Subcultural Blues

Rhett has a great new post up on his blog: “The Curse of the Silent Houses”, which has finally helped me to dislodge some thoughts that have been swirling about in my noggin, but haven’t been able to quite put into words (if I’m now able to is another story). The topic of the post, interestingly enough, is the familiar Doomer meme—and, more specifically, its telling mutations as a subcultural artifact. This mutation is not merely one of function, but of geographical displacement. After leaping from 4chan and /pol/ to Twitter and Youtube (and elsewhere), the Doomer manifested as a “suburbanite, living and dying in the West’s provincial blues”, but now he’s been transplanted, by way of proliferating ‘doomer music’ playlists on Youtube, to Russia—or, as the post puts it more directly, “to the post-Soviet phantom which the western mind has built up over the ruins of the Berlin Wall”. In doing so, the Doomer (i.e. the people bearing this digital-memetic mask) proudly carry on the well-worn tradition of treating the Soviet and post-Soviet space as a liminal one, a flexible form that fulfills a variety of functions: as the home of a threatening alien (in the case of the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia), a laboratory (for the western technocrats who came bearing their poisoned gifts of economic shock therapy), an exotic frontier (as the cultural counterpart to the laboratory function), an object of desire (as frontiers often are), and as a vision of apocalypse (a laboratory of development running in reverse).

It’s this latter function that Rhett sees as the being at work in the Doomer’s imaginary constellation:

The post-Soviet landscape has been the receptacle of many Western fantasies regarding collapse (whether at the hand of political upheavals or by natural causes) and the destruction and disgregation of society. The Soviet Union and its aftermath have become a shadow-realm in which our collective mind can slip when it needs to imagine the progressive or abrupt dissolution of our present condition. It is the sunken continent where governments fail, where Nature, The People or nuclear powerplants revolt…

Piggybacking on this first point, the Russian landscape has been the undead and hallucinatory proof, stuck in the back of our head, that every political system is ultimately contingent and doomed (get it…) to pass. The fall of the Soviet empire stands as the ghostly reminder that there is no system too big to fail and that our empire will fall, eventually and without much warning, as well.

It’s this sense of calamity, both slow and abrupt, that is reflected in the proliferation of memes, playlists and other cultural elements that play with the figure of the Doomer. There is for those who use this figure, of course, varying degrees of distance from the psychological mode that it typifies. It can be used as an object of mockery, an ironic playfulness, or an outright identification, and it could be said that often the outright identification and the ironic deployment are not so far from one another: just as the truth arrives in the guise of fiction, one uses masks not only to be rendered anonymous, but to become who they are.

This is the aesthetic of anomie, that concept of Durkheim which denotes a form of alienation rising from a society being made normless and a subsequent retreat from this hollowing-out of social solidarity. In later take-ups, such as those offered by Alvin Gouldner, anomie becomes more structurally grounded, linked to the dissolution-effects of capitalist society: it is “the unanticipated outcome of social institutions that have thwarted men in their efforts to acquire the very goods and values these same institutions have encouraged them to pursue”. One is compelled to an end—wealth, self-sufficiency, a particular form of moral character, a family, a career, so on and so forth—and yet the path that allows these to be realized remains by and larged blocked by real constraints. What’s interesting is that this paradox conforms precisely to the model of the double-bind that Gregory Bateson suggests as being the communicative root of schizophrenia—but as Deleuze and Guattari argue in Anti-Oedipus, this model is none other than that of the capitalist symbolic order as a whole. Here, the mismatch between norms and the inability to rise oneself to them isn’t a dynamic that unfolds within the familial terrain; it’s immanent to the capitalist mode of production itself (I wrote a bit about the instability of the capitalist symbolic order in a previous post).

The link between the Doomer and anomie becomes starker by tracing it back to its origins, by way of the minor archaeology offered by the Know Your Meme website. The first iteration appeared on September 16th, 2018—

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—and the following day the key characteristics of the Doomer began to appear in posts on the /pol/ boards, often paired with images of Ryan Gosling’s character from Blade Runner 2049 (a character who, it must be said, exemplifies the anomic disjunction, caught between the institutional drive to be human, although is is irreconcilable with his synthetic nature).

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The Doomer here is used as an ironic (yet serious) riposte to the Boomer, who is nothing other than the avatar of the late capitalist symbolic order itself: the father who enjoys and commands one to do the same, though the destruction wrought by his own enjoyment has torn away the very possibility for this enjoyment. In this context, the Doomer’s transposition into an imaginary collapse-space makes perfect sense. The promises of Soviet utopianism here stands in for utopian promise of the father-Boomer who now denies, and the collapse corresponds to both the institution of new material limits and seeming inevitabilities (income inequality, the blotting-out of future flourishing, sweeping ecological damage) and the psychic mismatch between the norms governing a social understanding of ‘the good life’ and the capacity to act within the parameters of those norms.

But I also want to think the Doomer and its geographical drift in relation not only to the Boomer, but to the triumphalist forms of mimetic cultural expression that have swirled about since the early 2010s (a time that, I think, contained a shifting winds that spread the seeds of what have now blossomed into the left and right populisms that continue to wind through the political mainstream) but reached an intensity during the great (non)break of 2016. I’m referring to, of course, the legacy of vaporwave and its aesthetic arsenal, which became the priming ground for a host of derivative genres tailored to a host of subject-positions and political stances. The Doomer’s Russian transplant via ‘doomercore’ playlists—as well as the alignment with the protagonist of Blade Runner 2049—is more than enough to insert all of these into a common continuum, even before taking into consideration the considerable overlap in the social networks that circulate these artifacts. Simply put: the Doomer exists in the contrary position to its predecessors. While the former apprehended the possibility of a different future, the latter appears in its foreclosure.

The constellation of ‘vaporwave’, ‘synthwave’, ‘future funk’, etc, is notable because its relationship with the future is distinctly non-linear: one looks backwards in order to go forward, forward to a world-to-come (un)grounded in a “nostalgia for time you’ve never known”. This backwards-glance has taken a variety of targets for hazy remembrance (particularly in its more overtly political modes)—modernity, pre-modernity, even antiquity. But far more accute is a nostalgia for postmodernity itself, and its through the lenses of the postmodern that the engagement with earlier modes takes place. If time-crash—the shattering of historical time into a seemingly infinite, non-historical space—typifies the postmodern experience, these cultural formations ironically self-position themselves in an impossible exterior, using the hazy, coded-and-decoded shards of time to try and realize the New.

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A few words have to be said about the container for these contents: the form of the micro-genre. If the genre designates the canon, the micro-genre is the splitting of the canon into innumerable micro-canons—which is to say, it positions itself against the concept of the canon itself. The shift from genre to micro-genre corresponds directly to what Lyotard and others have perceived as being the hallmark of our historical passage from modernity to postmodernity, the shift from grand narratives (be they political, religious, cosmological, scientific) to the endless dance of micro-narratives. This is at once a shift from depth to surface, from stability to ephemerality; in other words, we experience a profound fragmentation of the world.

There is of course nothing new about fragmentation, which has been intricately bound to the dynamics of capital—and thus modernity—from the get-go. The radiant descriptions of the bourgeois civilization offered by Marx in the Communist Manifesto, where the reader is flung into the white-hot future-rush of industrial development and cascading ripple-effects of global marketization, underscores the relationship between these titantic forces and ephemerality, fragmentation, and leveling of values and norms (as Marshall Berman points out, a solid line can be drawn between Marx’s historical saga and Nietzsche’s philosophical account of nihilism). But in the earlier 1844 Manuscripts and later volumes of Capital, far more somber analyses are offered, both contrasting well with the Manifesto‘s shimmering ambivalences. In the first, fragmentation appears as the function of alienation: the worker, alienated from the product, the means of production, their species-being and the matrices of social life, becomes an atomized being, existing barely beyond animal level. In the late works, the implications of this are taken to their delirious conclusions, where atomization and massification revolve around one another in a fragile dialectic conditioned by the colossal gears of an industrial-civilizational machine running headlong into the void.

If fragmentation is there in the beginning, how can it simultaneously be said that fragmentation is a defining leitmotif of postmodernity? A simple answer is that the implosion of the modern into the postmodern is an outcome of capital’s acid bath, having at this point seeped down to the point where all roots have melted way. This illustrates the firm continuity between the modern and postmodern as socio-cultural forms of appearance of capitalist dynamics (and, following Postone and Buck-Morss, it seems clear to me that the relationships between time and space that are exhibited in modernity and postmodernity cannot be neatly tied into the frame of successive history; they are each immanent to capitalism as an incomplete, unfolding totality). The discontinuity, however, must be emphasized alongside the continuous. David Harvey’s work in The Condition of Postmodernity is exemplary here: for Harvey, the unique impulse towards fragmentation, ephemerality, collage, vaporous worldscapes, difference and micro-narratives is a reflection of the shift from the Fordist regime of accumulation and regulation—the ‘peak’ of modernist tendencies—to one of ‘flexible’ labor and accumulation. The ordered, hierarchical world of Fordism and its massified, regimented labor force is partially dissolved by the introduction of horizontal networks, labor sub-contracting, financialized accumulation, and entrepreneurialism.

Appearing above these mutations in the relations of production, accumulation and regulation is an accelerative multiplication of aesthetic modes, forms of life, identities and subcultures. For Iain Chambers, the explosion of metropolitan subcultures as far back as the early 60s were indicators of the postmodern turn, as “sounds, images, and diverse histories [were] daily mixed, recycled and ‘scratched’ together on that giant screen which is the contemporary city”. In this sense, the retro-futurist longing for ‘popular modernism’ that Mark Fisher has written so much about is, in fact, a direct parallel to the ‘nostalgia for the postmodern’ exhibited by digital subcultures: the snaking line of pop-modernisms that Fisher invokes, from the postwar British working class mods to the artists of glam, punk and post-punk, were postmodern subcultures par excellance, “actively [using] fashion to construct of sense of their own public identites… in the face of a fashion industry that sought to impose taste through advertising and media pressures”. This “democratization of taste across a variety of subcultures” begins from the fractured ground, operating both against and within the rapidly ballooning meta-structures of the culture industry.

Such trends were reflected in critical discourses, which embraced the shift away from grand narratives by taking a hostile stance towards notions of totality or totalization. In the work of Foucault, this is the liberatory pluralism of the ‘heterotopia’: fragmentation opening spaces for hidden-away dissent. In Anti-Oedipus, meanwhile, the great posthumous work of the 60s sub- and countercultures, Deleuze and Guattari wrote “We live in an age of partial objects, bricks that have been shattered to bits, and leftovers… We no longer believe in a primordial totality that once existed, or in a final totality that awaits us at some future date”. Here, the logic of fragmentation and ephemerality, ‘partial objects’, the play of surfaces and peripherals, is raised to the level of ontology. It is compelled, by want of its own primordial actuality. On a more even keel, a quote from Charles Newman offered via Harvey: “the vaunted fragmentation of art is no longer an aesthetic choice: it is simply a cultural aspect of the economic and social fabric”.

It was in this ferment that the micro-genre was birthed, which can be seen, albeit retroactively, through the multiplication of different forms of rock music that swirled about beneath the broadcast of radio-friendly pop. Yesterday’s garage rocker is the foreshadow of today’s bedroom producer—and the explosion generated by the latter in the early 2010s follows along a curve of technological development, as Tristan Kneschke pointed out in a 2017 article for Pop Matters. “The microgenre explosion in the 21st century, aided by a combination of software advances, faster internet connections, and the globalized proliferation of music, has provided listeners with a comprehensive selection of styles…”

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And what of the content of this form? For all the compounding fragmention that encapsulates and frames litany of the _wave microgenres, there is also a curious tendency to eschew the atomizing function of postmodernism for the opposite end of the dialectic: the point where the postmodern offers up massification in new modes. The function of looking ‘backwards’ to the postmodern (as if it were gone) is to designate a particular zone in the postmodern condition as a counterpoint to the state of the present, to positive it (or, more properly, to hold it as the productive negative). Jameson’s passages on postmodern architecture, both celebrated and reviled, address the rise of what he described the “hyperspace”, a spatial twist on the Baudrillardian hyperreal, where the “original space” has ceased to exist and been replaced with simulation. If “normal space is made up of things”, hyperspace marks the “dissolution of things”—and, importantly, the gradual loss of orientating perspective. Hyperspace is counterpart in the built environment to William Gibson’s literary take on postmodernity: the metropolis likened to something “designed by a bored researcher who kept one finger permanently on the fast-forward button”.

The various art-pop micro-genres take this very dynamic as their starting point. “Global capitalism is nearly there”, Charlie Jones wrote in 2012, before asking “is [this music] a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it? Both and neither”. He then proceeds to link it to the simultaneous revelry and dread of accelerationist currents, the trembling and awe at being swept along in the whirlwind. It makes sense, then, why these artists would select aesthetic choices that take the Jamesonian hyperspace to their delirious extreme (framed, of course, in the shades of a moment that has long-since passed):

vaporwave

Jameson identifies a new mode of that modernist favorite, the crowd, that corresponds to the hyperspace: the “hypercrowd”. The hypercrowd, this viscous, unintelligble mass of bodies, flows through the vertigous abstraction of the hyperspace, with their actions no longer conditioned by direction-giving order and signs (hence the affinity between the hypercrowd and the far better-known concept of the breakdown of ‘cognitive mapping’). Jameson’s preferred example of the hypercrowd is the throngs that move their way through the Bonaventure Hotel, but perhaps it can be broadened to the strange and (then) new circulations put in place by de-spatialized labor, congestion in cyclopean highways and urban sprawl, the raucus tumult of the shopping mall, etc. Cockydooody, in a recent conversation, brought up the affinity between the pleasure of being dissolved into the hypercrowd (which is what these retrochronic artistic objects nostalgically explore) and the infamous Lyotardian passage on the proletariat’s ‘masochistic pleasure’ at the dissolution of their ‘organic bodies’—the thrill of all things plastic, synthetic, mechanical, massified. It’s the same passage that Fisher returned to again and again, where he afforded Lyotard a far-more modernist disposition that he perhaps deserved, as a way to highlight the positive element of accelerationism’s ambivalent and ironic negativity. From this point of view, perhaps it is correct to say that the fragmented micro-genres that we’re dicussing rediscover (?) the modernist residue in postmodern delirium, right where it forms the opposite (though by no means non-unified) pole from fragmentation itself. If the crowd has been the hated object of the elites across modernity, it is because they appear to offer, in paradoxical manner, the promise of a new community.

There’s several further elements in this aesthetic constellation that reflect this operationalization of postmodernism. The first one is the seemingly innocuous use of elements pulled from anime. It was Hiroki Azuma, in his book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, who highlighted the relationship between anime and postmodernism, and more specifically between this cultural force and ‘end of grand narratives’. The basic thrust of Azuma’s analysis that the termination of the grand narrative—linked to the breakdown of national authority—results in it being supplanted by subcultures and fictions, behind which stands the ‘database’.

…with the arrival of postmodernity, that tree -model world image collapsed completely. So what kind of structure accrues to the postmodern world? One candidate for explaining the Japan of the 1980s that often seemed borne out in reality was the “rhizome” model, in which signs are linked in diverse patterns over the outer layer alone (the deep inner layer having been extinguished). However, in my mind, it is easier to comprehend the postmodern world through a database model…

…it is enough to say that the tree-model world image that is characteristic of modernity stands in opposition to the database model of the postmodern world image; in the deep inner layer of the former there is a grand narrative, but in the deep inner layer of the latter there is not.

In the database model, new cultural narratives are born from the recombination of elements drawn from the database. These are simulacrum, with the relationship between the simulacra and the database replacing that of copy and original. The distinctive mide of narrative-formation that anime exhibits, where like elements repeat in new forms and new combinations, is bound directly to this database logic. As Azuma writes, “[t]he ‘characters’ circulating in these stories are not unique designs created by the individual talent of the author but an output generated from preregistered elements and combined according to the marketing program of each work”.

The Otaku emerges as a subcultural strategy for dealing with the fall of the grand narrative and the rise of the database, the core of which is the question of how to forge a place to live, and an identity to maintain, in the postmodern world. “[W]e can view the otaku’s neurotic construction of ‘shells of themselves’ out of materials from junk subcultures as a behavior pattern that arose to fill the void from the loss of grand narrative”. This allows Azuma to link his account to Kojeve’s odd musings on Japan as an alternative way of living in the end of history, with the capacity of actions retained in a way that breaks sharply from the ‘return to animal life’. Perhaps something similar is happening in the west, exhibited in both the _wave microgenres and their subsequent politicization. In the case of the former, it’s not only a retrofuturist return to pilfer the Japanese database culture, but to blur (in proper globalizing form) that database with elements strewn from the retrospective database of postmodernity: shopping malls, sports cars, beach bodies… In the case of politicization this schizoid mishmash becomes attached to a populist logic of self-preservation, one connected directly to the crisis of symbolic authority, groundedness and grand narrative.

(I’m reminded of the passage in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Multitude, where they take up the analysis offered by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, with its diagnoses of the breakdown of civic life and social organizations. Negri and Hardt, being the crypto-liberals that they are, unconditionally affirmed this dissolution in the name of a “living social flesh” that “can easily appear monstrous”. It’s quite easy to remember the horror of the intelligentsia when they realized that the social monstrosity-to-come was indeed coming, not from the progressive left, but from the future-nostalgic right!

Cocky captured this moment perfectly in his most recent post: “The altright and the self-identified esotericists seemed absolutely a product of the culture of transgression as art as action as everything that seemed passe–but what may be passe as art may be vital and alive as political expression/communication. The left reaction to it all was apparently attempts to get past the idea of ‘the left can’t meme’’. )

The other element worth mentioning comes again from Japan, but from a different angle than that of anime and Otaku. This would be the influence of City Pop album covers and music on both _wave aesthetics and style. This returns us to pleasurable side of postmodern liquidation: City Pop was the soundtrack to Japanese capitalism at its most powerful, before it was torn away by the bursting of the asset bubble. This was the same capitalism that stalked and haunted the minds of the West in the 70s and 80s, expressed most sharply in the continual return of Japan in cyberpunk fiction. But whereas cyberpunk used the collision between the techno-capitalisms of East and West to evaporate the thin line between utopia and dystopia, City Pop marked a different path. It’s an optimistic sound, a kitschy celebration of a completely open future. It’s telling, then, that certain pieces by City Pop cover artist Hiroshi Nagai faintly recall the abstract realism of precisionism: the transit between early American modernist industry to the Japanese postmodernist metropolis.

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All of which brings us back to the Doomer and his transplanting from the American suburbs (a byproduct, it must be said, of the late Fordist ‘spatial fix’, to return to Harvey’s language) to an imaginary post-Soviet space. What’s interesting is the series of polarities that can be drawn in this twist of the continuum. Where before it was hyperspace, now its the emptied streets, and where there had previously been the hypercrowd, now the solitary individual. From delirial massification back to harsh atomization. The neon-drenched drive through the warm Miami night is switched for the cold ‘night walk’. The momentary possibility of a reconstitution of value-systems is crashed on the reef of the blackpill ‘reality’. It’s the reflection of the triple impasse: the failure of realizing the compulsion to be lost in the psychedelic supermarket of late capitalism, the compulsion to reproduce social and familial norms, and the blocked desire to remake community in light of the previous two failures.

Rhett thus truly hits on something when he “[i]t is interesting to note that this open-source dreamwork coincides with a progressive worsening of the material relations of late-stage capitalism and a nascent tide of socialist sentiments in most of the West”.

To round out this long and rambling post, I’d like to return to a post I made back in late summer of 2018 (horrified at the eclipse of time, I thought I had written this in the summer of 2019) on the topic of ‘hard concrete’. The environment of the transplanted Doomer is that, as Rhett says, of “dreary brutalism”: the ruins of ecstatic dreams of life lived in the vortex of the ‘social condenser’ (which, as Fisher pointed out in his late work, presented the very things that postmodern capitalism would later celebrate—things as mundane as hotels and fast-food restaurants—as icons of a collectivist modernity). Perhaps we can see this dreary brutalism as the kindred soul of what Rick Liebling has called ‘hard concrete’. For Liebling, hard concrete is what comes after cyberpunk:

Like Cyberpunk and Atomic Age &Space Age design before it, Hard Concrete is linked to the realities of the times. If Cyberpunk was the visual embodiment of the corporation as mysterious behemoth, Hard Concrete parallels a world where corporations and governments have been exposed as brutal, uncaring and stripped of their shiny, mirror-glass facades. They may be no less controlling, violent or malevolent, they just no longer bother to hide it…. Gone is the “Coolness” of Cyberpunk, now replaced by the “coolness” of a color palate that ranges from a flat blue to an olive drab with only slightly less than 50 shades of gray in between.

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In my post on hard concrete, I argued that it typified the shift from the genre of cyberpunk to ‘postcyberpunk’, which in the work of Naciye Altintas is described as being an indicator of the passage from the Foucauldian heterotopia to a situation where these spaces are “vanquished by a monolithic system of governance where alternative forms of social ordering are reduced to one”. This was explored, I suggested, in the first two season of HBO’s Westworld (the show being a key example that Liebling uses to draw out the motif of hard concrete). The show carries out a series of important splits and reversals: the figure heterotopia itself is undermined by the relevation they are, in fact, not spaces of liberation, but spaces where the ruling classes act out their fantasies of frontier conquest and colonialism. But even more striking is the way that the show reveals that the fragmented zones of the heterotopias are only split on the level of the surface: the depth is revealed, decked out in the cold functionalism of hard concrete, as that which links all these spaces together, as their unseen corporate infrastructure.

What I didn’t realize at the time of writing the above post is that what Westworld sketches is the classic Marxist diagram of the base and superstructure. The aesthetic promise of postmodernism, the masses and collages and fragments and hazy swirl of neon vapors, is predicated on the elimination of the sort of depth that a base/superstructure model calls forth, opting instead for the play of surfaces. Jameson’s argument in The Postmodern Condition is that in postmodernity, culture itself appears as having collapsed into the base, thus making possible the ‘cultural turn’ that renounces all theoretical, aesthetic or political purchase on the processes of totalization. If hard concrete—or the rubble-world of the Doomer—is what appears when all the dazzling lights blink out and culture cannot fulfill its promise, then what is appearing is what lurks behind all these things. The cold reality of the base comes again to haunt the world.

3 thoughts on “Subcultural Blues

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