||[Aug. 8th, 2009|06:30 pm]
|||||Santigold, "My Superman"||]|
Goth turned 30 this week--a strange position indeed for the strange subculture. To mark the occasion, I thought I'd try to put down some thoughts I've been having over the last few years about the philosophical significance of goth, a subculture that has been a constant companion over the years of my own philosophical development.
Let us note, to begin with, the major themes that seem to predominate in "goth": death, alienation, romanticism. Obviously, there are certain philosophical contexts for goth already: namely existentialism, the philosophy that seems to dominate the goth subculture. I think that there is more at stake here, however, than the cliche "search for authenticity." Or, that is to say, if all subculture (and, a fortiori, all rock music) is concerned with authenticity, I think that the gothic obsession with death can pull aside a veil and show us some of the deeper issues at stake in this concern. Allow me a little detour through the philosophical context of death, then, before we return to gothic existentialism...
In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel pauses at one point to consider the role of the family. Love, as a feeling, is too general--and too natural/immediate--to really explain the family, and education would seem to make the family merely a subordinate moment to the state. However, as a natural institution which also founds society, the family seems to mark the boundary between nature and culture; that is, the family serves to separate human life as something significant and meaningful out of nature. How does it do this? Hegel's answer is surprising: by caring for the dead:
Blood-relationship supplements, then, the abstract natural process by adding to it the movement of consciousness, interrupting the work of Nature and rescuing the blood-relation from destruction; or better, because destruction is necessary, the passage of the blood-relation into mere being, it takes on itself the act of destruction. . . . The Family keeps away from the dead this dishonoring of him by unconscious appetites and abstract entities, and puts its own action in their place, and weds the blood-relation to the bosom of the earth, to the elemental imperishable individuality. The Family thereby makes him a member of a community which prevails over and holds under control the forces of particular material elements and the lower forms of life, which sought to unloose themselves against him and destroy him. (Para. 452)But of course, playing one's role in the family is all about other people dying; thus the importance within the concept of family of heritage, older relatives, previous generations, etc. My death, by contrast, is what individuates me--it is my spearation from my family, even if this then allows the family to do its job and care for my memory, etc. To think about my own death is to think about, not simply being an organic part of the family whole, but about being an individual--someone who has left the family.
There is, of course, another key moment--especially in the modern world--for thinking about my emergence and separation from my family: adolescence. "Teen rebellion" is only the latest form of a moment in the dialectic of the production of adult subjects: in each case, the child, fully dependent, has no being apart from the family whole. The adolescent moment is a sort of Nietszchean "flying over all nets," in which I attempt to establish myself as a completely autonomous individual; thus we think of teenagers as irresponsible (we cannot depend upon them, because they attempt to throw off all relationships of dependence), destructive (absolute subjects, standing over all objects), etc. Eventually--we hope--the teenager learns that he or she cannot function cut off from everyone and everything (better: that he or she is nothing without relationships), and comes to reconnect him- or herself with the community as a "responsible adult." But the point is that there is, philosophically, a natural connection between death and adolescence in the dialectic of family life. Jay Bernstein--in an off-the-cuff answer, but still much more eloquently than I can manage--explains it like this:
I think of the issue of facing death that Heidegger talks about as something that happens when you're 16 years old. [Laughter] No, no, I mean this--it's a serious moment when you're 16 years old, because what you're actually thinking about is how you separate from your family. The reason why every 16 year old is a suicide is because every 16 year old has to imagine their life apart from their place in their family. So of course they become obsessed with their death. And that's necessary for part of taking responsibility for one's own life, but then one realizes that one's own life is not one's own life, but is the life one shares with others, and it's your care for them and so-on and so-forth. So I just think Heidegger got caught in a kind of adolescent moment. (Lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, 2/28/07)It is this "adolescent moment" that I really want to stress; the obsession with death, the quest for authenticity and individuality, and the feeling of alienation all make sense when linked to the place of adolescence and "teen rebellion" in modern life.
Rock music, of course, has long been linked with teen life and teen rebellion. And it is no mistake that most of us find goth in our teen years. In this sense, goth is the adolescent subculture par excellence; it is the philosophical crossing-point of all of the themes of teenage alienation and desperation. As teens, we want to establish ourselves as individuals, apart from the family. Those of us who feel most alienated by our social roles as adolescents, and by the available roles for individuals in "adult society," become obsessed with "flying over all the nets," maintaining ourselves as completely autonomous individuals. The natural philosophical expression of this desire is existentialism, as we find it in Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus. Is it any wonder that these are the philosophers of choice of the goth subculture? (Remember that the Cure's first single was "Killing An Arab," a song based on Camus's novel The Stranger...)
What I'm suggesting so far--though I realize it's a bit quick, and would need more lengthy explanation to back it up--is that goth emerges in a very natural way from the crossroads of postwar (and especially suburban) life and modern, industrial adolescence. That is, adolescence--the prolonged part of childhood, in which one feels like an adult but is still treated like a child--and the alienating aspects of suburban, postwar industrial society cross to create a sort of "perfect storm," out of which goth is an entirely understandable creation. It contains the rebellion of punk, but turned inward and spiritual as befits its more petty-bourgeois origins. It expresses the alienation of modern life, as felt most keenly by its most alienated and creative members--adolescents, especially the artistic, misfit-types. And it presents the comforts of belonging that come with any subculture, the idea of a free community of like-minded authentics. But like all quests for authenticity, this is essentially an adolescent expression of the desire for self-certainty.
Hence, as I said at the beginning, the very strange position for goth: that of turning 30.
30 is the new 16.
So what does it mean for the quinessential petty-bourgeois adolescent subculture to turn 30?
Two things to pay attention to, so that it doesn't seem like I'm simply playing with words. First, note that goth has an extraordinary longevity for a subculture; along with punk, it is one of the only subcultures to still exist--and, at least in places, in almost identical form--more than five years (let alone 30!) after its emergence. Think, for example, about how quickly music-centric subcultures like glam or rave faded; how little continuity there has been between successive incarnations of subculture groups like the greasers, tommy boys, or skinheads; and how other continuous subcultures like punk, hip-hop, and hipster have completely reinvented themselves with each new generation, leaving little continuity over time. Second, note that the goth subculture has yet continued to attract new members from successive generations--and so has remained "living"--without simultaneously pushing out previous generations. There are goths in the subculture today who have been so since 1979, just as there are goths today who were not yet born in 1979.
When I say that goth has turned 30, then, I don't simply mean that 30 years ago there was a subculture called "goth"; I mean that the subculture itself has lived to see its own 30th birthday, that it has grown and aged. There have been developments during that time--an almost constant influx of new influences, and the development of new "sub-subcultures" (vampire; romantigoth; graver; steampunk; etc.). But there is a constant core to the subculture, which now faces the strange position of being a 30-year-old adolescent.
But then, one might add, this may have been a strange position at one time, but surely not so much anymore? The 60s youth movements bandied about phrases like "Don't trust anyone over 30!" a mindset reflected in movies like Logan's Run. For them, 30 was the pont-of-no-return gateway to adulthood, conformity, participation in The System. But out of the cultural revolutions of the 60s and 70s something strange happened: the youth rebellion attitude, and the "hope I die before I get old" mentality have been incorporated into The System. Boltanski and Chiapello have traced the effects of the "artistic critique" of capitalism as it has been coopted by modern capitalism itself, and we can see on any number of levels the way The System has been changed by its incorporation of the rebels of the 60s and 70s. We can see some unexpected side-effects of this process, though: the phenomenon of "adult children," for example; the "slacker culture" that extends through generation X and into the children of the 90s grunge phenomenon. Where during the 60s and 70s the age of 30 might have marked the irreversable entry into adulthood, by the 80s--and then significantly moreso since then--it was already serving as a sort of "extended adolescence" (see a list of references right off the top of my Google search: here, here, here, and here).
Furthermore, modern culture is still about alienation. And capitalism may have a "New Spirit," but it is still as much as ever about the Cult of the Individual. And so if goth emerged from the "perfect storm" of the last gasp of 70s rebellion, it yet also marks the beginning of extended adolescence, continued alienation, and an ongoing quest for authenticity. Goth subculture, to me, is the location of a question: What does it mean to be an individual without moral compromise in today's world? It is the lived relationship to a certain condition of existence: especially the alienated, petty-bougeois creative-type, who does not feel at home in The System, and does not want to turn away from that discomfort.
This is what it means, I think, to say that goth is now 30. And furthermore, this is what it means to me to be 30 and goth. It is an extended adolescence, an expression of alienation, and the lived expression of all of the questions that come with it.
Like everything on this journal, this is all too quick and right off the top of my head. But these ideas have been kicking around in my head for a while, now, and I'm keen to finally get some form of them out onto the page, and maybe get to working them over. If you've read this far, then, thank you! And please, leave me your $0.02, so that we can continue the conversation...
One last note, speaking of goth: A reminder that I've been doing a comic strip for Morbid Outlook called "Cemetery Polka," and strip #4 should go up online later this month...!