Posted on January 22, 2012


The difference between a culture and its subculture fascinates me; “A subculture is a group of people with a culture (whether distinct or hidden) which differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.” In my opinion, the label of subculture tends to be accurate only for a very short time before it has built upon its own ideas and is worthy of a less derogatory definition.

The early thinking toward what helps a subculture thrive was based on the idea of seeking subversion, of subverting the norm. This is a powerful emotional driver, but many other concepts and systems of positive and negative feedback act as cultural attractors in the same manner. A metaphor I use here is one from maths and science, specifically the idea that given a dynamic and ‘chaotic’ system, in which there is a complex interplay between all actors and aspects within, there can exist things called ‘attractors’. The dynamic parts of the system gravitate around these attractor sets, the ’empty’ central areas that the paths curve around.

Culture vs subculture

I find it hard to understand that there is a culture, in which subcultures exists, subverting the norms. Rather, I picture a very large space of ideas and concepts, through which we all make our own paths. We interact with each other and with the ideas themselves, moving differently as a consequence. The attractors are how trends and fashions show up in the system, causing many of us to swing around these points together, reinforcing the attractor by doing so.

Fifty years ago, it was hard to quickly traverse this space of ideas – you would need to make effort to find ideas you wouldn’t ordinarily be aware of, let alone know about. Word of mouth could only reach so far, and at a slow speed. Mainstream media provided well-controlled sources of information, forming powerful attractors in the space, pulling everything round with it. Small pockets of the aforementioned subversive culture sprang up, mini-galaxies of people rotating counter to the larger galaxy of culture around them.

Nowadays, this space is trivial not just to move through, but also to navigate due to the embedded nature of the internet in many people’s lives. People are being limited by their own personal, biological bandwidth limits rather than the limits of their communication channels; there is a limit on the amount of information you can consume and create in one lifetime that has nothing to do with technology. Word of mouth is now an incredibly powerful tool and can spread as idea to all the corners of the internet in minutes. It is easier to find people who are taking similar paths through this idea space and so, it is easier to be affected by them and they by you. People can pass many more cultural attractors in their lives, and subjectively, may choose to move around different ones to the mainstream. The act of living online is an attractor in of itself, and is pulling more people away from the predictable movement around the older, mainstream attractors.

What might be seen as being a fragmentation of culture, a ‘loss of traditional values’, is the adoption of differing cultural vocabularies and ideas, different to those tropes and other norms of behaviour that they are meant to participate in. I do not see this as a bad thing. People adopt a culture because of many reasons: obligation, tradition, apathy, passion, belief, exposure through peers and so on. However, of those, the people who change culture do so for much more active reasons, mainly in the belief that they will be happier because of it.

Juggalos and Straight-edgers

A cultural attractor that has fascinated me is the Juggalo: “Juggalo or Juggalette (the latter being feminine) is a name given to fans of Insane Clown Posse or any other Psychopathic Records hip hop group. (wikipedia)”

What may have started as a collection of like-minded fans has certainly grown into a culture of its own. In the documentary – see below – the concept of family was repeated many times and intimately linked with the idea of what it means to be a Juaggalo. Many of those who responded said explicitly that their juggalo friends around them meant more and did more for them than their own blood families, that they felt part of a community. It’s unfair and a mistake to call ‘Juggalos’ a gang, as the FBI has, as I hope you’ll see from the documentary below.

An apparent trend in the way that established media reports on these new cultures is to focus on how they are more uncivilised, more uncouth – simply, worse – than ‘we’ are. With the Juggalos, it’s easy to focus on their hedonism and loud, brash mannerisms and ignore their human sides. One culture that arguably peaked some years ago is Straight-edge, which is based around the ideas of abstinence from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, to respect your body, and to not be promiscuous, unified by a number of straight-edge bands, in a similar manner to the Juggalos above.

Even though the ideals are good, a tiny number of people self-identified themselves as straight-edgers and were reportedly violent to people who they disagreed with. Of course, this was the story that the movement became associated with in the wider media. Compare the following documentary of some straight-edge people talking about themselves and their beliefs, with the National Geographic documentary after it (it is poor quality and in several parts, I’m afraid. Click through to the Youtube pages to find the other parts, if you are interested.)

Is there a mainstream any more?

From the perspective of many internet communities, it can be hard even to know where mainstream is anymore, as some of the older groups have built-up a radically different cultural vocabulary which they share with each other, but very little of which is broadcast over the wider channels such as TV, newspapers and radio. However, the truth of it is that the mainstream still has many orders of magnitude more impact on the majority of the population than it would appear to those outside of it. The internet has allowed a few groups to establish themselves and grow strong enough to exist without the support or even acknowledgement of the normal channels. The geek culture that has grown over the past ten years or so is one that I readily ascribe to, as the use of the word (online at least) is more akin to a passion for something than anything negative or unpleasant.

I am very pleased to see that some of these communities are strong enough to interact with the mainstream and perhaps, change it for the better. I have a real soft spot for these incursions, whether they are flash mobs, large gatherings or, as is the case with ‘Bats Day‘ at Disneyland, a community sharing a holiday together. Bat’s day at the Fun Park is a simple idea – a date is picked and goths are encouraged to visit, as they will be among like-minded people and can dress naturally. Here’s a little video scanning the crowd as they line up for the signature group photo of the day:

My point?

What we call the mainstream is going to have less and less power to drive fashions and trends. People will no longer encounter ideas as they are metered out by these sources, instead, discovering and re-discovering ideas at many different points. What looks like social fragmentation is really the drive for community reasserting itself, bringing together people that are near each other in mindset, if not geographically.

I’ll finish this post with a few socially angled documentaries that I’ve enjoyed recently in the hope that you may enjoy them too:

“Winters of My Life is a portrait of Howard Weamer. For the past 35 years he has spent his winters as a hutkeeper in Yosemite’s backcountry. He fills his days writing, reading, photographing, and being an ambassador to mountain culture. This is a brief look into his world and why he chooses to stay.

“ALBERTO MIELGO is a Spanish painter. This short documentary follows two different artistic world[s] for an unexpected combination.” – nudity warning.

“A rogue with an eye for salvage – and the ladies – Ray: A Life Underwater is an affectionate portrait of one man’s deep sea diving career, told through his extraordinary collection of marine artefacts.

Like a modern-day pirate, 75-year-old Ray Ives has been scouring the seabed for treasure his whole life.”

“Paul Mawhinney was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. Over the years he has amassed what has become the world’s largest record collection. Due to health issues and a struggling record industry Paul is being forced to sell his collection.

This is the story of a man and his records. I hope you enjoy it.” (by Sean Dunne, the same film-maker as ‘American Juggalos’ above.)

“At The Barbershop in Drexel, NC, the atmosphere is laid back, the conversation free, and the music a cut above the rest. Emmy® nominee, Official Selection of over 60 film festivals, and Best Documentary Short Film winner at the Florida Film Festival and Woodstock Film Festival.”

“The story of the last glass eye maker in Britain.”

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