Subcultures and Sonic Proliferation, Part 1

Sebastian Chan, who is the editor of the snappy electronic music mag Cyclic Defrost and runs the Youth – Sound – Space forum emailed me today in response to last week’s blog entry Gatekeeping the Fruity Loops Revolution. Quite a vigorous email discussion ensued, which needs editing but I’ll post now as background to my forthcoming post about audio viruses, genres, cyberculture, and globalisation, among other things…


Sebastian wrote:

Hi Jean

I see you’ve quoted me (and my comments on Ausemusic) in your blog . . . . I agree that high cultures are subcultures too – I don’t think that that is ever contested in the literature even though it is not explicitly researched. Certainly whilst the CCCB research (and those influenced by it) peered into working class ‘low’ culture, I don’t think its ever been that this process couldn’t be reversed – just that its only recently that the workings of ‘high’ culture have come under examination – studies of informal business networking through leisure etc.

I’m not sure that it can be reduced to gatekeeping between professionals/amateurs or even producers/consumers, or high/low. Although on the surface that may be the case what I was arguing in the egroup was more complex. Its not about being ‘against Fruity Loops’, but about encouraging the development of a critical community into which works can be released in an active way. The current situation of music media (my own magazine included), and distribution etc is not condusive to mass scale production with no outlet for release. Should this change? Probably. Will it change? Probably not. Given the proliferation of low level information on the Net it is interesting to see the desire and need for aggregation of this bulk information. The drive now (both at a community and a corporate level) on the Net is not for information/data production but information management, structure, and the ability to verify/check/search. Likewise, global capital gives us in the middle class West a lot of choice, but little order to the choice and no reliable ability to choose. If you read the cTheory article on the Constellation’s packaging the themes of using labour intensive production practises as a means to struggle against the mass market, there are similar themes in it. This is more complex than condemning the mass market as ‘low culture’ (Frankfurt School etc), and recognises the changed global economics that underpin mass market production nowadays (hence my post of Jamaica).

Jean: Thanks so much for your reply – some great connections to be made there I think. I’ll take some time to digest it properly. For now, I’ll just say I don’t really mean to be reductionist, and I certainly need to weave some other threads in there – it’s all very complex, I know, and I guess that’s why I’m interested.

Sebastian: Likewise

Another thought on this is the swarming strategies that people like Goodman write about when discussing community-based production scenes (esp jungle and garage). Problem with applying that here is that our swarms are pathetically small. By that I mean if you look at the jungle producers in Sydney they are few in number and very geographically spread out over the city versus say the garage scene in South East London where you have crews of producers in a very small geographical space. I’m not sure the internet as a geographic space can be considered as having swarming potential. Except perhaps in DoS and other virus-style attacks etc. When I am talking about global politics I’m also not meaning it in that ‘glocal’ way Mitchell et al write about it – (on that point I fail to see how ‘glocal’ was anything more than obvious – yet people go on as if its something startlingly new which says more about their isolated state as researchers rather than anything else! To “reveal” a Icelandic hip hop scene is not remarkable but expected). I’m not sure the internet as a geographic space can be considered as having swarming potential. Except perhaps in DoS and other virus-style attacks etc.

Jean: a long and rambling, thesis-avoiding and yet thesis-related, reply to both emails:Do you think this is something to do with the “placelessness” of the internet? you need something to swarm over, a place from which to gather/swarm “out” from, etc.? But as a space that connects *places*, it certainly has been instrumental in spreading genres/innovations on genres (and the amen break?)…this is why it is deeply silly when people actually talk about “cyberspace” as if it is some autonomous, alternative place or “world” (some people still do!)

Sebastian:Exactly. You need physical space. And you need a close knit community – not one that is spread out over the (sub)urban sprawl of Sydney. Sydeny was the main motivation for the Perilous article that started this whole discussion on the Aus_Emusic list … that Sydney is not a good place for artists because of the real estate situation since the Olympics when compared to Montreal, Berlin or Barcelona. Likewise, I did an interview with Steve in Cyclic #2 where he talked about London as a centre as a result of media convergence and geographic density.

Jean: …you get what I have called a “quarantining of methodologies”: cultural studies tends to do exegesis and “high theory” on high culture, ignoring the material and social conditions of its production and consumption, while restricting work on popular culture to these very issues. A highly simplified version of this warped logic (which could equally apply to “popular fiction” and “literature”, or cinema and television in cultural studies) follows: The high-popular divide has broken down and we are all super-postmodern now. Therefore, we can now study popular music cultures in universities, and defend them from those nasty aestheticians. But because they are popular cultural forms (and not Art) and because we don’t believe in “art” anyway, we are only concerned with the way they connect to theories about identities/bodies, cultural politics, globalisation…we do not treat their producers as public intellectuals, and we do not try to develop aesthetic theories about them. We can write whole books on clubcultures without having to write very much about music or sound (Thornton, not Malbon).

Sebastian: Ahh yes . . . I see you like Theberge also – a vastly underrated book when it came out. Thornton – totally problematic. I think part of the problem with writing on subcultures is that once you step in to writing about the object that the culture revolves around it is hard to get back to writing about the culture as you get caught up in subcultural politics and micro-differences. (which may also be why a lot of music writers who do focus on the music do so at the expense of analysing the subculture from which the music emerges)

Jean: This is why you get all these banal articles/papers about hip hop that talk about it as “representing” place (of course it does) but far fewer about what makes good hip hop good (as opposed to authentic) for the people who make it. This is something Tommy DeFrantz [subtly] took issue with at sonics (hurrah): we need aesthetic theories (and not just social ones) of hip hop as well as social theories (and not just aesthetic ones) of local art music/avant-garde scenes. Plus, the boundaries between genres are so fluid when you look at the actual humans in actual cities making music (Brisbane is a particularly strong case for this). I’d like to see topics and questions researched between and through genres, and across the old aesthetic hierarchies – that would be far more dynamic and revealing of “what’s going on”.

Sebastian:Do you think that this might be because here in Australia we don’t actually get exposed to the formative stage of a sound culture like jungle or garage or techno? We get it after it is already globalised and deterritorialised?

Phew…TBC

Follow-ups: Subcultures and Sonic Proliferation, Part 2