Dr. Bernardo Attias – Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at CSUN.
Ways to explore the attributes and symbols of subcultures
I see this first question as a question of method, a theoretical question. For me, the richest theoretical and methodological work tends to arise out of critical engagements rather than the other way around. In other words, I tend to find scholarly work more compelling when the methods are adapted to suit a specific critical engagement with a phenomenon, rather than when the scholar begins with a theoretical approach and then “applies” that approach to a phenomenon. I find this especially true in the field of subcultural studies. So my comments today will try to address this theoretical/methodological question from the perspective of specific subcultural sites of engagement (specifically, DJ culture, sex work studies, and conspiracy theory). In general I think it’s up to scholars to choose methods that best fit the object of study rather than the other way around.
My training is in communication studies; from the perspective of methodology, my main approaches are rooted in rhetorical studies, cultural studies, and performance studies. I will attempt to illustrate the way each method works for me in relation to each site of engagement.
Rhetorical studies, put simply, involves the study of persuasion and identification. The field is rooted in the ancient history of the study of persuasive public speaking, but the methods drawn from this practice have been applied in modern rhetorical scholarship to all forms of communication media and symbolic communication. My own work is often animated specifically by textual analysis and argument analysis. So, for example, my work on conspiracy subcultures has focused specifically on the QAnon movement in U.S. politics. The QAnon group functions in many ways like a political cult, following the pattern of religious cults as well as violent extremists, and there is little question that the followers can be understood as a subculture (although, of course, it depends how subculture is defined; more about that later).
Textual analysis allows the scholar to “read” the speech or communication of key figures in such a movement. So, for example, certain speeches of General Michael Flynn, or Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, would be examined as key texts in the movement. The tweets of the U.S. President, or of key influencers in QAnon subculture, or, indeed, the “Q-drops” of QAnon themselves, could also be interpreted using the same tools that scholars might use to interpret political speeches. Textual analysis might help a scholar better understand, for example, the way in which QAnon establishes and consolidates ethos through persuasive techniques such as the encoding of mystery and secret knowledge through the use of a tripcode to verify their identity. Or the way in which certain slogans and catch phrases often expressed in hashtags tweeted by followers help the community build a collective subcultural identity—“trust the plan”; “follow the white rabbit”; and “WWG1WGA” aka “where we go one we go all.”
In its classical forms, basic argument analysis can be useful simply for examining the structure of arguments made by QAnon adherents, but for me this type of analysis has grounded a particular approach that incorporates Kenneth Burke’s analysis of rhetoric as a theory not just of persuasion but of identification. In this case I’m interested in the psychological dimensions of the arguer’s satisfaction as well as the structure of the argument. As an example, I’m looking into the way in which QAnon adherents utilize the pleasure of textual analysis as itself a kind of proof—all of the Q “decodes” become a way of engaging the adherent in a depth hermeneutic that equates the enjoyment of the game itself with persuasion. In other words, the excitement (and endorphins) released through the process of puzzling out bizarre (and nonsensical) connections between the exact second a Trump tweet is posted and the number of a Q-drop, for example, is experienced by the adherent as itself a kind of “proof” of the truth of the conspiracy.
Turning to cultural studies, a commonly utilized method is historical discourse analysis of the sort that you might find in the classic work Policing the Crisis. My work on sex work culture approaches the subculture from this perspective, although just as Policing the Crisis is not about the subculture of muggers, my primary focus is not subcultures of Asian sex workers in the North America per se but rather the discursive constraints in which they operate (and, in particular, the way in which those constraints render them far more vulnerable to violence and exploitation). Discourse analysis allows the scholar to “read” not only specific discourses of activists or political figures with a stake in sex worker subculture (law enforcement, mass media, and the “sex traffic rescue industry”); it also allows the scholar to explore the way in which the general discursive climate around a term like “sex traffic” or “rescue” consolidates in this case a larger discourse of white supremacy that treats actual migrant sex workers as pawns.
Finally, performance studies methodologies have been instrumental particularly in my work on DJ culture. Performance studies, at least in communication studies, is rooted partly in anthropology. Consequently, ethnography and participant/observer studies tend to be a primary approach in performance studies. For me, active engagement with the subculture as a participant allowed me to forward observations about the subculture. In particular I was interested in the relationship between technology, geography, and identity. I was interested in the ways in which DJs and fans created and based identities in many ways around the technologies that DJs used; whether they were a vinyl DJ or a CD DJ or a computer-based DJ was very important to both DJs and fans, often even to the extent of creating “us vs. them” dichotomies. But also I’ve been interested in the way geographical location functions in a similar manner; as a participant/observer, I spent some time going to music festivals and engaging dancers, fans, and DJs. To be honest, I started this research with a set of questions that I planned to ask everyone I interacted with, but I almost immediately threw the prepared questions away and simply engaged people—more, then, as a participant than an observer—because the conversations were more organic and natural that way. It allowed me to engage in a more honest and genuine fashion.
I was also interested in the way geography emerges in the music; with Detroit techno in particular, for example, there is a strong sense of identity and commitment to the city among fans of the music. This resonates in many ways with Paul Hockenos’ comments regarding Berlin; it’s very interesting because if you listen to the music for a sound signature that signifies Detroit, you find it in Berlin techno as much as in Detroit techno, and vice versa. And there is in fact some real interchanges and interactions in between these specific cities and the emergence of techno at the time, so all that stuff is there. (Indeed, there’s even a great Detroit techno record label called Sound Signature). But the essence of “Detroit techno” in fact turns out less to be about the sound signature and more about the sense of community and identity that forms around the sound. (Sarah Thornton’s work elaborating the notion of “authentication” is instructive here). For me, getting at that sense of identity, this ethnographic work really helped that. I found a similar situation interviewing Cuban techno DJs in Havana. While there might be less of a worldwide understanding of the existence of a “Havana techno” identity for various reasons (including the overshadowing of techno by the immense historical wealth of other musical forms on the island), there is clearly a strong sense of identification among the DJs and fans themselves, which is consolidated not only by their sense of community and proximity but also their shared relationships to the peculiar constraints of engaging in an international art form such as techno under the conditions of the U.S. economic blockade, travel restrictions, etc.
The phenomenon of “Subculture in Subculture” and characteristics of its study. The synthesis of ideas in the subculture, reasons for the existence of subcultures, invisible internal mechanisms that maintain their continuance.
Very interesting conversation here. There are at least three key terms here that circle around the term subculture that I think are worth exploring: resistance, commodification, and appropriation. I think the speakers today have all touched on these terms a little bit today. Starting with resistance, when we talk about subculture, and ask what is subculture, we have to talk about the “sub”; what does it mean? There’s an idea that it is subordinate, or even subterranean, it’s underground, it’s hidden, but also subversive.
Certainly subcultural studies has tended to identify work on subcultures in relation to Hebdige’s text Subculture The Meaning of Style, which is itself rooted in the notion of “culture” as a distinct “way of life of a people” that is grounded in British Cultural Studies. A group becomes a culture when they develop distinct pattern of life, and when they express that pattern through some kind of identifiable symbolic form. Hebdige takes a semiotic approach to subculture, reading it through signs—he argues that groups become “cultures” at the moment where they “develop distinct patterns of life” and give their experiences “expressive form.” What makes a culture a subculture is not just that it is a smaller part of the culture; it is specifically its resistance to dominant cultural norms. It is this reaction to dominant cultural norms and the conversation subcultures have with those norms that helps consolidate its identity as specifically subcultural.
For subcultures, these experienced contradictions and objections to ruling ideologies are expressed through style. This is what we call “lifestyle”, and in fact there is scholarship that identifies itself as “lifestyle studies,” though that work tends to focus on more dominant cultures. (I would also mention that the term “style” has a specific set of meanings in my own field and in the rhetorical tradition in particular, and I think not enough work has been done incorporating ancient Greek and Roman discussions of oratorical style into subcultural studies).
A key question in subcultural studies, then, is the question of how the subcultures handle what Hebdige called the “raw material of social existence” – in other words, from a performance studies perspective, the way in which the group uses the means available to it to articulate and perform a (subcultural) group identity. Of course this term “raw material” is misleading. As Marx wrote, “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” The social relations and the stock of symbols available to a subculture is thus never truly “raw”; they are mediated through (and in symbolic reaction against) specific histories and ideologies. The way a symbol is appropriated and used by a subculture makes meaning, and that meaning can be very different for the subculture and for the dominant culture.
This doesn’t work with every kind of symbol, of course. Appropriation has its limits. And here I’m not even talking about the cultural implications of appropriation as a matter of “stealing identity” or such. In Ross Haenfler’s comments he talked about the use of the swastika, for example, and we all know that the hooked cross has a long and rich history in various cultures long before it was appropriated by the Nazi Party. But arguably the Nazis made it difficult if not impossible, at least in European and American contexts, to use that symbol in any way that doesn’t signify racism, anti-Semitism, and genocide. In the late 1970s, of course, punk rockers thought they could do something different with it, appropriating the symbol in order to express what Hebdige called an “emptying out” of meaning. They didn’t want the swastika as a racist symbol; they wanted it as a symbol that would kind of offend everybody and express a certain nihilism and distinction, but it was too meaningful a symbol to the dominant society that it really didn’t work. So you had this moment for example where Siouxsie (of Siouxsie and the Banshees) had to apologize for using the symbol, saying we really didn’t mean it that way, and of course that really saps the strength of whatever they’d hoped to communicate with the symbol in the first place. There was no way in 1970s London to separate the meaning of the symbol from its ties to Nazi Germany.
So lifestyles develop at least in part in relation to (and in reaction against) dominant cultural norms. Does this mean subcultures are “anti-cultures”? Not at all. In fact a theme that arises in much research in subcultural studies going back to the 1950s found that many subcultures that seemed to be against the dominant culture (e.g. street gangs) actually shared and even reinforced the value systems of those dominant cultures. What seems like subterranean value systems, at least as expressed symbolically, are often quite supportive of the dominant value system. This is where I think a multidimensional approach to subcultures might help reveal these things that might not be so obvious on the surface.
In this light many scholars reserve the term counterculture for subcultures whose resistance to the dominant cultural sign systems take on a far more explicitly political and ideological form. It is arguable that even such countercultures legitimize and sustain the dominant cultural ideologies through their explicit opposition. In this light Cohen’s research on “moral panics” and the immense wealth of subcultural studies scholarship it has influenced, including, of course, Hebdige’s work, is particularly instructive: Hebdige noted that the moral panic that surrounded punk rock helped allow punk rock to be commercialized and for its “threatening” or resistant force to be muted.
In this light some of my own work on subcultures has focused on the way in which subcultures, through style, manifest ideologies that both challenge and reaffirm dominant systems at the same time. I’m also interested in the way subcultures’ use of the raw materials available to them take the form of cultural appropriation, sometimes from other subcultures. In this light the story that Gavin Watson was telling about the skinheads and their appropriation of Black music is particularly enlightening; you wind up with these racist skinhead groups appropriating skinhead subculture, including the music, and developing racist narratives, perhaps without even realizing that the music they’re appropriating was itself appropriated from Caribbean/West Indian Black cultures, the very cultures they’ve been calling for expelling from London. They are at that moment engaged in a kind of dialogue with Black culture without realizing it.
While the model of cultural appropriation tends to be studied from a binary perspective—seeing appropriation as either celebrating or commercializing and trivializing the culture it appropriates—I am trying to work towards an approach to such appropriation as cultural dialogue. This dialogue is not between “authentic” cultures per se, but rather in the spaces between imagined cultures, which are authenticated not through reference to some cultural essence but rather through performance. In such performance, the dynamics and methods of curation, which is another term I’ve been working with in relation to DJ culture, which developed in very specific ways in certain musical styles, play a critical role.
So in my work I am trying to understand some DJ subcultures as cultures of curation. The act of curation—collecting, selecting, organizing, and sharing (whether it is art in a museum or a DJ putting together a musical set—is approached as a narrative endeavor in which the DJ tells a story and engages in a mode of performance through which cultural meanings and identities are negotiated. Currently I’m aiming to explore this relation through two case studies: first, Jamaican dancehall music’s appropriation of British rock music in the extremely popular “Sleng Teng” riddim (which journalists have identified as coming from a pre-programmed electronic keyboard that used a 1970s British rock song); and second, the rise of hybrid electronic dance music styles sometimes sardonically referred to as “global ghettotech”, illustrated by pop stars who are themselves culturally hybrid but who have emerged from European dancefloor contexts (e.g. M.I.A., Jahcoozi, and Sevdaliza; these are artists who have appropriated various global musical elements that they identify with to varying degrees in order to create a certain dancefloor sound). The notion of “curation”, and specifically of the curatorial performance, can help scholars better understand the emergence of these hybrid styles and practices. Such artists are curating their own music collections (or even their collections of tidbits of recorded sound) in order to express themselves in relation to a specific subcultural community. That appropriation for me can signify a cultural dialogue rather than a “stealing.”
Attias, Bernardo Alexander, et al., editors. DJ Culture in the Mix: Power, Technology, and Social Change in Electronic Dance Music. Indianapolis: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: Routledge, 2011.
Hall, Stuart, et al. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. 2013 edition. London: Red Globe Press, 2013.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge, 1979.
Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. International Publishers Co, 1994.
Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.