Subcultures: the diversity of meaning

Punks: the first mass elective subculture
Punks courtesy Paul Townsend

The subcultural mode marked a fundamentally new approach to meaningness. It abandoned universalism—the delusion that meanings must be the same for everyone, everywhere, eternally. It recognized that different people are actually different, and need different cultures, societies, and psychologies.

The subcultural mode also created subsocieties: a new mode of social organization, intermediate between the family and state. Membership in subsocieties was voluntary, based on emotional affinity and cultural enjoyment, rather than ethnicity or geography. Subsocial organization began to resolve the problems of the self/society relationship that the countercultures tried, and failed, to renegotiate.

The first several pages of this chapter explore subcultural solutions: how subcultures addressed the problems of society, culture, and self that followed from the wreck of counterculturalism. These approaches were, I think, almost right.

However, they were also inadequate, and doomed. The remaining pages explain why the subcultural mode proved unworkable, and inevitably disintegrated into the atomized mode.

The fluid mode will need to recover what worked in the subcultural mode, while addressing its flaws and limitations.

Subcultural solutions

Examples provide some intuitive understanding of subcultures: punk, Wicca, goth, anarcha-feminism, SF fandom, straight edge, BDSM, New Romantic.

Subcultures were not just hobbies or musical genres; they were ways of being. They provided the same kinds of life-meaning that the systematic and countercultural modes did—but more so. You were not stuck with the universalist monoculture of a nation; you could choose a subculture that was particularly meaningful for you. Ideally, they combined a distinctive artistic style, religion, politics, ethics, social role, belonging and identity.

Whereas the countercultures:

  1. failed to find new foundations for their universalist systems
  2. … and so were revealed as idealistically impractical
  3. failed to address the differences in people’s interests, values, purposes, and needs
  4. failed to provide strong social bonds—only membership in a nation-sized counterculture
  5. failed to transcend their oppositional (counter-cultural) attitude

Subcultures, in contrast:

  1. felt no need for foundations or justifications, having abandoned universalist claims
  2. made no attempt to solve the Big Problems of nation-sized societies and cultures
  3. affirmed and enhanced the diversity of interests, values, purposes, and needs
  4. provided strong social bonds within human-scale subsocieties of like-minded people
  5. were refuges from social conflict, because subcultures had no reason to oppose each other

Subcultural failure: boundary issues

Although subcultures still exist, they no longer function as they did during the subcultural era (1975-2000). It’s mostly no longer possible to rely on one to define your cultural, social, and personal identity.

Each subsociety created a boundary, between its members and the rest of the world. Each subculture also created a boundary: between its meanings and meanings that did not belong. Getting these boundaries right was critical, but difficult.

To function, the boundaries had to be somewhat permeable, but not too permeable. A subsociety needs to allow in a trickle of new members, to replace drop-outs and to allow for manageable growth. If the boundary is too rigid, the group will dwindle and collapse. If the boundary is too vague, members are not sufficiently committed, and also the group can suffer from dilution by mass immigration when its culture becomes popular.

A subculture needs to be somewhat open to new ideas, as a source of creative friction and innovation, but it also needs to maintain sufficient distinctiveness to avoid merging into others.

Subcultures and subsocieties also tended to schism, creating new internal divisions. The resulting, smaller sub-sub-cultures often lacked critical mass: enough talented people to create enough meaning.

The best size for a social group is a few hundred people: big enough to provide reliable support, but small enough that you can find a unique role, valued by all members. The best size for a culture is millions: enough to supply thick meanings for all dimensions of being.

This mismatch meant that either subcultures blew up into mass movements (as the most successful musical genres did) which offered little social support; or, if they remained small, the meanings they could provide were too narrow and too thin.

Finally, there were problems at the interface between the subculture or subsociety and nation-sized institutions such as the state, mainstream religions, and the market economy. Neither side understood the other’s needs, or even acknowledged the others’ legitimacy. States and religions sometimes persecuted subcultures as challenges to their authority; exploitation by the culture industry was often even more destructive.

On the other hand, subcultures did not even try to provide all the functions of large systematic institutions. That made the mode parasitic: a fully subcultural society is not possible, because subcultures and subsocieties cannot do the work of states or large corporations.1

Most subcultures and subsocieties had little awareness of these problems—much less adequate tools to address them. By around the year 2000, however, most people felt intuitively that subculturalism had failed.

After subculturalism

The atomized mode simply dropped the subculture and subsociety boundaries. Now everyone could access all culture, globally, through the internet. You didn’t have to be a member of a tribe to listen to a particular kind of music. You could take any shard of art and remix it with anything else.

Destroying the tiresome narrowness and shallowness of subculturalism gave an exhilarating sense of freedom. Not only could you take any meaning from anywhere (breadth), you could explore it in unprecedented depth.

Unfortunately, with boundaries gone, all coherence was lost. In the atomized mode, nothing makes sense. We live now in a world of decaying systematic institutions, facing atomized peoples, with mutual hostility, paranoia, and incomprehension.

The fluid mode, ideally, combines the strengths of all previous modes. Like the systematic mode, it should support nation-sized institutions, to provide necessary social, cultural, and physical infrastructure. Like the countercultural mode, it should support innovative cultural production that is wide, deep, and (like the subcultural mode) diverse. It should support close-knit, voluntary subsocieties of an optimal size. Like the atomized mode, it should allow everyone access to all cultural products.

  1. 1.In “Archipelago,” I discuss a hypothetical model for how subcultures and nation-sized systems could have coexisted harmoniously, and supported each others’ proper roles. Unfortunately, this potential utopia was not attempted.