Cool is Over, but Cultural Commons are Kicking Ass
A classmate of mine has written a thought-provoking piece on “the end of subcultural scarcity”, a term coined by James Bridle. The argument, as I understand it (though I would heartily recommend the article here) is that due to the increasing contraction of space and time and the hyper-cross fertilization in popular culture enabled by advances in music and communication technology, subculture can no longer maintain an autonomous existence for any length of time. The intermission between the subcultural creative outburst and its absorption into mass culture has narrowed to the point where they two are increasingly indistinguishable:
“What I’ve started to notice is that as soon as a style or affect begins to emerge, it explodes immediately. There is no lag time, seemingly no period during which the avant-garde is actually more advanced than the plain old guard. Any sense there might once have been of ‘underground’ or ‘subculture’ has collapsed into one cultural behemoth. And more than that, the center and periphery—if we can just divide things up that way for the sake of convenience—are constantly sharing material, to the degree that it’s nearly impossible to tell what comes from where. The circle of mutual re-appropriation is so close and continuous that the very idea of appropriation begins to seem silly.”
My main point of contention with this analysis is that the core of most influential subcultures of the last few decades is not restrictions on their consumption nor their relative insularity. The value subcultures hold for their participants, particularly in the heady early days of creative effervescence, is not a sense of being in the know, or having privileged access to emergent forms of cultural capital. What merits attention as regards subcultural expression is not scarcity. Rather, it is the joy of collective production.
The two most influential, arguably paradigmatic subcultures of the last forty years, Hip Hop and Punk, made this an explicit part of the subcultural ethos. When I was introduced to Hip Hop culture (in the early 2000s, well past its heyday but in the midst of a kind of neoclassical renaissance), the point was stressed to me a great deal: Hip Hop is not a spectator sport. Don’t hate, participate. Being involved in the subculture is not about going to look at rappers do their thing; you are expected to be proficient in one of the four elements (graffiti, breaking, mc’ing, or dj’ing) and, according to the truly orthodox, you must be able to defend this proficiency in a battle.
The films documenting Hip Hop’s formative years, such as Wild Style and Style Wars, watched with religious fervor by heads everywhere, clearly demonstrate that subcultural cohesion and identity derived from participation in cultural production at a distance from (but never entirely autonomous of nor hostile to) the logic of capital accumulation. Its reification, first as culture and then as commodity, has gradually pushed this aspect into the background. Punk seems to have followed a similar trajectory.
Another, more contemporary example which springs to mind is the proliferation of the Jamaican-UK sound-system tradition across continental Europe. People are building speaker boxes everywhere, with blueprints shared for free on torrenting sites. There is a cottage industry of 7″s recorded and pressed to meet the demand for fresh tunes. Again, the joy involved really is less tied to privileged accesses and more to do with mutual support and participation; the sound system is structured as a kind of apprenticeship where you pay your dues carrying speakers and working the bar or the door, until you get to spin records or pick up the microphone. Audiences respond equally enthusiastically to a well-known Jamaican classic from the late ’60s or something fresh off the press from Hamburg or Poitiers. The sense of historical continuity and community, rather than a pathos for novelty or exclusivity, is the driving force. This is not to say that it is primarily nostalgic; the contemporary European audience’s response to the music is clearly contingent on a range of social factors different from the context in which it was initially conceived, though a certain affinity and linkage must be presumed.
With this in mind, I would argue that another angle on the amorphous nature of popular culture today is that the networks of cultural production are increasingly distributed, rather than centralized. In other words, the participatory practices of subcultural production are becoming increasingly hegemonic. The means to produce and share music have been dramatically democratized; the practices of sampling, remixing, and pirating music are re-commoning music, and increasingly blurring the lines between producer and consumer. The anemic pastiches dished out by the increasingly fossilized music industry are clumsy responses to this process, not the impetus behind it.
In fact, my impression is that music is getting better and better. The possibilities for creative communities producing and sharing music across spatio-temporal restrictions means that a broader range of musical ideas and cultural expressions are increasingly viable. For instance, the revival (a revival neither nostalgic nor ironic) of high modernity’s greatest cultural form, classic soul and R&B*, by Daptone Records, is unthinkable without the radical de-centering of cultural hegemony.
There are countless artistic possibilities inherent in a situation where we both have unprecedented access to the means of producing and distributing music ourselves, as well as increasing access to information about cultural practices of the past. Furthermore this endothermic creative process is increasingly at odds with the commodity form and the centralized control of flows required by capitalism, at least as traditionally conceived, and thus articulates social struggle in its forms, if not always content. That’s not to say that there aren’t sustained and often successful attempts at recuperation, but decentered cultural production is prior and it is increasingly able to assert its autonomy, the odd Ke$ha or Azealia Banks notwithstanding. So while the outward appearance of subcultural cohesion and the attendant opportunities for cultural accumulation by aesthetic elites may be a thing of the past, the genuinely progressive aspects of subculture are alive and kicking.
*yes, yes it is.