainty of the economy, and the instability of the housing market. Much of these fears are born out in country’s current seismic political divide. I myself, at 27, am considerably on edge when I see the state of things. The climate in 2016 seems to nearing a flashpoint: the moment a fire in a room becomes a room on fire.


Today, the taste for randomness has all but disappeared, even as its context has entirely changed. Everywhere, the tension in the air is tethered to the same principles of unpredictability, but breaking the molds of expectation has turned sinister — a president-elect who has “defied convention” by stoking racial hatred — or dishonest, as when repeated acts of gun violence are deemed, even in light of clear, institutionalized patterns, to be random events.


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What was “random”? Some strange state that felt both of this world and not, defined as an exclusion from the mainstream — which, in its careful curation, was definitively not random. To be random was to be misunderstood but alternatively identifiable; not antithetical, but parallel. Randomness was once a response to the cracking of a certain American facade; absurdity informed the “America, Fuck Yeah!” ethos just as much as American patriotism did.


That framework now seems to have dug itself deep into a generation’s conscious. The kineticism of randomness has continued on in the form of a feedback loop with no end and no beginning. Context was what we happily gave up in an attempt to rid ourselves of a millennium’s worth of expectations. By the time Conan took Leno’s throne as head of The Tonight Show, the culture’s tone had reverted back into something a bit more placid and homogenous. During the renewed optimism of Obama’s election, randomness felt not just out of style but rather unseemly. A ceiling had been shattered here; there was no time to fuss over the absurd, there was work to be done. Before the decade’s close, the earthquake of Obama’s presidency would birth its own tsunami. The tectonic plates of the United States’s self-regard would begin to shift, and it would look like something familiar, we would swear we’d never seen before.


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Rod Bastanmehr is a freelance writer in New York City with a passion for music, film, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @rodb.