“The film that defined a generation,” said a critic today of the original Trainspotting film, a film that was released in 1996. A Google search brings descriptions of it as a “cult” film. What do the words mean? How does a film “define” a generation? What is meant by “a generation?”
In primary school days we would have been told that a generation was twenty-five years. But if twenty-five years of young people were shaped by the film, then our children, born in 1990 and 1993, would be part of the generation supposedly defined by Trainspotting.
Perhaps in cultural contexts a generation means something much shorter. Perhaps a generation are those in a particular age range at a particular time. Perhaps a generation is something more nebulous, perhaps it refers to the cluster of people who attended the screening of the film.
Perhaps the definition that takes place through the film is not a definition of those who saw the film, but a definition of those who belonged to the 1980s social groups the film depicts. Perhaps the film was perceived as the reference point for understanding the alienated young men who comprise the dramatis personae of the drama. But why should a handful of people from a particular sub-culture be seen as representative of an entire generation?
Perhaps the ambiguity is in the word “defined,” perhaps the definition implied is not so much a precise description as an indication of something, a flavour, a hint. Perhaps “defined” means a taste, as the taste of food might define a meal. Perhaps “defined” does not mean defined in a conventional sense of the word.
If words become so nuanced that they do not mean what they are assumed to mean, and “defined a generation” does not mean defined a generation, there seems a danger of wandering into the realms of Alice in Through the Looking-Glass.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Perhaps the problem lies in the use of terms that are familiar, but might mean something else, or might mean nothing at all. Google the term “defined a generation” and the links are numerous, music, films, events; surely they can’t all have had a defining role?
Can you make words mean so many different things? asks Alice. You can, but then they mean nothing.