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.

Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution

Image courtesy Wikimedia

Subcultures are dead. I plan to write a full obituary soon.

Subcultures were the main creative cultural force from roughly 1975 to 2000, when they stopped working. Why?

One reason—among several—is that as soon as subcultures start getting really interesting, they get invaded by muggles, who ruin them. Subcultures have a predictable lifecycle, in which popularity causes death. Eventually—around 2000—everyone understood this, and gave up hoping some subculture could somehow escape this dynamic.

(You can read very brief previews of my analysis of subculture dynamics in this table and/or this page.)

The muggles who invade and ruin subcultures come in two distinct flavors, mops and sociopaths, playing very different roles. This insight was influenced by Venkatesh Rao’s Gervais Principle, an analysis of workplace dynamics. Rao’s theory is hideous, insightful nihilism; I recommend it.1


General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays, not part the book.

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