We're all aware of the idea of "cultural capital" - where their is value placed on the cultural activities of a place or person. But what about "subcultural capital"? In other words, does the same equation exist for underground or subversive or even anti- art practice? Where the work and the practitioners are deliberately or accidentally excluded or ignored - is there the same "value"? Many activities, cultural and otherwise are somewhat hermetic; they exist within the bubble of their practitioners - primarily by and for those who are producing the work. Sometimes it might seem that the cultural capital of subcultures is negligible or even non-existent.
I think there are three different kinds of subcultures that I'm thinking of here. Firstly are those activities and institutions that are reactionary in their nature. There can be some snobbishness against certain kinds of "art" and "making". From knitting circles, to networks of cross-stitch fans, to classic car enthusiasts, to fan clubs (including fan fiction) these subcultures are often vibrant, popular, but hermetic. They speak only to themselves: are uninterested in audience; (though perhaps more interested in "market" for their goods). I can't quite dismiss this sort of subculture. Surely a local choir might be applauded for the opportunity it gives people to sing, or the inventiveness of their repetoire, or even the collaborative possibilities with other "professional" musicians. Within this context someone might realise they have a talent that hasn't been explored; or improve technique and skills. Yet there is also a problem of ambition. I have known hermetic creative writing groups, musical groups, art and photography groups where though they may publish, exhibit and perform, the scope of their work can actually be negative for an artist who joins but whose ambitions are slightly outside of the group's more reactionary scope.
The second subculture I'm thinking of may be anything but reactionary, but be self-reverential: about production, more than anything else. It can be the artist moving from one commissioned project to another; the writer endlessly being published in the same small press magazines; the musician spending all their energies on ploughing their narrow furrow without ever expanding it. This kind of grass roots activity has value for sure, but can it exist outside of a certain monomaniacal commitment? Does it self-define in terms of its ambition? In some ways, the micro industries of cult figures like Billy Childish or Momus might be seen in this way. There's an obstinacy here that is admirable whether or not you like the art or not. In a world that tends to let people's creativity wither, there's something to be said about the artist who maintains their production in spite of indifference - and as Childish and Momus show there are small audiences for this. In many ways, the idea of an artist's own capital, at whatever level, is related to this. There are poets published by Faber and others whose "capital" is merely that they produce and keep producing - they may often exist in a critical vacuum, or one that is purely kept going by acolytes, friends of vested interests. And, full disclosure, isn't this my own practice? And constant productivity by an artist is no different if you're Heaney or Duffy when you come to think of it - maybe the opportunities are more that's all; yet artistic opportunities are different than economic and cultural capital opportunities. The obsessive artist could be seen as a tragic figure, but I prefer to appreciate the artistic purity - i.e. if you've next to no cultural capital, then whatever art you produce is self-sustaining. It doesn't of course, make it good, but the difference between those who have got cultural capital is not the quality so much as the acceptance.
The third and most interesting subculture is the most interesting - the creation or emergency of some kind of "scene." I was thinking about this reading Dan Holloway's piece in the Guardian on Alt Lit and the mainstreaming via the new novel by Tao Lin. This self-defining of something called "Alt Lit" and the uncertainty about the term, as well as the annointing of American models seems a very contemporary - or networked - view on both scene building and subcultures. The literary subculture is almost always amongst friends, or co-existent writers: say in New York, London or Paris. What about a badging against which writers can self-define? Holloway talks of Alt Lit practitioners as mostly writing poetry - yet Lin and others are primarily prose writers. Certainly in the UK there's been little sign of or appetite for an experimental prose literature. Rather, avant garde poets and fellow travellers tend to work in hybrid forms. The comments after Holloway's piece are interesting, and amusing - as everyone's looking for a definition of "alt lit" yet surely the name gives it away a bit. Before social media there were newsgroups and listserves - acting as like-minded people networks. The alt. set of news feeds was a way of defining a wide range of subcultural interests. What pieces like this are trying to do I think is to provide the subculture with some capital. Tao Lin's writing is in its own tradition of course, of discursive, stream-of-conscious, non-linear writing. We're not a million miles from the bratpack writing of Brett Easton Ellis, or Mark Leyner's 1995 novel "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist." Hardcovers - or at least book length publication - give an impetus here; and I think subcultural capital has to be essential disruptive, anarchic even.
There's also something essentially fly-by-night about the kind of subcultural scene that we're seeing since the millennium. By the time its named, its over. And in the US where nothing apparently exists unless it has economic value, I can see that just as the ironic-sentimentalists at McSweeney's provided a suitable hipster room for the literary establishment a decade ago; there's a belief in commoditisation in America which insists that all subcultures have got capital - that they eventually crossover. I'm reminded that the first time I heard of "flarf", the post-millenial experimental poetry meme, it was in the most august of places, a special edition of "Poetry." Flarf's built in contradictions (where are the good writers going to come from in a literature that is all about "found" texts?) seem to burst at this point. Old avant gardeists were puzzled at the media storm; writers outside the hermetic scene, such as myself, were wondering where a flarf-type poem such as my "Title Poem of the Collection" which was published in the mainstream journal "The Rialto" as long ago as 2000 fitted into this.
So, Alt Lit or not, I kind of think that cultural capital and subcultural capital are anathemic to each other. For a genuine subcultural capital is in the live nights, the zines, the online debates and discussions that are by their very nature happening on the edge - even to the extent of being outside the countercultural online spaces such as 3AM Magazine or Barcelona Review or in the Prague-based print magazine Vlak. There's also a worry to what extent the academy is providing the "home" for more art-practice based writing; universities being just another kind of hermeticism at times. For subcultural capital is generated for its own purposes often - the writers that hovered online around 3AM and Lee Rourke's Scarecrow magazine a few years ago, have moved up or offstage. Self styled "New Puritans" or "Offbeat Generation" or "Alt Lit" writers provide a bit of a wind in the cultural sails. The citadel remains unbreached however. For subcultural capital isn't quite as clearcut a transference or crossover. It remains in fanzines, blogged, temporary or temporal, and shifts with the moment. If you've heard about it, chances are its over already, but there's something new, something next. Press record. Here's the scene.
And the more subversive, copyright-bending FanFic.
I've time for the "reactionary" (the unfashionable) - after all, their time might come again. If I like a Keats sonnet or some translation from a contemporary pre-modernist culture, I should be able to handle contemporary examples by people who aren't racing to keep up with the latest fad, who don't care about getting a Gregory.
I think there are sometimes ways to assess counter-cultural value. "Poetic Culture" by Christopher Beach came out ages ago, but it opened my eyes. It considers the mainstream/avant-garde split, particularly the social structures which sustain it and the alternative career paths. It lists ways in which the centre degrades the subcultures (e.g. focus solely on a non-poetry aspect; praise one of them at the expense of the others, etc). There must be more recent studies.
Hi Tim I dont know that Christopher Beach book - sounds fascinating. I'm trying to write something myself about networked culture in the context of literary scenes etc. And yes, get you on the reactionary, though I would say that theres a surprising amount of publishers/magazines who flaunt their independent credentials but are highly conservative. (Mind you, the Beat scene is probably the most conservative of the lot!)
"By the time its named, its over."
That's certainly true. The only movements I can think of that have genuinely thrown out tentacles have been Brutalism and the Offbeats, who didn't last long as movements but whose reach into mainstream culture has been lasting.
I think I've always been fascinated by "scenes", almost certainly because my mother was an obsessive follower of anything to do with the Bloomsbury Group and as a child I grew up immersed in and drawn to the idea of salons. Since I started writing I have tended towadrs teh creatnig of groups of like-minded individuals, bringing together people with similar aims and world view, albeit often very different ways of expressing them, and seeing what happens - from the Year Zero collective back in 2009 through to the touring troupe of The New Libertines. My sense is that it's the mix of friction and shared vision engendered in such grouos that have the best chance of producing not just individuals' own best work but anything close to a "movement" or common idea
I like literary scenes as well, think they are necessary in terms of overcoming the anxiety of influence. You're more interested in doing something to impress or respond to someone in your peer group than in getting the imprimature of the existing mainstream; which can only be healthy.
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