Josh Haas's Web Log

Freedom and (Sub)-Culture

with 4 comments

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

  • Yan Pierre Crumble

    Looking forward to seeing the draft of the principles of your General Theory!

    What you say about mainstream western culture dying is interesting – I’d say that political institutions have lost the ability to legitimize as they grow in size – they’re too big and broad to manage one cohesive culture, therefore smaller subcultures spring up. It’s also the atomization of culture – living in Vietnam, I have more in common with a lot of the programmers I work with here than many of my friends in TN who I grew up with, despite massive cultural differences in a traditional sense. Geography is no longer the defining factor as to which subculture you belong – it’s way more about eduction, profession, and class.

    On the other hand, some mainstream western culture is thriving – I can’t go anywhere here without hearing Katy Perry, and people around the world are becoming hipsters, if that’s possible. Movies are the same movies you see in NYC. So maybe it’s not dying but merely shifting structure?

    • Josh Haas

      Yeah I think there’s a line to be drawn between culture and political institutions, which are related but can evolve in different directions…

      And then there’s also globalization, which you are a hands-on participant in 🙂 I’m not sure Katy Perry being globalized is a sign of cultural vitality or not… On the one hand it means that there’s still aspirational value to what she represents, but is that aspirational value a legacy that represents the vast wealth differential, or a sign that she’s actually producing dynamic, evolving stuff?

  • sflicht

    Josh, when we met at brunch last month you and I were discussing the HPMOR subculture. Anyhow I just found this article on subcultures by someone who (roughly) belongs to that subculture:

    Pretty interesting!

    • Josh Haas

      Hey Sam, thanks for the link. This is a great exploration of some of the factors driving subcultures — I like the comparison to the tradeoff of being a chess grandmaster. I don’t trust either end of the spectrum — ignoring subcultures, or climbing one subculture’s hierarchy. I think there’s a creative, interesting space in between, connecting the dots between them…