Subcultures: The Queer Dance Mix
Subcultures have been an important object of study for sociology and cultural studies since the 1920's. In about the 1980's, however, work on subcultures seemed to fall out of favor as scholars began to doubt the utility of the term and the descriptive potential of the binary opposition between subculture and dominant culture. While early work on subcultures from the Chicago school assumed a relationship between subcultures and deviance or delinquency, later work from the Birmingham University Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies characterized subcultures as class-specific "youth formations." One of the most influential texts on subcultures, Subcultures: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige, read subcultures in terms of the way they challenged hegemony through style rather than simply through overt ideological articulations; and he characterized the recuperation of subcultural disorder in terms of either an economic conversion of the signs and symbols of the subculture into mass culture commodities or an ideological conversion of the subcultural participant into either complete otherness or complete spectacle. Hebdige's work has been both widely celebrated and widely critiqued in the two decades since its original publication and obviously it cannot be applied in any simple way to contemporary subcultural scenes. And yet, it remains an important text for thinking about how to move beyond the contextualization of subcultures in terms of relations between youth and parent cultures and for its formulations of style and historicity.
Almost all of the early work on subcultures, including Hebdige's, has presumed the dominance of males in subcultural activity and has studied youth groups as the most lively producers of new cultural styles. The subcultures which I want to examine here are neither male nor necessarily young and they are less likely to be co-opted or absorbed back into dominant culture because they were never offered membership in dominant groups in the first place. Queer lesbian subcultures have rarely been discussed in the existing literature and they offer today a new area of study for queer scholarship as well as exciting opportunities for collaborations between queer cultural producers and queer academics. One of the reasons that theorists tend to look to subcultures for political mobilization has to do with the conflation of subculture and youth culture. Dick Hebdige, in an essay on "Youth, Surveillance and Display," for example, understands youth subcultures to register a dissatisfaction and alienation from the parent culture which is both "a declaration of independence . . . and a confirmation of the fact of powerlessness." Even though this reading provides us with a better understanding of how political protest might be registered in a youth subculture, it remains trapped in the oedipal frame work which pits the subculture against parent culture.
Queer subcultures, unlike the male dominated youth cultures that Dick Hebdige, Stuart Hall and other members of the Birmingham school have written about, are not located in any easy relation to so-called parent cultures: Much of the Birmingham school work on subcultures indeed (and this is partly why it fell out of favor in the early 1990's) presumed an oedipalized structure within which rebel youths reject the world of their parents and create a netherworld within which to reshape and reform the legacies of an older generation. Economic, political and social conflicts may be resolved in subcultural arenas, according to these arguments, without really effecting any grand changes at the level of superstructure. Of course such a theory of subcultures has long since been replaced by more nuanced understandings of the relations between class, youth and mass media and indeed in an essay on youth cultures, "Different, Youthful, Subjectivities: Towards a Cultural Sociology of Youth," Angela McRobbie comments: "There is certainly no longer a case to be made for the traditional argument that youth culture is produced somehow in conditions of working-class purity, and that such expressions are authentic and in the first instance at least uncontaminated by an avaricious commercial culture."But, while McRobbie goes on to rethink the relations between white youth and youth of color and the meaning of femininity in postmodern youth cultures, she still presumes a heterosexual framework. Queer subcultures illustrate vividly the limits of subcultural theories which omit consideration of sexuality and sexual styles: queer subcultures, obviously, cannot only be placed in relation to a "parent culture" and they tend to form in relation to place as much as in relation to a genre of cultural expression and, ultimately, they oppose not only the hegemony of dominant culture but also the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian culture. As Michael du Plessis and Kathleen Chapman report in an article about "Queercore," for example: ". . . queercore and homocore not only signaled their allegiances to post-punk subculture, but also positioned themselves as . . . distinct from lesbian and gay." Furthermore, queer subcultures are not simply spin offs from some distinct youth culture like punk: as we will see in relation to riot dyke, queer music subcultures may be as likely to draw upon women's music from the 1970's and early 1980's as from British punk circa 1977.
We need to alter our understandings of subcultures in several important ways in order to address the specificities of queer subcultures and queer subcultural sites. First, we need to rethink the relation between theorist and subcultural participant recognizing that for many queers, the boundary between theorist and cultural producer might be slight or at least permeable. Second, most subcultural theories are created to describe and account for male heterosexual adolescent activity and they are adjusted only when female heterosexual adolescent activity comes into focus. New queer subcultural theory will have to account for non-heterosexual, non-exclusively male, non-white and non-adolescent subcultural production in all its specificity. Third, we need to theorize the concept of the archive and consider new models of queer memory and queer history capable of recording and tracing subterranean scenes, fly by night clubs and fleeting trends; we need, in José Muñoz's words, "an archive of the ephemeral." Finally, queer subcultures offer us an opportunity to redefine the binary of adolescence and adulthood which structures so many inquiries into subcultures. Precisely because many queers refuse and resist the heteronormative imperative of home and family, they also prolong the periods of their life devoted to subcultural participation. This challenge to the notion of the subculture as a youth formation could on the one hand expand the definition of subculture beyond its most banal significations of youth in crisis and on the other hand challenge our notion of adulthood as reproductive maturity.
(EDITORS' NOTE: In the longer version of this essay, Judith Halberstam goes on to consider each one of these features of queer subcultural production in relation to specific lesbian subcultures.)
1. Thanks to Glen Mimura for the formulation of "an epistemology of youth." [Return to text]
2. Michel Foucault, "Friendship as a Way of Life" in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, edited by Sylvere Lotringer, translated by Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston (NY: Semiotext[e], 1996): 310. [Return to text]
3. For work on queer space see Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, Yolanda Retter eds. Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance, (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1997); David Bell and Gill Valentine eds. Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 1995); Boone, Joseph et al., eds. Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations, (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). [Return to text]
4. Sarah Thornton: "General Introduction" to The Subcultures Reader, eds. Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton (New York and London: Routledge, 1997): 2. [Return to text]
5. Jean Luc Nancy, "The Inoperative Community" in The Inoperative Community, ed. Peter Connor, translated by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney, foreword by Christopher Fynsk (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): 12. [Return to text]
6. See Josh Gamson, Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Non-Conformity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999). [Return to text]
7. Marcos Becquer and Jose Gatti, "Elements of Vogue" (1991) in The Subcultures Reader, eds. Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton (NY and London: Routledge, 1997): 452. [Return to text]
8. For an article on the fate of the queens and children featured in Paris is Burning, see Jesse Green, "Paris Has Burned" in The New York Times, "Styles of the Times" Section 9, Column 5, page 1 (Sunday, April 18, 1993). Green documents the death of Angie Extravaganza and Kim Pendarvis among others. Drag queens are interviewed for the article, and Green reports on the anger that many in the ball world feel about Jennie Livingston's film. Green reminds us that: "the film's critical and financial success should not therefore be taken for the success of its subjects." While Jennie Livingston became a filmmaker as a consequence of the circulation of Paris Is Burning, the film's subjects continued to live in poverty. [Return to text]
9. Angela McRobbie, "Shut Up And Dance: Youth Culture and Changing Modes of Femininity" in Postmoderism and Popular Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994): 162. [Return to text]
10. George Lipsitz, "Cruising Around the Historical Bloc: Postmodernism and Popular Music in East LA"  in The Subcultures Reader: 357. [Return to text]
11. See Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain , eds. Stuart Hall & Tony Jefferson (London: Routledge, Repr. 2000). [Return to text]
12. Dick Hebdige, "Posing . . . Threats, Striking . . . Poses: Youth, Surveillance, and Display" in The Subcultures Reader: 404. [Return to text]
13. Angela McRobbie, "Different, Youthful, Subjectivities: Towards a Cultural Sociology of Youth" in Postmoderism and Popular Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994): 179. [Return to text]
14. Michael du Plessis and Kathleen Chapman, "Queercore: The Distinct Identities of Subculture" in a special issue of College Literature v.24, n1 Queer Utilities: Textual Studies, Theory, Pedagogy, Praxis (Feb 1997): 45. [Return to text]
15. José Esteban Muñoz, "Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts" in Queer Acts: Women and Performance, A Journal of Feminist Theory, eds. José E. Muñoz and Amanda Barrett, Vol 8:2 #16 (1996): 5-18. [Return to text]