Methodologies of the Molecular

One of the classic problems of traditional subcultural theory is that researchers sought to account for the emergence of seemingly organised and somewhat homogeneous groups of people. One of the problems with traditional subcultural theory is that it fails to account for the fact that the term(s) used to describe such groups may not actually be the term(s) used by participants. David Muggleton raises this problem in his book on ‘post-subcultures’ without ever really offering any proper solution. He talks about how he assumed all the signifiers of a punk so they were inscribed upon his body (hair, dress, etc), but he never thought of himself as a punk per se.

I have a similar problem in my thesis. Car enthusiasts of all stripes certainly a number of common characteristics, but to class them as all belonging to a delineated social category would be incorrect. Yet they all participate in, belong to and are distributed across a singular principle of organisation. The workshops, the event-spaces, the cars, the masculinity, whatever are assembled according to homologous thresholds. The thresholds are organised around an enthusiasm: a set of desires and beliefs; which operate across semiotic, material and affective registers. OK, cool. I have been thinking along these lines for two years. However, I went to bed and thought I’d read some D&G to send me to sleep… that was a mistake. In classic ATP style my thinking has been sent off on an exciting tangent. (As a sidenote: Has anyone else noticed they do their best creative thinking in the weird place between sleeping and being awake? Daytime! Stupid brain…)

The problem for accounting for what are nominally described as ‘subcultures’ is that, as Sarah Thornton and others have noted, the group is normally labelled as such by the mass media or governmental interests. There seems to be two levels of recognition operating. One defines a group under a singular term, which normally imposed by the ‘outside’. The other level belongs to the individual and the collective of individuals, the mass. What got me really thinking about this problem is Clif’s refusal of subcultural theory in his thesis (on surfing and surfer dudes). I was having a hard time figuring out exactly what Clif thought was wrong with subcultural theory. Then while reading CH9 of ATP again tonight, it struck me. Clif did not want to reduce the affectivities of the molecular level as they exist between the bodies of the surfers on the beach, in the surf and in the carparks to the overcoded level of the molar figure of the ‘surfer’ and subculture of ‘surfing’. Between the macro-political indentification of a subcultural participant and the micro-political lived experience of being one is a radical gap.

Muggleton’s way around this is to pursue a Weberian methodology that privileges the subject. I knew this was going to be problematic course of action in my thesis because car dudes are notoriously inarticulate (even PhD hoons, lol!!) and when they are articulate their language is couched in the discourse concerning the techno-mechanical. My initial way into this problem was to deconstruct the techno-mechanical discourse and tease out the ways that affects were overcoded. The ‘kickstart my heart’ effect. The affects of speed, power, the ‘V8’ (people saw me give that paper 2 years ago!) and so on. (Because they’re BLOKES caught up in the libidinal economy of cars, and are not going to say ‘it felt good to drive the car’ they will say ‘Oooh. Ahhhh. 400 fuckin horsepower of grunt gave me a raging hard on’.) However this does not address the problem of understanding car enthusiasts, in totality, as forming a type of group, it only indicates that there is a collective minor language at play that uses the majoritarian language of automotive engineering to express the affective dimension of a given enthusiasm. That is, it is simply an attribute of a collectivity, not the collectivity itself.

What got me thinking about subcultures were my comments in my Downfall post about the rise of everyday Nazism and thoughts on crowd behaviour at sporting events. Specifically the difference between organised crowd behaviour, like when the crowd has those books with coloured pages which they all turn in time to make designs or spell out words, and ‘disorganised’ hooliganism and other less violent, but passionate forms of crowd participation (yelling at the ref, cheering, etc.). Somewhere in between are the patterns that are made according to team allegiences in the massive football stadiums by fans sporting the teams colours. The mass of people is still a mass, but it has organised into blocks of colour…

Something similar is happening with my car dudes…