Subcultures: meanings at play

Steampunk image of girl with airship
Image courtesy stephane

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The subcultural mode of relating to meaningness recognized what earlier modes denied: that people are different, and different sorts of people flourish in different cultural and social surrounds.

The systematic and countercultural modes were universalist: they tried to force a single culture on everyone. To answer “why?,” they had to construct an eternalist structure of justifications, supposedly founded on some ultimate cosmically correct principle.

Subculturalism abandoned all that. Steampunks had no interest in reforming society so that everyone would wear vernier goggles and ride in zeppelins. To the question “why steampunk?” there are only individual answers (“I’m into it because…”). Justifications turn on nebulous aesthetic criteria (“ray guns are not strictly Victorian, but this one is brass”), not some absolutist Cosmic Plan.

There have been subcultures for as long as there have been cities. Mainly they were ethnic or sectarian. You were born into them; leaving and joining was difficult; there were only a handful in any place; and their influence on the mainstream culture was small.

In the 1980s, subculturalism exploded outward. The new subcultures were composed mainly of 20-somethings and were chosen freely. They multiplied dizzyingly, and replaced the countercultures as the mode of cultural innovation and production.

Freed from the demand to justify universal claims, many of the subcultures implicitly or explicitly abandoned eternalism. Some implicitly or explicitly embraced nihilism—notably, many in the early days of punk, the first subculture of the era.

The subcultures mostly also declared themselves free of responsibility for worrying about the Big Social Problems generated by the systematic mode. The countercultures arose as earnest attempts to solve those problems—and failed. Punk aggressively refused to offer any alternative. Later subcultures simply ignored them. Subcultures are about “us,” our deliberately human-scaled subsociety; not about “mundanes,” the society-at-large whose problems seem hopeless, or at any rate beyond our abilities.

Freed from responsibility, subculturalism is explicitly play. Unlike the countercultures, which took themselves Very Seriously, subcultures reveled in absurdity. This made for great art—in my opinion, as someone for whom the mode is more nearly native than any of the others. It also enabled a welcome shift from sincerity to ritual, which started to resolve some of the pathologies of self, which systematicity produced and the countercultures failed to overcome.

Choosing to ignore the broader society and its problems made the subcultural mode parasitic. Someone else had to keep the machinery of civilization running while the subcultures played dress-up and make-believe. Failure to develop mutually-beneficial relationships with nation-scale institutions, and with individuals outside the subculture, contributed to the mode’s downfall. A nation cannot long persist if its best and brightest devote themselves to frivolities.

Fortunately, practicality and absurdity are not incompatible; the boundary between them is nebulous. The fluid mode must combine playfulness and seriousness, ritual and sincerity, inseparably.