Part 2. Framework #1. Trajectory arcs of emerging subculture movements and interactions with the mainstream.
In the mid-1990s, I did extensive research work on the process of how “identity subcultures” emerge, based on a newfound set of core values that drew them together as an “affinity group.” Sometimes those values attracted people from widely different social situations, cultures, races, etc., and they created a virtual tribe based on something they all saw as important that was missing in the mainstream culture. Keep in mind that these viritual-identity, “cultural creative” entities start out as producing something new – it’s inherent to their emergence. However, it doesn’t always stay that way. Sometimes a forward trajectory runs out of creative energy, or otherwise ends up going sideways.
- For the subculture’s insiders, the arc of cultural formation process tends to go from catalyzed (fresh and energized), to standardized (expected and getting stale), to either neutralized (dilution and extreme inertia) or self-euthanized (dissolution and implosion) or revitalized/retro-ized (transmorphed and re-energized).
- For those outside the subculture, there tends to be a sort of magnetic attraction or repulsion process. If the mainstream’s magnet starts by being attracted by the newly noticed subculture, then the arc of their involvement goes from being mesmerized by it, to popularizing it. From there in can negative – getting bored with it, and then discarding it in favor of the latest “new thing” – or stay positive and continue embracing it. If the mainstream’s magnet starts by being repulsed, the storyline is often more along the lines of marginalizing and even stigmatizing it. If the repulsion doesn’t last, then potentially it moves to tolerating or somewhat embracing the movement, and from there it may even merge with the trajectory of those who were attracted by it.
Here is a bit of expansion on some of what’s going on underneath those patterns.
Subcultures typically start as underground or more hidden affinity groups, and they usually emerge as “countercultural” – in reaction or opposition to the mainstream culture. They are catalyzed by both a sort of utopian longing for what they see as good and/or a dystopian reaction against what they see as bad. In any given group, either the utopian/reconstructive or dystopian/reactive side tends to dominate. Either way, this means the subculture starts out as something with substance – a different mode of thinking that results in distinctive values (how we should act and how things should be) which guide members’ activities.
Gradually they get noticed and often become more popularized. In this transition, the internal substance that attracted a group of desirers and/or discontents together gets co-opted and turned into an external style. Part of this is very understandable, as every subculture has – well – “cultural” elements, such as predominant lifestyles, and places they do/don’t go, and things they do/don’t do, and music and arts and foods and fashions, etc. All of these become indicators of their identity. “Style” happens when the externals of the insiders’ identity are mistaken by outsiders as being the substance. But, at the end of this process, “being seen as” Punk [or Hippy, Goth, Cyberpunk, Eco-spiritual, Cosplay, Emergent, Young-Reformed-Restless, etc.] takes precedent over actually “being/becoming” [fill in subculture name].
Mimicking by the mainstream is a key way that a diluted version of the values the subculture produced eventually show up in the mainstream. Or, sometimes, some people indigenous to the subcultural tribe rise to a level of greater public awareness. If they keep their roots, they generally stay activists who keep producing. If they lose their roots, they generally become celebrities who seek to find consumers. With activists, the subculture’s values continue being presented in a more hard-core way that challenges and agitates. With celebrities, the subculture’s values seem to get remade into something softer and more palatable.
So, whether through its activities or its celebrities, the subculture provides some “spiritual spackle” to fill in gaps the mainstream had in its value structures. (And, since values typically involve issues of personal morality and social ethics, they are indeed “spiritual” in nature.) As best I’ve been to intuit it, that process of subculture-to-mainstream influence typically takes 15 to 20 years. So, one way to do reasoned speculation (i.e., strategic foresight and forecasting) on the potential directions a society may be shifting toward is to:
- Identify and track its subcultures from their inception.
- Profile their paradigm and especially their values.
- Calculate how their influence could affect the mainstream value set.
For instance, if you dive into The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise (an-depth study of the underlying values in the Punk movement) circa 1970s, you’ll notice a strong emphasis on DIY/do-it-yourself and populism/open-to-anyone. Add about 20 years, and you see echoes of those same core values in profiles of some of the earliest “emerging ministry” in the early to middle 1990s especially. Back then, it wasn’t about being polished, it was about just doing the ministry, connecting with anyone who “got it.” That changed … as influences from other kinds of core values started showing up on the “cultural GPS” of emerging ministry.
To summarize: It’s as if a subculture starts in the basement of the existing social structure. As its members gain more notice, they sometimes move up to the main floor where their “cultural kiosk” draws even more awareness and either wider attraction and popularization or repulsion and marginalization. Sometimes an elite few take the elevator to the mezzanine or maybe even to the exclusive stores on the very top floor. Either way, some of the core values seep into the mainstream culture eventually.
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Series on Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex
Part 6 – Thoughts on Mars Hill Church and Emergent Movement as Christian Industrial Complexes.