Does the digital age ruin subcultures?
As part of an interview with The Onion A.V. Club website last June, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk agreed to answer a few fan questions, including one from someone named MollyPocket, who wondered if true underground movements were still possible, or was "the Internet making everything too readily available to everyone?"
Palahniuk's answer, in short, was yes and no. "There will always be an underground," he replied, and predicted "a backlash of veiled, hidden societies" in response to the overload of information provided by reality television and confessional memoirs.
The underground, and especially the subcultures that inhabit it, have been much debated and examined since British academic Dick Hebdige published Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), a groundbreaking examination of the symbols and rituals of the punk subculture in London. Almost a decade after Subculture, in an essay reflecting on youth culture, Hebdige wrote: "Subculture forms up in the space between surveillance and the evasion of surveillance, it translates the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched. It is a hiding in the light."
Palahniuk's answer suggests that while the technological infrastructure of how culture is distributed has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, the psychology of subculture remains stable. But what if the pleasure of being watched has so thoroughly overwhelmed the evasive component of subculture as to make it non-existent? What if the problem with contemporary subcultures isn't only Google and YouTube and blogs and MySpace, but the participants themselves?
Physical restrictions on cultural access in the pre-digital era not only created fan communities by necessity, but also influenced the politics of the end product. Punk, for example, was forced to create a parallel system of marketing and distribution, a series of nodes, be it mail order or alternate venues in order to be seen and heard.
While few yearn for a return to the age of VHS samizdat, something is lost in the otherwise superior delivery of culture provided by file-sharing networks and Netflix. However, if all YouTube and the ubiquitous file-sharing application BitTorrent do is make it easier to see old TV shows and movies, this article would end here. But this same technology is also altering the output of the current underground.
The next subculture or underground movement will not be discovered behind the door of a secret handshake speakeasy somewhere in East Berlin, but in the center of Alexanderplatz; hiding in plain sight, everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously.