British Gothic Subculture and the Ambivalence of Resistance

Joshua Gunn
Joshua Gunn

The lyrics of the opening track on Bauhaus’s debut album, ‘In the Flat Field’, are a fitting opening, because they signal the characteristic ambivalence of the gothic “underground.” As someone who has frequented the gothic scene for almost fifteen years, and as someone who has worked to provide a more sympathetic portrayal of the subculture elsewhere, I can easily say that the “shielding pride” of gothic performativity makes it difficult for those on the outside to understand the complexity of being goth, including a recognition of a real dark side (Gunn 1999a and 1999b).

Although the subculture is resistant stylistically, sexually, and sometimes politically, because goth’s resistant gestures are premised on a kind of lifestyle irony, they often unwittingly succumb to other social ills. In this article, I argue that gothic performativity demonstrates the dynamic ways in which people resist the cultural mainstream in spaces of ambivalence.

In order to capture the ambivalence of resistance, I first suggest that one must pursue subcultural research as an attempt to strike a balance between ethnographic portrayal and cultural critique. I then offer a description of gothic subculture constructed from interviews with self-identified goths.

Next, I redescribe goth using recent theories of the gaze, which help to describe how gothic style is simultaneously a force of resistance and heteronormative recapitulation. I conclude by discussing the necessity of critical or dialectical ethnography.

As many subculture scholars are aware, there are two general approaches to the qualitative study of subcultural groups. What I will call the “anthropological” approach tends to emphasize ethnology and participant observation, often with an eye toward producing empathetic accounts of subcultural resistance from the bottom up.

These accounts are usually highly descriptive and tend to venerate subcultural subjects as exhibiting behaviours typical and expected of them given the norms of their culture. The often criticized celebratory tincture of ethnography is in part a result of the reflexive and self-critical modes that began to emerge with the works of Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, and others in the mid- to late 1980s (see Geertz 1988; Clifford and Marcus 1986).

Central to these new modes of ethnography is an emphasis on the inevitable rhetoricity of ethnographic descriptions, the inseparability of the “poetic and political,” the interpenetration of “academic and literary genres” of reportage, and the necessarily subjective, socially constructive nature of all descriptive writing (Clifford 1986, 2).

Such commitments led to a profound interest in the reflexive modes of ethnography first introduced by feminist scholars, and a deep suspicion of the authoring self. Consequently, subcultural ethnography of music-centred subculture has tended to represent subjects with measured reverence and respect, frequently describing practices in which subjects actively resist dominant ideologies.

On the other hand, what I will call the “sociological” approach tends to replace ethnography with abstract, structuralist (frequently Marxian or materialist) readings. Here the individual subject’s autonomy is muted in favour of underlying determinants such as ideology. These analyses proceed “textually” by reading the more spectacular emblems of subculture (e.g., “style”) as symptomatic of larger social arrangements.

Of these sociological approaches, the most exemplary and widely read is Dick Hebdige’s ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’ (1979). Hebdige argues that once a subculture is made visible in mainstream society, it becomes commodified, diffused, and, as a result, is robbed of its resistant power.

Hebdige shows how punk subculture’s emblems were stripped of oppositional potential as they were peddled to mass audiences as “exotica” (95). Such a top-down approach often avoids consulting self-identified subcultural group members because they are not understood as being conscious participants in the process of commodification.

Since top-down approaches are primarily interested in social structures and ideology, it is not necessary to consult individuals whose agency is compromised by their being unwitting members of the system.

Such Marxian or post-Marxian perspectives remain important to subcultural scholarship, much of which concerns the formation of social identities. Critics want to explore how, for example, a goth constructs a self that is counter to her interpellation in the dominant culture, how she disidentifies with the mainstream, and whether such attempts are, in the long run, successful.

In so doing, critics of the sociological stripe seek to articulate ideological effects that escape the conscious awareness of subcultural adherents. Unfortunately, however, the latter perspective has led many scholars to discount the value of ethnography. Lawrence Grossberg, one of the most vocal opponents of ethnography in the study of musical subcultures, argues that “the significance of music is not in the music, nor in the fan,” but in a framing social system or structure (1986, 52).

Because music’s meaning is never “solely musical,” and music’s effects reside outside of specific acts of listening, one cannot, he argues, approach a music subculture “by using anyone’s experience of it, or even any collective definition of that experience” (52). Consequently, focus on individual members of a music subculture should give way to discussions of the group and its social and historical context.

Because both perspectives have apparent advantages and disadvantages, there have been many attempts to wed them. There is a way, for example, of incorporating individual ethnography without either reducing or reifying individual experience.

Theoretical analysis should serve as a tool for understanding ethnographic particulars; it should not serve as a replacement for them. To be sure, one must be careful not to allow ethnography to lapse into thick unreflective description.

What is needed is a balance between the top-down and bottom-up approaches to subcultural study, and this essay attempts to work toward such a synthesis by offering both ethnography and structural critique.

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