subcultural capital and authenticity

Sarah Thornton’s Club Cultures posits the concept of “subcultural capital” to address the way distinction is amassed, redistributed, and passed along in youth cultures. This capital hinges on the perception of its authenticity: “coolness” has to read to onlookers as an inborn habitus to have economic value; it can’t seem like you are trying to be cool.

Thornton argues that, because it promises an end to alienation and the perceived phoniness of mediated existence,  "authenticity is to music what happy endings are to Hollywood cinema — the reassuring reward for suspending disbelief.“ That seems right to me; authenticity has only a negative theology, and it’s always in flux: It is defined as what can appear noncommercial or uncalculated at a given moment. It certainly makes no reference to any unchanging essence about any performer or era.

Authenticity is always a matter of genre fidelity that makes it resonate as genuine; the authenticity of a thing cannot be measured against itself. Authenticity is dependent on media; it is a construct of media. It exists only within media, and the nature of media dictates what forms authenticity can take. Authentication occurs within media. It doesn’t exist until "everyday life” is confronted with a challenge from representations of other ways of life in media.

Thornton puts it this way: “Media are so involved in the circuits of contemporary culture that they could be conceived of as being part of the material conditions of social groups, in a way not unlike access to education. In the case of youth, the difference between the hip and the banal, honorable and trash culture tends to correlate with amounts and kinds of media exposure — some media legitimate while others popularize, some preserve the esoteric while others are seen to ‘sell out.’”  

Unlike class habitus, subcultural capital is not fully a matter of being to the manner born, but an organic familiarity with self-confidence and privilege probably helps. Thornton argues that subcultural capital often appears to cut against and “obfuscate” class privilege; it is amassed by those who can promulgate a crypto-meritocratic ethos that seems to demonstrate how the individual can be autonomously cool through sheer instinct and ingenuity, regardless of their background. “The assertion of subcultural distinction relies, in part, on a fantasy of classlessness,” Thornton writes.

Subcultural capital, in Thornton’s view, depends on and is defined by media attention and its hype cycles. What registers as authentic, and thus economically viable and valuable, is always in flux. Attention can deplete something’s value (or authenticity) once it has constituted it. 

Club culture, Thornton argues, grounds its authenticity in fantasies of democratization, which would seem to threaten its value as subcultural distinction. To navigate this contradiction — that it must be exclusive and inclusive simultaneously — club culture draws on a straw-man notion of the bigoted and close-minded “mainstream” that clubgoers can define themselves against.

If subcultural capital is made of mediated representations of the self, social media would then obviously have a deep impact on the creation of subcultural capital. That impact is reflected in what sometimes gets called “immaterial labor” — the investment of consumer goods with signifying value by people’s deploying them socially. The networks for this deployment have been vastly expanded by social media, which not only connected more people more thoroughly but also created an archive that could be endlessly cited.

Social media are a staging ground for claims of subcultutral capital, one that subsumes the former places (the street, the club, public space, traditional media, etc.) where it could be tested. Social media, like the utopian rave scene, are seen as a quasi-democratic space that seems inclusive while actually serving as a field where stratification can be more definitive and inescapable. But what is the “mainstream” that social media can play themselves against so that they can seem inclusive and exclusive at the same time? Every gesture of inclusion is always at the same time a threat of exclusion. Social media exponentially expand the number of gestures occurring daily. What makes this tolerable for avid users?

Thornton points out that clubs (and subcultural capital accumulation) attract some older people despite their youth-centricity because clubs seem like a field in which identity is not fixed, unlike the “adult” world  (and its more fixed distribution of traditional cultural capital.) Social media may pivot on a similar promise, that it affords a field in which one’s identity can remain fluid, not subject to the constraints that actually condition and limit it within society. One’s potential to “grow” and amass more cultural capital seems much larger when one is playing the social media game of posting and tracking one’s metrics, but this is just a side show that distracts users from the ways in which their social position is just as fixed and predetermined as it ever was by factors they don’t entirely control.  

On social media one can seem to be working at a credible form of authenticity that isn’t as circumscribed as the forms available beyond social media. But this hinges on accepting that authenticity is not given but achieved. Social media make a realm in which the work of trying to be authentic is itself “authentic behavior” and not its antithesis. Trying too hard is the only authenticity available in online platforms that insist on participation. There is no way to use social media in a way that doesn’t connote “trying.”

Maybe that will change as social media become more entrenched and enculturated.Technology, Thornton points out, needs to be assimilated by a culture; how it will be used is not automatically dictated by the nature of its design. What a new media technology “means” as a medium independent of its content evolves as people start to use it and become familiar with it. "Technological developments make new concepts of authenticity possible,“ she claims; they don’t merely destroy some ur-authenticity that was available only to traditional "folk.” Facebook is conditioning what is considered credible; it doesn’t merely adopt other media forms’ methods of authentication. Facebook will allow for other modes of authentication.

So as social media comes to be taken for granted, the idea that what it manifests and conveys is “phony” self-performance will abate, with the new forms of “realness” it makes possible coming to the fore. 

I think virality is one of these emerging forms of realness; circulating tokens of yourself far and wide is a more palpable way to establish your “realness” than being true to some idealized version of yourself over time.

Algorithmic identity — the person you are according to Big Data and its predictive analytics and micro-demographic assessments — is another new form of “realness.” You can become a more authentic you in relation to this algorithmic prediction of yourself — the genre of you that you are expected to live up to by data you’ve put in the world, which some might regard as a fair proxy for the social self you have been. Again, one can’t be authentic as a matter of mere identity (authenticity does not equal simply being). It is always a matter of confirming or confounding expectations. Social media (and our compiled and processed data) make us into a genre we can aspire to as well as a product we can consume. We can enjoy  an alienated version of ourselves while using it as a measuring stick. This also frees us to contemplate our authenticity without having to use other people as our mirrors. We don’t need them to confirm it; we can self-assess and make all our adjustments on social media platforms rather than in direct social contacts. The distinction between social media encounters and “direct” ones may in fact cease to be meaningful as social media’s enculturation proceeds.

Thornton concludes with a critique of “difference” as resistance. Subculture studies like Dick Hebdige’s posited difference as inherently radical, given his assumption that power functions through hegemony. Thornton counters that difference also articulates hierarchies within a broader hegemony of status consciousness, and propels the dynamic system of fashion so that it may continue to assimilate cultural developments. “In many circumstances, the politics of difference is more appropriately cast as discrimination and distinction."That is the danger of a politics of authenticity as well, as authenticity is a mode of validating differences and assigning them value. 


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