Science fiction and rock music – a cultural comparison; part 2

So, yesterday I laid out the framework for my comparison of science fiction and rock music as subcultures with similar relationships to culture at large. In essence, my point was that the people within the fences of these subcultures see themselves and the other inhabitants in a very different and far more pluralist light than people beyond the borders. Today I want to go into more detail about how the subcultures interact with the general culture — to talk about ‘what crosses the barbed wire’, I suppose.

First of all, a few words on what I call neotribalism – which, as far as I can tell, has little in common with the Rousseau/Levi-Strauss theories given the same name. But as the word fits what I am trying describe, I’m going to stick with it – I’ll just avoid capitalising it.

In a nutshell, modern society is fragmented, in a way that it simply wasn’t fifty or sixty years ago. The decline of the nuclear family unit, the plurality of culture that wider and faster communications and commerce have allowed, a greater knowledge of history combined with a greater uncertainty as to what (if anything) actually has any real meaning (ah, good evening, postmodernity!) — all these factors, and many more that I do not fully understand, have left modern people bereft of the rigid social frameworks that previous generations slotted into automatically. We’re never entirely sure where we’re supposed to fit — so we decide to find somewhere that we feel suits us.

I use the word “tribalism” because the factors that bind communities together are not always the old geographical ones that non-tribal hierarchical societies did away with. We don’t need to interact socially with our nearby neighbours, because our survival is not dependent on their cooperation. In the past, local groups would have shared common interests based on the problems and pitfalls of living in the region they inhabited. This subliminal urge to associate with people who share the same drives and interests creates subcultures — if there is room in our lifestyles for luxury time, we have a panoply of different interests and ideologies to fill it with, and then we gravitate socially to people who share those interests. It’s human nature, albeit bereft of its original necessity. As Tim Leary put it – “Find the others”. (Anyone wanting more on this idea, drop me a line; I think I’ve said enough to make my point.)

So, science fiction is a tribe. Rock music is a tribe. And, as mentioned yesterday, there are tribes within those tribes. But there are also tribes outside those tribes — and this is where the ancient tribal mindset can resurface. Conformity was an important social cohesion mechanism in tribal times — it kept the group focussed on the relevant priorities. Nowadays conformity is far less important, but no less prevalent. It may be somewhat more loose within a tribe (or alliance of tribes), but when faced with ideological affront from outside, the typical and timeless reaction of a group to “otherness” (a word with a specially ironic resonance for science fiction fans) is frequently asserted through conformist behaviour.

So what the hell am I getting at here? Let’s look at some traits SF and rock share in their communications and dealings with culture at large.

Example the first: cultural traitors. Members of both tribes react badly to tribal leaders and icons (as well as rank-and-file footsoldiers) “crossing the wire” and going over to “the other side”. Science fiction fans (myself included, I’m afraid) tend to reserve great amounts of vitriol for genre writers who got popular enough to reach mainstream acceptance, and who then turn their back on the scene that spawned them and claim they were never a part of it anyway – Ballard and Attwood are two examples who leap to mind. In the same way, rock music enthusiasts are disgusted by bands (and fans) who “sell out”, “go straight”, or “join the machine” — regardless of whether the band or fan in question sees themselves as having done so. Their opinion is irrelevant — the tribal caucus has spoken, and judgement is passed. The unwritten laws have been broken; the lines of taboo have been crossed.

(There are obvious exceptions to this as a hard-and-fast rule, but I’m all about the sweeping generalisations here, for the sake of making a point — exceptions will be dealt with tomorrow.)

Example the second: reactionary behaviour. Most subcultures form as a rejection of, or a defiance against the mainstream, to a lesser or greater degree. At their inceptions, they are largely exuberant, brash, naive and celebrational — not to mention narcissistic. The sheer fact of being “not-them” is enough to forge a sense of purpose and community, a cohesive group. Over time, the subculture’s ideas and philosophies will deepen and become more complex (leading to the subgenre fragmentations mentioned before, as differences of opinion and ideology are thrashed out). The parallels with rock (or ‘outsider’ music of any kind) and SF should be self-evident here. Compare the outre otherness of inter-war trad jazz, with its zoot suits and street language, to the “golden” age of the pulp magazines, with its rigid definitions of literary style and subject matter in direct opposition to the “proper” literature of the time. These were (arguably) the birth-points for literature and music as truly subcultural forms; as interests that became not only a lifestyle, but an act of setting oneself apart from the herd.

Example the third: diversification in response to cultural appropriation, or resistance to assimilation. This follows on from the previous example, both logically and chronologically. After a time, mainstream culture becomes hungry for new ideas, for fresh memes to revitalise itself with. It is to the subcultures that it goes for this new blood, much as the great empires of modernism became enamoured of the surface styles and customs of the “primitive” cultures they conquered and assimilated. And much like those cultures, subcultures react to this encroachment by spreading wider, pushing the envelope, moving the edges of themselves further into extremity to keep their distance from the central monoculture. As rock music has gone through regular cycles of mainstream currency, its furthest reaches have galloped off into the metaphorical tundra to place themselves away from “what-they-are-not” (think of punk, black/death metal, the current wave of “emo”, or whatever the kids with sillier haircuts than me are calling it now; all reactions to a mainstream that had accepted what was previously considered too extreme). Likewise, here is much talk at the moment of science fiction appearing to go further out into fields of speculation that make it even less palatable to mainstream readers — I see this as a reaction to the mainstream’s recent appropriation of many SF tropes and ideas. The tribe wants to stay a separate tribe, and so it must move into more marginal and uncontested land.

Obviously, I am couching this in more extreme terms than it necessarily deserves — and this we will have to blame on my lack of training or inborn skill as a rhetorician and cultural theorist (or possibly just sloppy writing channeling sloppier thought). But I hope that the parallel I am trying to make is coming across — the ‘tribes’ business is a metaphor, but one that seems to work well from where I’m sitting.

You’re probably thinking that I’ve vastly oversimplified, and that the lines between the subcultures and the mainstream are not, in fact, as rigid and black-and-white as I have painted them. And you’d be correct — those lines are more like permeable membranes, and they are getting more and more permeable as time goes by and the monoculture becomes more accepting of diversity. And that is where I’m going to attempt to finish this long thought experiment off, tomorrow evening. Read part 3.

(In the meantime, feel free to praise my insightfulness, deride my conceit and lunacy, or just generally have your ten pence worth in the comments. I’d love to get some feedback on this theory, and in many ways negative is better than positive, so if you think I’m making no sense, please tell me why.)