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The goal is not to simply summarize the chapter or to do a review ultimately telling me whether you liked it or not but rather to provide a narrow and focused analysis, argument, or interpretation about one specific aspect covered in the reading. You are to critically evaluate the material/discussions giving your thoughts, ideas, and making links to your life, experiences, or society.
8 Subcultures and Countercultures Not a moment passes without each one of us experiencing, on every level of reality, the contradiction between oppression and freedom; without each one of us being caught up and weirdly twisted by two antagonistic perspectives simultaneously. (Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, 4) The Mainstream and Other Streams To a large degree, the way in which we have been addressing popular culture in this book has been to focus on the dominant or most prevalent forms of culture in the Western world today. By “dominant” we mean what is usually described as mass culture—forms of culture that are accessible, widely available, and intended for consumption by as many people as possible. There is no real mystery about the forms of popular culture that one might consider to be dominant: Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters, pop music on the Billboard Top 40, broadcast television, video games, Google, and so on. There are two ways in which such things might be seen as dominant. First, if we measure the prevalence of this or that form of culture by the sheer number of people that listen to it, watch it, or otherwise participate in it (whether this is measured by attendance, sales, or revenue figures), James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) would be dominant in ways in which films such as Gary Burns’s Waydowntown (2000) or Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007) could only hope to be. Second, dominance can refer to the core set of beliefs, ideas, and identities that are circulated through forms of popular culture. In this respect, Waydowntown might be seen as an expression of dominant culture, too. Though made on a small budget and shot in the Western Canadian city of Calgary, the critique of dead end business culture articulated in Waydowntown shares a great deal with other much more popular films, such as American Beauty or Office Space (see Figure 8.1). Even though Waydowntown is an indie film, financed outside of the major studio system, formally and structurally it resembles the most common forms of movie making (My Winnipeg’s mockumentary style is slightly more adventurous). In this second, wider understanding of dominance, a small or limited audience is not in and of itself a guarantee that a film or any other form of popular culture advocates or expresses views and ideas contrary to mainstream, dominant culture. Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Figure 8.1 Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is a formally inventive and adventurous mockumentary about his hometown, Winnipeg. Source: © AF archive/Alamy While we have tended to focus on the meaning and impact of dominant forms of popular culture, some of the ideas that we have been discussing in the preceding chapters cannot help but cast doubt on the existence of this very fact—that is, that there is anything like a single, dominant culture. In Chapter 4, we challenged Horkheimer and Adorno’s culture industry thesis, which imagines people as little more than consumers who are completely duped by the nature of the capitalist world in which they live; in our discussion of consumption in Chapter 5, we drew attention to the multiple ways in which people make meaning through their varied practices of consumption; and in our discussion of groups and identities in the previous two chapters, it is clear that identity formation, too, is more complicated than might be suggested by the idea of dominant forms of popular culture. In the context of these discussions, “mainstream” culture looks a lot less mainstream than we generally tend to imagine when we employ this term. Or to put this another way: one of the things that becomes clear when studying popular culture is that our idea of the mainstream is sometimes less a reality than it is a cultural construction that regulates our activities through the Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. establishment of very powerful cultural norms—norms that everyone adheres to in some ways, but that everyone also contravenes or goes against in numerous others. No one is purely mainstream, not even the characters in the television series Friends (who, for instance, revel in free pornography, engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage, and engage in other forms of behavior that belie their otherwise straight, cleancut image). As popular culture itself has pointed out over and over again, there is an infinity of strange and unusual things happening behind the “normal,” everyday façade of white picket fences and suburban garage doors (as you can see in any episode of Big Love, Breaking Bad, or Weeds). Yet to say that the idea of the mainstream is a creation is not to say that there is no such thing. There do seem to be general, widespread patterns of social behavior present within societies that guide both individual and group activity. As we have seen throughout this book, one of the main reasons why scholars have become interested in the study of popular culture is because of the powerful role it plays in generating and regulating social behavior. Scholars are also interested in how popular culture has been used to work against dominant ways of behaving and acting, in both the minor ways in which (as we suggested above) everyone goes against the grain of the mainstream in some way, but also in more extreme or direct ways. In this chapter, we will be focusing on groups that challenge the values, ideas, and structures of mainstream culture consciously and directly through their actions and practices: subcultures and countercultures. In their actions and practices, subcultures and countercultures oppose dominant structures that they see as limiting, repressive, and/or problematic. Subcultures and countercultures are engaged in the struggle to create new and different forms of social reality. In many cases, but especially since the Second World War, this struggle has often been directed against popular or mass culture itself; paradoxically, this attack on popular culture has frequently come through the creation of new forms of popular culture, which themselves tend to be absorbed into mainstream culture in a perpetual backandforth that has shaped contemporary experience profoundly. Minority–Majority Relationships In the next section, we will establish some preliminary distinctions between these two kinds of groups. But first, we need to note that the very idea of subcultures and countercultures immediately reinvokes the idea of a dominant culture that we challenged above. Each of the prefixes “sub” and “counter” implies a number of things, as we will see below. One of the main things that they signify, however, is the relationship of a smaller “culture,” however understood, to the larger, defining culture of a given society at a given moment. In other words, whatever else they might signal, the concepts of subcultures and countercultures oppose a minority group to the majority: it makes no sense to speak of a subculture or a counterculture that is “dominant.” Furthermore, this minority–majority relationship is generally an antagonistic one. While it has become common to use the term “subculture” to refer to all kinds of practices and activities that might be considered strange or unusual, we will try to use these concepts somewhat more precisely. For example, people who play Scrabble seriously enough to attend tournaments and vie for national (and even global) championships might be inter
esting or unusual. But these Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Scrabble players do not constitute a genuine subculture. Why not? First, players of Scrabble— no matter how attentively or religiously—are, in the end, playing a popular game by its prescribed rules. This stands in contrast to, for instance, writers of “slash fiction,” who express their own desires and fantasies by writing original (and often erotically charged) stories that borrow characters from popular televisions shows such as Star Trek. Similarly, Scrabble players don’t bend a popular cultural form into a different shape—like, for example, the numerous fans who produced and distributed online “improved” versions of George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, or have mocked films, videos, and television programs on YouTube. Through their actions, writers of slash fiction, the creators of the “phantom edits,” and YouTube “mockumentarians” all express dissatisfaction with the limits and constraints of popular culture; the same cannot be said of serious Scrabble players, who can easily indulge their passion for the game while being otherwise upstanding, productive citizens. Of course, the same could be said for our other two examples: a phantom editor by night could well be a university professor by day, and YouTube videomakers can be students, lawyers, doctors, or whatever. What we want to draw attention to here is that a practice should not be considered subcultural unless its aim is to draw attention to the limits of majority practices and to offer new practices or cultural forms as an alternative; having an interesting hobby does not a subculture make. Subcultures and countercultures are both antagonistic; one of the ways of distinguishing between subcultures and countercultures is by looking at the precise nature of their antagonism toward mainstream culture and at the kinds of new forms that they propose as an alternative to mainstream or dominant culture. After making some general distinctions between subcultures and countercultures, the remainder of this chapter will examine the relationship between popular culture and these groups in three ways. First, it will consider the ways in which sub and countercultures have been represented in popular culture, specifically popular film. There are a few reasons why we have chosen to begin with representations of these antagonist cultures. One of the main ways in which sub and countercultures are brought into contact with the “dominant,” mainstream culture is through popular cultural representations of these practices. Our sense of the possibilities and limits of these groups—a sense that tends to be very different from what the groups themselves believe their aims and goals to be—is often staged within popular cultural forms. While analyzing representations of sub and countercultures does not give us an accurate account of the practices of these groups, it does help us to understand one of the ways in which these practices become meaningful within popular culture. Starting out with representations also reminds us of the proximity of subcultures to mainstream culture. All too commonly, sub and countercultures are imagined as being absolutely separate from and unaffected by popular culture. The opposite is in fact the case: often, popular culture has an impact on how subcultural groups stylize or represent themselves. To offer just one small snapshot: the roots of the “gangsta” toughguy pose that emerges in hiphop culture can be found in part in the gangster toughguy pose of The Godfather films. In the mid1990s, rapper Snoop Dogg styled himself “Tha Doggfather,” striking a very Godfatheresque pose on an album cover. The writers of The Sopranos have whimsically depicted its contemporary Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. New Jersey hoods watching and making use of Coppola’s filmic trilogy as a source for their own gangster poses; “authentic” roots sometimes have representations at their base. Following this look at representations of sub and countercultures, the second emphasis of this chapter is on the politics of subcultures in particular. As we will see below, countercultures are usually imagined as explicitly political; it is harder (at first) to see how a subcultural practice like skateboarding might also be political, if in a different way than an organized march down the streets of a capital city might be. We end the chapter with a consideration of some practices of contemporary activist and countercultural groups, especially their engagement with and use of Internet and new communications technologies (this will be discussed in Chapter 10, too). Investigating the practices of subcultures and countercultures offers rich insights into the ways in which culture, especially popular culture, operates in the world today. From culture jamming (see CloseUp 8.1 later in this chapter) to the practices of religious countercultures (a category in which one might be able to include everything from Mormonism to the Raelians), from the peace movements of the 1960s to the contemporary techno music–infused Love Parades that fill the streets of European cities each summer, there are numerous groups for whom “culture is deeply political” and “can be used as means of resistance” (Duncombe). In the words of Stephen Duncombe, “In order to strive for change, you first have to imagine it, and culture is the repository of the imagination” (35). Subcultures and Countercultures: What Is the Difference? In what way do subcultures differ from countercultures? Are they fundamentally different, or do these two terms point to the same groups, activities, and practices, though in slightly different ways? To some degree, the distinction between subcultures and countercultures is artificial. Subcultures and countercultures flow fluidly into one another: their boundaries are permeable. As the cultural critic George McKay puts it, “subcultures feed the counterculture—the range of subcultural movements from hippy through punk through rave and others contributes to the increasingly resistant lifestyle or perspective of counterculture” (6). Even so, it is both possible and necessary to draw a distinction between subcultures and countercultures, especially if we want to understand both the relationship that each has to popular culture and their impact and influence on mainstream culture. While their aims and activities are often congruent, these terms do point to different kinds of practices and activities, and should not be seen as simply interchangeable terms designating the exact same thing. One way of gauging this difference is by considering the use of the terms in scholarly studies. A quick library search will show that the term “subculture” is used to describe things as diverse as science fiction fans, communities in Appalachia, gay and lesbian communities, the lifestyle of singles, the practices of minority religious groups, cults, squatters, Japanese Americans, bodybuilders, and food cooperatives. A search under the term “counterculture” Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. pulls up a much more limited
range of topics: communes, the 1960s, and what have been described as “new social movements”—groups that are engaged in politics outside the boundaries of traditional political parties (e.g., women’s rights, the civil rights movement, environmental groups, the antiglobalization movement, etc.). Even this first, cursory attempt to separate sub and countercultures highlights a key difference between the two terms: while subcultures may be political in their aims and activities, countercultures are explicitly so. The goal of countercultures is to replace the social and political values and beliefs of the majority with their own values, which they see as unjust, discriminatory, limiting, and regressive. For example, the heterogeneous groups and activities that are commonly referred to by the term “the sixties,” from the hippie movement to drug culture, from the struggle for civil rights to the movement against the Vietnam War, were motivated by a common dissatisfaction with dominant social and political institutions and a desire to fundamentally alter these values. The energies that fuel countercultures come from the possibility (and hope) of radically altering the way things are. (Of course, the degree of seriousness with which this possibility is pursued varies greatly.) On the other hand, the power of subcultures comes from the tensions created by the relationship between subcultural practices and the practices of majority culture. Subcultures draw strength from the fact that their practices are not those of the rest of the society of which they are a part. As Sarah Thornton has put it, “the defining attribute of ‘subcultures’…lies with the way the accent is put on the distinction between a particular cultural/social group and the larger culture/society” (5). Subcultures The concept of “subcultures” is a relatively recent one, developed first in the 1940s by a group of sociologists associated with the University of Chicago. These sociologists wanted to better understand the complex dynamics of contemporary Western societies. All large societies are made up of numerous smaller groups of people. While we might belong abstractly to a nationally defined society (English, Americans, Slovenians, etc.), we do so through our participation with concrete groups of people with whom we have something in common. Such groups might include political organizations, churches, ethnic communities, sports teams, and work communities. Subcultures are also groups of people who share something in common. What makes subcultures different than other groups or communities in society is that they are (most commonly) groups that deviate or differ from existing social norms. Subcultures are typically conceived of as “disenfranchised, disaffected and unofficial” (Thornton 2). They exist “underground,” outside of the mainstream of society in minor, if not hidden, tributaries and outoftheway spaces that they try to secure as their own. Furthermore, subcultures are often identified with youth groups, and youth culture in particular. In contemporary societies, young people have creatively expressed their dissatisfaction with the social norms that they encounter as they enter adulthood by adopting unconventional practices, lifestyles, and attitudes. Space is also an essential component of subcultures: space within which to meet, to act, to form a community, to forge common bonds. Such spaces can range from underground clubs in semiabandoned parts of large urban centers (CBGB in the Bowery section of New York, Yorkville coffee houses in the 1960s in Toronto) to openair Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. festivals (the numerous large concerts held in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, outdoor rave events in Europe and Canada in the 1990s); from the use of public spaces by skateboarders (for example, the poured concrete ramps and stairs of government buildings and art galleries) to the “space” that the Internet has made available for the creation of a wide range of virtual subcultures (for example, Game of Thrones fan forums, communities that want to do away with copyright, and online gaming portals like Steam). Countercultures The concept of a counterculture is equally recent, though, as with the concept of subcultures, the term has since its invention been used to refer to groups and activities prior to the second half of the twentieth century. “Counterculture” is a term still most commonly used in reference to the politics of the 1960s, especially with respect to the art, culture, and politics generated around the protests against the US war in Vietnam. Countercultures pose an explicit challenge to the existing order of things. Put bluntly: their goal is to change the world. While this is an explicitly political goal, countercultures cannot be reduced to their political activity alone. There is an important cultural aspect to the activities of countercultures, which distinguishes them from (for example) the actions of nongovernmental political organizations (NGOs) or even most contemporary activist groups. Countercultures have their own privileged set of cultural objects (especially forms of countercultural or “alternative” music) through which they express, articulate, and consolidate their political views (think of the link between some forms of popular music in the 1960s and the activism of the period). To perhaps an even greater degree than subcultures, countercultures express their politics culturally through a demand for a fundamental revision of lifestyle practices. After all, what makes a culture a counterculture is its contravention and contradiction of not just mainstream politics, but also the culture that produces these politics, which can be located in the daily, lived practices of the mainstream. If we use as an example 1960s youth culture (in the United States as well as in much of the rest of the world), this reform of lifestyle was expressed in the adoption of communal living (group living in response to the alienation and individualism of capitalist culture, expressed spatially by massively expanded suburbs), vegetarianism (animal rights and healthy lifestyles), drug use (in opposition to mainstream demands that everyone spend their lives engaged in productive labor), and open sexuality (a challenge to the restrictions of “normal” sexuality and the marriage bond). This list could easily be expanded. Both subcultures and countercultures take culture seriously. They understand not only that culture can be a way of articulating political views and perspectives, but also that in contemporary society culture plays a crucial role in political expression. In general, both have a tendency to view “dominant” popular culture through the lens of Horkheimer and Adorno’s cultural industry thesis (see Chapter 4). One of the things that subcultures and countercultures react to is what they see as the dearth of genuine cultural expression and experience in the age of mass culture. In response, they produce their own forms of culture—their own clothing styles, music, and cultural and political practices—and articulate new ways of living and Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. behaving. Differences of Scale The emergence of the concepts of subcultures and countercultures following the Second World War can be linked to the decline of genuine public spaces for political debate and a sense that mainstream political groups were no longer accountable to the public. With so many
similarities, what distinguishes sub from countercultures more than anything else is perhaps the scale of their reaction to the gradual impoverishment of contemporary political and social life, which seemed to go hand in hand with the fiscal improvement of life in Western countries; even while most people were better off financially, they felt more and more unhappy socially. Countercultures presume to act on a bigger social canvas than subcultures and are limited neither spatially to specific “scenes” or locales, nor by the dominance of youth within them. For example, contemporary anti or alterglobalization movements include individuals and groups from around the world, and people of all ages with varying ideas about what needs to be changed and how to change it. What might be seen as loosely connecting these different actors is their insistence that “Another World Is Possible” (the animating phrase of the World Social Forums). The Occupy movement in 2011 took a similarly global form, with people collecting together in hundreds of cities across the world (see Figure 8.2). The slogan of Occupy—“We are the 99%”—drew attention to social injustices and economic inequalities experienced by the vast majority of the planet’s population, for whom two decades of neoliberalism have meant the massive enrichment of 1% to the detriment of everyone else. Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Figure 8.2 Members of Occupy Edmonton were prevented by police from entering campus on the National Day of Student Action (February 1, 2012) to protest higher education funding cuts, high tuition fees, and record levels of student debt. After a public outcry, protesters were permitted on campus the following day. Source: Amber Bracken/Edmonton Sun, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. It is important to emphasize that this difference of scale should not by itself be seen as valorizing the politics of countercultures over subcultures. That is, one conclusion that could be reached quickly is that, because countercultures work out their political commitments more explicitly and engage them more directly, they accomplish more than subcultures. Indeed, while countercultures have not been immune to criticism from any number of vantage points, it has been subcultures that are more commonly viewed (by the mainstream media, for example) as little more than selfindulgent practices engaged in by spoiled youth who will “grow out of it” soon enough, or eccentric adults who are spending their free time engaged in practices that are different from what it is imagined most people are doing (and should be doing). This view of subcultures tends to reduce them to something like fashion trends, which young people engage in energetically only to forget about when another trend arises. One of the main things that scholars who have studied subcultures over the past two decades have shown is that this view is mistaken. If subcultures are not always explicit in their politics, their very existence stands as an implicit rejection of the practices and ways of life of majority culture. As we will see Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. below, subcultures have complex politics, too, even if these are expressed in different ways than in countercultures. We want to stress two points before continuing. First, the goal here is not to lay out strict definitions for the purpose of setting up a taxonomic or classificatory system into which we would then place various resistant, minority groups. The aim of these distinctions is to offer a broad initial framework within which to consider the specifics of sub and countercultural practices and actions; simply dividing groups into one or another category is only the first step in trying to understand what is going on. Second, as we have already suggested, there is considerable slippage in these categories. As McKay points out, the counterculture draws on subcultures for elements of its own cultural practices. This slippage will be evident in our discussion in this chapter, and, indeed, is endemic to the study of these groups and their practices. Artistic Manifestos As an example of this slippage, it is has become common to treat artists’ movements and avantgarde manifestos as expressions of countercultural sentiments. In terms of the rough distinctions that we have drawn here, however, artistic avantgardes seem more like subcultures. Though artist manifestos gesture to wholesale revolutions in sensibility—as in Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto” of 1918: “I am against action; for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against” (249)—they do so within a relatively restricted social sphere (relatively elite forms of artistic production) and do not always demand a complete lifestyle revolution. (That is, being both for and against contradiction does not mean that one has to give up smoking, or one’s sports utility vehicle (SUV), and so on; one can be bourgeois and a dadaist at the same time.) However, the gesture made to a total social revolution is not insignificant. In a way common to countercultures, a shift in the form and style of artistic production is imagined as having large scale political effects. The French Canadian (or Québécois) manifesto “Refus Global” (1948) was imagined by the painter who is usually seen as its primary author, Paul Émile Borduas, as maybe having had an impact on painting in Canada. However, by making this aesthetic intervention through a “total refusal” of the political, social, and religious verities of its era, the manifesto played an essential role in bringing about the social changes in Quebec now described as the “Quiet Revolution.” A similar categorical ambiguity can be seen in the case of punk. While punk is almost always treated as a paradigmatic example of a contemporary subculture, the depths of its critique of contemporary culture, which draws on a wide array of political and countercultural currents and theories, suggests that there is more at work than might be indicated by the term subculture. One final note: as we have stressed elsewhere, it is unproductive simply to dismiss the activities of subcultures and countercultures on the basis of what we know or think we know about (for example) the incorporation of punk or 1960s culture into our presentday mainstream. As we said in Chapter 4, the phrase “Resistance is futile” doesn’t turn out to be true—even for the Borg in Star Trek, who tried and failed repeatedly to assimilate Captain Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Picard and his crew into their mechanized world (a perfect allegory for how many of us see the world of contemporary popular culture: as an unfeeling mechanism intent on absorbing everything organic into its metallic confines). Why, then, should it constitute an adequate way of considering the nature of our responses to popular culture? It doesn’t—which is not to say that the practices of subcultures and countercultures are not often contradictory or that they do not have problems. They do, but so does everything else: we should not demand purity of aims or authenticity of intent from subcultures
and countercultures—in the contemporary world, it is best to imagine that everything is already contaminated, and go from there. Suggested Activity 8.1 Given the discussion above, is it possible to identify a counterculture (or countercultures) today? Are the various political groups that oppose capitalist culture today linked by common goals and/or ideas about appropriate counterlifestyles? How does the idea of a counterculture (or countercultures) fit with the relatively new idea of “alternative” culture (or cultures)? Make a list of subcultures and countercultures—and, for that matter, alternative cultures—and try to think about how and why we refer to these groups with these different terms. Are these categories still a productive way to think about contemporary cultural experience? Popular Representations of Subcultures and Countercultures How do we come to understand or know about groups that lie outside the mainstream? Unless we happen to be an active part of a particular subculture or counterculture, our knowledge of it comes to us at second hand, through studies, reports, newspaper articles, and, of course, popular culture. Representation plays a crucial role in how we conceive of these sub and countercultures. For example, for most of us, our sense of what the 1960s counterculture was like and what its lasting significance has been is based on an accumulated sludge of television and film representations, Behind the Music documentaries, and experience with the bits and pieces of 1960s “classic” rock that we play along to on Guitar Hero, as opposed to detailed reading of studies of the period. It is just as difficult to think about punk except through the lens of films such as Repo Man and Sid and Nancy; the music of more recent “punk” bands, such as Green Day and blink182; and perhaps through reading the obituaries of punk luminaries such as Dee Dee Ramone and Joe Strummer (lead singer of The Clash). These popular representations influence our sense of what subcultures and countercultures are about, what they managed to accomplish, and to what degree they “succeeded” or “failed” (which is a common, if strange, way to think about these cultural forms and practices). We need to be conscious of the significance of representation not because it is possible to get the accurate, authentic “truth” about sub or countercultures, but because we should be aware of the way in Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. which such representations shade our perceptions and interpretations. The issue of representation raises another important point, one that we alluded to earlier and will discuss in more detail below. In a complex way, popular representations of subcultures and countercultures play an important part not only in how they function, but also in how we understand popular culture. Our sense of subcultures is that they are hidden from view or that their activities take place entirely unnoticed, in the dark. The truth is somewhat different, as Chuck Klosterman makes clear in his discussion of the very different reactions to the almost simultaneous deaths of two American rock musicians: Robin Crosby, lead guitarist for the early 1980s heavy metal band Ratt, and Dee Dee Ramone, bassist for the seminal New York punk band The Ramones. Crosby’s death on June 6, 2002 was almost entirely ignored by the press; on the other hand, Ramone’s death a day earlier received a huge amount of coverage— the exact opposite of one might expect based on the album sales of each artist. Despite being— or perhaps because they were—members of a fringe subculture, The Ramones were seen as representing a development or shift in US culture that had since come to pass. As for Ratt? Though millions and millions of people bought their albums, the band is now “forgotten” in a way that The Ramones (whom at the time very few listened to) are not. In popular culture, subcultures tend to be viewed in two dichotomous ways: either as threatening and dangerous, or as the conscience of the mainstream—that is, as the “real” cultural expression of a culture that is otherwise dominated by “bad” commercial culture. There is another division built into this first one. When subcultures are represented as dangerous, they are often also paradoxically characterized as lacking substance: as mere style that constantly changes. Part of what is supposedly dangerous about subcultures, then, is that they attract people to engage in activities that have far less substance and meaning than mainstream culture. This is the exact opposite of what the public (or at least the media) reaction to Dee Dee Ramone’s death suggests: that it is the practices of subculture that leave the permanent record for an otherwise insubstantial mainstream culture, which is defined by shifts in styles or fashion in music, film, and so on that are driven not by art but by the market. We will consider these conflicted ways of representing subcultures and countercultures by looking briefly at three films: Forrest Gump (1994), Fight Club (1999), and Ghost World (2001). Forrest Gump: Subcultural Deviance The goal of the film Forrest Gump is to offer an overview of the American experience following the Second World War. It accomplishes this by a fairly typical cinematic and novelist procedure, using the life of one individual, the eponymous Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), both to highlight important events and milestones in US history during this period and to explore related shifts in culture and sensibility. Forrest, a fatherless, intellectually challenged Southerner, manages over the course of the film to successfully navigate his way through the real and metaphorical landmines of the past 40 years. His life passes through all of the major events of post–Second World War history, and Forrest comes into direct contact with some of the period’s important historical figures. Elvis, a boarder in Forrest’s home, adopts his performance style by imitating the inhibited gait that Forrest possesses as an adolescent. Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Forrest wins a national football championship with Alabama on a team coached by the legendary Bear Bryant; plays a crucial role in the struggle to racially integrate schools in the US South; becomes an inadvertent hero as a soldier in Vietnam; becomes a champion Ping Pong player; guests on Dick Cavett’s television show (where he appears alongside John Lennon); singlehandedly invents the running craze; and makes a bundle on Apple stock (he should have waited until the appearance of the iPhone to sell!)—just to name a few of the symbolically charged things he accomplishes. Forrest represents the adventure that America undergoes during this era and he navigates it bluntly, pragmatically, and successfully. For the most part, then, even as the film examines many of the difficult moments in post–Second World War American social and cultural life, it celebrates US drive and initiative and suggests that more good things are coming in the future. Forrest’s life ends in that most typical place in American cinema: back at home, folded into the comforts and security of family life. No account of the US experience after the Second World War would be complete, however, without some attention to the roles played by subcultures and countercultures in creating this history. In Forrest Gump, the activity of subcultures is typified through the life history of the other major character in the film: th
e love of Forrest’s life, Jenny. Through the opposition of Jenny and Forrest, it becomes clear that Forrest represents not all of American experience, but merely the experience of mainstream culture; Jenny represents an alternative path through recent US history—the dark side of Forrest’s generally blissful (or at least, blissedout) experience. The film is unambiguous in its portrayal of American counterculture. If Jenny is unable to follow Forrest’s path through the major institutions of US life—college, the military, small business, sports, and so on—it is because she has been sexually abused by her father. Her immersion in the counterculture is treated less as a conscious choice than as the consequences of a psychic trauma that she never gets to adequately address. Countercultures and subcultures, the film seems to tell us, are for damaged souls. Jenny drifts through the American underworld: she appears in Playboy; while Forrest is in the mud of Vietnam, she gets involved with hippies and peaceniks (who drive a VW van painted with rainbow colors); she becomes involved with the SDS (Students’ Democratic Society) in Berkeley, which is led by her physically abusive boyfriend; she becomes suicidal after doing lines of coke as part of the early 1980s “me” generation; and, when she finally shows up again in Forrest’s life to introduce him to their son, she tells him: “I have some kind of virus and the doctors don’t know what it is and there isn’t anything they can do about it.” If Jenny’s trauma leads her into US counterculture, it is her involvement with it—with all of it (missing nothing)—that leads to her death. It is not difficult to see that the film suggests that subcultures and countercultures are dangerous, destructive, and misguided, especially for those involved in them. In the world narrated by Forrest Gump, happiness and fulfillment are achieved only by following the path of the straight and narrow (which in Forrest’s case has the added advantage of putting him into contact with important people, like Presidents Kennedy and Nixon). Forrest’s own happiness is impeded only by the fact of Jenny’s death, which is the direct consequence of her alternative lifestyle. Forrest’s son, who represents the future of American society, is in some respects the Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. product of both the mainstream and the counterculture, of Forrest and Jenny. But what the film actually seems to argue is that America has a future despite the presence of the subculture. It is up to Forrest, after all, to raise Forrest Jr. It is not accidental that Forrest Jr. is raised in the same place as his father; for all the things that have happened, the real America perseveres, unchanged by the challenges that the counterculture and history seemed to have posed to it. Near the end of the film, Jenny suggests: “I was messed up for a long time.” Forrest Gump exemplifies very clearly one of the dominant ways in which subcultures are represented— simply as the actions of misguided, messedup people. And yet, there are elements of the film that make us question its representation of American counterculture. Most obviously, it is the character of Forrest himself who causes us to wonder about the narrative we are being sold. Jenny is far more intelligent and selfconscious than Forrest; if Forrest represents the mainstream, then the mainstream is shown to be unthinking— emotional and intuitive rather than reasoned and reflective. Forrest suggests that “for some reason I fit in the army like a round peg.” His successes come out of his ability to slide into preexisting systems and institutions; he challenges nothing and accepts everything. In Forrest Gump, the options in post–Second World War American society come down to two equally problematic positions: either one joins the counterculture and challenges norms and limits, but at the price of one’s own happiness, health, and life; or one unthinkingly accepts “what is,” even if this means participating in an imperialist war or raping the environment (as recorded by Forrest’s enormous haul of shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico). This is a false choice, of course: we need not acquiesce to the either/or that the film constructs for us. Nor need we accept its stereotypes of the counterculture, even if we should note that it is precisely such representations of sub and countercultures that inform the way in which many of us view their activities, as well as the people who participate in them. Fight Club: Fight the Power? A very different, if equally troubling, view of subcultures is presented in David Fincher’s cult hit Fight Club (see Figure 8.3). What made the film attractive to critics and audiences when it was first released was that it appeared to offer a unique, critical perspective on the values of capitalist society—in particular, the way in which consumption has come to constitute the main goal and purpose of contemporary society. While criticisms of contemporary reality are actually a quite common theme of American cinema, what made Fight Club appear to be different from films such as The Cable Guy (1996), The Truman Show (1998), and The Matrix (1999)—or even a more recent film such as WallE (2008)—was that it translated critique into action through the creation of an anticapitalist subcultural movement whose ultimate goal is the violent destruction of the system of global consumer credit. (In the wake of the explosion of consumer credit and the crisis caused by the subprime mortgage meltdown in 2008, this would be a more popular movement than ever.) Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Figure 8.3 Brad Pitt gets tough on consumer culture in Fight Club. Source: © AF archive/Alamy Based on the 1996 first novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club narrates the story of Jack (Edward Norton), an insomniac, bored corporate drone who finds meaning in his life through his newly formed relationship with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a thrillseeking everyman. In a number of memorable set pieces, both Jack and Tyler rail against the limits of consumer society. In order to make some connection with people in an unfeeling, individuated society, Jack begins to attend group meetings for people struggling with various diseases and ailments —none of which he has. Jack’s job, which is to calculate the costeffectiveness of consumer recalls (that is, if the cumulative cost of the lawsuits brought against the company as a result of the malfunction of a product would be less than a recall, they cynically decide against it), is depicted in all its existential horror as a braindeadening series of unfulfilling routines. It is only when Jack meets Tyler that he begins to “feel” again. A spontaneous fight in the parking lot of a bar leads to the creation of an underground bareknuckle club where men can beat their sufferings out of each other and learn to feel something (even if it is pain) in a world that has crushed their sensibilities under the weight of consumerism. This “fight club” forms the genesis for an anticonsumerist army that is assembled by Jack and Tyler; it engages in a campaign that adopts the stratagems of culture jamming (see CloseUp 8.1 ), but also moves to more violent and direct assaults on computer stores and coffee shops, and, finally, on the Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. corporate headquarters of creditcard companies, which are destroyed in the final frames of the film. The film and book contain many rich (though problematic) strands that could be followed up and teased out, but perhaps the defining element of the narrative (on which we briefly touch in Chapter 6) is the connection that it makes between consumerism and the decline of masculinity in contemporary society. The fight clubs are an exclusively male domain: it is not just that men need to be awakened out of their consumerist lassitude, but also that by beating each other up they are reasserting a supposedly essential masculine identity that contemporary culture has stripped from them. For Tyler, the real trauma in contemporary life is that men can no longer be “real” men: virile, physical, and firmly in charge of both the family and the culture at large. Contemporary experience has emasculated men and rendered them impotent. What has brought about this situation is nothing other than consumerism itself, which the film repeatedly identifies as a specifically feminine realm, in line with the longestablished ideologies of consumerism that we discussed in Chapter 5. In many respects, the critique of consumerism in Fight Club becomes an alibi for an attack on the feminine, especially on the rise of women (and minorities) to positions of power and influence in Western society. The film claims that in a world in which women have at least the potential to be equal to men, men cannot be real men. Instead of working with their bodies in factories, men have to drag themselves to “soft” office jobs and dream of the furniture in IKEA catalogues instead of the supine female bodies one finds in pornography. Changing the world for the better seems to mean putting women back in their place—hardly an instance of progressive politics or a successful criticism of consumerism, which should presumably create a situation in which men and women could engage in consumption differently. Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. CloseUp Culture Jamming Culture jamming is the practice of turning manifestations of consumer culture—in particular, advertising images—against themselves for political ends. By parodying targeted ad images, culture jamming recontextualizes them and offers a different set of associations through which they can be read. Culture jamming has a double aim: to draw attention both to the problems of specific activities and practices (driving environmentally damaging SUVs, exporting the practice of smoking to the developing world, watching television, subscribing to the damaging beauty ideals promoted by the fashion industry) and to the limits and dangers of the larger consumerist and capitalist system that legitimates and promotes these activities and practices. One of the bestknown forms of culture jamming is the annual “Buy Nothing Day,” held worldwide on the day after American Thanksgiving, which is one of the largest shopping days each and every year. Culture jammers take to the streets not only to dissuade people from shopping, but also to remind them of the troubling link that has been developed between the celebration of family and belonging (everyone gathering together for Thanksgiving) and the orgy of consumerism that follows. The Canadian magazine Adbusters has played an integral role in promoting and celebrating various forms of culture jamming. Indeed, the origins of the Occupy movement have been traced back to a call to action posted in the magazine’s blog in July 2011. Examples of its campaigns and ads, as well as those of jammers from around the world, can be found at Unlike Forrest Gump, which demonizes sub or countercultural resistance even as it highlights its lack of importance to the main script of historical development, Fight Club takes the activities and possibilities of subcultures seriously. Only a group outside the mainstream could shake up a world lost in consumerist dogmatic slumbers: Jack and Tyler cannot change things on their own, nor is it likely that mainstream society will change of its own accord. Nevertheless, this representation of a subculture reinforces mainstream ideologies concerning gender roles in a way that makes us question their aims and goals. Of course, in one respect this is indeed an “accurate” portrayal of the very real limits of an engagement with gender stereotypes in many subcultures. For example, women skateboarders have had to struggle with the dominance of this practice by men, while women in punk faced similar limits and problems: even as the punks fought against the capitalist world, women punks had to fight for recognition and respect within the subculture itself. However, representational accuracy is hardly the aim of Fight Club: if an engagement with the politics of gender in subcultures emerges as a moral of the film, it is only by reading against the grain of its otherwise deeply patriarchal logic. Ghost World: Being Ghostly Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) offers one of the most compelling and original representations of subcultural practices and activities in recent film. The film’s title is quite literal; it explores the ghostly world of alternative lives and practices that exist parallel to and overlap with what we generally imagine as mainstream culture. In doing so, the film also offers an incisive look at the assumptions and presumptions that constitute the mainstream, probing the very real limits that it places on individuals and groups in expressing their differences. Ghost World tracks the entry of two highschool friends, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), into adulthood in the summer following their graduation from high school. The film begins with Enid and Rebecca’s graduation ceremony and the reception that follows. Both are bythenumbers affairs, with the valedictorian mouthing platitudes (she describes high school as “the training wheels for the bicycle of life”) and the reception being typically amenable to the cool kids and torture for the geeks and nerds. From the way in which Enid and Rebecca snarl and quip their way through their graduation day, it is clear that they are outsiders. For them, the utter kitschiness and predictability of the graduation exercises are a source of amusement. Unlike typical depictions of those who do not conform to accepted models, both Enid and Rebecca are remarkably selfconfident. Being at right angles to the mainstream and its expectations does not isolate them; rather, it gives them a feeling of power as they navigate their way through the clichés and stereotypes of contemporary culture. They are critical of faux enthusiasms and false emotions, without being cynical or dismissive; indeed, the falsehoods with which contemporary society surrounds itself are for them a continual source of interest and amusement. While dining in Wowsville, an “authentic fifties diner,” Rebecca turns on the tabletop jukebox and out pours rap music. “Who could forget this greatest hit from the fifties!” she remarks, to the delight of both women. Can the friends sustain this joyous, devilmaycare attitude as they make the transition from adolescence to an adult world in which there is a price to be paid for nonc
onformity? This is the key question around which the plot of the film revolves. Following high school, the women endeavor to find their own apartment, which immediately introduces them to a world that demands compromise and shifts in their priorities. To get an apartment Enid and Rebecca need money, which means that they need to find jobs. Rebecca gets a job in a coffee shop, and as soon as she does her sarcasm seems to become tempered by the pragmatic demands of making money and getting through the week. However, Enid’s entry to the adult world is delayed by the need to make up an art class that she, a talented artist in her own right, nevertheless failed in her last term. More significantly, over the course of the summer she gets to see deep into the “ghost world” of the film’s title by coming into contact with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), whom she describes at one point as “such a clueless dork, he’s almost cool.” Seymour is a lonely, middleaged man whom life seems to have beaten down. He is equally dismissive of a world made up of, at best, people whom Enid refers to as “extroverted obnoxious pseudobohemian losers.” Seymour seems to have enthusiasm for only one thing: collecting rare 78 rpm records, especially of early blues music. His skill and enthusiasm for collecting music that others do not care about defines him against the mainstream, who express Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. open admiration for the rock band Blues Hammer while ignoring the aging blues legend who opens the show that Enid and Seymour go to see. At the same time, Seymour’s interests also confine him to the ghostly, halfreal world in which he exists. When Enid first sees Seymour’s room, she stands in complete awe: “This is like my dream room,” she says, “I would kill to have stuff like this.” Seymour is dismissive: he says that he hates his collection, and suggests that collecting is unhealthy, a problem that one would be better off without. Enid and Seymour develop a strong relationship, based as much on their common attitude toward what is supposedly the “real” world as it is on any physical attraction or emotional involvement. Up to the final sections of the film, Ghost World presents us with a remarkable view of the ghost world that subcultures occupy. Zwigoff successfully showed us, in his earlier filmic depiction of the life of the comic book legend R. Crumb, the world and views of outsiders in a sympathetic, though not celebratory, light. Occupying the real world’s ghost world does not come without consequences: Enid and Rebecca’s relationship erodes, Enid squanders a chance at a college scholarship by producing a controversial work of art, and Seymour’s loneliness and isolation seem to be exacerbated rather than improved when he starts dating Dana, a real estate agent, who buys him his first pair of designer jeans. In the end, the film appears to imply that no matter how much power Enid’s unique attitude yields over the faux–real world she inhabits, it is not enough. Abandoned by all of the people who could have constituted the community of individuals that together produce a sub or counterculture, Enid leaves town alone on the bus that supposedly never comes. Even in this film, as surely as in Forrest Gump, the “real” world appears to have an ultimately irresistible power over all those who try to exist at right angles to it. There is never a firm community of dissenters established, and even where one might expect to find such a community—at Zone OPhobia, the comic book store Enid frequents—she and the manager are in constant conflict. “If you really want to fuck up the system,” he says, “go to business school. Join a big corporation and fuck up stuff from the inside.” The goal of this section has been to emphasize the various ways in which sub and countercultures have been represented in dominant forms of popular culture. What we can see from these three very different examples is that while subcultures are celebrated as playing an essential role in history and in social transformation, they are also almost always represented as a problem for society. Sub and countercultures tend to be represented in relation to dominant culture either as the fringes occupied by those who just can’t make it within the mainstream (which is then correspondingly valorized as the domain of “real” values, morals, and beliefs), or as the space in which genuine social discontent is voiced but in the wrong way (violently in Fight Club, individualistically in Ghost World). Whatever position different films or television programs take on sub and countercultures, we can see from these examples that what they in fact highlight are the views of mainstream groups on subcultures—whether dismissive or sympathetic—as opposed to the views and needs expressed in and through sub and countercultural practices. In other words, these representations tend to present subcultures predominantly as an issue or problem for the Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. mainstream; insofar as these groups also always make use of the discourses and representations of mainstream culture, this has an impact on the nature and shape of sub and countercultural practices as well. There are two things that we should take away from our analysis of these films: first, our understanding of subcultures is affected by representations of them; second, popular cultural representation plays an important (if seemingly contradictory) role in how participants in sub and countercultures imagine their own role and engage in their own practices, as we will see in more detail below. The Politics of Subcultures There is no society, only individuals. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, qtd. in Keay Earlier in this chapter, we suggested that even if subcultures are not explicitly political, their activities and practices always contain an implicit political stance—a position or attitude toward gaps and absences in the mainstream culture that individuals seek to redress through their involvement in subcultures. At a very general level, the fragmentation of contemporary societies into an enormous range of active subcultures after the Second World War points to a lack of genuine opportunities for communal or group relations within the mainstream. Perhaps a better way of putting this is that, since mainstream North American values tend to celebrate individuality above all else, communal forms of relation outside of the typical markers of group identity (such as race, ethnicity, or religion) could not exist except on the outsides or margins of mainstream culture. There are, of course, always groups and subgroups that make up each and every society; but subcultures are something new whose very existence points to problems and contradictions in the way reality is constituted by the powers that be. For instance, it is no surprise that the contradictory demands and stresses that contemporary society has placed on young people in particular would produce a flourishing range of youth subcultures. These subcultures aim to escape the controlling attentions of an adult society that simultaneously infantilizes young people (wants them to remain children) and encourages them to take on adult behaviors and responsibilities earlier and earlier in life. Participating in a subculture is a way of establishing one’s own form of social life, with its own rules that may be very different from or even directly opposed to mains
tream adult rules and values. While it may be true, as Sarah Thornton has argued, that “the vast majority of British youth subcultures, past and present, do not espouse overt political projects” (177), it nevertheless seems clear that even if their politics are implicit, such politics constitute an essential and important reason for the creation of subcultures to begin with. George McKay has described it in this way: “One of the things hippy and punk had in common was an oppositional impulse, an idealism or rhetoric of idealism. For both, politics and culture were, or could be, or should be, the same thing” (5). If we are to properly understand subcultures, separating forms of cultural expression from politics proper would be a mistake. Hiding in the Light Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. What are the forms that this politics takes? There are many, of course: it is both difficult and dangerous to generalize across the wide range of activities and practices that have been characterized as subcultural. However, there does seem to be one mode of politics that many subcultures have adopted—though, again, they have adopted it in many different ways. In his influential book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige deftly explores the dual, apparently contradictory relationship that subcultures adopt toward mainstream culture. The effect of subcultures—both with respect to those “within” them and the majority of members of society “without”—is produced through the adoption of both invisibility and visibility. Subcultures hide in the shadows, where one can do whatever one likes away from prying eyes, specifically the eyes of the authorities. But insofar as it also seems essential for subcultures to be able both to mark their difference from mainstream culture and to engage critically with the limits of that culture, it is also important for the mainstream to be able to sit up and take notice—to be shocked, in other words, whether by the harsh social reality depicted in rap songs or by the graffiti left on the walls of its garages. Hebdige explains: the subcultural milieu has been constructed underneath the authorised discourses, in the face of multiple disciplines of the family, the school and the workplace. Subculture forms up in the space between surveillance and the evasion of surveillance, it translates the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched. It is hiding in the light. (Subculture 35) The Arrival of Punk We have already seen one of the strange consequences of the way in which subcultures “hide in the light.” The death in 2002 of Dee Dee Ramone was widely interpreted as the passing of a significant cultural era. And yet, relatively few people ever heard him play, either live or on record, and it would be difficult to make a case that The Ramones had a major impact on the popular music that followed them. How could a supposedly minor cultural practice, hidden out of sight in dank clubs in the Bowery and in the rougher streets of London, end up as a pop culture era or touchstone? The answer: by hiding in the light of mainstream attention. For Hebdige, “subcultures are both a play for attention and a refusal, once attention has been granted, to be read according to the Book” (Subculture 35). There is no better example of this than the one he himself draws on: punk music and style, which flourished ever so briefly in the mid1970s and has since given birth to numerous other “punk” styles. As might be suggested by the title of Penelope Spheeris’s documentary on the Los Angeles punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, punk represented an allout assault on the values of mainstream “civilization.” One would expect the public to recoil from punk and to respond to its challenge with diatribes against it. This is indeed what happened. In the United Kingdom, punk was treated as a pariah subculture, a dangerous movement that was colonizing the minds of some British youths and that thus had to be brought to a rapid end. But how, then, could one explain the incredible popularity and success of the group that became the whipping boy of antipunk sentiment, the Sex Pistols? At the height of antipunk fervor (such as it was), the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” reached number two in the British pop charts, Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. and their album Never Mind the Bollocks hit the top of the charts. The antiestablishment Sex Pistols and their ilk were tabloid celebrities throughout the late 1970s; by the 1980s, punk had become such a fixture of the London landscape that popular tourist postcards featured pictures of greenhaired punks with ripped clothing to send back to the folks in Saskatchewan (“Greetings from London!”). As we will see in the next section, this is commonly viewed as evidence of punk’s lack of politics. Yet Hebdige’s formula lets us see things differently: it is precisely by being available and open for display to the mainstream that the minority culture of punk was able to draw attention to the very real sources of its discontent with both the values of mainstream culture and its relationship to it. “Hiding in the light” allows subcultures to create, maintain, and nurture their own communities of belonging (by “hiding” in clubs, squats, and even the streets), while also engaging with the culture at large (exposing themselves to the “light” of public opinion by displaying their unique styles on the streets, and their music on the airwaves). Not all subcultures engage in the same forms of display or do so to the same degree. Many subcultures prefer to remain more hidden than punk. However, secret societies, of the kind featured in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and much beloved by scenarists for James Bond films, do not a subculture make. AvantGarde Punk You don’t sing about love to people on the dole. Johnny Rotten, qtd. in Szatmary 220 Punk has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies, popular books (Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces), films (Sid and Nancy), and documentaries (The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, The Filth and the Fury). As perhaps the first instance of a popular cultural form that seemed to be explicitly political (to a higher and more intense degree than the music of the 1960s), punk continues to fascinate and inspire musicians, audiences, and scholars. Yet for all its influence, the era of punk was remarkably short. Less than a year passed between the British debut of The Ramones on July 4, 1976 (the event widely heralded for kickstarting punk in the United Kingdom) and the emergence of highend copies of punk fashion, such as the gold safety pins sold at Saks on Fifth Avenue and the stylized rips and safety pins in the gowns designed by Zandra Rhodes for Bloomingdale’s, which were already on the market by June 1977 (Szatmary 236). As we have seen above, the way in which punk (and other subcultures) “hides in the light” makes it political in many more ways than by its subcultural “form” alone. But there are other ways in which punk is political above and beyond this form—the “down with civilization” lyrics of punk music, and the antiestablishment disposition and demeanor of punks themselves. In a way that is too seldom appreciated, subcultures of all stripes draw heavily on a stew of political and cultural ideas and ideals, especially those that have been constructed by other oppositional or subcultural groups of cultures in the past. The
Marxist Influence Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. One of most important of these has been the tradition of socialist and communist thought. However partially or incompletely, Marx’s insistence on seeing the history of society as a “history of class struggles” has remained a core element of the way in which many subcultures understand their social status (Marx and Engels 34): as minority cultures in permanent conflict with the wealthy and their duped middleclass supporters. Subcultures need not take up explicit classbased politics in order to see themselves as belonging to those groups that are systematically disadvantaged by capitalism, nor to make use of the kinds of cultural analysis and forms of cultural practice that such political identification opens up. And socialism is just the beginning. As the example of punk shows us, there is a great deal more going on in subcultures than angry youths spontaneously rebelling against their seniors. The familiar story told about punk is a cautionary tale that traces the rapid rise of a genuine subculture and its equally rapid cooptation by consumer culture (see Chapter 4 for a discussion of cooptation in popular culture). The threat that punk posed seemed real enough to bring the wrath of the state down on the paradigmatic punk band the Sex Pistols, even before the release of their antimonarchist anthem “God Save the Queen” in June 1976. Denounced by Members of Parliament, attacked by the Anglican Church, banned from playing live almost anywhere in England and from having their songs played on British radio, the Sex Pistols nearly brought about the conditions that they sang about in “Anarchy in the U.K.” Yet by 1980, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, and even Cher were posing in punk regalia on the covers of their albums. The quick rise and fall of punk are real enough. Yet what this version of the events misses is the complex political roots of punk culture. The anarchy and chaos of punk music—its fearsome, angry, and terrifically loud sound and its utter rejection of “civilized” values—have tended to reinforce a sense of its spontaneous origins and generally unfocused politics. Punk is now often treated, as it was by a number of its detractors during the punk era itself, as little more than another blip in a long tradition of youthful rebellion expressed through pop music (falling temporally between the threatening sexuality of Elvis and the angst of Nirvana and Eminem). However, if we were to pull apart any of these forms of rebellion, we would find an enormously rich reservoir of ideas and concepts. Like Dadaism and Surrealism before it, punk understood itself quite selfconsciously as a cultural form (in both its music and its style) whose aim was épater les bourgeois—to pierce through the sterile drone of bloated 1970s art rock (epitomized by the band Yes) and the flabby corporate culture that was increasingly coming to stand for culture as such. The New York precursors of UK punk music, artists such as the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Tom Verlaine, drew inspiration for their lyrics from the Beat Generation (epitomized by writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg); from the avantgarde centered around Andy Warhol; and, in the case of Verlaine (aka Tom Miller), from French Symbolist poetry. Though the Sex Pistols famously rejected Patti Smith’s literary, avantgarde leanings, the transition of punk from New York to London interjected new political dimensions into punk even as it stripped away others. It would be possible to continue in this vein for some time. For instance, we have yet to Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. mention the political roots of punk art, which was featured on album covers and posters advertising band performances. Again, the slapdash quality of this art might suggest unfocused, youthful spontaneity. But in reality, punk art drew heavily on the slogans and art of the May 1968 student revolution in Paris, as well as from the tradition of agitationalpropaganda (agitprop) aesthetics created by the artists of the Soviet Revolution. Punk was also an importantly hybrid musical form, which drew inspiration (as well as licks) from Jamaican reggae and ska music that “lambasted the racism and capitalism that Britain had imposed on Jamaica” (Szatmary 232). In April and June 1978, The Clash and other bands played to audiences of 80 000 and 50 000 young punks respectively, who came out to show their solidarity with their black brethren against the organization of the racist National Front in Britain. It is clear that there was a whole lot going on in punk—even if most punk musicians relied on only three chords to express themselves. Situationism: Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre In addition to all of its other cultural and political influences, punk is importantly connected to the tradition of Situationism, both in spirit and (as Greil Marcus shows in his history of punk, Lipstick Traces) in substance. Malcolm McLaren, the infamous manager and midwife of the Sex Pistols, wanted to use the band to explore the “politics of boredom,” a phrase indebted to the Situationist slogan “Boredom is always counterrevolutionary.” Situationism explored the new kinds of politics required in a society crushed not by a lack of things (i.e., too little food to feed everyone), but by an abundance of material goods. Situationism played an important role in the May 1968 student revolution in France, which began in reaction to the US war on Vietnam, but turned into a more general assault on the banality of a post–Second World War capitalist culture that promised so much (less work and more leisure) and delivered so little (boring work and boring leisure). The May 1968 revolution in France and elsewhere was intimately connected to the spaces of the city (see Figure 8.4). An important element of many subcultural and countercultural political movements—including punk, as well as the strategies of Occupy and the events of the Arab Spring—is the critical eye that they cast on the organization of the spaces of everyday life and its impact on daily experience and social possibilities (for further discussions of space and the popular, see Chapter 9). The sight of punks in London’s West End unnerved the well dressed businesspeople and shoppers who expected certain forms of dress and behavior in public spaces—spaces in which, supposedly, one was free to dress and do as one liked. And protests of all kinds take place in the streets for the same basic reasons: to disrupt established patterns of movement through the city and use of its space, and (like punks) in order to display their discontent in the light of the public view (whether directly or via the media who are drawn to such displays). Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Figure 8.4
“The police post themselves at the School of Fine Arts/The fine arts students poster the street!” This anonymous poster from the May 1968 protests in Paris cleverly connects art, revolution and access to education—and to the streets. Source: © akgimages It was the perception that spaces of daily life were becoming increasingly bureaucratic and controlled that led French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901–91) and French writer and filmmaker Guy Debord (1931–94)—the man at the heart of Situationism—to investigate the structures of the contemporary city and to propose strategies for bringing about a “revolution in everyday life.” Both thinkers witnessed at first hand the enormous shift in the rhythms and energies of everyday life that occurred in France in the decades following the Second World War. Paris and other French cities went through a rapid process of rebuilding, expansion, and modernization. Large preplanned housing developments were added to cities around the country—the suburbs with which most of us are now familiar—and the texture of daily urban life was modified through the introduction of a homogenizing mass consumer culture that came to many people as a shock. In France as elsewhere, the shorthand term for these modernizing developments was “Americanization.” Bureaucratic, banal, emptied of life, predictable, routine: both thinkers witnessed the way “the commodity, the market, money, with their implacable logic, seize everyday life” (Lefebvre “Towards” 79), and both wanted to think about ways in which to take life back. The great theme of Lefebvre’s philosophy was the complex and messy events, objects, and happenings of everyday life. He saw everyday life as the space that any philosopher should try to understand: it was there that social structures were experienced and broad understandings about the world and the possibilities of human life were generated. For Lefebvre, the long process of modernization had produced forms of everyday life characterized fundamentally by increasing alienation, lack of creativity, and an artificial separation of human activity into specialized spaces and activities: spaces to live, work, shop, have fun, and so forth. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx had famously described alienation as the result of workers’ separation from the product of their labor. For Lefebvre, this experience of alienation had become part of the very stuff of life, making all experience inauthentic and full of unease. Witnessing the construction of spaces such as a new suburb in the French city of Mourenx—a place made up of “nothing but traffic lights”—Lefebvre asks: “Are we entering the city of joy or the world of unredeemable boredom?” (Lefebvre Introduction 119). It is this boredom of the mainstream that gave energy to many subcultural and countercultural movements. Debord shared a similar view of the world that was being put together out of the ruins of war. He is best known for Society of the Spectacle (1967), which has become an important text for scholars and activists alike who are interested in thinking about the deep impact of mass media images on society. Though the “spectacle” is most often thought to refer to the collection of images that bombard us daily—advertising, television, movies, and the like—for Debord it names “not a collection of images but a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (12). The spectacle was a form of society in which our experiences and understanding of all social relations were shaped through massmediated images. For Debord, spectacular Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. society represented the deepest possible penetration of capitalism and consumerism into everyday life. Like Lefebvre, he saw contemporary life as deeply alienated and alienating. As he writes, “the spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for its sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep” (18). For both Lefebvre and Debord, the alienating, empty feeling that comes from living in the suburbs or from the experience of the consumer city has its roots in larger, structural transformations that have ensured that capitalist society and its pursuit of money are life’s primary objective. For Debord, these transformations include changes to the space of the city. As part of the activist art collective called the Situationist International (SI), Debord developed strategies for reclaiming the experience of the city. Dérive (or “drift”) was a political and social practice that proposed to explore the city in ways very different than those imagined or permitted by the dominant physical and social organization of urban space. To drift through the city instead of following fixed patterns (moving directly from work to home, staying only in the “good” or familiar parts of the city, remaining in public spaces and avoiding the private) produces a very different view of the city within which one lives. The defamiliarization that drifting generates also creates circumstances in which one can critically reflect on the ways in which space is organized—ways that are invisible in the routine of daily life. In Lefebvre’s later work, he also probed all the ways in which urban space had become “a space envisioned and conceived by assorted professionals and technocrats: planners, engineers, developers, architects, urbanists, geographers, and others of a scientific bent” (Merrifield 89). Little space was left that allowed for the creation of genuine differences of experience or meaning; all activity was tied into modern rhythms of work and play, with after work leisure being little more than a preparation for more work. Throughout his life, Lefebvre was fascinated by moments in which the spaces and rhythms of “normal” everyday life were interrupted, even momentarily, from the bawdy excess of festivals to the occupation of the streets of Paris by students in May 1968. As with the SI’s practices of “drifting” through the city in a manner that evaded and challenged its typical spatial organization, Lefebvre believe that these breaks in the everyday allowed for a glimpse into the social construction of everyday life. In so doing, the hope was that it also opened the way for a more radical reconstruction of everyday life and its spaces, and that the energy of festivals could replace the dreariness of contemporary experience on an ongoing and daily basis. Despite the apparently unassailable logic of urban space and the physical and imaginative weight of its accumulated infrastructure —streets, bridges, highways, sewers, spaces zoned for one kind of activity instead of another —life and space could still be different, if alternative forms of being and belonging were posed to the easy, if deadening, character of life in the mainstream. At earlier points in this book, we have touched on some of the ways in which space and our experience of it are shaped by the social and cultural systems in which we live (we explore this topic further in Chapter 9). In Chapter 6, for example, we discussed the ways in which the space of the panopticon—a prison designed so that prisoners feel that they might always be under surveillance—produced forms of selfconscious regulation and change in behavior. Our discussion in Chapter 5 of the flâneur, the strolling urban figure who moves through the city to Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. ta
ke in the experiences and pleasures of displays of consumer items and the bodies of other shoppers, is also an example of the ways in which space creates new forms of experience and culture. One of the clearest signs of the degree to which space is organized in ways that shape our lived experience of space and the shape and character of popular culture today is the divide between public space and private space. And so it is not surprising that struggles over space are at the heart of a number of subcultural practices, including the activity we focus on next: skateboarding. The Invention of Skateboarding So, punk is political. But what about other kinds of subcultural practices? Haven’t we stacked the deck in our favor? What about a practice whose politics is somewhat more obscure, if it exists at all? What about, say, skateboarding? Even though skateboarding has now become a staple of popular culture, it wasn’t always a recognized sport with its own stars (like Tony Hawk), brand names, specialist magazines, computer games, ESPN tournaments, and the like. Skateboarding first emerged as a post surfing pastime in the late 1950s and briefly surged to popularity in 1963, when the national championships were aired on television. It then died out—seemingly just another fad kids’ hobby, like the hula hoop. The conditions that saw its revival in the early to mid1970s highlight the politics that continue to be played out through this seemingly innocuous pastime. Dogtown and ZBoys Stacy Peralta’s documentary Dogtown and ZBoys (2002) provides not only an exceptional account of the second birth of skateboarding, but also a compelling narrative of the politics that emerges out of the sport. The film explores the birth of the famous Zephyr Skateboard Team, which would later produce many of the most successful of the firstwave of professional skateboarders. The team hailed from Dogtown, a decrepit, rundown area of West Los Angeles that was quite literally built on the ruins of the American dream: the area had once sported one of the most famous of the many amusementpark piers that lined the California coast. After the park closed in 1967, the area fell into economic decline, leaving the abandoned amusement park and the area around it to “pyromaniacs, junkies and surfers.” The team members grew up in this area, mostly in broken families that were never far from bottoming out. Yet, rather than calling Dogtown an urban wasteland, they describe it as a “dirty, filthy paradise.” What made Dogtown a paradise was the degree of control that the youths could exert over their space, both as surfers and then later as skaters. Dogtown was covered with graffitied signs warning outsiders to stay away: “Locals only!” “Go home!” As the Zephyr team began to develop and build skateboards to “surf” their mostly abandoned streets, they also began to stretch their claim over public space to other parts of the city. Because much of California is built on hills or in valleys, many schoolyards in the area had a landscaping quirk: in order to level out school playgrounds, landscapers had to build in walls of banked asphalt. Though these were fenced off from the public, they became the first rudimentary skate parks, which the Dogtown kids would, on weekends, bike miles and miles to get to in order to practice their Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. new craft. During the mid1970s, another offlimits space opened up to skateboarding. The prolonged drought in California during this time meant that the numerous swimming pools in the LA area were left empty. Dogtowners began to enter private property covertly in order to skate the abandoned swimming pools, and in so doing risked arrest and imprisonment. The documentary is careful to highlight the fact that the kids who pioneered contemporary skateboarding were motivated by nothing more than having fun. There was “no promise in it,” and they had “no goals, no aspirations.” None of them knew what skateboarding would become or what it was accomplishing. Nor did they have a sense that by skating the streets, pools, and hidden and sealedoff spaces of the city, they were doing something more than having a good time. Of course, the consequences of one’s actions can easily exceed what one believes one is doing. In a series of influential articles published in Skateboarder magazine in 1975, Craig Stecyk made explicit what the Zephyr team had been doing as a matter of course: making new use of the dead spaces created by contemporary culture: Skaters by their very nature are urban guerrillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of. Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential, but it was the minds of 11yearolds that could see that potential. (Dogtown and ZBoys ) The disputes that continue to arise throughout North America over the uses that skateboarders try to make of public and private space for a bit of simple recreation suggests that there is something larger at stake in these practices. It might seem a stretch to equate kids interested in doing grinds and flipping their boards with antiglobalization demonstrators who take over the spaces of the city, but in a way both are making the same fundamental demand: “Whose streets? Our streets!” Skateboarding has a politics, too. From Zines to Blogs Subcultures and countercultures need spaces in which to meet, share ideas, and live out their differences. The need for space—whether occupied legally or illegally, as through squatter movements that remain active throughout Europe—places some limits on the activities of these groups and also exposes them to the intervention of authorities nervous about the ramifications of the activities of this or that group. For example, both as a result of state and local ordinances and simple demographic realities, it can be difficult to use your BMX bike or skateboard in many big urban centers. This is why you’ll encounter groups of teens popping wheelies and jumping off concrete skyscraper and freeway embankments if you take a walk in the middle of the night through the core of Shanghai or St. Petersburg, Russia: 3 a.m. is the only time you can take your BMX to meet a statue of Lenin or Mao. The spaces required by countercultures and subcultures can be physical—or virtual. Those involved in cultural practices outside the mainstream have always needed a way to communicate their desires, ideas, and opinions, and a mechanism by which to connect up with others in their region and nation (and indeed, around the world) who share their activities, Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. beliefs, and commitments. One of most important such “spaces” for alternative cultural expression have been zines. Selfpublished, nonprofit, smallcirculation magazines (the word from which they draw their name), zines were crucial to the life of countercultures and subcultures from the 1970s to the end of the twentieth century. Zines have an enormous diversity of form and content. Any and all subcultural practices have had zines: fanzines— zines for fans of particular bands, TV shows, artists, and so on—were an initially important form; zines expressing alternative political views and challenges to mainstream definitions of gender and sexuality (as in ri
ot grrrl and queer zines) were another major theme; and texts in opposition to decisions made by government and industry were also prominent. Not all zines were connected to alternative communities or subcultures: they also offered individuals a means by which to engage in selfexpression. Though they most commonly combined text and images, whether original work or material reproduced and repurposed from other sources, the form taken by zines is as varied as their content, ranging from sophisticated examples of avantgarde art and design to virtually unreadable, badly reproduced mashups of images pulled together from magazines and newspapers. Scholars who have studied zines have identified several precursors to this genre, from Cold War samizdat publications—underground oppositional political texts in the Soviet bloc shared through copying—to the selfpublication of pamphlets and manifestos by dissidents and radicals intent on spreading their ideas. What distinguishes contemporary zines from those texts to which they bear at least a family resemblance are the mechanisms through which they were produced and distributed. The ubiquity, ease of use, and affordability of photocopying technology made it possible for zinesters to create mags in which they could say exactly what they wanted, bypassing the editorial gatekeepers at newspapers and in publishing houses; and the existence of independent bookstores and art/cultural centers in most cities, as well as (relatively) low mailing costs, provided a means by which zines could be widely distributed (though many zines were only ever available in the city in which they were produced). Beginning in the early 1980s, maga/zines devoted to reviewing and promoting other zines (such as Factsheet Five and Canada’s Broken Pencil) enabled zinesters to learn about work that they might otherwise never have come into contact with. Early computer bulletin board systems (BBS), listservs, and online forums served a similar purpose, creating a network of zines and zinesters that constituted a vibrant—and increasingly influential—alternative to mainstream cultural publications. Some zines developed such a large readership that they made the jump from zines to “real” magazines, including the UK music and culture publication Dazed and Confused and Giant Robot, a magazine focusing on Asian and Asian American pop culture. Though zines continue to be produced and distributed, and though a number of well established zine events are still held around the world (such as Canzine, held annually in both Vancouver and Toronto), their social and cultural prominence in alternative culture has waned over the past decade. If the advent of cheap photocopying and early home computers and printers (on which some were produced) helped to make zines possible, the Internet, portable computing, and new communications technologies have fundamentally reshaped the ‘space’ of alternative cultural expression. Zines are starting to disappear from the shelves of independent bookstores—which have themselves become a threatened species due to the Internet—and in Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. the process have become something else entirely. While there are webzines—that is, online sites where one can find the fan content or alternative political energies once expressed in zines, and which in some cases even mimic the form of physical zines in their new virtual homes—for the most part the advent of the Internet has heralded new forms of countercultural and subcultural expression. These days, almost any group or individual can set up a web site on which they can promote their likes and dislikes, support a cause, or share a story. One might be tempted to believe that the transformation of zines into ezines has seen them blend and blur indiscernibly into the giant stew of text, images, sound, and video that makes up the Internet. But there is something closer in spirit to zines that forms a distinct subgenre of econtent, and that continues to have a specific connection to the expressions and practices of alternative culture: blogs. As with everything else on the Internet, the subject matter of blogs extends to anything and everything. At their core, blogs are journals made up of a series of discrete posts that invite response from readers. Some blogs are limited to personal reflections akin to diaries; more typically, blogs offer commentary on a specific subject the blogger knows about or is interested in, and in so doing offer their readers a combination of the oped page of a newspaper together with useful links and connections to relevant web sites and to other blogs. Blogs are an astonishing cultural and social phenomenon. The social media information service NM Incite reported that by the end of 2011 it had tracked 181 million blogs, up from 36 million in 2006 (as of 2016, the number of blog posts per day had exceeded 3 million). The numbers of readers of these blogs is at least (according to studies in the United States) fourfold that number, and both figures continue to grow faster than Web use in general. Though variants of what we now call blogs have existed as long as the Internet itself (whether in the form of web pages listing previously surfed links along with commentary or online diaries), the origins of today’s blogosphere can be dated back to the August 1999 launch of Blogger, a popular and easytouse free blog publishing site (purchased by Google in 2003) available in some 50 languages. Since then the genre of the blog has very rapidly become an accepted (and expected) part of the language and landscape of the Web. In the way in which it is employed on a huge number of official and institutional web sites, the blog has become a kind of shorthand for quick, opinionated commentary. The online version of the New York Times, for instance, now includes an enormous range of blogs—a minimum of three blogs (and often many more) to accompany each and every one of the paper’s many sections (see But even though blogs have become popularized and commercialized in ways that would have been impossible with zines, they still offer individuals an opportunity to express their views about all manner of subjects—a contribution to and complication of public discourse that is difficult to gainsay, even if its full social and political effects are still difficult to determine. Having said this, it is important to pay attention to some of the (inevitable) limits of the blog genre. On the one hand, blogs might be seen as a kind of expansion and enhancement of the capacities and reach of countercultures and subcultures; on the other, the sheer number of blogs means that any individual blog is difficult to come across, and the sheer profusion of expression tends to reinforce the myth of the Internet as the ultimate embodiment of the Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. democracy that is assumed to characterize Western societies in general. This is a claim that individual zines and blogs might well want to question and challenge. In her assessment of blogs, critic Julie Rak points out that “even as the corporate use of blogs and the corporatization of the materiality of blog writing have grown, and blogging itself changes, most blog rhetoric still adheres in some form to a version of liberalism which was part of early internet culture. In this form of liberalism, freedom of expression is important, particularly when it occur
s outside of institutional attempts to control the flow of information” (172). For Rak, it is not only the case that such liberalism becomes the dominant form of ideas distributed across the Web, but also that blogs work “to attract specific types of community based on similarity rather than differences…identity with the blog genre is based on a balance between the need for privacy (if one doesn’t want to be found) and the need for community based on identification with others through sameness” (177). When one considers the nature of zines in light of these comments about blogs, the inevitably liberal character of both forms emerges. In each case, the spaces in which zines and some blogs operate exist outside of dominant mass culture; in each case, their intent is to create new communities based on sameness of belief rather than explicitly on confronting mainstream society in a manner that might expand their range of impact and effect; and finally, at the heart of each form is a belief in the capacity and importance of individual expression—an affirmation of liberal individualism, which is to say, the guiding ideology of capitalist society—even if such expression is imagined as attacking the limits of society. Unlike zines, blogs invite a response on the part of readers: the ability to consider what a writer has opined is a feature of the vast majority of blogs. On the other hand, there are things that zines can do that blogs cannot. The realworld communities and connections that zines produce are often less ephemeral than the virtual worlds within which blogs exist—one in which there is always another blog to which one can jump. And the narrative capacity of some zines to engage in complex critiques of existing social and political forces can be of a different order than that produced by a string of blog posts. There are certainly blogs that are expressions of countercultural and subcultural practices, activities, and beliefs; whether the ease of access to these blogs is generative of alternative culture politics or, given the mass scale of blogs, ultimately defuses its energies and ambitions remains to be seen. Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Suggested Activity 8.2 Simon Orpana’s “The Art of Gentrification: A Zine About Art, Urban Space and Politics,” the zine included with this edition of Popular Culture: A User’s Guide, tries to puzzle out a key conundrum of contemporary urban life. How can cities grow and develop in a way that benefits everyone in the community? A relatively new resident of Hamilton, Ontario’s James Street North community, Simon watches as artists start to move in to take advantage of cheap rents in the dense, urban community of Victorianera buildings. As they make the area “safe”—that is, more accessible to middle and uppermiddleclass people than it was before—the artists are followed by property developers, whose activity will inevitably drive rents up, forcing both artists and even older members of the community out. It is a classic narrative of gentrification, which is not to say that it is an unproblematic or acceptable one. By delving into the history of economic theory and the characteristics of life and labor under contemporary neoliberal capitalism, Orpana’s zine seeks to come to grips with the tensions and problems that accompany gentrification. Combining text with images, and political and economic theory with laughs, his intent is to inform and persuade as well as to work it all out for himself. What do you make of Orpana’s zine? What did it tell you about gentrification that you didn’t know before? How do the ideas expressed in it benefit from taking the form they do (think, for instance, about how and where it was distributed, and to whom, in addition to form, style, and content)? What are the limits of a zine about art, urban space, and gentrification? We have barely begun to scratch the surface of the possible use that subcultures and countercultures are making—and might yet make—of the new technologies (like cell phones and the Internet) that have entered our world. The role played by new technologies in generating—and inhibiting—political possibilities in something that we will discuss further in Chapter 10. Suggestions for Further Reading Austin, Joe, and Michael Nevin Willard. Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in TwentiethCentury America . New York: New York University Press, 1996. Cockburn, Alexander, and Jeffrey St. Clair. Five Days That Shook the World. New York: Verso, 2001. Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. New York: Verso, 1996. Duncombe, Stephen. Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved. 2nd ed. Portland, OR: Microcosm, 2008. Fernandez, Luis A. Policing Dissent: Social Control and the AntiGlobalization Movement . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. Gelder, Ken. Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. New York: Routledge, 2007. Hall, Stuart, and Tony Jefferson, eds. Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post War Britain. New York: Routledge, 1993. Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge—and Why We Must. New York: Quill, 1999. Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989. Muggleton, David. Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. New York: Berg, 2000. Redhead, Steve, Derek Wynne, and Justin O’Connor, eds. The Clubcultures Reader: Readings in Popular Cultural Studies. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. Ross, Andrew, and Tricia Rose, eds. Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. Roszak, Theodore. The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. London: Faber and Faber, 1970. SkottMyhre, Hans. Youth and Subculture as Creative Force: Creating New Spaces for Radical Youth Work. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Wark, McKenzie. The Beach beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. New York: Verso, 2011. Szeman, I., & O’Brien, S. (2017). Popular culture : A user’s guide. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from ufvca on 2020-11-24 19:32:16. Copyright © 2017. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. All rights reserved.


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