Barometer Subcultures for Studying Three Street-Level Postmodernist Edges (1998)

SUMMARY (2008). This article was originally published by Leadership Network’s Church Champions NetFax in 1998 as a three-part series. I was given the opportunity to write something for NetFax, and this is what I chose to do – introduce the idea that subcultures give us clues about what the mainstream culture might eventually look like – an important topic, if we want to prepare for the future …

Note that it uses various forms of The “P” Word – Postmodern[ism/ity]. Sorry about that. I know it doesn’t mean now what it did then, so consider yourselves punks for a day and try to Do It Yourself and figure out the meaning from the use of postmodern in its context.

Barometer Subcultures for Studying

Three Street-Level Postmodernist Edges (1998)

Introduction

I’m currently in a quest to understand the emerging layers of the group of people we call “postmodern,” and what makes up the key differences among its various subcultures. I’ve concluded that most postmodernists don’t care about academic postmodernism, even if they’ve been influenced by those trendy European philosophers (who, true to postmodern paradoxical style, say they don’t believe language communicates truth, yet write book after book about it). What postmodernists do care about is a particular set of values, a non-traditional way of processing information, and interacting within the multicultural mosaic of a world. This is what I call “street-level postmodernism.”

I call its different layers “edges.” After several years of study, I’ve finally identified three historical “barometer subcultures,” each of which captures the pressure toward change that one edge embodies. Basically, these barometer subcultures give an espresso version of what eventually appears in a more or less diluted mainstream version about 15 to 20 years later. So it is a very practical help for us as church consultants to study these subcultures now for clues about the present and future. Here they are, along with some key lessons.

1. The “New Edge” of Mild Postmodernism

The barometer subculture for “soft” postmodernism is the punk movement. It emerged in England in the mid-1970s at a time when unemployment was 20%. Many young adults had no future to look forward to, other than being on the dole (welfare), living at their parents’ home, and splurging on entertainment evenings at music clubs. (Sound like so-called “Generation X”?) Punk fed on nihilism, body piercing, tattooing, dog collars, and clothes made of trashcan liners – quite a contrast to the parallel romantic world of “glam rock” that grew out of the hippie movement.

You need to study The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise by Craig O’Hara (1995). This book shows the 1970s punk value structure that emerged in the early 1990s mainstream of the Buster Generation (born 1961-1981). Specific punkish/New Edge values can be anchored to concrete historical influences in the “post-” world experienced by Busters in their formative years. For instance, Post-civil-rights (1960s): Anti-racism and pro-diversity. Post-feminist (1963): Anti-sexism and pro-feminism. Post-Stonewall (1969; beginning of modern gay rights movement): Anti-homophobia and pro-gay (or at least gay-tolerant). Post-Earth-Day (1970): Anti-speciesism and pro-ecology, pro-eco-spirituality, pro-vegetarianism/veganism. Post-Watergate (1972-1974): Anti-political and pro-anarchism, libertarianism, and sarcasm against a politically sick and unstable world. Post-Yuppie (1980s): Anti-Boomer and pro-DIY (do-it-yourself) entrepreneurship when Boomers and Builders refuse to turn over leadership to Busters.

So what? Just as the punks developed in reaction to hippies, New Edge postmodernist Christians tend to exist in reaction to the modernist church. Community is a high value, and New Edgers seem to have recaptured the strong biblical sense of relationship and fellowship. But I frequently see New Edgers trying to “tweak” traditional church structures. This may end up as a seeker-sensitive church with “alternative” music, or what is basically a takeoff on a church growth model. Thus, ironically, their identity is still tied to modernism, though they may think they’ve broken away significantly from tradition.

2. The “Far Edge” of Intense Postmodernism

The barometer subculture for “hard-core” postmodernism is the cyberpunk movement. It emerged with William Gibson’s science fiction novel, Neuromancer, which was released (appropriately) in 1984, and has become increasingly more mainstreamed since the mid- to late-1990s. Gibson is credited with coining the term cyberspace in that new-genre novel. Cyberpunks do not limit themselves to categories created in the past, and their gritty, realistic projections of how the future could plausibly look have remained one of their hallmarks. In fact, literature and film critiques have said that cyberpunk writers constitute the first generation of sci-fi authors to see what they write come into being. (Yet cyberpunk authors frequently comment that they see themselves writing about the present.)

More than anything else, as a barometer of change, cyberpunk capsulizes the shift to what seems to be the essential postmodern style of processing information: Holistic thinking (having a comprehensive framework of categories that are interlinked). Chunking (processing clusters of information by sticking them into a large, pre-existing framework). Divergent thinking (working under the notion that a problem more have multiple “correct” or acceptable solutions). Multi-tasking (performing several thinking/activity tasks simultaneously). Complexification (recognizing that solutions to problems tend to be multifaceted, with interactive layers of factors). Paradoxicalism (accepting that two apparently contradictory things can/do co-exist). Intuition (trusting “gut-level feelings” and conclusions, even if there is no traditionally logical explanation to how you arrived at that conclusion). Note: postmodernists don’t necessarily have short attention spans; it’s probably that they have “Pentium processors” in their brains. I know of no single book that addresses all the thinking issues, but for a great read on cyberpunk and related subcultures, get Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge – Cyberpunk, Virtual Reality, Wetware, Designer Aphrodisiacs, Artificial Life, Techno-Erotic Paganism, and More by Rudy Rucker, R. U. Sirius, and Queen Mu (1992).

So what? Like the cyberpunks, Far Edge Christians consider most past categories shattered (or at least non-binding) and see themselves as creating the future. They tend to be more radical. For instance, their emphasis seems to go toward church replication models and church planting movements rather than the church growth models that New Edgers promote for individual churches. For Far Edgers, church community seems to require a much stronger sense of covenant: “These are the people I choose to live my life in front of. We hold each other accountable, and commit ourselves to stick with each other long-term through thick and thin.” Creativity is a high value, and Far Edgers tend to be more willing to experiment with the ways they “do” theologies and/or churches. However, Christian futurist Cassidy Dale suggests that East Coast postmodernists are more likely to be experimental in their theologies and conservative in their church structures, while West Coasters are just the opposite.

3. The “Over the Edge” of Post-Postmodernism

I’m increasingly being asked what I think the future of postmodernism holds, or whether there will be a post-postmodernism, and if so, what could it plausibly look like. I think that the barometer subculture for the future edge of postmodernism can be found in the so-called “global nomads” or “third culture kids,” which have been emerging in the late 1990s. These groups give us specific insight into the multiple-cultural, globally-linked, urban-centered personal formation typical of the youth who may well emerge as a mainstream culture between 2010 and 2020.

Third culture kids were often referred to formerly as “MKs”: missionary kids. But the borders have been expanded to include other natural constituents to their fold – children of diplomats, international business workers, and military personnel. These young people grow up not necessarily identifying with the culture in their country of passport, nor in their current country of residence. Thus, a virtual third culture has been created. TCKs frequently connect with each other through attending international schools or international churches. Because of their early life exposure to racial and cultural diversity, they tend to develop a cultural fluency just like a “second language without an accent.” Given their cultural sophistication, third culture kids belong everywhere … and yet nowhere, which may give a sense of insecurity and rootlessness. Still, they have been called cultural brokers, bridge people, and peace-makers.

Some of the best resources on TCKs I’ve found so far are websites. Study the personal stories and articles at: http://www.globalnomads.association.com [apparently defunct, so see link to WayBack Machine archives and check up through May 2001 crawls], http://www.expat-repat.com, [here’s a Wayback Machine link for expat-repat in late 1999] and www.barnabas.org. Or you may want to read or watch a film version of the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, about the Shangri-la paradise in which children from all over the world grow and learn together. The chapter on Global Teenagers in The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz (1996).

[Addendum: To these sources I would now add Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken (2001). And as a sidenote, I remember receiving a few emails in the early 2000s, from a woman who had worked with Third Culture Kids/missionary kids, especially those who’d had a difficult time in transitioning back to the “native” culture of their passport – American. As best I can recall, she noted that this small article on TCKs was one of the first things she’d ever seen that talked about a unique and positive redemptive purpose that this group just might have specifically because of their intercultural experiences. Usually they just felt alone, like outsiders, and often had difficulties assimilating back into their parents’ home culture. Perhaps the world will turn more friendly toward this barometer group as the global situation progresses from multicultural to more intercultural.]

So what? Like the global nomads and TCKs, Over the Edge Christians will have a unique personal formation in multiple cultures that makes them culturally fluent, without necessarily living internationally. All that is needed is intentional exposure from a young age to people of various ages, races, economic classes, and cultures. Projecting what this group could look like, it appears that diversity, truth, and justice would probably be among their highest values. If so, Over the Edgers will probably be willing to take substantial relational risks to serve as advocates, culture brokers, and mediators. Imagine the force for world evangelization and development that could arise from this group as they follow Christ! We can also expect them to play significant roles as “world Christians” involved in global business enterprises, international development teams, and other kinds of direct and indirect evangelism work to bless the nations.

Version 1, November 1998.

First posted on Prospectorium October 2, 2005.

Commentary (2008)

I’ve long been interested in cultures and especially in identity-oriented subcultures, like hippies, punks, goths, rastas, zoot-suiters, etc. In the mid-1990s, I began teaching occasional seminars on the subject, and somewhere in there, came to the conclusion that subcultures are barometers of the social pressure toward change in the cultural climate. When subcultures catalyze, it’s around a specific set of values that seem to be missing from the mainstream. And so, as people connect around this new combination of values, it eventually surfaces from the underground and, as Ted Polhemus puts it, goes “from the sidewalk to the catwalk,” as it transmutes from lowly (but indigenous) street style to haute couture fashion.

In more recent years, I’ve begun compiling a list of a dominant subculture that emerge, picking one in each five-year block, then adding about 15 years, and finding those values in the mainstream perspective on younger generations. As a do-it-yourself, see what you think about this list, and what critical values go with each subculture. (Critical values are those core perspectives that are must-haves in a culture, and without them, you don’t have the same culture.)

  • Early 1970s – hippies, psychedelics, Flower Power.
  • Mid-1970s – punk, Sex Pistols.
  • Early 1980s – cyberpunk, Neuromancer, Blade Runner.
  • Mid-1980s – ?? (Hey, I haven’t worked on this for a few years. So, what would you suggest here?)
  • Early 1990s – eco-spirituals, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, revival of Earth Day.
  • Mid-1990s – third culture kids, multiculturalism movement.
  • Early 2000s – neo-technos??
  • Mid-2000s – superheros, Marvel comics turned into films.
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