Monday, September 27, 2010

Paul Hodkinson's "Goth: Identity, Style & Subculture": Book Review

Coming out of (post-)punk, Goth combined music with an aesthetic that stretched back to the Romantic era two centuries before. Even if Greil Marcus tried to link John Lydon to Levellers, Ranters to reggae, I remained unconvinced. Theoretical labor expended over punk for its overtly politicized, commodified contradictions. Coming of age along with the music I liked, I read Dick Hebdige's "Subculture: The Meaning of Style" when it came out, bright pink mohawked gal on yellow cover when it came out in '79. I tried to match my own inquiries to its theoretical template, yet I was discouraged by Birmingham School ("of Business School" as Mark E. Smith sang-- not to mention "Mod Mock Goth") jargon.

Hebdige argued that a subculture's only viable as long as it appropriates and subverts everyday goods. Think of the cut-up art of the punk era. This 2002 study challenges this widespread theoretical assumption, that for sale means selling out. Hodkinson deftly deflates Hebdige with a reminder of Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood. Without their "Sex" shop on Kings Road, Chelsea, how would punk have been peddled, and where would John Lydon have been "discovered"? As a participant-turned-observer, sociologist Hodkinson adapts his Ph.D. thesis (at Birmingham) into the first mass-market study (at least that I know of) of this off-shoot of the (post-)punk era.

The result dutifully follows the conventions of the genre, and plenty of social scientific references sometimes document what commonsense already proves. The book as true to its origins is meant for a seminar rather than a settee. But, as an insider, Hodkinson enriches this dense, sober, academic treatise with valuable insight into a misunderstood, stereotyped, and feared lifestyle. For, as he finds, the visually prominent identification of Goths makes them hard to hide. They share their communal identity as their primary bond. Politics, beliefs, gender, race, class: these as the author argues mean little compared to the key affiliation. Not an outward style that can be donned and discarded, but a mutual support system forms for Goths. Although I suppose this could be said for any visually apparent faction in our society, as its members find camaraderie and sustenance among those they choose to bond with and mate with and stay with.

Ideals form "cultural substance." Hodkinson breaks this down into identity, commitment, consistent distinctiveness, and autonomy as four "indicative criteria" for Goth subculture. (29) In passing, he notes a crucial factor. Hostility by outsiders towards Goths reinforces "Gother than thou" reactions towards who's in and who's out, within the subculture according to its arbiters and gatekeepers, as well as in a more black-white fashion (as it were) between the hip and the square.

"Subcultural capital" accrues. Selflessness in supporting bands, making products, selling records, providing services may add up to dividends not tallied up financially so much as in terms of status within the Goth world. He examines clubs, conventions, shops, mail-order, online discussion lists, and fan sites to explain how contrary to previous critics of subculture, the "capital" is not diminished as it spreads but it is enriched, as fans use the media to enhance participation, widen contacts, and expand the impact locally and globally that Goths, as with any wired subculture, tap into and make their own.

He notes sensibly that "the likelihood of an individual without an initial interest subscribing to a mailing list with 'goth' in its title was surely only slightly higher than that of the same person deciding to spend the evening in a goth pub as the result of having coincidentally having walked past it." (179) That being said, in a hipster neighborhood near me, there's now a "Goth pizzeria" that attracts celebrities. Perhaps the past decade (this book's research stops about 2000) has found the term-- as with purveyors of its accoutrements and couture for teens at malls worldwide-- more loosely applied than before?

Although relatively underground, Goths rely on the wider world for materials, distribution, technology, and transportation. I would have liked attention paid to how Goths make a living if they cannot do so in the subculture, and how appeals to femininity & gender ambiguity in fashion translate into sexual and personal behavior. Did Goths share any values, any beliefs, any philosophy? The answers are not part of the questions asked for the dissertation, I guess.

The music gains attention, if often secondarily to what is after all an installment in a "Dress, Body, Culture" series. Yet this overlap appears often elided in Goth studies, and merits coverage. Similarly, the heritage Goth inherits from aesthetic and literary Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian periods in Britain deserved much more context alongside fashion trends and social theory.

Still, any thesis able to sneak in a passage like this earns my nod:
"Slimness of body and face, were, on the whole, also valued for females-- consistent with more dominant fashion-- although the ability to show off an ample chest with the help of a basque or other suitable low-cut top often seemed to more than compensate for those with larger general proportions." (54)

P.S. The author's made his career out of his passion, and for that I admire him. He's now at the University of Surrey. I hope he follows this up with a look at the past decade of the Goth scene. A slightly more updated, if textually slighter, but tonally lighter read can be found via "Gothic Charm School" by Jillian Venters. See my review. (Posted 5-15-10 to Amazon US.) Paul Hodkinson's website.

P.P.S. Since this, I've reviewed Carole Siegel's "Goth's Dark Empire," and "Goth: Undead Subculture" eds. Lauren Goodlad & Michael Bibby. Hodkinson contributes to the latter. Both books are from profs, so earnest theory drags down moments of participant-observer clarity. Still, one essay in Goodlad-Bibby tries to answer my question of what Goths believe-- politically not so much as spiritually.

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