Stahl, G.  (1999)  'Still  "Winning Space?": Updating Subcultural Theory', in In[ ]visible Culture, an electronic journal for visual studies  [online]

[nb There is a transmission fault with this and all other variants on line. I have read the interrupted transmission in a particular way].

The classic CCCS approach to subcultures [eg as in this file] saw them as a site of resistance and as a site of potentially radical working-class consciousness, as in the notion of  'semiotic guerrilla warfare', or style as resistance. This legacy is still apparent. Postmodern work, especially that of Baudrillard would tend to render style as a mere spectacle with no radical potential. However, postmodernism itself has failed to uncover the complexity involved.

The classic work does have problems, especially in underestimating factors other than class and youth. Globalised culture is now important, requiring a new understanding of cultural space. The notion of taste and paste public also imply a break with  'rigidly vertical models that rely upon universals such as class' (3). What is required is an understanding of cultural spaces distributed globally, where 'ideas, texts, styles and people'  (3) circulate. Such circulation implies a number of  'networks, circuits and alliances, all modes of communicative and community action' (3).

[The peculiar combination of functionalist sociology, marxism, and semiotics in the CCCS project is then outlined, page 4f] Phil Cohen's work on resistance among East End working-class youth is seen as a landmark study of generational conflict and the production of new versions of traditional working-class culture. The notion of double articulation and hegemony leads the notion of working class subcultures 'as "winning  space"' (6) in dominant culture. The relation with mass culture leads to particular types of 'dress, music, ritual and argot'  (6). Hebdige was right to suggest that class was only one element, combining with processes of  'cross pollination, hybridisation, contamination and appropriation... [of]... the black presence' (7). Generally, the host culture attempts to fight back by  'conversion of subcultural signs into commodities and the relabelling deviant behaviour by various social agencies' (8). Punks in particular were able to deploy some of these cultural processes themselves, however, using mechanisms such as bricolage and homology. Hebdige sees this as a matter of a series of signifying practices  'which disturb rationality and order and semantic coherence' (9)  [and there is a link with Kristeva here, apparently -- punks developed a poetic language through  'disturbed syntax... [and close [... semantic rupture' (10), which openly celebrated contradictions and irony].

The analytic tools employed need to be rethought, however [and it is here, on page 10, that the transmission glitch appears]. Criticisms include over-emphasising symbolic responses to alienation, ignoring more 'imaginative and concrete contexts in which cultural activities and practices are enacted' (10), and being overly reductive and optimistic. Style is neither simply oppositional nor simply internal to a group, and the influences of mass culture have been underestimated. Oppositions between subculture and various hegemonic others ignore their interpenetration. Class marginalises the inferences of age, gender and ethnicity. Subcultural formation is seen in far too geographically specific terms. The process joining experiences of alienation with the formation of subcultures is still unanalyzed: for example in separating out intentional and unconscious elements, or individual and group identities [and there is a reference to Stan Cohen's excellent critique]. Working-class youth cultures were idealized, and thus seen as necessarily oppositional and resistant, as part of an abstract political struggle [see Coward on this essentialism ].

Postmodernism has latched on to some of these criticisms, with its recognition of the globalised cultural economy. Globalization must be taken into account. In terms of economics, the shift of flexible specialisation has  'resulted in highly reflexive productive capabilities', and trains are met with contingent and local forms of willingness and resistance  (13). This has already produced a number of highly flexible relations between individuals and  'larger reference groups participating in a global arena' (13). There are also quite different types of cultural industries, which are no longer simply part of a hegemonic apparatus, and a much more complex reception context. Postfordism seems more useful than postmodernism here.

Nevertheless, post-modernists have described the transformation of commodities into signs which have no use-value in resistance. The real has also been reduced to a series of surfaces and signifiers, and bricolage turns into mere pastiche [all this is based on Muggleton --in Redhead, S., Wynne, D and O'Connor, J ( eds) (1997) The Clubcultures Reader, Malden: Blackwell] . Rootlessness and play are dominant, and quietism, apathy and relativism emerge. For commentators like Grossberg, ideology remains, and a kind of ironic attachment characterises subcultural formation  'which refuses to distinguish between the authentic and inauthentic, between boredom and terror... as the only viable response to contemporary conditions' (citing Grossberg, page 16). This critique extends to seeing the mainstream itself as  'a social pastiche', including incorporated subcultural elements.

Power is still  exercised unequally and distributed unevenly, and the legacy of past power struggles in shaping cultural activity still persists as manifesting traditions, mythologies, various forms of media and the circulation of commodities' (17). Thornton's work is useful here in showing how the media itself supplies subcultural capital as the basis for taste publics. This rectifies the omission of the media in CCCS work. The media also have a more complex role than just maintaining hegemony, and can distribute ideas.

Thornton's reliance on Bourdieu is noted, and his work on taste is shaped by various social formations points to a way forward. In particular, the mechanism which makes choice seem obvious or unconscious, while still being socially determined [see file] does much to explain the origins of subcultural style. In Thornton's hands, subcultural capital helps participants systematically misunderstand the effects of class and develop choices as second nature. Ironically, it is used to distance participants from mainstream culture as well. In particular,  'authenticity...  in turn becomes part of those rhetorical strategies that are used frequently to define and justify who or what might be in or out in an economy of cool' (20).

It is also possible to use Bourdieu's notion of fields as  '"spaces of possibles"' (20), spaces in which cultural elements circulate. Within these fields, individuals act in ways which are not simply determined by social class, but they are affected by social forces albeit in a  'complex, and mobile, non-linear and multi-dimensional' way  (21). Sub cultural capital flows through channels,  'networks of exclusion and inclusion', which are globally structured and subject to local power relations (21). Local gatekeepers can construct discourses which may be oppositional. There are also non-discursive practices  [' eg money and technologies'], again ranging from local to global contexts. Their influence is 'necessarily fluid, chaotic, arbitrary, and uneven' (23). This opens the possibility for continual  'subjective reinvention and cultural innovation', though, as with commodities, there may be local restrictions. It is possible to conceive of a series of spaces within which people and social objects interact, sometimes in the form of conflict and struggle.

Analyses of space in Urry draws upon Lefebvre: there are  'spatial practices, representations of space and spaces of representation' (24). Spatial practices may include neighbourhoods but also  'individual daily routine'. Representations of space  'include the forms of knowledge and practices that organise and represent space in particular forms'; spaces of representation involve  'the imaginative construction of collectively experienced sites' (24). The last one can be extremely powerful. All of these ingredients are affected by economic and political factors which can affect the flow of 'ideas, capital and commodities' (25).

All the dimensions are required to understand matters such as the effect of  'neighbourhoods': unlike Cohen's work, a neighbourhood  can also be  'a territorial imaginary... [or]...virtual' (25). For example CMC might lead to new forms of neighborhood or community, if only by demonstrating the possibilities. CMC opens the possibility of communication as more than the mere transmission of signals located in power relations, but introduces a new  'ritual view' (citing Carey, page 26). This turns on the notion of community and communion, with CMC enabling  'enactments and performances' (26), which increase a sense of belonging. This example also shows complexity, since CMC is clearly dominated by both power and tradition, despite the enthusiasm and idealism of some work.

As a result of all these developments,  'taste cultures... cannot be understood as localized in any site-specific sense... [but are]... organized through a series of interconnections' (27). Youth cultures in particular may offer only  'a temporary and ad hoc coherence' produced by  local spaces and structures (28). Such coherence may well be strengthened by ritual communication and the development of collective sentiment and investment in an identity  [Anderson on nations as imagined communities is cited here]. Thus individual subjectivity becomes  'articulated to a larger social imaginary' (29). In everyday life, individuals may well traveled through several these spaces. As a result, what was formerly unconscious in the habitus may become more a matter for 'choice, justification, and representation' (quoting Appadurai, page 29).

[A helpful conclusions summarises the points, pages 30 - 32]. Basically, Bourdieu offers a way out of the constraints of by the subcultural theory or postmodernism, but we should also discuss emergence of global flows and imaginary social locations in the cultural economy. Individual subjectivity needs to be connected to local and global contexts. Global culture should not be seen as merely homogenising and hegemonic. Subcultures should be seen particular nodes in a series of  'networks, alliances, circuits and conduits through which people, commodities, the myriad forms of capital, ideas and technology flow' (31). It should be remembered that solidarity both excludes and includes in complex ways, and in sites that have permeable boundaries. We need to move beyond locally bounded subcultures to develop a broader  'cartography of tastes and desires' (31).

back to key concepts page