A way for the monkey mind to cope with the modern world
October 22, 2013 6:30 AM   Subscribe

The Melancholy of Subculture Society, an essay on the rise of multiple subcultures, the idea of “opting out” of the mainstream culture and the social and psychological benefits of the existence of alternative status hierarchies.

With a bonus appendix on how Japan has fallen behind in the internet (with the notable exception of cat-related content).
posted by acb (18 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

A deeply selfish and myopic viewpoint. Those bathrooms toilets all flush to somewhere. The little chunks of silicon that make the machines possible come from somewhere too-- and that requires organization.

But what if your subculture was one devoted to remaking the mainstream? Uh oh.
posted by wuwei at 7:16 AM on October 22, 2013

Plenty of systems work without a unifying culture, though. China and America do plenty of business without being culturally unified. And I think the point was that there were all sorts of cultures, it's just that people pick one to identify with the most and spend the bulk of time on. If I had a desk job, I'd be part of "office culture" for 8 hours a day - that wouldn't mean that's the culture I choose to identify with, unless I were exceedingly ambitious, career-wise.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:32 AM on October 22, 2013

The quote about elite athletes by Wallace was particularly interesting in the article. Exceptional results or interest in one thing necessitate imbalance. You don't get to be very good at something or specialized without declining a lot of other competing experiences. At a glance it seems like a poor trade off to sacrifice the well rounded life to eek out the last 1% of human achievement, but some people are driven and only happy when satisfying their need to specialize. The specialist wonders how the generalist can tolerate doing many things poorly and the generalist wonders how the specialist can stand missing out on so many life experiences.

Does this make the subculture and its extreme melancholy though? I can't begin to say how many people I've met who felt liberated by identifying with a subculture. I recall my wide-eyed experience around 1990 browsing through a list of Usenet groups and letting the reality set in that there an astonishing amount of niche interests out there. You could wander into almost any corner and perceive the sigh of relief (along with inevitable petty bits of discord) that people found from finding another out of left field interested party.

Melancholy? Hell no. This was liberation from the day to day jail of mediocrity. There are, of course, problems with realizing your aren't the only odd specialist out there. Namely you run the risk of thinking your predilection is normal because a few dozen others approve. The only sadness I've found is realizing the space of like minded people is very small, but it is easily overwhelmed with the prior sadness of feeling like an island all to oneself.
posted by dgran at 7:55 AM on October 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

The author babbles on endlessly when most of the article can be boiled down to: people don't have to meet (better yet, to find) people to find and enter subcultures.

Log on and join the minds in Infinite Fun Space, why would you ever want to leave?
posted by Slackermagee at 7:59 AM on October 22, 2013

I'm always delighted to find Japan railway enthusiasts on almost every social media platform, notably YouTube, Tumblr and Instagram.

I'm going to read the appendix, but I wonder if it mentions 2chan, Japan's answer to Reddit (but organized into many many more subgroups than Reddit).
posted by KokuRyu at 8:10 AM on October 22, 2013

An awful lot of this article talks about recognition for achievements and status seeking. I'm not sure that everyone who participates in whatever culture they choose to participate in is doing it because they "want to leave their mark" or whatnot...

A lot of this essay seems to be talking more about the author's wants and desires in life than anything else.
posted by hippybear at 8:12 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Japan appendix is quite jumbled and calls on mostly non-Japanese for perspectives on Japan. I found that section quite messy.
posted by gen at 8:51 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do think there is at least some issue of status and acceptance, hippybear. A subculture can be fairly egalitarian and make people feel like they are respected without having a hierarchical lording over of others, but it fulfills the same social need.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:53 AM on October 22, 2013

The author seems to misunderstand the hikikomori. It is not a matter of choosing to drop out of society as much as it is an extreme inability to function as expected within it. Interacting with other human beings face to face outside of family members (if then) causes extreme anxiety. A midnight run to a convenience store is a major undertaking. Hikikomori sometimes still have digital lives like the author suggests, but to say that they choose them because it is "easier" I think is false. (See this book for more.)
posted by koucha at 9:13 AM on October 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

This is a little all over the place with references (a style I loved when I was younger, but find a bit overwhelming now), but the central ideas can probably be trimmed down to fairly simple statements. One observation (to kind of turn the thesis around from an atomic look at the Danger of Atomizing into a social cohesiveness POV) is that time is finite, and for some people, mainstream society offers no value for time investment. A stronger emphasis on the lowest common denominator leaves a lot of people out in the cold. So they do other things--things often, but not always, dependent on the wider society, but other things nonetheless.

Also: the "Welcome to the N.H.K.!" section title is a reference to the Tatsuhiko Takimoto novel of the same name, which I've mentioned here before. It's very good; very existential, bleak, satirical, but funny and sort of heartbreaking. It runs a lot deeper than just a "hikikomori lifestyle" piece, and manages a rare feat in literature by making everyone--no matter what awful things they've done--sympathetic. It's about loneliness, and reaching out in unusual ways, which is really what a lot of this social withdrawal stuff is about, at heart. If you're not finding true fulfillment in the world around you--if the world seems hostile or empty--you look elsewhere. Sometimes you find connections in other places.
posted by byanyothername at 9:22 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Zalzidrax: when you write

> Plenty of systems work without a unifying culture, though. China and America do plenty of business without being culturally unified.

I can't help but think that you dramatically underestimate the amount of effort Chinese/American governments/organizations have put into unification, in aspects ranging from stamping out as many languages and other cultures as possible to simplifying existing languages (particularly striking in China) to enforcing standardized units & measures (encouraging cash crops is a good way) to standardized national educational curriculum inculcating patriotism and common beliefs. You may not think that they are 'unified', but they are far more unified than they used to be - contrast the original 13 American colonies to how large America is now, or look at historical maps of Han China with the current boundaries, and think about all the cultural, linguistic, political, and economic differences that used to exist, and how many of, say, the languages are now extinct. (To say nothing of the peoples... Tibet and the American Indians come to mind as examples unique only for the documentation and notice taken of their particular instance.)

The process of homogenization and simplification happens in many large countries, for easily-understood reasons such as the convenience of the state. You can find some good documentation of this in a few books I've recently read: Robb's Discovery of France (France), Scott's Seeing Like A State (various), and Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order (China). You could also get a bit of the American process out of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, but that's too polemical & focused on other topics for me to really recommend.

Gen: Japanese perspectives on the topic are, for obvious reasons, not that easy to come by. If you know of any good translated treatments...
posted by gwern at 9:44 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

A deeply selfish and myopic viewpoint. Those bathrooms toilets all flush to somewhere. The little chunks of silicon that make the machines possible come from somewhere too-- and that requires organization.

I don't know that I'd call it selfish. If anything, I think it suggests a form of cultural (and maybe economic) syndicalism, whereby people collect into subcultures which then exert pressure & some measure of control over the confederated global culture. (This has the handy advantage of keeping the influence/repercussions of people's actions within the limit suggested by Robin Dunbar)

(Alternately, look at Phyles in The Diamond Age)

I've heard this observation come up a few times before, but it seems apt here: There are likely two broad solutions to the global repercussions of tribalism:

* Either the concept of 'our tribe' needs to be extended out to humans as a whole (with broad adoption),
* or society needs to be arranged fractally so that everyone can hold identity within their tribe, with tribal confederation scaling upward (which basically amounts to phyles/syndicalism)

I'm not sure which of these is more feasible, or if they're feasible at all, or whether they should be feasible, but there's a lot out there suggesting that there are issues with where we're at and where we're going in terms of social/cultural organization/arrangement. Going forward with deliberation seems better than letting changes happen amorphously, to be influenced by anyone with enough power.
posted by CrystalDave at 9:58 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Japan appendix is quite jumbled

Weird that the writer of a supposedly serious references doujin and "William Gibson" with a straight face.

I guess he does reference Marxy, but in kind of a strange way.

I think it's a mistake to limit the discussion to internet or software or technology or whatever. Japan's influence on global culture is second only to the United States.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:49 AM on October 22, 2013

I liked the essay, even if I don't necessarily agree with a few specifics of it. A few thoughts...

The idea of the super-dedicated fan who's fandom has subsumed any other mode of identity in their life is something that explored expertly in Big Fan (profiled at the start of this Jacobin piece on geek culture). Geek culture is covered in more detail in the related essay linked from the Jacobin piece, Postmodern geekdom
as simulated ethnicity
. These might be linked in the OP, but the lack of a clear reference list makes it hard to tell without clicking on every link.

The way that geeks are used expertly by marketing departments for free content generation and promotion reminds me of George Ritzer and Nathan Jurgenson's conception of prosumption. These fan communities are useful for the megalithic corporate powers that generate the focus of their fandom.

I think this is also where you see such interest coming in for the idea of Gamification. One of the ideas mentioned in the FPP essay, and a central idea of McGonical's work on the subject, is that games are a rewarding form of work which isn't easily found in post-industrial society. The neo-liberal solutionist's urge becomes turning this gap between the desire for meaningful work, and the reality of meaningful work only being available in virtual worlds towards profit-making. To turn the melancholy of the essay's title into a way to coerce people into behaving like you'd like them to, or to advertise your product, or to obsessively interact with your software. This is Bogost's primary critique of gamification as bullshit.

Another aspect that's not touched on so much in the FPP essay, but has been critiqued by others here, is that social cohesion doesn't really matter so much / we never really had social cohesion anyway. I think there's some merit to that (I absolutely believe that there's a lot of false nostalgia when discussing these issues, maybe even some engaged in by the FPP essay), but as Putnam puts forward in Bowling Alone, this does have consequences for democracy. The FPP essay is looking at the low-end: the hikkomori, the nerd, the loser, who have such marginalized social and economic prospects that they choose a more fulfilling virtual communities where their presence is if not elevated then at least acknowledged. But it's also a tendancy at the high-end, where the super rich (and even moderately rich) feel no real attachment to any contiguous set of lines on a map, other than caring how much tax they're forced to pay, and what sort of benefits a passport gives them (a bit like the low-end doesn't care about much other than fast Internet and being let alone, as mentioned in the FPP essay). The results at the high-end, as we've seen play out increasingly with Citizen's United, are disastrous for our democracy. I'm not sure what the results are at the low-end. If you're a Marxist, then I feel you can't help but wish that these people who've been so ill-served by post-industrial life might do something to act against it, but affinity groups surrounding pop culture provide an easy "out" for some marginalized people.

The author (and I'm assuming the gwern who commented in this thread is the same gwern of the site linked above: hello!) makes the connection to the biggest neo-liberal solutionist of them all, Clay Shirky, and I think what I like the most about this article is that it doesn't disagree with Shirky's premise, but it does outline the effect of the phenomenon on the subaltern. Shirky can't look beyond his next TED talk about negative effects, and gets lost rhapsodizing just-so stories about a bunch of middle class silicon valley types harassing a teenaged girl to recover a lost cell phone. People scream for joy about "disruptive" technologies without stopping to wonder what they're disrupting.
posted by codacorolla at 6:15 PM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Rather, that should be "Shirky can't beyond his next TED talk to consider..."
posted by codacorolla at 6:44 PM on October 22, 2013

So I have to admit I only skimmed the essay, but somewhere down the tunnel of links I found this and for that I am ever grateful.
posted by 23 at 8:22 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

These fan communities are useful for the megalithic corporate powers that generate the focus of their fandom.

Well, unless it is the furry fandom. Furries aren't following a corporate-generated property. They are generating their own set of characters (each person one or more for him/herself), and are less interested in pre-existing properties for immersion and only interested in them as springboards for their own flights of fantasy and personal expression.

You might see a few Bronies or whatnot at a furry convention, but mostly they are all uniquely conceived creations with no corporate inspiration beyond "I've seen anthropomorphic animals in cartoons and drawings all my life".
posted by hippybear at 1:43 PM on October 23, 2013

That's an interesting perspective, hippybear. The degree to which different fan communities either resist or welcome corporate participation would be a fascinating area of study.
posted by codacorolla at 5:59 PM on October 23, 2013

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