Josh Haas's Web Log

Freedom and (Sub)-Culture

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I’ve had the weird and lonely experience lately of peering into a lot of different sub-cultures while feeling like I don’t really belong to any of them. Some of this is through in-person friendships, some of this is me following various people on the internet, some is general cultural osmosis.

Here are, in no particular order, some of the cultures I’ve been observing:

  • The neo-Marxist Brooklyn literary scene (I read Full Stop), where talking about “class consciousness” and quoting Lenin is apparently still something one does.
  • The Singularity Institute, particularly their literary masterpiece (I say this mostly un-ironically) Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
  • The Homestuck fandom (another literary masterpiece), and fandom culture in general, especially as it inhabits web comics and Tumblr.
  • The maker movement and 3d printing worlds
  • The technology startup world, including Paul Graham-ia, New York’s local VC culture, the hipster-fashion-tech scene (this is where my office is), and the lean startup movement
  • The feminist / social justice movement, which venn-diagrams with the Brooklyn literary scene, the tech startup world, and the fandom community.
  • The new age personal development world
  • The Ivy League alumni finance / consulting network (and my former employer Bridgewater which is a sub-culture in its own right).
  • The independent game developer community (or sub-section of, anyway), mostly because I started following the developer of Analogue: A Hate Story (lit. m.p.) on Twitter
  • The Brooklyn-based urban / literary exploration scene (such as Atlas Obscura)
  • The evidence-based athleticism-oriented (I’m making this phrase up, there might be a better one) fitness movement as embodied by Fitocracy
  • This guy, who maybe isn’t really a sub-culture, but his writing has been making me think about all of this and he doesn’t fit into any of the above, so he gets his own bullet point.

I’m attracted to at least some aspect of everything on this list (and turned-off by aspects of many of them as well). Weirdly, some of these sub-cultures virulently despise each other, such as the first two I mentioned. I find this confusing and kind of alarming.

Consensus reality? There’s no consensus. My universe does not have a paper of record.

I’ve been wrestling with a number of questions related to this situation:

  • How can I have a meaningful sense of community when I feel that every community embraces only a partial truth?
  • What will be the power relationship between these sub-cultures and the mainstream (people who read the New York Times, who know the names of celebrities, who can meaningfully identify with national politics)?
  • To what degree are sub-cultures mappable and legible, and how would one use tools like Twitter graph analysis, etc. to do so?

To put these questions into context, I think that mainstream western culture is dying. Its political institutions have lost the ability to legitimize; its cultural productions are banal; its economic health is uncertain at best, and its modes of production and consumption are ecologically unsustainable. In contrast, I think there’s incredible vitality in all the sub-cultures I listed, although I have no idea if that vitality is constructive or destructive (I guess the polite term for that ambiguity these days is “disruptive”).

So — this matters. I’ve picked my side, in a sense: I’m on Team Internet. I’m self-employed and starting a movement, vs taking a job at some mainstream institution. But I’m still pretty lost re: how I want to navigate this cultural landscape.

Anyway, when lost, make a map. I’m working on a General Theory of Sub-Culture, Values, and Agency. I have a couple rough-draft principles. But it’s bed-time, so I’ll save them for another blog post.

Written by jphaas

April 24th, 2014 at 4:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized