Interrogating Subcultures

by Amy Herzog, Joanna Mitchell and Lisa Soccio


   Subcultures have been broadly defined as social groups organized around shared interests and practices. The term "subculture" has been used to position specific social groups and the study of such groups, in relation to various broader social formations designated by terms like "community," the "public," the "masses," "society," and "culture." Use of the term "subcultures" in academic subcultural studies has shifted since the term was coined in the 1940s in the context of the Chicago School of sociology and its liberal, pluralist assumptions. This loosely defined interdisciplinary field has been altered and informed by Frankfurt School analyses of mass culture and society, by debates in anthropology regarding the methods and ethics of ethnography, by the critical synthesis of perspectives developed in the 1970s at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and by subsequent critique and revision of these earlier tendencies especially by feminist and poststructuralist writers. Subcultural studies often involve participant-observation, and may variously emphasize sociological, anthropological, or semiotic analysis in order to address the organization and production of relational, material, and symbolic structures and systems.

   The term "subculture" usually designates relatively transient groups studied apart from their families and domestic or private settings, with an emphasis instead on voluntary, informal, and organic affiliations formed either in the unregulated public space of the street, or conversely within and against the disciplinary structure of enforced institutionalization. Subcultures are generally groups that are perceived to deviate from the normative standards of the dominant culture, as this is variously defined according to age, sexuality, and taste in economic, racial, and gendered terms. Subcultures are often positioned socially and analytically as disenfranchised, subordinate, subaltern, or subterranean. Subcultures, and academics who study them, often distinguish themselves as being oppositional, alternative, and countercultural, as being defined against others, i.e., "squares" or "the mainstream." They also differentiate within themselves and in so doing create hierarchies of participation, knowledge, and taste.

   This issue of In[ ]Visible Culture arose from a conference that took place at the University of Rochester in March 1998. Organized by graduate students in Visual and Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, "Interrogating Subcultures" strove to address a range of issues raised by subcultural theory: the expanding discourse around previously embattled and/or unnamed subjectivities and theoretical positions; the location that subcultures and their study occupy within the academy; and the practice of negotiating the affirmative and pejorative accounts of subcultural studies.

   The international group of participants hailing from Montréal, Toronto, Glasgow, Lancaster, Basel, and cities across the United States, approached these and other concerns from diverse positions and disciplines. The conference began with opening remarks by Janet Wolff, director of the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, followed by a case study panel considering pedagogy and subcultural studies involving faculty and students. Will Straw, program director of the Graduate Program in Communications at McGill University and director of the Centre for Research on Canadian Cultural Industries and Institutions gave the keynote address. The day ended with the premiere screening of Trancenational Goa: Travelling People, Parties, Images, a 1998 video by Swiss anthropologists and documentarists Roger Bergrich and Andrea Muehlbach. Goa, located on the western coast of Southern India, has become a locus for a transient community of international travelers who participate in a "transnational party culture" centered upon a specific type of psychedelic electronic music known as Goa trance. The video, which provoked thoughtful discussion afterwards, engaged with anthropological debates on transnationalism and deterritorialization by considering how Goa is recreated and articulated outside of Goa in terms of a global flow of people, symbols, and practices. The second day of the conference included papers addressing race and sexuality in techno and house music, race and masculinity in the suburban alternative music scene, hip hop culture in two European cities, body politics and contemporary dance culture, sellout debates and music subcultures, ethics and heroin use as represented in the movie Trainspotting, and the economics of style and scale in subcultures. Panels included interrogations of perceived movements in marginalized and popular cultures, the contextualization and transformation of subcultural practices in a global economy, and rigorous debates about the productivity of subcultural models within and outside of academia.

   The work presented, the productive discussions engendered, and the whole-hearted participation of the attendees more than fulfilled expectations of the organizers and resulted in this collection. The ejournal In[ ]Visible Culture provides an effective forum for publicizing some of the thought generated by the conference. We are pleased to present these excellent representatives.

   In "The Thingishness of Things," keynote speaker Will Straw asks about the fate and significance of the detritus of subcultural commodities. He reminds us that "[l]ong after objects have ceased to hold any significant economic value, long after they have stopped being signifiers of social desire, they continue to exist as physical artefacts." In confronting the effect of things, Straw resists the tendency to reduce subculture to an unhistoricized practice, where objects are signifiers distinct and detached from their political or economic value. Taking the traffic of 12" import records and used vinyl as one example, Straw traces their lifecycles and "velocities" through the specific economy of Canadian marketplaces and audiences. The challenge of examining such paths, he argues, is "to consider the ways in which cultural artefacts exist in the world, the ways in which they occupy space, and accumulate." Straw pushes subcultural theory to critically theorize the varied existences of things, from the mass circulated to the sediment of the out-moded, for their movements and conglomerations work to define the larger "rhythms and directionalities" of contemporary life.

   Geoff Stahl of McGill University takes the conference title to heart, and contextualizes many of the concerns Straw raises within the development of the field as a whole. In "Troubling Below: Rethinking Subcultural Theory," he interrogates the premises of contemporary subcultural theory from its origins in the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies through the present day. Stahl challenges subcultural theorists to "move away from the rigid, vertical and static models" established by the CCCS, and to question the emphasis on the visual and the spectacular that have characterized much of the work done on popular culture. Acknowledgement of the complex movements of products, practices, and ideas, Stahl argues, will produce theories that accommodate "a terrain that is so often simultaneously here, there, and everywhere." He attributes a recent opening in the field to "the emergence of computer mediated communications and their effect on ... social spatial relations as well as notions of community." The challenge, for Stahl, is to find a similar means of expanding the terrain of subcultural studies, to develop a model that "would facilitate the examination of the distributive and connective functions of networks, alliances, circuits and conduits through which people, commodities, the myriad forms of capital, ideas and technology flow."

   Lisa Soccio, University of Rochester, confronts the contested terrain of grrrl/girl culture, examining instances of its occurrence in musical subcultures and the mainstream. "From Girl to Woman to Grrrl: (Sub)Cultural Intervention and Political Activism in the Time of Post-Feminism" investigates the divergent approaches of Bikini Kill, L7, and the Spice Girls in producing riot grrl/girl power discourses. Soccio locates these discourses within the equally contested realm of contemporary (post-)feminist political practices. She considers the alternatives of production and performance, the differences between "antics" and "tactics," and the significance of speech and action in constituting feminist discourses. Her careful reading works to trace the potentialities of such practices "in both grrrls' cultural activity, and in a self-reflexive feminist cultural studies which is able to acknowledge the multiplicity of social identities and political allegiances."

   David Butz and Michael Ripmeester of Brock University explore the concept of "Third Spaces." Within such spaces, which are both geographic and discursive, power and subordination are integrated entities, and resistance is often employed through indirect or "off-kilter" means. In their paper, "Finding Space for Resistant Subcultures," they argue that Third Space can be understood as an "ontological category," a model through which all spaces can be theorized, and where resistance is "comprised of hybridized, ambiguous, cautious, and often somewhat accommodative practices." They choose instead, however, to focus upon the concrete production of Third Spaces within particular practices and locations. "Off-kilter" resistance here becomes a means of survival, "a strategy particularly amenable to the circumstances of the radically disempowered." Butz and Ripmeester offer two situations for analysis of resistant strategies: the twentieth century village of Shimshal in Northern Pakistan, and the Mississauga reserve in nineteenth century Canada. Through these examples, they demonstrate how investigations of Third Spaces allow for more productive understandings of resistance and power and "help to bridge an unproductive dualism within resistance scholarship between revolutionary social action and less ostensibly transformative practices of everyday resistance."

   The range of topics addressed in the papers first presented at the conference, along with those represented here, indicates the vitality of current academic work that engages with the concept as well as the practices of subcultures. The publication in 1997 of The Subcultures Reader, edited by Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton, was a significant contribution to the articulation of the historical and methodological framework within which subcultural studies has developed, and thus has established subcultural studies as a self-conscious and dynamic field that coheres as an object of study in itself without being rigidly defined or proscribed. It was also the starting point of the discussions that culminated in this project. It is hoped that the 1998 Interrogating Subcultures conference, along with this issue of In[ ]Visible Culture that the conference inspired, will further contribute to the critical and richly varied development of this field.

Amy Herzog and Lisa Soccio are doctoral candidates in Visual and Cultural Studies, at the University of Rochester.

Joanna Mitchell is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Rochester.