Commodification and Pushback–Subcultures and Scenes • 26 November 2007

Bear with me here.

I’m back from utopia, where subcultures still hide in the hills and cityfolk come around looking for a piece of the enlightened ones, the creators, the real libertarians. Big Sur. You can feel the almost-serene pushback—a quiet self-preservation—from the people who get it as the San Franciscans in beemers come around for fine fine food and flickr-ready views. My guy Henry Miller (whose get-a-piece-of-me memorial library does its best to discourage women from inheriting him, what with all their sick, tired, parasitic man-on-man hagiography) has wonderful things to say about utopian subcultures and how terribly real they can get, but here is someone else who has interesting thoughts about NorCal enclaves. Wm Gibson via Warmhunting, from 2003.

You’ve been talking for a long time now about the demise of sub-cultures, that they’re co-opted by marketing forces before they become established. Can you give me an example?

Well, my model for that has always been how long it took to recommodify whatever it was that was happening in the 60s and sell it back to the people who were actually living it. It took three or four years. It was still relatively clumsy. By 1977, it only took about a year and a half for punk to be recommodified and sold back. And whatever was going on in Seattle with Nirvana — from its discovery it took about three months before there were models on the catwalks in Paris wearing clothing based on what these kids wore on Sentinel Hill in Seattle.What that says to me is that the future of that stuff is veal. It never gets to mature because it’s too valuable. And I suspect it’s because whatever that was was an organic function of industrial civilization. We are now post-industrial and we no longer grow bohemias in the same way. I’m wondering where they are? Where’s the new equivalent?

Well, utopians, bohemians, and ex-pats at heart: can we really get off the grid now? Has Gibson finally lost the pulse—failed to see that now subcultures engage in SELF-commodification (start a record label, trend-set in your own community, get yourself one way or another “on the magazine” as my brother the artist of information systems likes to say). Or are there still subcultures that are a refuge? Is ashtanga a place for self-production or, as the Miltonian might have it, for a kind of self-consumption? Is the market at our door?

Well, god knows plenty want to be ashtangis. Thanks, Gwyneth. But the funny thing is that once most people get on the mat they’ll never hack it. Boredom will get you if weakness doesn’t get you first.

So increasingly I swim in a soup of commodities and images and attitudes “inspired by” this practice. So what. It’s tacky, but do I have to buy in… and let my subculture be sold back to me as Gibson says?

One thing that’s coming up in the dissertation is that, as I see it, commodification in cultural fields is always partial. Yes, it is a pernicious devil of a tendency, but with apologies to my Uncle Karl there is always pushback. Not in a latent revolution: in the now. Yes the market gets the hell into our home lives and our relationships both to our families and to the land—there is always an economic side to these things. But at the same time, there is reclamation. Stillness, even.

There is the possibility of not re-buying—and not merely producing—ourselves. And I don’t think I have to go to some remote enclave place to get that. If I can show up and practice sincerely, finding community among the dedicated ones in a room full of all kinds of intentions and inside an entity leading the world in yoga commodification, as I did this morning, then there is definitely a self-contained-ness, and a power of non-grasping, that this practice generates. So interesting to practice contentment and stillness in a world that wants to package those qualities into things and sell them back to you as magazines and t-shirts. So interesting to see that there is a little bitty subculture that's not moved by it, sitting right there at the center.