OUT OF STATE
This week, NATASHA STAGG is in search of a subculture, if such a thing can still exist today. What’s out and what's in and who gets to decide?
Urban sprawl and white flight have happened before, leaving inner-cities cheaper and more dangerous, creating vacuums in which jobless people resort to illegal occupations, like drug-dealing and prostitution, and are left vulnerable to the whims of corrupt cops. Race riots have happened before, effecting change in the law and in the culture at large, an educational experience for everyone, but at a huge cost. And in these places where mass exodus and unrest occur, subcultures are born.
The difference now, it seems, is that the drug-dealing and prostitution have gone mainstream before the cities were emptied, leaving a void of illicit activity to be filled. Activism of any kind has been subsumed by social media, calling on accounts with larger followings (or desperate for larger followings) to spearhead conversations, reshaping political uprisings to merge with popularity contests. Because of the personalised algorithms on our individual devices, there are no outcasts or inner circles that appear the same for everyone. Each of us has our own version of what is everywhere right now.
I was listening to a podcast recently, the latest form of social media I tend to binge while purging the rest. Two millennial creatives spoke to one another about their hustles, the man supposedly interviewing the woman but talking much more verbosely, coming up with ad hoc business plans for her literary career: monetised sub stacks (numerous), panel cameos, TV writing jobs, essay collections she could edit on top of adding to her list of novels … she could easily live a great life, being a writer, which is the beauty of being a creative today, they agreed.
I add emphasis on the word easily because these things are not easy. Easier than other things, maybe, but not easier than simply writing a book a year, or working at a publishing house and making a decent living. Those things don’t pay enough, now, and so writers – and musicians, radio hosts, documentarians, photographers, porn actors, sex workers, vintage store owners, etc. – have been joining patron-model platforms in droves (OnlyFans, Patreon, DePop, Substack, etc.). The move has been called the hustle economy, although it’s technically just a more frenzied version of the already fraught gig economy – a model that famously moved money away from cab drivers and hotels, only to accelerate gentrification at a terrifying pace.
Not only does this system further an unsustainable model of commerce, one in which everyone becomes their own product, it squelches an already sputtering online underground, luring even the most subterranean of content creators to its neoliberal landscape. The contrarian, the politically incorrect, and the avant-garde are all welcome in the hustle economy, as long as they can find an audience. And this might be how the subcultures of the internet become obsolete – the same way every subculture does: by selling out.
A subculture, by definition, doesn’t have to be small, just underexposed. But what counts as exposure, now? Network television and magazine covers seem quaint as benchmarks. And although we always read about “dark annals of the internet”, most of culture is not so sub- anymore. The tree falling in the woods question was answered with the advent of social media, since, if you’re not on it, you don’t tend to have a voice. And with social media came the monetizable self-image, a cultural ouroboros. At some point, to be involved in a subculture meant defying expectations, specifically not selling out to some youth-hungry industry. Once we all stepped into the pinball game of the social network, though, selling out became an obsolete concept.
One can go big and not sell out, or vice versa, and therefore subcultural discourse has abruptly shifted
I’m speaking hyperbolically, of course, but increasingly our definitions of subcultural groups rely on the businesses to which they subscribe, like 4chan, Twitch, and Tik Tok, or by what monetary system in which they trade, like crypto or anti-capital. These are not subcultures, though, but articles of style. They are what amphetamines were to the mods, ska to the rude boys, and fashion to the punks, to use the subcultural theory prototypes as examples. Style is the playing ground, not the players. To quote Dick Hebdige, “The meaning of subculture is always in dispute, and style is the area in which the opposing definitions clash with most dramatic force.”
In his July 2020 newsletter, “Place the abyss in the abyss”, Rob Horning questions embracing the hustle economy, which he describes as “a pupa gig economy just emerging from its cocoon.” With subscription third parties, influencer marketing and gig working combines, sustaining out-of-work creatives during a global crisis or two. It ends up sinister, of course:
“To lure sponsors in, the creators have to commodify their work in particular ways and allow for its distribution to be limited and controlled by the platforms … alienating people from their labour so that someone who owns the means of production can profit by those commodities … The platforms standardize creator’ ‘unique’ offerings and put them in fiercer competition with a larger pool of competitors until their singularity is extinguished. The underlying model is the same: exploit a vast pool of labour without having to offer benefits or job security – turn all of lived experience into spare capacity, into ‘content’.”
Looking back, it is the pictures of well-dressed people and the de-contextualised quotes that gain the most traction, not the volumes of radical thought
I am reminded of recent headlines about Jake Paul’s gigantic Calabasas mansion being raided by the FBI after some videos of his laidback involvement in a Phoenix, Arizona mall looting during the George Floyd protests were posted. Paul, who is literally more popular than God on YouTube and in some ways a familiar character – the blonde, bullying bro stereotype of American blockbusters – is subversive, too. He and his popular brother are icons of the information age, catapulting their careers on social media platforms and in turn catapulting social media monetization as a career. They have faced controversy in ways that their politically correct counterparts have not, making them at once part of the influencer culture’s underbelly and two of its top-most cited examples. Surely, these lucrative personal brands are not part of a subculture, as accessible and accessed as they are, but then, who is?
I was thinking about this when watching Eugene Kotlyarenko’s newly released Spree (2020), a horror movie that plays out entirely on the live streams each character allows their followers to access. Everyone is motivated by some type of enumerated social clout, even when they appear to be rejecting it. The protagonist, Kurt, is a misfit in this world, overthinking his strategies for going viral and eventually letting the low numbers get to him. As depressed as he is, he chooses not to escape social media but to rebrand as a serial killer, since, as he tells his hypothetical followers, “if you’re not documenting yourself, you just don’t exist.”
That sentiment partially derives from the way we experience history: images that exemplify cultural moments are the snapshots that happened at the right time and place, with the best lighting. We know who certain nobodies are by name because they were around the somebodies, or the somethings, or the big events, and perhaps better represent these moments, for the purposes of historians: to understand a movement, take a look its groupies – the arbiters of style.
Looking back, it is the pictures of well-dressed people and the de-contextualised quotes that gain the most traction, not the volumes of radical thought. Anyone can make history, we were told as children, and now it’s true. At some point, it became irresistible to publicly exemplify one’s social set, constantly and consistently, with images, clips, and short texts (style), taking the idea of trendsetting from the fringe to the centre, and thus pushing the anti-fashionable to the edge.
Spree sort of acts as a madcap made-up prequel to Alex Lee Moyer’s directorial debut, TFW No GF (2020), a documentary that follows several figures of the incel (involuntary celibate) internet – young white men who have gained niche popularity for their takes on a culture that has left them out, for the most part. They describe the misery of living in a hyper-vigilant, opportunity-less America that fetishizes taking down their demographic. They mostly act anonymously, using meme avatars and semi-sarcastic text to emote and relate to a largely anonymous fanbase.
The announcement of the premiere of TFW No GF (meant to be at SXSW but pushed online due to the pandemic) – a leaked screen shot of the Amazon Prime summary posted on Twitter – was met with hundreds of eye-rolling and smirking memes, concluding that Lee Moyer would either be the first to truly get this particular community, or, like most things that try, a disaster. From what I can see, the incels ended up liking it. The movie doesn’t paint its subjects in a particularly admirable light, but it provides them some professional lighting, a good soundtrack, and the breathing room that documentaries on internet phenomena so often lack.
After watching it, I re-watched the quintessential L.A. punk scene documentary, Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization (1980). Part of what makes it perfect is its attention to the love-hate relationship the punks can’t help but have with the camera. Their subculture is predicated on rejecting this type of attention, and at the same time, it is predicated on reaching an audience.
Lee Moyer is a big Spheeris fan. Describing the impetus for making a heartfelt film that points a lens at an at best misunderstood subculture, she says she was inspired by The Decline of Western Civilization’s delicate balance between distance and genuine interest – a balance that places the viewer in the centre of a genre being defined. Despite their derision towards any mainstream acceptance, the lonely young men Lee Moyer meets throughout the US have found solace in large communities, namely on 4chan. The eloquence with which they speak of their extremely online lives, punctuated by remarks about the liberal and conservative ends of the world not understanding their melodramatic senses of humour, does feel as potent as the youthful rants in Spheeris’s docs, which are cut with raucous live shows, but the texture of controversy is perhaps even more visceral here. Moyer maps out the memes, music, and messages that best describe this scene, which is made up of men who have mostly never met in person.
In each visit to one of the subject’s homes, a world of loneliness is matched with energy only seen when one is shit-posting. In-person sarcasm is difficult to read due to its youthful delivery. And like the leaders of the L.A. punk scene, the leaders of the incel narrative are in some ways unwitting. The attention they garner for their public behaviour is antithetical to their messages – lyrics or posts about feeling misunderstood, mostly. Using examples of real violence floats content, giving it the traction of a multivalent message. No matter how a threat is read, it has the capacity to go viral due to its subversive nature. One can go big and not sell out, or vice versa, and therefore subcultural discourse has abruptly shifted. Is it even edgy to be offline, or, does the volatile nature of online communication make signing off equivalent to copping out?
NATASHA STAGG is a writer based in New York. She is the author of Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019 (2019) and the novel Surveys (2016) both published with Semiotext(e).
A new instalment of Out of State will be published online every Thursday for ten weeks. Last week, she wrote about the future of New York as a dining destination.