Ligon Essay 1

Subculture in the Information Age

A subculture could be defined as a nebulous institution that poses a risk to the system at large. It exists solely to cause discomfort, to rebel against established norms. It is a force of powerful provocation, almost always the target of hysterical media rants. It is the greatest sources of change for the larger culture over a period of time.

To use the computational metaphor, it would benefit us to view culture as a system, an immensely complex process playing out over the course of human history. If these cultures change over time, we can view the subculture as a source of innovation on the process. It is a natural evolution on a stagnant system, a Darwinian survival mechanism. The subculture keeps things current.

Where do these subcultures go? “Has not this society, glutted with aestheticism, already integrated former romanticisms, surrealism, existentialism, and even Marxism to a point?” (Lefebvre 1971). How does this occur? After all, subcultures seek to cause chaos and friction within a larger culture. Why does culture simply change and move on when confronted with a subculture?

The larger culture ultimately absorbs the opposing sub-cultures, “through trade, in the form of commodities. That which yesterday was reviled today becomes cultural consumer goods, consumption thus engulfs what was intended to give meaning and direction,” (Lefebvre 1971) Regardless of who they are, the bohemians, the beatniks, the hippies, the mods, the punks all come back into line and play a part in the social reality. A punk with green hair doesn’t strike fear in our hearts, like it did for our parents twenty years ago. The style doesn’t violate us like they used to. Now it’s a look and you can buy it.

Two Forms of Absorption

Dick Hebdige charts the absorption of the subculture on two levels:
1. The conversation of subcultural signs (dress, music, etc.) into mass-producing objects (i.e. in the commodity form)
2. The ‘labelling’ and re-definition of dominant behavior by dominant groups – the police, the media, the judiciary (i.e. the ideological form)

The Commodity Form

Subcultures are concerned first and foremost with consumption, emerging almost exclusively with a leisure mentality (not ‘working’ and drinking absinthe, not ‘working’ and taking LSD, not ‘working’ and getting these sweet clothes, etc.).This emerging group of consumers is essentially a niche marketers wet dream (excuse the tone). “It is therefore difficult to maintain any absolute distinction between commercial exploitation on one hand and creativity/originality on the other, even though these categories are emphatically opposed in the value systems of most subcultures,” (Hebdige)

Let’s say I want to go “emo”. Well, there is a particular style that I need to appeal to in order to be considered legitimate. Acquiring the right clothing could be a very lengthy process; and, I need a whole wardrobe…Sure would be easy if there were a purveyor of these fine goods. My originality is outsourced to this code, this marketable fashion.

The subculture might start out by issuing a challenge to society using style, but it inevitably ends by making this style a new norm. Before you know it, that norm has become culture.

The Ideological Form

Each subculture has a style and fresh new ideas. These ideas tend to be pretty shocking to the established bourgeois order. Such thought structures are blown out of proportion by a hysterical media, made into an imminent threat to the nuclear family, the neighborhoods, the good Christian values. The values of this cultural “Enemy” can be defused in two ways.

The first way is to “domesticate” the Enemy. If you make them trivial, take out their teeth, than any legitimacy as a subculture is gone. The October 15th 1977 issue of Woman’s Own “carried and article entitled ‘Punks and Mothers’ which stressed the classless, fancy dress aspects of punk. Photographs depicting punks with smiling mothers, reclining next to the family pool, playing with the family dog, were placed above a text which dwelt on the ordinariness of individual punks,” (Hebdige). Not so scary anyomore, huh?

The second way is to do almost the exact opposite. By overdramatizing the Enemy, they become a spectacle likened to that of Circus sideshow acts. They become something to see, meaningless exotica, available for consumption and to be quickly forgotten afterward.

Here comes the Internet

As we know, the Internet and subcultures have an intimate past. Stewart Brand stood at the forefront of 60’s counterculture infrastructure. The hippies practiced a combination of philosophies and thought structures from all over the world. They were the first generation to have ready access (though limited by our standards) to the rest of the world. This happened because of networks. Stewart Brand connected these very thinkers, artists, programmers, craftsmen, and neo-agrarians through the Whole Earth Catalog. While Brand had high hopes about smashing hierarchy and liberating the individual, he brought the exact commoditization discussed earlier to this subculture.

The internet makes everything faster. Information moves nearly instantaneously and we won’t know the how it plays out for quite some time. This information super highway has gone a long way toward smashing the modernist models of economics and production, but what does is it do to our subcultures?

It is natural to assume that the net is quickening the process of subculture absorption. As a subculture emerges, the internet allows marketers to target the niche markets faster, streamlining the inevitable commoditization of the subculture. As the new movement emerges, a network forum does an excellent job of either disarming or overdramatizing the new ideas and personas.

What sort of world are we seeing emerge? Subcultures act like roadblocks to the cultural process. They stop everything but eventually culture gets by and keeps on. The computational metaphor would suggest that, as the system streamlines, these subculture roadblocks would become mere speed bumps, perhaps even gravel on the road. Will the subculture die out as information technology improves?

The New Process

Let’s jump back to the original analogy we used to analyze subcultures.
To use the computational metaphor, it would benefit us to view culture as a system, an immensely complex process playing out over the course of human history. If these cultures change over time, we can view the subculture as a source of innovation on the process.

A subculture innovates the process of culture…Let’s extend this computational metaphor to the exchange between culture and subculture. A subculture stands in opposition to culture. Culture changes by assimilating the subculture. What we have here is another process, a new mechanization.

Hakim Bey would suggest that, according to Chaos Theory, Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs) will always emerge within the cultural mechanism. He comes to this conclusion not through hopeless idealism, but more through the Universal Darwinian model we applied to culture earlier. While ‘subculture’ is a static definition, the TAZ is a much broader concept. It boils down to the idea that ‘innovation will occur, no matter what’. So, will ‘subculture’ survive the Internet? Yes and no.

The New “Subculture"

The “subculture” will change. It won’t exist in the same form we are used to seeing them, because it will not be subject to the same rules. Instead of seeing a fashion trend emerge from something like punk culture, we will see movements that step outside the rules that govern the life and death of the subculture.
I’m not from the future. I don’t know how these movements will work or what they will look like. But, I will say that they will completely ignore the tenets of subculture absorption: the commodity form and the ideological form.

I can pose one modern day example of how the “subculture” is changing: data piracy. Every day countless terabytes of intellectual property are stolen from their owners over the internet. This is not consumerism. You cannot sell “data piracy” because its very nature is anti-consumer. It doesn’t exist in the real world (primarily virtual) so it is hard to label its “style”. You might be able to mentally picture a hacker, but you can be sure that the “data pirate” steps far outside the nerdy kid fed to us through films and television. Surely this intrepid "data pirate" could be our new model for the subculture.

-Gordon Ligon

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