Subcultural (-ising) Bodies: Youth Culture for Organisms

By Chris Driver

The recent interest in ‘bridging the gap’ in Youth Studies – captured succinctly in the eponymous conference co-hosted by the Griffith Centre for Cultural Research and the TASA Youth Thematic Stream in November 2012 – has thrown up many important questions for youth sociologists, not least those studying the significance of youth cultural activity. Such questions have emerged from the renewed and accelerated convergence of the interests of scholars working on youth transitions and youth cultures respectively, which have begun to move the sociology of youth past a number of tired conceptual and methodological antinomies (see Furlong, Woodman and Wyn 2011). For scholars of youth culture, a sudden spike in the number of research projects investigating how (sub-) cultural participation in various spheres of leisure may continue to impact upon the biographical trajectories of affiliates beyond youth and young adulthood is a game-changer. Subculture, it seems, is not as ‘fleeting’ or
‘transitory’ or ‘ephemeral’ as we have recently been led to believe (see Bennett 1999; Muggleton and Weinzierl 2003; Bennett and Kahn-Harris 2004). On the contrary, sub-culture constitutes a significant part of the environment wherein young people negotiate the complex task of ‘becoming-adult’ (Bloustien and Peters 2012). The challenge for sociologists of youth is to conceptually account for this.

To be sure, my argument is not one of what youth cultures are but rather how youth cultures work, and I do not intend here to sink into a rehearsal of the ‘subculture versus post-subculture’ debate. Certainly, as has been the sounding board of those pushing post-CCCS orthodoxies, young people’s cultural affiliations do not necessarily entail the kind of sustained commitment to spectacular behaviour as was implied (retrospectively) in the ‘subculture’ frameworks of the Birmingham School (see Hall and Jefferson 1993). Yet the burgeoning literature on ageing subculturalists suggests that they do for many remain an important (and durable) resource in negotiating more everyday biographical trajectories (Bennett and Hodkinson 2012; Bennett 2013). Similar narratives are also emerging outside of academic discourse; several recent books and documentary-style films, for instance, are painting a picture of subcultural identities as something that must be managed and mediated alongside the arrival of parenthood (Lindberg 2009; Nevins dir. 2011) – a social role that is apparently seen to demand ways of being that are incongruent with ‘being’ a punk or whatever. What is interesting here is that, where youth culture has previously been positioned as a set of reflexively-appropriated resources for young people to mediate the pressures and demands of everyday life, commentators are now observing young adults who have, by experience, come to embody their cultural attachments and must reconcile the demands of a transition to adulthood with the distinctive tastes and behaviours to which they have become, as it were, pre-disposed.

If this evokes the conceptual architecture of Bourdieu and (more productively) his sociological interest in bodies, such concerns have not found expression in work on so-called ‘youthful subcultures’ (Frith 1983). Indeed, the major debates in subcultural studies have tended to instrumentalise the function of the body as a locus for subjectivity in favour of analyses of its stylistic adornment (Hebdige 1979) or as a reflexively-deployed meaning-making apparatus (Tsitsos 1999). Little conceptual room has been left to account for why, for instance, a hardcore punk (to return to the aforementioned example) might struggle to enact the ‘soft’ and compassionate gentility required (or even desired) to nurse his new-born baby. Contra the emphasis of subcultural studies on reflexively-deployed cultural practice, bodies define our ‘action-potential’ (Duff 2010). Even where writers have acknowledged the ‘body problematic’ (Crossley 2007), concepts like the ‘reflexive habitus’ (Sweetman 2003) have been used to explain away the corporeal impact of (sub-) cultural practice. At the same time, ‘habitus’ has been shockingly oversimplified as certain writers have glossed over the complex fields of relationships in which individuals are implicated with only the broadest of sociological brushstrokes (see Kahn-Harris 2007) and in ways that recall the problems of very early theories of ‘subculture’ (see Gordon 1947).

Elsewhere, I have argued that ‘habitus’ is much more useful as a way of conceptualising the more committed forms of attachment that continue to characterise many youths’ experience of subculture (see Driver 2011). Observing interview data where my informants articulated an experientially-driven pedagogical process of the acquisition of ‘skills’ (Ingold 2001) in a distinctive set of youth cultural practices, I argued how figuring habitus as both historical and dynamic might help conceptualise (a) how participants of youth cultures learn to ‘just do’ their performances of identity, and (b) how such identities spill out into everyday practice. It is worth pointing out that acknowledging the weight of subcultural participation in the ongoing ‘process’ of habitus (see Casey 2001) accorded closely with the narratives I had collected about experiencing the hardcore scene as a site of self-transformation and self-improvement.
Thus, to return to the purpose of this essay, I do not mean simply that youth-cultural identities act as a durable frame of reference in the post-youth biographical choices that actors make. To do so would be to deny the corporeal parameters of agency and reify the problematic at the root of this argument. What I mean to say is that youth culture needs to be acknowledged for the important contribution it makes to the environment in which young people – as organisms – grow (Ingold 1990). Rather than positing youth cultures as ways for young people to symbolically use style (see Brake 1980) or reflexively come to terms with the slipperiness of postmodern identity (Bennett 1999), there is a case for understanding them as mechanisms for achieving the ecological (hence, experiential) continuity required for young people to develop ‘as selves’ (see De Nora 2000) – precisely the kind of continuity that is (if the last quarter-Century of sociological scholarship is to be paid any heed), that has been forfeited to those socio-cultural processes of ‘detraditionalisation’ that have destabilised socially-prescribed identities.

In addition to burgeoning evidence that subculturalists are maintaining their youth-cultural identities as a meaning-making apparatus well into adulthood – and, apparently, even into their twilight years (see Bennett 2013) – an empirically-grounded case for the biological impact of distinctive leisure activity is beginning to unfold. Clifton Evers’ work on Australian surfers for instance notes how the embodiment of competences required for an ‘affective attunement’ to the surf manifests itself both emotionally and physiologically in the everyday lives of his research population (see particularly 2006, 2009). Men who surf, argues Evers, develop particular ways of being that allow them to negotiate the dicey social ecologies of homosocial intimacy, becoming (see Lande 2007) able (in fact, predisposed) to ‘just do’ their masculinities the same over a beer and conversation in the pub, or on a beach at the edge of the Indonesian jungle, as on their boards in the surf at Bondi. Surfers also embody their cultural experiences by way of body shapes developed in the throes of local breaks (see Evers 2009), and in physiological changes that manifest in their ears and eyes and attune their bodies and senses to the demands of life in the sea. The point here is that this is not as abstract as the nomenclature implies. Doing culture can have real (physiological) and documentable biological consequences.
All of this is to suggest that distinctive leisure activity impacts upon the ‘ontogenetic development’ of the ‘organism-person’ as it unfolds in the world (see Ingold 1990). A cumbersome lexicon, but I would like to stress here its precision. The principle aim is to transcend the ongoing division of academic labour between the biological and the cultural. Such a division rests on the hegemony of Neo-Darwinian biology that holds apart the organism (as the physiological realisation of genetic information over time) and the person (‘the seat of consciousness, the locus of intentional agency’) (ibid.). The trouble with the notion of the ‘person’ is that it refers to differences between humans that have their ‘ultimate locus inside people’s heads’ (p.211). The trouble with the former is that it treats bodies as genotypic outputs, which unfold according solely to the ‘bio-chemical substance, DNA’. Yet, to reiterate a point to which the above discussion of Evers’ work alludes, ‘enfolded within the organism itself is the entire history of its environmental relations’ (Ingold 1990, p.219). As Ingold observes:
‘…every organism is an open system, generated within a relational field that cuts across the interface with its environment. For the developing human organism, that field includes the nexus of relations with other humans. It is this nexus of social relations that constructs him or her as a person. Thus the process of becoming a person is integral to the process of becoming an organism.’ (1990, p.220)

In this sense we can begin to position youth cultural activity as the collectively-enacted coming-together of a ‘morphogenetic field’ (Goodwin in Ingold 1990, p.215).

What is needed then is a concerted effort to take seriously the ontogenetic impact of ‘culture’ – as aesthetic experience produced in the course of inhabiting environment/s – upon the ‘coming-into-being’ (Ingold 2008) of the person-organism (read: bodies). This means taking seriously young people’s testimony concerning the ways in which youth culture opens up and closes down agency; the minutiae of gender-performativity and the hierarchies of power it produces in youth-cultural space – not only to the relational positionality that reproduces a durable patriarchy, but in relation to masculinities and femininities in other arenas of socio-cultural activity (see Sewell 2012); to the kinds of action and competences (‘body techniques’ (see Crossley 2007)) they enable and the kinds of contexts in which they are enabled (’body pedagogics’ (Shilling 2007); and, to the myriad ways in which those invested in youthful identities inhabit their everyday place-worlds in terms of their own biographical milestones and unique chronologies of ‘critical moments’ (Henderson et al. 2007). In short, we must start analysing collectively learned modes of practice for their significance as ‘aesthetic technologies’ (see De Nora 2000) that manifest change at the level of ‘what a body can do’ (Deleuze 1992). To understand the real impact of youth cultural activity:
‘…we have to see it as consisting in certain powers of perception and action, involving dispositions and sensibilities established in the course of a lifetime of practice and training in an environment. Here the person is conceived not as a substantive entity, but rather as a locus of growth and development within a field of relationships. And by the same token, the contribution that other people make to one’s own knowledge – often represented in the idioms of kinship – is not one of substance but rather one of setting up the conditions in which growth can occur.’ (Ingold and Kurttila 2000, p.194)

While the authors of the above were remarking on the function of ritual and experience in the process of indigenous peoples forging a relationship with their lands, it is not difficult to imagine how such thinking might apply to scholarship on youth cultures (could the fact that it hasn’t already point to an undercurrent of ethnocentrism in the sociology of youth?). In such a formulation, the organism takes centre stage as the ‘enactive vehicle of being-in-the-world’ (Casey 2001); where it both affects and is affected by the collective production of (subcultural) places. It is by this generic process – by the (sub-) cultural-ising of bodies – that youth cultural activity comes to structure (alongside the cumulative weight of a lifetime of experience) the subject’s dispositions, tastes and behavioural orientations. Such observations might go some of the way to explaining how ageing subculturalists continue to enact their youthful identities long after they have discontinued any tangible connection with the cultural spaces in which those identities are originally forged, and why work on youth culture has, maybe now more than ever, much to offer work on youth transitions.

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Chris Driver,
PhD Candidate,
Griffith Centre for Cultural Research


About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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