Monday, December 3, 2012

Harvard Munch Club: BDSM subculture

The recent institutional recognition of Harvard College Munch has been shocking our middle class sensibilities and causing a slew of media articles. According to its constitution, Munch is a group for students interested in kinky sexuality to meet, and organize relevant events—speakers, discussions, screenings and demos. Its purpose is to create a safe forum for students to discuss their sexuality and problems in their relationships, and to promote a positive and accurate understanding of kinky sexuality on campus.

The Atlantic reports on BDSM at Harvard, and the incorporation of BDSM into the mainstream:
This story has been getting lots of attention. Fox News is shocked, The Daily Mail is breathless, and Gawker is amused. But none of these pick-ups note how Harvard is a bit derrière on the Ivy League BDSM support group trend. "The popularity of 50 Shades of Grey has accelerated a mainstreaming of the BDSM subculture already underway," The New York Observer's Rachel R. White reported earlier this month.
Like the excerpt notes, BDSM has been a popular topic this year ever since the Fifty Shades trilogy brought BDSM into national media attention. Its status as a subculture will only remain so long as it remains disruptive and has relative independence from forms of media. The subculture's independence from media has been decreasing as more documentation of the practices and objects of BDSM have surfaced, but the BDSM lifestyle still has the ability to "shock" more conservative readers, as evidenced by the disapproving comments found in the Crimson about this topic. On the other hand, the Crimson's op-ed, voicing its support for Munch will lead to a decline in BDSM's status as a subculture and the dominant hegemony subsumes it into the mainstream.

One way that Harvard College Munch (specifically) has remained independent from the hegemony of the dominant class has been by avoiding media exposure of individual members. Munch members are kept anonymous. It is also difficult to find extensive documentation of the culture of Munch members unless you are on their email list, which assumes that you've been accepted into that subculture already.

This subculture is also influenced by class. For example, one BDSM/Fetish demographic survey done by Gloria G. Brame, PhD in 1999 revealed that 63 percent of people who participated in BDSM/fetish had middle class incomes. 62 percent had parents who had middle income as well. Of course, some of this data is outdated, so it is difficult to say how relevant it is today. However, it is still a high enough percentage to take note of. The following two results are from the released survey results.
4. How would you describe your household income?
Middle Income441163%
Upper Income145621%
Low Income101614%
5. How would you describe your parents' household income when you were growing up?
Middle Income434462%
Low Income140720%
Upper Income111716%

These results suggest a link between those who identify themselves as having "middle" income and those who participate in the kink community. Perhaps those with more time and money on their hands were able to indulge in kinks. After all, kink objects range from cheap plastic handcuffs to expensive toys. Thus, those with more money will have a greater ability to explore their kink. Even designing complicated rope constraints takes a certain amount of leisure time, something people with greater distance from economic necessity can afford to do.

Seriously, who has time to learn how to make this kind of rope formation?
Dog collars, a throwback to the Punk subculture, now used as a fetish object.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Riches: Using Symbols to Create Identity

The Riches is an FX original American television series that focuses on a family of Irish Traveller con artists. The family consists of the parents, Dahlia and Wayne Malloy, and their children, Di Di, Cael, and Sam. At the beginning of the series, the Malloy family is escaping from a botched Traveller clan reunion in an RV. While on the road, the Malloy family gets into an altercation and RV chase with another Traveller family. During the chase, the Malloys accidentally kill another family travelling on the road: the eponymous Riches.

It turns out that the Riches were just on their way to move into a new neighborhood in Baton Rouge, LA. They also happen to have all their personal items with them, including identification documents. Wayne convinces the family to assume the identity of the Riches. The shows follow their attempts to blend in in an extremely wealthy community and keep their stolen identities a secret 
The Malloys went from this... this
The family pick up the semiotic codes of the wealthy in order to create a new identity for themselves in their new environment. Owning "a beautiful wife", "a multi-million dollar home" and "a fancy car" are outward signs of wealth. However, semiotic codes are manifested in subtle things as well, such as hobbies. For example, when Dahlia tests her daughter on her hobbies, her daughter's "hobbies" include fencing, skiing, racquetball  and sex/chess. The semiotics codes are a conduit through which differences in power and hierarchy are communicated. Travellers in The Riches call everyone who is not a traveller a "buffer", which essentially denotes them as a law-abiding citizen and an easy mark for a con-artist. The difference in hierarchy can be seen in the slang that travellers use and the language the Malloy family encounter in their new lifestyle, among other things.

Their travails show how class differences are socially constructed; their ability to de-construct the wealthy lifestyle and re-incorporate the codes they find into their own behavior show how human efforts can overcome initial structural conditions. Wayne's desire to keep the new, high-class lifestyle he conned his way into symbolizes the desire of the lower class or the middle class to achieve a higher status. Wayne's optimism that "we can make [their con] real" symbolizes the American dream to achieve the class status you want by adopting the semiotic codes of the class position you desire to have.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hipsters: Subculture is dead

I am tired of talking about hipsters. This is a group whose dress, attitude, and taste have been adopted by so many people that it can not even be considered a subculture anymore. This is ironic, because hipsters pride themselves on being separated from the mainstream. However, their presence has been so documented that it has now become mainstream. Hipster clothing is mass-produced by stores like Anthropology, Free People, and Urban Outfitters. Hipster styles can be found in magazines, chain stores, and almost everywhere I look. There is even a handbook on how to be a hipster. Everyone is a hipster nowadays. Even denying that you are a hipster can be a form of hipster-ism. 

This video sums up the history and codes of being a hipster quite nicely. It also presents a paradox to of being a hipster nowadays:
Hipsters are definitely not a subculture, though they used to be. In class, we talked about how resistance and struggle are key in forming subcultures. For example, each British youth subculture was subversive to what was considered 'normal'. However, there is nothing in hipster style, attitude, or taste which "contradicts the myth of consensus" (as put by Dick Hebdige in Subculture)--the myth of consensus being the codes of the dominant hegemony (e.g. the middle class). 
From Key themes in Media Theory by Dan Laughey:
Subcultures operate through a system of oppositional codes that offend the majority, threaten the status quo and contradict the 'myth of consensus' suggested by dominant codes (Hebdige 1979: 18)

Laughey defines a subculture as "an underground set of practices -- usually working-class in character -- that try to resist surveillance by the dominant culture (e.g. police) as well as incorporation into mainstream culture. A subculture ceases to exist when it becomes incorporated, manufactured and packaged by commercial interests.
If this picture below presents accepted objects and style of a hipster...
  Let's see how well Urban Outfitters follow it:
Well, we've got the blazer, the cuffed pants, and white converse (or white shoes that look like converse). And that's just one picture from the fall men's catalog.

Part of why hipsters became incorporated into the mainstream is because of the internet and media. The video above cites the creation of hipster-parody memes which really brought hipsters to the attention of the general public.

Illustrator Jean-Philippe Delhomme, who just recently published The Unknown Hipster Diaries (which was compiled from his blog titled The Unknown Hipster) says, "subculture is dead. In this age, subcultures become documented immediately and therefore are mainstream instantly."

I agree that the presence of Reddit, Tumblr, and Lookbook have created outlets to document the rise of any subculture. The more interconnected we become, the faster subcultures become incorporated into the mainstream, and the harder it gets to create subversion. To preserve subculture then, will be to avoid media exposure. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

High culture poetry, or just noise?

I went to a poetry reading last January to see final project presentations for some people in a creative writing program. The creative writing arts intensive taught students to use digital media to alter or create poetry. Most people recorded themselves reading a poem, and then added sound to the poetry reading. One girl, however, altered her piece in such a way that many of the attendees had difficulty understanding her piece. She explained afterwards that her "poetry" was actually a comment on poetry itself. The self-referential nature of her final project parallels the field of art in high culture.

Here is how the audience experienced her presentation:
First, we heard sounds of people talking indistinctly. It sounded like the ambient noise one would hear in a crowded cafe. Then, there was a laugh that was quite loud and distinct. The audience laughed along; the laugh was so out of place that we found it funny. There were more indistinct noises, and then another laugh. The audience laughed again, but a little less this time. We were beginning to wonder what the piece was about. This pattern of indistinct noises and then laughter continued for almost ten minutes. People were already bored after three. Many of us kept waiting for something to happen but eventually realized that this was the entire piece. At the end, most of the audience was either confused or annoyed.

The girl explained afterwards that she had taken a poetry reading Jack Kerouac had done once when he visited Lowell dining hall. However, she had taken out Kerouac's voice and only left the background noises. To me, she had not created poetry, but removed it. The directors of the creative writing program however praised her piece for the questions it raised about the nature of poetry. In doing so, they acted as critics within the field of poetry who held opinions informed by an understanding of poetry's history and context. The directors, having high cultural capital, were able to understand the direction that the girl was going in, namely altering a poetry reading in order to comment on the nature of poetry as well. Too bad the rest of the audience, being outside the field, didn't understand her message. To the audience, her piece was merely noise.

This is what we heard...
This is what we were missing...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Primed for a career

Professor Nelson joked, during his lecture on bobos, that everyone attending Harvard is being primed to be a bobo, While it may make sense that most of us are being primed to be in the similar class when we graduate, we should also recognize that our class backgrounds and habitus may still put people in different positions after graduating. For example, my classmate whose father is a partner at Goldman Sachs will have a much different experience in the finance industry than I will have. He grew up being primed to go into investment banking, whereas I started out the job search without any inside knowledge or any personal connections that could help me land an internship.

These careers and the type of people who go into these careers are reproduced through habitus. Professor Nelson showed the class several pictures of celebrities who were essentially primed to go into showbiz. Angelina Jolie's father is Jon Vaught, an American actor who won one Academy Award, out of four nominations and three Golden Globe awards out of nine nomination. Taking after her father, Jolie has received one Academy Award and three Golden Globe awards as well.

I expect that many of the careers that my peers chose will be heavily influenced by what their parents did as well. Their choice might be a response to their parent's position, but it will still have been shaped by their parent's career choice.
The business card scene from American Psycho: how I imagine investment banking must be like at the top.

Friday, November 23, 2012

We Made This Movie: A Search For Authenticity

We Made This Movie--abbreviated as WMTM for the purposes of this post--is about a generation of kids who are desperate to make something but have nothing to say. Like hipsters who draw from the past to define their consumer choices, and people who take the same picture and add different captions to create a meme, our generation seems bounded by what already exists. Our nature is to create but we can't find anything creative to say, so we're re-purposing and recreating what already exists in a desperate effort to break into new ground. The way WMTM avoids this depressing reality is by creating a moment of true (creative) authenticity at the end when LeBron realizes that his movie is really about the personal stories of himself and his friends. Even though it by accident, his persistence allowed him to created a “break” in the culture industry (as used by critical theorists in the Frankfurt school). He (re)discovered what it means to create something of value. Value doesn't come from ripping off Jackass or Borat; value comes from saying something authentic about the condition of human existence. .

I still think this generation has something to say. Like LeBron in the earlier stages of the movie, we are simply still in the process of understanding what is worth saying. Perhaps a break will eventually surface, but in a way that requires a paradigm shift in our understanding of authentic creation. Sure, all these memes are the same thing, but perhaps we can mine from the captions some message that tells us something true about human existence, and that will be our new creative form.

So basically, WMTM is an allegory about finding authenticity, and I would say it succeeded.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thrift Shop: a celebration of the lower class

"Thrift Shop", performed by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, defies the hegemony of the dominating class by giving status to codes of the lower class. "Thrift Shop" is a manifesto on the glories of bargain hunting, starting with the hook which describes the experience as "f--- awesome" and the bridge which describes the clothing as "incredible" (or at least making the wearer look incredible). and The song lyrics glorify characteristics of Holt's LCCs as outlined in Distinction in America.

I'm gonna pop some tags
Only got twenty dollars in my pocket
I - I - I'm hunting, looking for a come-up
This is fucking awesome
I wear your granddad's clothes
I look incredible
I'm in this big ass coat
From that thrift shop down the road

Many of the settings and objects in the video exemplify LCC taste. Holt found that LCCs want to have lots of space in the house and yard and desire luxury goods, whereas HCCs consider abundance and luxury crass. The materialist taste of LCCs manifests itself in the first major scene of the video, in which Macklemore is shown getting into what looks to be a luxury car in the driveway of a mansion. Macklemore's giant fur coat and the clothing he describes wearing in the club scene (leopard mink and gator shoes) is another example of LCC taste: the coat (despite its cost) is showy and ostentatious--a clear cry for attention.

The clothing that Macklemore re-claims for himself (from your "grammy, your aunty, your momma, your mammy") is a symbol of creating pseudo-identity using consumer goods. These clothes are hand-downs from other people. By combining these cast-offs Macklemore makes a new identity that looks cool but is not authentic. Contrast that, of course, with the aesthetic taste of HCCs, who value authenticity in their style.

Macklemore is just concerned with saving money, though, regardless of the style and even of the quality (buying a cheap coat even though it smells like piss). The lyrics emphasize how cool the clothes look despite their costs. This focus getting the most value out of your dollar is a value of LCC. Bargain hunting is an activity that people with lower cultural capital tend to value; it's an example of using utilitarian means to achieve ends.

Finally, the video and song challenge hegemony by glorifying an activity indicative of lower cultural class status. In "Thrift Shop", paying $50 for a Gucci t-shirt earns criticism from Macklemore, not praise. He calls out the owner as a "ignorant bitch" who is getting "tricked by business". Additionally, this lyric argues that the man with a expensive, brand-name shirt is just as victim to the culture industry and false consciousness as anyone else because the shirt is mass produced. Macklemore criticizes a man for wearing the same shirt as six other people. Neither person has achieved authenticity. Both reclaiming "unique" pieces and wearing mass-produced items fall under the culture industry. However, Macklemore challenges the value of authenticity, and the values of HCC in general. His pride in his LCC elevates the status of LCCs to that comparable to HCCs.

Side note: I have no idea what the woman in the video is supposed to represent in terms of class and culture, but her presence is hilarious.