Keynote address for the “Interrogating Subcultures” conference at University of Rochester on March 27, 1998
For some time now, I realize, my interest in the social life of things has been greater than my interest in acts of consumption themselves. This is partly a way of negotiating the dilemmas of aging as a popular music scholar—things don't ask that you stay up late, while dance clubs, and other famous sites of consumption, do. But I'm also convinced that our cultures and economies are being made and transformed in ways that invite an attention to the social location and ordering of cultural artifacts—the way in which music stores order and valorize the past, for example, or the manner in which certain kinds of cultural commodities travel the world. This is partly to suggest that we look, for a while, at the ways in which cultural artifacts crystallize global cultural relations, or the ways in which, in industries increasingly dependent on marketing back catalogues, compact discs or videocassettes accumulate as examples of extra-somatic memory: memory held outside the body.
From different corners within cultural studies, it seems to me, one may glimpse a rustling of interest in things and objects, in the material artifacts of cultural life. We may find evidence of this in the launch of well-supported journals like The Journal of Material Culture, and in smaller initiatives like the London-based periodical things; we may spot it, as well, in the ongoing influence of books like The Social Life of Things or Michael Thompson's Rubbish Theory.1 At a conference called "Objects of Belonging," in Sydney, Australia, this past October, the signs of this turn were particularly evident.
This material culture turn is obviously partial, tentative, and in a variety of ways controversial. It runs many risks, as well, including those of a misplaced concreteness or a vulgar materialism. It comes after a long time in which the objectness of the cultural artifact was taken to be merely a support for its textual productivity, or for its abstract status as a commodity, or for the struggles over meanings, ideologies and desires which took the artifact as their pretext. A material culture analysis, while it may consider these things, asks us as well to consider the ways in which cultural artifacts exist in the world, the ways in which they occupy space, and accumulate; the ways in which they travel, and follow lines of passage which take them around the world.
I'm committed to this turn for a number of reasons, but the most pertinent of these reasons has to do with my living in Canada. For many Canadians, the thingishness of things always threatens to undermine the usefulness of the subcultural theory with which most of us are probably familiar. For some time now, of course, the claims of a certain subcultural theory have come to serve as the mobilizing premises of cultural studies itself in a broader sense: claims about the contradictory nature of meanings, about the subversive ends to which cultural commodities, whatever their context of production, may be put in the act of consumption. I don't simply want to condemn these claims because they recklessly and irresponsibly find opposition everywhere, as is so often argued these days. More specifically, I want to suggest a couple of ways in which I, as a Canadian, have come to feel uncomfortable or at least impatient with these claims. I am probably going to overstate these in the interest of polemic.
If the resistant qualities of popular cultural artifacts are somehow intrinsic to such forms, grounded in the energies which fuel their flight from propriety, and in their capacity to elicit what Larry Grossberg has called "affective investments," this elides the fact that, for Anglophone Canadians like myself, these investments are made in forms which typically come from elsewhere.2 As scholars and critics, Canadians are more frequently drawn to a political economy of cultural forms—to a chronicling of the economic relations which bring cultural artifacts to us. This is not merely as a supplement to the analysis of "affect," but because our affectual relationship to imported popular cultural texts may include the pleasures of non-complicity, the uncertainties over possible exclusion, and a wide range of other responses which stem from our location in this elsewhere. Before they are texts and meanings, these texts are things which have arrived from somewhere else and bear the marks of this elsewhereness. Cultural studies has been noted, just as frequently, for the claim that the transgressive dimensions of the popular do not reside in properties of texts themselves, but in the process of adaptation and negotiation which occurs at the moment of "reading." This claim, too, has been of only limited inspiration to cultural studies scholars in the English-Canadian academy, for whom the privileging of individual strategies of reading at the expense of more broadly collective (and geo-politically situated) patterns of reception may often seem frivolous and abstract. More pointedly, the ways in which English-speaking Canadians are said to "read" popular cultural texts from elsewhere typically seem unheroic and of little transgressive force. The reading and listening strategies of Canadians are famously said to include the stances of irony, moral superiority and unspoken aesthetic revulsion; our hip-hop, we believe, is more polite, our heavy metal more intellectually fertile. We may relish the irony, moral superiority and aesthetic revulsion which Canadians are said to bring to their reception of the most scandalous of texts from the U.S., but we can hardly claim that these values express some heroic, intrinsically transgressive quality of the popular and its energies. What this suggests for subcultural theory is that reading strategies which are resistant and involve ambivalence vis-à-vis properties of popular culture may not always be heroically so. This resistance may well be the mark of an internalized anti-populism, of a smugness or a demobilizing restraint.
Recently, I gave away my collection of 7" vinyl singles. At the center of this collection were several hundred punk and post-punk singles I had bought in the late 1970s and early 1980s, almost all of them from the UK and the U.S. I had bought almost anything I stumbled across for sale in those days; and while these purchases were marked by anxiety over the relative legitimacy of each single, there was also the sense that all of them, by virtue of their origin in the UK or the US, had a basic legitimacy which rendered them worthwhile. Indeed, the fact of their originating elsewhere, in the UK or the US, made them in a variety of ways equivalent, flattening out many of the differences in credibility and quality there might be between them.
In Canada, the cultural forms around which subcultural activity organizes itself will almost always come from somewhere else. Canada is one of those mid-sized countries, like Australia, which, while developed and prosperous, nevertheless devote most of their cultural life to artifacts which they do not produce. That somewhere else is usually the United States, of course, and, in the case of popular music, the United Kingdom. At no point has a specifically or exclusively Canadian subculture figured in the classical writings of subcultural theory; in no instance that I can think of has a distinctly Canadian subcultural formation been copied or adapted elsewhere in the world. This does not mean that the energies which have presided over the formation of subcultures elsewhere have not found expression in Canada, of course; nor is it to suggest that the Canadian cultural landscape is not dotted with a thousand subcultural practices recognizable to almost all of us.
What it does invite, however, is an analysis of the ways in which countries like Canada receive and assimilate avowedly oppositional and transgressive cultural artifacts whose origins are elsewhere. None of the genres which have marked postwar music may be said to be distinctly Canadian. This means that all our musical artifacts which bear the marks of oppositionality will be within forms whose historically privileged or more pure moments transpired elsewhere—from rock and roll through punk and hip-hop. This has shaped the status of the political within Canadian musical culture, as it has in dozens of other countries around the world. Artifacts for which socio-political claims may be made, whether these be gangsta rap records or white label drum and bass tracks, enter into an economy of scarcity and legitimacy whose principal effect is to render them cherished and precious. This is so however much they were intended as attacks on the commodity or on the textual form of the popular song.
Objects with subcultural aura, like punk or speed garage records, enter Canada, as they enter most other countries, through channels which are connoisseurist and cosmopolitan in character. They are brought to Canada by individuals intimately bound up with the circulation of information on an international level; they presume cultural capital of the most basic kind, such as that which tells you where to find British music magazines in Montréal or Toronto, or what an imported record is and where to find it. Their principle audiences, within Canada, are marked by an interest in the cosmopolitan and the scarce. Their circumstances of origin mark these artifacts in ways which serve to authenticate them, but these circumstances have little controlling influence on the uses to which these artifacts are put in Canada or the meanings which come to circulate around them.
This is quite an obvious point, of course. It's long been claimed that punk or trip-hop come to Canada to be picked up by those ignorant of the circumstances in which they took shape, of the social energies and conflictual circumstances which presided over their emergence. This is one of the ways in which the legitimacy of our own versions of these subcultures is undermined. What is less often considered is the economy of objects and artifacts which will come to structure the cultural sphere in a country like Canada, the role of scarcity and economic marginalization in producing a social cartography of tastes. Dance music culture in Canada, for example, is shaped by an economy of dance music which operates at two extremes: between the connoisseurist culture of import 12" singles and independent record stores, at one end, and the market for domestically-pressed CD compilations of Euro-house cheese, at the other. There are few of the mediating institutions and little of the artifactual production which would sustain fine gradations of taste and connoisseurship between these two extremes: almost no locally pressed vinyl 12" singles anymore, no dance singles to be found in major record stores at reasonable prices, a weak market generally for CD singles. This gulf exaggerates the fetishistically connoisseurist character of underground dance music just as it nourishes the perception of the rest as abject and degraded.
The Swedish folklorist Orvar Lofgren has suggested that a sense of national belonging draws substance from the often-minor ways in which commodities and cultural artifacts differ, from one national market to another. When national differences have less and less to do with the distinctiveness of indigenous craft traditions and more to do with minor variations of packaging and availability among globally-distributed commodities, we use these variations to construct our hierarchies of legitimacy and appeal. These differences, Lofgren writes, are part of the "cultural thickenings of... belonging." They invite an attention to "the nationalization of trivialities, of the ways in which national differences become embedded in the materialities of everyday life, found... in the national trajectories of commodities."3
The trajectories through which cultural artifacts enter a country like Canada mean, for example, that a perceived oppositional status in the context of origin is most readily recognized by those with the skills and cosmopolitan connections to recognize the marks of connoisseurist value, rather than by those with more genuine affinities to the impulses which shaped this confrontational status. Few dispositions in a country like Canada are more adaptable than those which hover at the borders and focus on imported records or other artifacts of avowedly oppositional cultures: these dispositions can survive the transitions from punk to synthpop to house to rave to electronica and on through the easy listening revival. The entry of so many subcultural forms into Canada through the gateways of connoisseurship is, it might be claimed, one index and cause of the ways in which cultural authority clusters within a country dominated by a large middle class. More importantly, in my view, it suggests that we consider all musical forms and cultural artifacts in terms of the knowledges which are required in order to gain access to them. The economy of musical legitimacy, in Canada, is intimately bound up with the monitoring of what is transpiring elsewhere.
There is nothing wrong with this cosmopolitanism, of course, but it invites us to reconsider the privileging of meaning and use which is common within the analysis of cultural artifacts. The trajectory of cultural commodities as they come into Canada and innumerable other countries is shaped by the collective investment in the marks of origin which they bear, and by the capacity of those engaged in importing them to make strategically effective conversions of capital and legitimacy. What this means, of course, is that the field of popular music is, much of the time, marked by a high level of anxiety and status panic, with little of the comfort which comes from a sense of being at the center. As emotional, affective responses, anxiety and status panic are much less heroic than those which subcultural theory, in its analysis of consumption, has claimed to uncover. They are, nevertheless, at the core of what it means to engage in cultural life in a culturally peripheral country.
This, then, is the first source of my impatience with subcultural theory: its treatment of the artifact separate from an economy of scarcity and legitimacy, an economy which, I would argue, is crucial to the culture of popular music in countries whose cultural artifacts typically come from somewhere else. Indeed, over the last year, the place of the U.S. within what we might call a global economy of credibility has come to be perceived as a problem for the recording industry overall. In its 1997 year-end analysis of the international music industries, Billboard magazine devoted a major cover story to the declining sales of U.S. music in global markets.4 Several reasons were offered for this decline, including the growing popularity of national or regional performers in Europe and Asia. The most fundamental cause, however, was said to be the U.S. market's persistence reliance on its own "urban, country, and rock genres," musical styles whose chances for success elsewhere were limited. The European and Asian representatives of major record labels bemoaned the specialized, purist sorts of music being sent them by their U.S. head offices, pleading for more acts with mainstream, crossover appeal.
The unexpected development here was not the divergence of tastes between the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. (This has been evident for at least a decade, since dance club music conquered Europe but failed to make significant headway in the U.S.) Rather, what is striking about the current situation is that the tastes of U.S. consumers now appear to manifest a purity which listeners elsewhere are assumed to have forsaken. This state of affairs represents one more milestone in the slowly unraveling pertinence of a cultural imperialist position in popular music studies. For every observer who takes declining sales of U.S. music as comforting evidence that American hegemony is receding, there are those who bemoan the aesthetic degradation seen to plague the rest of the world when non-American dance-pop acts or celebrity opera singers dominate the charts of Europe and Asia.
At the same time, as the U.S. market organizes itself around a few core genres—rock, rap and country—the insularity within which these genres develop invites us to ask ourselves whether we welcome the vitality of the spaces within which these genres unfold or bemoan the segregation which has brought those spaces into being. This raises the highly delicate question of the privileging of contexts of origin within aesthetic and political debates. As a Canadian who occasionally attends U.S. conferences in popular music studies, I am familiar (and often complicit) with the tendency to treat our own developments of music derived from African-American and rock traditions almost exclusively in terms of the global patterns of musical circulation which brought them there. We may evaluate Quebecois hip-hop (or Mexican rock) through the prisms of a political economy, casting them as instances of resistant appropriation or slavish imitation. For any deeper consideration of their meaning or expressive power, however, we are inevitably invited to go back to the set of cultural and social relations present at the founding of these forms. This will always take us back to the U.S., as the site in which the crucial ideological and affective dimensions of these forms appear to be worked through. Set against this context, our own national contexts will always seem socio-politically impoverished or quaintly innocent. We may, as we often do with jazz histories transpiring outside the U.S., regard them as interesting fodder for social history but of no possible significance whatsoever in the history of jazz as a form.
In Quebec, where I live, the residues of imitative musical production litter used record stores, thrift shops and a dozen other institutions which have evolved for this purpose. These stores are full of locally-produced versions of jazz, bossanova and a dozen other forms, produced in the 1950s and 1960s. They are there, not merely because this was a period in which these genres flourished, but because, by the end of the 1970s, the economies of local production no longer made such imitation feasible. The thousands of titles which litter these stores thus testify to the decline of a local musical economy just as they stand as evidence of kitsch formations organized around styles whose authentic versions unfolded elsewhere.
I have been drawn over the last few years to the analysis of failed cultural commodities, of those artifacts which are discarded and residual. I am not interested in these objects as collections of texts to be rediscovered and reappropriated. Rather, I am drawn to the ways in which their very bulk as waste has come to assume a certain monumentality. In a country like Canada, the richest evidence of cultural production is often to be found in those repositories of cultural commodities which are dead, their life cycles exhausted, the social desire which once brought them into being extinguished.
Popular music has been studied in ways which emphasize change over time, which are fixated on the succession and seriality of musical texts and styles. We should remember, however, that recordings, like other cultural artifacts, do not simply succeed each other in time; they also accumulate in space. In doing so, they leave behind, in the evocative words of Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, "a sediment that builds up the structure of culture like a coral island."5 Indeed, the sense of used commodities as life-forms of a sort is common in writing on the subject: Benjamin spoke of leftover commodities "growing on walls like scar tissue, ancient, wild flora which, blocked off from the sap of consumer traffic, intertwine with each other in the most irregular fashion."6 Some of this sedimentation is to be found in the record collections which many of us create as away of spatially organizing the cultural commodities we have drawn into our own domestic spaces. Sedimentation is visible, as well, in the used record stores in which records accumulate and signify their undesirability in a kind of counter-canon.
A few years ago, Ivan Kopytoff invited us to be attentive to what he called the social biography of things. Objects, like people, have lifecycles, in the course of which they age. They age, it must be noted, in a variety of ways, and the patterns of this aging are full of lessons about value and meaning. Typically, the lifecycles of cultural commodities have been analyzed in economic terms, with an attention to the shifts in value which objects undergo in the course of their lives. For Kopytoff, the crucial shifts are those which take the artifact in and out of its commodity phase: these shifts endow the object with exchange value, as it enters the market, and then, at some further point, remove it from circuits of exchange as it takes its place within the private collection or the domestic interior.7 We may focus, as subculture theory does, on the acts of consumption which make commodities move, from place to place, but we might also examine the broader patterns of migration which shift cultural artifacts between one repository of memory or context of ordering to another.
The commodity phase of an artifact's lifecycle is only part of the story, however. In his book Rubbish Theory, Michael Thompson noted that the central problem in the analysis of objects was the disjunction between economic decay and physical decay. Long after objects have ceased to hold any significant economic value, long after they have stopped being signifiers of social desire, they continue to exist as physical artifacts. Twelve-inch vinyl dance singles, whose commercial life cycle may be little more than a couple of weeks, do not disappear from the world once that two weeks has elapsed. "In an ideal world," Thompson writes, "an object would reach zero value and zero expected life-span at the same instant, and then disappear into dust. But, in reality, it usually does not do this; it just continues to exist in a timeless and valueless limbo where, at some later date it has the chance of being discovered."8 Later, Mackenzie Wark would describe similar disjunctions in his analysis of fashion. Fashion, he noted is marked by a discrepancy between the different speeds of semiotic and physical decay.9 The coherent or rich meaningfulness of an object will typically have withered or dispersed long before the object itself. Nevertheless, the object persists, awaiting either its own physical decay, far off in the future, or those moments in which its meaningfulness and desirability will be renewed.
Here, an analysis of cultural artifacts almost of necessity becomes an ecological analysis, in the broadest sense of the term. The accumulation of artifacts for which there is no longer any observable social desire invites us to deal with the question of how we deal with cultural waste. Where do old vinyl records go when no one wants them anymore, is a question I have asked in five or six cities, from Mexico City to the former East Berlin, and it is a question which has often confounded even devoted shoppers in those cities. People in Mexico City answered that there was little market for used records, or for second-hand goods generally, among the middle class: but this did not answer the question of where all the records had gone. The records left unsold at the end of a yard sale are almost never thrown away, because we assume that someone, somewhere will want them and because we have a vaguely moral objection to simply destroying them. No one may want certain kinds of mid 1980s dance singles, or French-language Maoist books of the early 1970s, but there is still a resistance to throwing them out with other kinds of trash. And so we donate them to church rummage sales or charity shops, where they continue to sit, usually unsold, until they are moved along to somewhere else. A whole informal economy has taken shape around this passage, an economy shaped by the trajectories through which certain kinds of cultural commodities move as they seek to find a final resting place.
At the same time, the lifecycle of cultural commodities may be considered in spatial and geographical terms as well. The paths and velocities through which cultural commodities move help to define the rhythms and the directionality of urban life. One of the themes of cultural geography is the copresence of different temporalities within the city: the buildings from different eras which exist alongside each other and signify different historical periods: the forms of commerce which represent different moments in the development of modes of production. This process is one which geographers have called the spacing of time, and these dimentation of cultural commodities throughout the city is a principal part of this process. Musical recordings are distributed, in the space of the city, in ways which depend in part on the velocity of their turnover, on the rapidity with which they live out their lifecycles. The sparsely stocked dance music specialty store, with 25 new 12" techno singles displayed on a wall exemplifies, almost paradoxically, one such velocity. The low-tech, artisanal appearance of these stores disguises the efficiency with which they are intimately bound up with high-velocity, trans-Atlantic feedback loops and circuits of distribution. Conversely, the chain superstore, with its high tech, computerized connections to inventory databases and resupply warehouses, is nevertheless full of slow moving reissues whose value is produced within more leisurely processes of canonization and rediscovery.
In another instance of this polarization, we may note the different velocities of old vinyl albums and used compact discs in the current moment. In Montréal there were, until recently, several large warehouse stores of used vinyl, of a scale I have not seen anywhere else. Over the last five years, many of these have closed, their stocks ending up in the few stores which remain; more generally, one can see the consolidation of used record stocks, as they move from radio station libraries and small independent stores towards a very few retail outlets. There they sit, static, their very bulk signaling a kind of monumentality. The compact disc, on the other hand, is one of the most efficiently mobile of commodity forms, moving through primary and secondary markets in ways which link it to a whole set of legal and illicit economic activities. A month or so ago, The Globe and Mail ran a long article on the heroin trade in Vancouver, a city which is now considered to be the heroin addiction capital of North America. Part of the economy of addiction, the newspaper suggested, were the proliferating secondhand stores and pawnshops in Vancouver, commercial institutions through which funds for drug purchases might be quickly raised. Compact discs were considered one of the key commodities within this commerce, easily stolen, easily converted into cash, and easily resold. When I was robbed in July, the investigating policemen told me that the compact disc was now the mostly commonly stolen item in Canada, precisely because of this convertibility. The compact disc circulates quickly and relatively easily from retail stores to apartments, and from there, to pawnshops or second hand stores and back into individual collections.
To return to the used vinyl record store, however: over a decade, I have watched as successive layers of the records for sale in these stores, in Montréal, have been stripped away in response to ongoing processes of canonization or revalorization: first, the 1960s Anglo-American rock, then the 1950s vocal music, the newly-revalued 1970s disco singles, the soundtracks, the instrumental exotica albums and so on. What remains, still unsifted, is the legacy of two decades of Quebecois music which continues to resist these processes of recanonization and rediscovery: the fake Tijuana brass albums produced in Montréal, the French-language Hawaiian records, the disco symphonies celebrating the 1976 Olympics.
In the ways in which they accumulate, and in the fact that they sit there, unsold, these commodities belie the definition of the commodity as a signifier of social desire. They accumulate precisely because of their undesirability, but this undesirability, paradoxically, contributes to their meaningfulness. These records have come to function as what Grant McCracken has called "ballast": they stand as a public record or display of cultural production.10 The legacy of Quebecois easy listening albums, whose cultural value has decayed long before the physical objects themselves, is nevertheless signified through the sheer bulk of these records as they continue to fill the spaces of record stores, thrift shops and garage sales. While they remain valueless, their bulk nevertheless functions monumentally, in away that English Canadian popular music never has. In the same way, the sense we may have of the richness of 1960s easy listening culture is rooted in part in the fact that, for 20 years or so, these records remained undesired and unsold, and were therefore seen, thousands and thousands of times, by those moving past them in the search for real treasures. Now that they are newly fetishized and sought after, they have also lost their bulky presence as cultural waste, a bulky presence which contributed to the sense that this was a corpus of considerable coherence and importance. Their current status as fetish is thus nourished by their absence from easily accessible sites of display.
The record stores I am talking about are, at one level, museums of failure, but by collecting failure in one place they endow it with a monumentality and historical solidity, and that is one of the paradoxes of material culture. Anglophone Quebeckers are educated about Francophone Quebecois music against their will, if you like, through the ways in which the residues of material production fill junkshops and thrift stores and other sites which they are more likely to stumble across and examine than the French language variety shows available on their television sets. Another of the paradoxes of material culture is that, in an age supposedly marked by the dematerialization of the cultural artifact and its reduction to electronic information, our cities contain ever more gargantuan physical structures devoted to collecting and offering cultural artifacts: the book, video and record superstores which have transformed the retail industries over the last decade.
Let me conclude with some comments on the idea of "scene," an idea about which I've written elsewhere. The concept of "scene" obviously has a long history in fan and industry discussions of popular music—from the very beginning, it represents a kind of helpless gesturing towards the idea of a space whose boundaries are unclear and whose degree of formal organization is highly variable. Thus, one can speak of the Seattle scene, with reference to a specific locality, or the progressive house scene, designating a geographically dispersed attachment to a particular kind of music. I have clung to the idea of scene in part because it seems to me to sit, usefully but uneasily, between two other terms often employed in the social analysis of art and culture. One of these terms is, in fact, subculture, but subculture has never seemed to me to suggest with sufficient strength the kinds of informal organization, implicit labor and struggles for legitimacy which go on within the kinds of social grouping the term is meant to designate. Indeed, in its loosest versions, it may simply designate a way of living with a particular set of ideological complexes. On the other side of "scene," we find a whole range of attempts to characterize the social systems in which certain kinds of artistic and social production take place: from Becker and Crane's ideas about art worlds through notions of the school and the circle, and from there through Peterson and White's idea of the "simplex," as developed in their analysis of session country musicians in Nashville.11
Studies of subcultures are usually too much about meanings, and studies of art worlds are much of the time too much about cultural labor, but I would be loath to embrace an analysis which didn't have elements of each. The practices which take shape around kinds of music or forms of consumption are interventions in the field of meaning, but they are also moves which strengthen or loosen social boundaries. Thousands of college radio fans seeking out records which seem to come from the margins of the dominant economy are grappling with their contradictory place within that economy. But they are also, most of the time, through the values they privilege, the shared points of reference they set in place and the gestures of affinity they enact, helping to solidifying the social boundaries of a largely white bohemia in which politics are defined through an ethics of consumption.