Mar 272012
 

Ribbonfarm raises an interesting point about the status of subcultures in the mass surveillance age, and that got me thinking about the status of BDSM as a subculture.

Contrary to popular belief, subcultures are not vague constructs. They have a precise, if negative, definition: a subculture is a pattern of social order that is not worth codifying and institutionalizing for the purposes of governance or economic exploitation, under normal circumstances. So subcultures have historically relied on their obscurity, illegibility and unimportance to ensure autonomy and security.

[…]

The subcultural web is now being made legible and governable under the harsh light of Facebook Like actions. Just in time too, since the returns on coarser forms of political and economic exploitation are now rapidly diminishing.

[…]

The world of subcultures are about to be comprehensively explored, mapped, tamed and domesticated. The larger the subculture, the faster it will fall.

The most obvious form of infiltration is commercial. There was recently a dustup in the steampunk blogosphere about people buying mass-produced steampunk costumes instead of making their own or buying from costume designers who work on an artisanal model of production. Apart from the issues of authenticity, there’s also the financial health of the steampunk scene. Spending $500 on an one-off steampunk outfit from an artisanal costumer means that artist can pay rent that month and not go back to their day job, and can also buy better materials and equipment, and effectively circulates back into the steampunk scene in social goods. Spend $100 on a mass-produced, off-the-rack outfit and the money escapes the subculture and goes elsewhere.

The same applies to BDSM goods: artisanal production of corsets, paddles, whips, etc, versus mass-production. Until relatively recently, there was no market category of BDSM gear. You either purchased your handcuffs or riding crops from police or riding tack stores, or you went to some guy-who-knew-a-guy, if you were that lucky. Today, BDSM gear is peg merchandise. You can get quality, custom-made stuff if you are willing to pay the price and have access, but there’s always the temptation to go cheap. Once that happens, the money leaks out of the Scene and doesn’t come back in.

Look at the roots of the BDSM subculture, which is tied strongly to the mass media that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, the Victorian fetish magazines. A few generations later, you had the swinging contact magazine culture described in The Velvet Underground, and the photographer-model-guy with bondage equipment triad described in Bienvenu. (Granted, these magazines and other publications are known (legible, in Ribbonfarm’s terms) now because they are part of the historical record, while the personal connections are not.)

Like-minded individuals could find each other, in spite of secrecy and prejudice. They could find each other better than legal and medical authorities could, if they even knew about the subculture. They were trulysub-cultures, below the surface, off the radar.

Shared common knowledge texts are often enough. Secret handshakes serve the purpose of one-to-one mutual recognition, and three-way introductions are enough to allow small local groups to cohere. Dress codes, popular haunts and the active-use texts change slowly enough that secret handshakes suffice for all information diffusion. No envelope stuffing or email lists are needed. Punishment for defection — shunning and expulsion — is generally weak and local, because the value of membership is generally weak and local (friends to hang out with, parties to go to, a local economy of favor trading).

Of course, sooner or later people who weren’t direct participants took notice. Diana Rigg rocked a leather catsuit in The Avengers in the ’60s, and punk and New Wave moved into bondage gear and PVC.

Today, mainstream culture keeps appropriating BDSM: music videos, Hollywood movies, fashion designers, advertising. The CSI police procedural TV franchise seems to function as a kind of subcultural strip-mining operation, dragging one obscure clique after another into the spotlight and shoehorning it into another murder-mystery plotline (and usually garbling it completely.)

Today, the marketing machine can at best put its muscle behind a Justin Bieber and create coarse, large-scale culture whose manufactured nature is obvious to all but the dimmest of observers.

Tomorrow, it will be able to create tiny, niche cultures whose members will either sincerely believe that the subculture is their own creation, or ironically not care that it has been manufactured for them to find through engineered serendipity.

Ribbonfarm’s theory raises two questions.

The first is, will BDSM be domesticated? Depends what you mean. BDSM has always been a slippery, trickster-ish kind of thing, all about parody and mimicry. It would be hard to argue for “BDSM rights” on the same identity-politics model as LGBT rights. On the other hand, the sheer ubiquity of cameras in smartphones is leaking into even my local non-profit BDSM party.

The second question is, can something like the BDSM culture evolve in the future, or will the conditions of connectivity plus anonymity plus finely specialized interests not exist? Ribbonfarm says that we will eventually reach “peak attention”, when anything done by three or more people will be known will be legible. This could produce a greater degree of cultural homogeneity, not just because of overt political oppression, but from a lack of isolated cultural spaces where things can grow.

The subcultural web is now open for colonization. It will retain a potential for very coarse and rough kinds of subversion (#OccupyWallStreet is sort of the Swan Song of subcultural power).

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

(required)

(required)