Flitter-brained pseud-heads

Polaroids from the Dead by Douglas Coupland, Flamingo, pounds 12.99 Deny all Knowledge: reading the X-Files edited by David Lavery, Angela Hague and Marla Cartwright, Faber, pounds 8.99; Pat Kane contemplates new Yuppie fluidity in a post-human world
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X marks the Nineties. Douglas Coupland's latest book follows the Generation X he identified at the beginning of the decade - still lost, but finding their way through frantic consumerism; still empty, but filling up with strange new machine dreams. Where Coupland's "X" identifies an aching desire, the "X" of The X-Files describes a howling panic - about science, government, spirituality, reality itself. The academics, in Deny All Knowledge, are rushing in to stake their claim on the phenomenon. But do these crosses cover the same terrain? How much of the decade lies between these two letters?

Coupland delicately sets the paradox of the Nineties before us in a series of "microstories" from Washington at the height of the "Super Tuesday" electoral decider in 1992. These are four individuals, variously involved in Beltway politics, who are brilliantly casual readers of the signs of their times. Yet this semiotic articulacy, this refrigerated cool, only compensates for a general powerlessness.

Matthew the activist, sucking on a Snapple in a campaign office, can eviscerate the smug 21-year olds "eagerly building a political component into their resumes". He can snap-judge the RepubliCrat consensus as "the Disney version of democracy". Yet he also knows that "all the old tricks of success in the world" - education, a broad skill base, literacy, numeracy - are no longer guarantees of anything". In spare moments, his childhood dream returns to him: hungry urchins looking for food in the White House.

Tim is a "vulnerability consultant" for politicians, who interviews the impoverished ex-mistresses of important senators, worshipping his database as it locates "sensitive spots" for his clients. Yet one day, Tim finds himself transfixed by the excavation of some old Washington earth by sewage contractors: his keyboard-flossed fingers rake through 18th-century muck, looking for "antique junk...maybe a few coins".

Coupland keeps rubbing the media-led immateriality of the Nineties - all those brand names, TV memories, digital morphings - in the dirt of an elemental materialism. What fascinates him about the Grateful Dead concerts early in this decade, for example, is the clash between the pure low-tech Deadheads of the Sixties and the modem-using, flitter-brained Pseud-Heads of the Nineties.

The old lament the trinket superficiality of the young; the young sneer at the earthy lassitude of the old. Yet both congregate in vast American spaces - the hippies to "appreciate the true Dead spirit", the digital generation to find "constructive new hints on how to deal with the new thought-based economy". Perhaps the fact that there can be such a classical tussle between generations - but on a common terrain of narcotics, music and technology - shows how futuristic the nineties are. Screw up your eyes, and Coupland's stories are like a post-modern Dubliners: snapshots of a community huddled around the edge of a new century, yearning for togetherness but having to build it carefully, day by day, fragment by fragment.

The X-Files identifies another key faultline of the Nineties - the changing boundary between self and world in the West that the speedier Californians call the"post-human condition". Coupland's X-generation are soft, squashy, cybernetic souls, so determined by mall culture that they become "microserfs" - over-exploited but gently cynical. Perhaps, hazards Coupland, this weakness is a kind of strength. "How are we to know that people with `no lives' aren't really on the new frontier of human sentience?"

The X-Files accepts that there may well be a real paradigm shift going on, but the programme reacts in an opposed way. It is uptight, nervily paranoiac, pitting reason and unreason against each other in a holy war. These are yuppies who can't cope with the new, fluid times - who fearfully recognise the chaos of modern culture, with its electronic spectres and apparitions, as indicating something "beyond" nature.

The academic papers in Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X-Files make much of the tension between the series' agents as they pursue the inexplicable - Fox Mulder's open-mindedness, Dana Scully's frowning scepticism. But they're still The Suit With Two Heads: crisp public-sector professionals, upon whose starched shirts beat shadowy monsters.

As the editors say, there could be nothing less like 1980s camp irony than the slogan "The Truth Is Out There". Read it literally, and you have the Enlightenment project in a nutshell. But this is Western rationality gone wild-eyed, hunting interbred human-aliens. Its "agents" are subverted in their agency: they find mysterious electronic chips in their neck and suffer hallucinations that undermine their identities. Whereas Coupland's selves are blending into the new times, The X-Files shows the self under siege, struggling to awake from the nightmare of orthodox reason.

Of course, it's only a TV show. One of the good things about Deny All Knowledge, as opposed to the rest of the X-philia on the X-mas shelves, is its pedantic but useful cultural-studies approach to the phenomenon. It's sweet to see academics light-footed enough to do their audience research on-line. Their quotations from alt.x-files newsgroups and America On-Line forums bring bursts of colour into the gunmetal-grey of methodology.

Yet books like this make me very annoyed with cultural studies. There are so many important analytic tools deployed here - about the X-Files in relation to mythology, late capitalism, sexual ambiguity, TV genre, police history. But if you didn't speak Theory and weren't willing to tolerate writing styles clunky beyond belief, you'd throw the book away in five minutes. If there's any refuge left in this accelerated world for reflection on where we're going, it has to be in academia. Yet what use is this realm if it results in esoteric chatter? Public prose, rather than private code, is the least subsidised intellectuals can do for us.

Otherwise, you rely on smooth pop essayists like Coupland to make sense of the era. Unless you've been around a little, it's all too easy to agree with his weightless euphoria about the Nineties. I seized on his essay about Palo Alto, Silicon Valley's middle-class dream town, having been there myself. Coupland is bourgeois-rhapsodic: Palo Alto "lurks in the backs of many minds as the ideal that is worth fighting for". Lawn sprinklers sprinkle, craft shops sell, Stanford students dawdle, software geniuses make millions.

Indeed they do. But beyond the picket fences, Palo Alto has its ramshackle immigrant quarter, an appalling ghetto into which the info-class's Latino gardeners and maids are cast at the end of each day. In 1994, East PA became the murder capital of America - toting up more fatal shootings per head of population than any other urban area. Yes, info-capitalism blurs and mixes everything, turns ground into lava, destructively creates a new world. But some of its dead really do deserve one true Polaroid, at least.