Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Goth: Undead Subculture": Book Review

"Ironic indifference" sums up a dark pose. Both artifice and aesthetic, this style's flamboyant and macabre, mindfully traditional and socially liberating. For those who dress up in an ascetic eroticism, the lush, spare, baroque music echoes fascination with literary influences from over two centuries ago.

Unlike punk, which took itself usually too seriously, Goth grins at itself while mocking the celebratory, relentlessly conforming and spirit-quenching nature of a society bent on getting and spending. Co-editor Lauren Goodlad defines the movement as a "bricolage of the hyperromantic," (92) taking elements of glam rock's theater and punk's iconoclasm, but extending its view back into darker tales and taboo fetishes. While often mocked even by its participants, it upends gender roles. Males dress up in dresses, makeup, jewels, and coiffures; females share their attire with men. What contemporary narratives often create combines feminine attributes of "forbidden depth, antirationality, and sensitivity" within a masculine character who feels and cries: "a postmodern evocation of aesthete, dandy, and tragedian."

Goodlad's perspective's typical. The contributors to this Duke UP anthology often present their studies in dutifully jargon-laden ethnographic treatises, but the best ones-- often by participant-observers who feel less of a need to back up every utterance with a reference to anthropology, sociology and/or the French-- transcend the academy. I'll give a quick listing of the entries, which range widely in style.

The co-editors provide a solid, if theoretical, introduction. Joshua Gunn's similarly dense "ironic indifference" and comparison of ambivalence within "misogyny and resistance" by gender ambiguity finds energy by his interviews. Kristen Schilt compares women's participation in L.A. and Austin scenes. Trevor Holmes contrasts his role as a club dancer with his scholarly perspective. Goodlad delves into "The Crow" and "Fight Club" as narratives and films to explore androgyny and ethics.

Next, Rebecca Schraffenberger tells a story others share: of her own immersion as a teen into this subculture, and then her academic direction through it. David Shumway & Heather Arnet examine David Bowie's impact on what would become glam's roots for goth. Catherine Spooner wonders if (as of the late 90s) the "return" of Goth was imminent or hyped; Michael du Plessis roams through gay and bisexual identities, "fixated melancholia," and works such as "The Hunger."

I liked Mark Nowek's panoramic chronicle of a local Buffalo band Nullstadt, and that gritty city's brief Goth efflorescence 1982-84, when the music seemed to break out of its confines amidst the post-punk indie rock community. Jason Friedman looks at Southern Gothic writing, and Ken Gelder shows us Australia's cultural responses.

Co-editor Michael Bibby gives a standout essay on Joy Division and the Factory Records invention of and marketing of a sound that inverted guitars and voices to distance them, while foregrounding bass and drums with Martin Hannett's studio experimentation. Bibby explains the creation of this dislocated ambiance, and how the marketing with the label's distinctive graphics of this influential post-punk, proto-Goth music took on disturbing neo-fascist elements. Some may disagree with his placement of the racist imagery within "a gothic spectacle of absences, an exhibition of the spectral self, a funeral for identity," (253) but as a critical consumer of this music during its original era, I accept his argument as plausible.

Jessica Burstein enlivens this collection with what I wish a few of her professorial peers had done more often: include interviews. Valerie Steele tells her how "asceticism as denial, and the eroticization of that aestheticism" (265) gave a guiltily Catholic response for goths who memorialized the breaking of taboos rather than their absence, as the back-to-nature hippies had done (and I may add, away from which the punks veered). Fashion bared part of the body, but covered up in skirts and boots other parts. Steele believes that this heightened the effect of restraint.

Robert Markley investigates "Edward Scissorhands" and Nancy Gagnier views different versions of "Dracula." "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" gets Lauren Stasiak's attention, while Angel Butts briefly takes us into the NYC club scene. A leading authority as an insider turned professor, Paul Hodkinson (see my review of his own "Goth") wonders about individualism's presence when "we've all got the same boots on."

Finally, Carol Siegel (see my review of her "Goth's Dark Empire") discusses cult author Poppy Z. Brite. Anna Powell brings a much-needed chapter on religion and "parareligion," which takes on the trappings of faith but not the supernatural scope, and she finds many goths prefer reticence about their personal beliefs regarding religion or its lack as opposed to philosophical or moral inquiries. Jeffrey Weinstock speaks as a fetishist, and David Lenson wonders post-Columbine about the moral panic and media backlash over Goth and goths.

All in all, this accompanies Hodkinson's and Siegel's studies from the past decade. There's not as much attention devoted to the music, but this appears a common shortcoming of academic studies that accentuate the style and fashion and cultural relationships with other media. Sexuality earns somewhat greater scrutiny due to participants' reports, even if these are often filtered through theoretical recitals. Still, the inclusion of participants schooled in scholarship makes this a useful compendium. (Posted to Amazon US 8-2-10 & 8-4-10)

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