Reflections on the BSA Conference – Subcultures Past and Present: Space, Technologies and Social Control.
June 4th – University of York
Prior to contributing to the report write up for the BSA, I thought I’d offer some more informal and largely incoherent impressions on the Subcultures Past and Present: Space, Technologies and Social Control conference at York yesterday, in which I had a small part organising.
The day was largely split in to a variety of postgraduate panels, which were less discussions more presentations on current research, as well as occasional talks by those better established figures in subcultural discourse (Professor Mike Savage, Dr Paul Hodkinson [who I think I bored slightly by rambling on about funding and such…apologies]). With the panels, as most of their research is in-process, some questions were inevitably awkward to answer. There are no clear cut right/wrong answers in sociology at the best of times, and midway through your data gathering, to be asked to justify XYZ in your research is perhaps somewhat ‘off’, but thankfully, for the most part, things were good natured and productive (…I’ve reserved a few of my questions for here, not as a kick-someone-while-they’re-not-available sort of thing, but rather a chance for me to explore theoretical issues I can envisage cropping up).
Ann Murphy’s work, looking at how the wives of serving troops occupy militarised spaces, showed subcultural theory operating at its broadest, but was nonetheless eye opening particularly for the startling testimony of ‘Sarah’ who was interviewed last year as part of data gathering. She explained candidly the problems of identifying yourself as a woman in what is essentially a masculine environment and the ways in which she could delineate her personal physical spaces from the war; at one point she mentioned how much cleaning she had to do to remove the ‘grey dust’ her husband had brought back after serving, how she wouldn’t allow it to pollute her space. Judging by her dramatic collapse on tape, the mental space and the maintenance of several conflicting personae – happy face for the school children she teaches, and then the unending sadness of returning to an empty house – is the larger problem here, and one I imagine Murphy’s research will seek to find potential explanations for. The only slightly jarring aspect was the swirling default graphics of WMP whilst the audio played…but I just looked at the ceiling instead.
The last panel of the day (I’m skipping about the place in terms of time structure) juxtaposed Mark Horsley’s talk on ‘Dejection, nihilism, futility and death’ in the emotionality of subcultural practice, with Brunel Master’s student Alexandra Jugureanu’s ‘Cultural Contingency of Happiness’ (we thought it was funny at the time). Mark’s piece came from an interesting angle, one which developed from his position of increasing frustration at the Left’s inability to develop a genuine new politics – and not in the shitty coalition govt sense – as an alternative to rampant consumerism and global capitalism. He suggested subculture operates as a get-out clause, that people can disassociate themselves from serious political engagement by sheltering behind these, often marginal, interests. They are a distraction, and an individualisation of self that prevents the development of a collective counteraction to the prevailing politics of the age. He discussed the memorable ‘Not in my Name!’ slogan of the anti-war movement as an act of subjective distancing, almost a tacit permission veiled behind placards that at first glance profess disgust. Some of the photos used to illustrate the talk highlighted Zizek’s idea of the endless mocking parody, with images of Boobs Not Bombs undermining the seriousness of the anti-war movement. Foucault is to fault here, so Zizek suggests in Welcome to The Desert of The Real, turning radical politics in to ‘an unending process which can destabilize, displace, and so on, the power structure, without ever being able to undermine it effectively’.
From my perspective, there are lines of similarity with hauntology here, or at least the theories behind it (whether or not the musicians or fans agree is anyone’s guess…or the subject of my research…one or the other). Unlike many subcultures, there is an underlying concept behind this, an anti-hegemonic one, and the old split between high and low art/culture, which Bourdieu was obsessed with to his detriment, is merged. Sources for music, art, discussion come from all over the spectrum, and the message, although not necessarily externally acknowledged, speaks not of the confusion of everything under postmodernism, but of a larger metanarrative in society, a communal concern with the fragmentation of the self that PM asserts and that we silently justify via inaction and disassociation. Hauntology cannot be commercialised in the way other subcultures can because its ‘trace’ elements make a firm grasp for replication impossible (I’m thinking Jameson’s ‘Pastiche’ is perhaps more apt here) or indeed a parody of the message that private interests and business use to undermine the vitality of the original. But what is the message? This illusiveness, which can somehow coalesce as a collective understanding of failed Utopian idealism of the past, is the ‘new’, and perhaps a geuine way forward. I’ve made it sound bloody confusing though. Give me a few years and I’ll get back to you on that.
Mark suggested his own starting point; a return to community based ethics, and a rejection of the importance of the individual in moral issues. My issue with the talk, which I raised afterwards, was that part of the problem is the structure of the systems which frame current political discourse and engagement. A ‘new’ conception of the Left still exists within the old system of binary political oppositions. A truly new politics is something alien, currently ungraspable (hence my previous suggestion of links to hauntology). An example – Extraterrestrial beings in fiction are always based on extrapolation from current understanding…humanoids, distortions of animals etc…(stay with me on this)…with the most effective creations being those that demonstrate an ability to combine a far out idea of different life with a process by which we can comprehend how such life came about or what it would resemble. It would be incredibly complicated to conceive an alternative, let alone work towards an alternative with others when the system is such that imagining/creating a discourse outside of it is next to impossible. Optimistic eh, which I guess is why we couldn’t come up with any answers.
Jugureanu explained the difficulties of finding Universities willing to allow her to study ‘happiness’ owing to, what she considers to be, a uniquely British viewpoint of happiness as unquantifiable, and therefore not worthy of study. I side with the former however; it seems like an entirely viable domain for study, providing methodological issues can be ironed out. She was a very enthusiastic speaker, even if some of her methodology went straight over my head (psychology based rather than my usual ethnographic nonsense), but she will clearly be limited in scope by the aforementioned reluctance of her department. The guy in front of me (whose name I don’t know…) asked about the generational issues involved, which was countered by an explanation that the study could only focus on students aged 18-25. Then an old friend showed its ugly face – class. Although the study would avoid age and sdisplayed an impressive spread in terms of the ethnic backgrounds of respondents (that’s the cultural contingency there…), class would still play a factor, and that hadn’t been taken in to account. The variables would indeed be massive, and the methodological justifications of technique complex, but then the study could presumably be scaled up if initial findings provided a rich seam of data to be mined.
Of the pre-established academic speakers, Paul Hodkinson explained his research on Goths with a selection of interesting images. Later, I asked him about whether he is continuing down the same lines with his new research, and he explained that he was looking in to ‘old Goths’, and their action/reaction towards the new wave of younger members. I thought this interesting, as my research is largely of-the-moment, whereas during the course of his studies the subculture has passed from present to recent-historical. I’m curious to factor in or plot potential end points for my own research in light of this, and the changing ideas on the development of subcultures post-Maffesoli.
Key note speaker Sarah Thornton was an odd one, and her talk yielded mixed results. I was initially sceptical on the basis of format; not a keynote speech/lecture/talk from Dr.Thornton, but an interview with arts/ The Economist journalist Sarah Thornton. The questions were screened and pre-approved, the answers prepared and written down. The (very) brief Q+A afterwards was almost entirely without questions, aside from a slight about Damien Hirst. My issue with this is that although Thornton was obviously booked because of her development of Bourdieu’s cultural capital in Club Cultures (subcultural capital she calls it), this was glossed over in favour of her current book about the art world. Any enquiry directed toward her previous pioneering work was brushed aside. ‘The music scene has changed dramatically, she said, and she wouldn’t want to comment on it without investigating. A sensible position perhaps, but more of a cop out considering the content of the talk. Her book, Seven Days in the Art World has had mixed reviews. Sadly, I’m with Matthew Collings on this one…all us Matthews together. Although, she briefly mentioned ‘not going native’, most of the talk was of a jet setting nature, allied with that life long chum ‘the name drop’, which left me yearning for more insight in to her earlier work. It wasn’t to be. At the wine reception afterwards, she asked if I had given a talk earlier in the day, to which I responded ‘I didn’t. I just collect abstracts and write reports’. She said ‘I’m sorry I missed it.’
Overall, I’d say the conference was a success, though it approached the titular issues in a way I wasn’t expecting (which is good for keeping you on your toes). Space, defined in all sorts of ways, was touched on by all who spoke, technology was covered at length via the discussions on ‘bedroom culture’, and social control was either explicitly attacked (Horsley) or winked at (Tonya Anderson’s aside on how people view Duran Duran fans). A personal, non academic highlight had to be the fact the room we had was air conditioned and the fish and chip lunch was terrible.