That’s cool: What is the role of pain in shaping a subculture?

In the 1970s, sociologist Dick Hebdige wrote Subculture: The Meaning of Style. He argued that alternative clothing and lifestyle choices are acts of political rebellion. For instance, mods in their tailored suits and emphasis on jazz ‘undermined the conventional meaning of ‘collar, suit and tie’.’ In other words, Hebdige highlighted that style is political, hence why it is so tied to music.

Then, in 1998, Baudrillard wrote The Consumer Societyarguing that one of late-stage capitalism’s unique aspects was the abstraction and signification of products it creates. Basically, he argued that we never actually consume an object in itself. Instead, the object functions as a ‘sign’ that helps distinguish our position from others; it either signals that we are like them or that we are better than them.

To this day, these kinds of postmodernist Marxist frameworks remain the dominant method we use to make sense of various subcultures. However, it seems that a specific change has occurred over the last twenty years. Specifically, I would argue that subculture today is based on a shared and ambiguous pain (jouissance) rather than a political position.

A super-quick rundown of 21stcentury subcultures
When I was growing up in the early to mid-2000s, a post-90s version of heroin chic was it. Being more than a fashion statementor political position, the thin, pale aesthetic told the world what side of the motivation-for-life fence you stood on. Then, you had those kids who considered themselves in search of more authentic life experiences (made known by the 64GB iPod filled with classic rock) and the emos who would dress and act in a way that showed despair in how they related to the world. There werethe skaters, the goths, the scene kids and on the list went. I am less well-educated on the subcultures of today’s youth, but from what I’ve heard, the list is even longer, from VSCO girls to E-boys, TikTok influencers, Vaporwave, K-Pop, and many others.

And…What is jouissance?
Jouissance is an almost obnoxiously convoluted psychoanalytic idea that originates in the works of Jacques Lacan. Simply put, it is those painful pleasures that go against our survival. The most classic example is the painful pleasure someone addicted to drugs or alcohol finds in their addiction. Jouissance is not suffering per se, but suffering is crucial to the experience of it. For example, suppose you are hungry and respond to that hunger by overeating. In that case, the satisfaction is less about quenching your appetite and more about enjoying consuming and exceeding your bodily boundaries.

In the case of the subcultures mentioned above, one can see how positions towards our jouissance, (which are, of course, influenced by societal norms, political situations, and expectations) are at work. For example, heroin chic quite literally had substance abuse in the name, and the goal was to look as thin and weak as possible. The authentic rocker felt misunderstood and alienated; the emo-kids wore their sadness on their sleeves, broken bones were commonplace for skaters, goths were the original emo, etc. Instead of dressing and acting in a manner that spoke to a political system, we focused on that which disconnected us from our peers. If the trends had a message, it was I am different.

But, with that, there is a poignant act of self-resilience at play; we turned that which makes us feel most alone and isolated into a signifier, a tool for connecting us with others who feel the same pain. In so doing, the pain takes on a pleasurable and identificatory aspect.

Consider the egirl
Hence, I think if you are interested in understanding how technology, societal changes, climate change, the pandemic, and all these immense collective events, are impacting us, we could probably find some answers in the subcultures of today.

Take, for instance, the e-girl and e-boy. E standing for electronic, this is a subculture of people who express themselves through internet culture, often characterised by heavy make-up, dyed hair and emo-esque fashion. They typically embrace a mixture of anime, gaming, punk and emo influences and are very much the present-day expression of what would have been the emo, gothor scene in the early 2000s.

However, unlike the emos of yesterday, the e-person only exists online. It makes e-girls and e-boys different from their subcultural ancestors; they are a purely internet-based identity. And with this, one can speculate that young people today, who have grown up in a technological and pandemic-filled age, are now creating subcultures and all of the pain and connection that comes with it, entirely online. If there is jouissance in that, it could well be the painful pleasure of isolation.

Written by Molly Fitz