‘The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution’ Hannah Arendt
In our current society in which if we do not get likes or comments we quickly change our content because we think that we are doing something wrong; a society instrumentally rationalized, in which everything has to have a benefit and / or a utility and in which we are encouraged to change the world through consumption because we are told that buying is equivalent to voting … Is there still room for transgression? Or have we reached a point where any act of rebellion is carried out to be part of the social norm to achieve acceptance?
Since the expansion of social networks and particularly since the Me Too movement, society is seeing how what was the struggle of a few has become the norm of all. We are progressively institutionalizing the fight against racism, homophobia or in favor of environmentalism or feminism. Topics that were part of the counterculture in Spain in the 70’s and 80’s or even 90’s:
‘Topics that were alternative at the time, but which today have become mainstream. Thus, Manuel Moreno points out, “issues such as ecology or feminism, but also characters like David Bowie or groups like Velvet Underground, now appear in all the media and no one is surprised.”
If the counterculture is characterized by something it is the authenticity of the values and principles that shape its appearance. Groups, collectives, tribes of resistance and rebellion that successfully manage to differentiate themselves from the dominant mass and avoid falling into hypocrisy,trying to make their actions consistent with what they defend. This makes this a territory to be explored by brands – especially in mature categories such as automotive, fashion or perfumes – insofar as they represent a credible and aspirational discourse for new generations whose identity is under construction and in search of vehicles of self-expression. So conquer them by mainstream and consumption is nothing new:
‘Nike shoes are sold to the accompaniment of words delivered by William S. Burroughs and songs by The Beatles, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron (“the revolution will not be televised”); […] the products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation; and advertising across the product category spectrum calls upon consumers to break rules and find themselves’
The paradox is that when a brand appropriates the counterculture, this one loses its reason for being. The counterculture must subvert the norm, transgress the discourse and the social reality in which it arises, and this is incompatible with a commercial objective. We already know that when the hippie movement became a mass communication product, it died. And were the hippies themselves who ‘buried’ their own counterculture through a symbolic funeral:
‘Death of Hippie was a mock funeral staged on October 6, 1967 meant to signal the end of the Summer of Love. Organized by the Diggers to convince the media to stop covering the Haight, attendees burned underground newspapers and hippie clothing. Leaders carried a coffin down Haight Street and the crowd stopped for a “kneel-in” at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Through this performance, the Diggers sought to end the commercialization of the hippie lifestyle and the mainstream appropriation of their social experiment’
Love on haight: The Grateful death and San Francisco 1967. 2014. Digital Exhibition from University of California.
Some authors assure that it is not that counterculture ceases to be counterculture when mainstream approaches to it, but that corporations fake it in order to produce a false copy to attract new generations. At the same time this diminishes the powerful influence that real counterculture has. After all, if you can be a hipster by just buying a backpack, why ask for more? Thomas Frank calls it co-optation theory (when corporations opt for the counterculture):
‘I will call the co-optation theory: faith in the revolutionary potential of «authentic» counterculture combined with the notion that business mimics and mass-produces fake counterculture in order to cash in on a particular demographic and to subvert the great threat that ” real «counterculture represents»‚’
As we have already mentioned, the phenomenon of rebellion becoming mainstream is not new, but in recent years it has been taking place in a very broad and normalized way. We are witnessing social events in which we see central elements, customs or signs of the underground and the countercultural with a role in the mainstream sphere. We all know someone who is ‘playing’ Bitcoins, when in essence, Bitcoin and all the blockchain technology comprises is cyberpunk.
‘The development of Bitcoin was a breakthrough that many cyberpunks, including myself, had dreamed of from the beginning – beginning around 1993 – and couldn’t find a way to make it happen, until Satoshi [Nakamoto] found the solution’.
Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 2016. There are those who question If Bob Dylan does write literature or not, but it is not debatable that he was a countercultural reference of the 60’s and 70’s:
‘We will also have to remember that the appearance of Dylan in the year 62, a little before that of the Beatles and the Rollings, which makes him a direct pioneer, is that of a champion of this movement: the so-called “youth revolt”. And that his first songs went directly to establish themselves as the ideological basis of the hippy utopia’.
What to say about trap and trappers (or if we do the Spanish translation, ‘the cheaters’) that with their apology for drugs and sex are at the top of the musical sphere. Perhaps the clearest proof of how mainstream trap is, is that the singer Rosalía has been included in this genre on several occasions, without really being part of it. The flamenco singer Rocío Márquez said in 2019 about Rosalía that in flamenco ‘what used to be counterculture’ now ‘has become culture’ (Europa Press, 2019).
These alternative lines that Rocío Márquez talks about can also be seen in the Drag Queens that today own Reality Shows such as Ru Paul’s The Drag’s Race, or in the celebration of sexual fluidity and the conception of gender as a spectrum. Zalando’s latest campaign is also an example.
But, while we are normalizing the counterculture, we are living a time of great conservatism, insecurity and a return to times where the counterculture was not the norm at all:
‘Our current age is one of global unease and uncertainty, with Brexit and the 2016 American presidential election heralding the return of the kind of conservative ideology that characterizes other periods of decadence in recent centuries. Conversely, in mainstream popular culture the fashion for androgyny, sexual fluidity, and edgy S&M aesthetics in pop music demonstrates that it is once again fashionable to be an outsider. Rebellious transgression is en vogue and in Vogue’.
Alice Condé 2019
The difference between our society and that of the 60’s is that today the clear and robust borders that separated the underground and the countercultural from the mainstream have disappeared. When Nike brings out Kaepernick in an international spot, we are witnessing a rebel and a rebellious person that we don’t know how many people he’s bothering and how many he’s pleasing. That is, the underground is mainstream and the mainstream is underground. The counterculture is culture, so it is no longer against culture.
The explanation from the sociology of decadence
When something goes up it is to take the place of what goes down. The rise of the countercultural is only possible if the decline of its counterpart occurs. This leads us to wonder if this assimilation of rebellion by the mass is a sign that we are living in a society in decline, which would explain the strong polarization that we currently suffer from as a society.
Durkheim said that society is like a functional system similar to a living organism, where its parts are integrated to guarantee the optimal performance of the whole. From this point of view, everything has a function. If any social pathology arises, as it happens in our organism, the system will try to expel it or at least isolate it in order to regulate itself. According to this theory, if we are now seeing that being a rebel is accepted, it is because something is ceasing to work: something is decaying (as we will see, this does not have to be negative).
What we will try to explain next is how we all identify what is pathological or decadent. Because where some see decline, others see progress.
According to Jeffry K. Sachs, (2019, ‘The Sociology of Decadence’ Literature & Decadence. Ed., Jane Desmarais and David Weir. Cambridge University Press), decadence is a very broad term that can function as a genre and where different cultural elements could be framed. But in general, it supposes the decline of a previous welfare state:
‘Structurally, “decline” presumes the weakening of social well-being relative to an earlier state’.
Jeffry K. Sachs,
The discourse of decadence can be seen in the general pessimism about the current social state, in the nostalgia that a past time was better (Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign ‘Make America Great Again’ is nothing more than saying that America has declined since then). We can also see it in the emergence of social institutions that are believed to threaten or contaminate the proper functioning or health of society. For example, the criticism of neoliberalism, industrialization or postmodernity. This would be called ‘decadent pathological forms’, which, following Sachs, function as labels with which we ourselves identify and make known the pathologies of our social worlds. When we do this we would be adopting a decadent role.
The reason why the boundaries between counterculture and popular culture are so blurred today is because the vast majority of us are playing this decadent role. Before, to play this role, you had to be an outsider. Hippies labeled pollution and the capitalist system as decadent, but to do so they had to generate counterculture. Today they would have had the support of the UN. Bitcoin in 2003 was a product of an outsider who was marking the financial system as decadent. Today he has the support of Goldman Sachs.
We see how decline does not necessarily have to be a negative thing. There are certain social conditions where decay addresses a positive charge. Situations where the world accepts and welcomes elements that under other circumstances would be seen as pathological, which would be what is happening in the current social moment when rebellion and the counterculture are normalized.
We also see the elimination of borders between the mainstream and rebellion in artistic production. Traditionally, this claim of decadence considered as something normal, something to be positive or affirmative, only occurred in artistic production. Many artists were ‘allowed’ the attributes of decadence under a creative mandate. The artist can not only make use of drugs, alcohol and sex, but he or she can and must label the pathologies of society from his role of outsider. Transgression came from art.
‘The exceptional classification given to the artist follows from the belief that innate talent situates the artist outside the common social world of being like everyone else; tha is, adherence to normality does not create the exceptionality of the artist; thus normal practices should not be used to constrain the artist’
Howard Becker Art Worlds (1982) as cited in Sachs, (2019).
But when the artist breaks out of his norm and from what is expected of him from his decadent role, he is reclassified. It is just what happened to Oscar Wilde in Victorian England: he died considered to be ill because of his homosexuality. However, it is highly regarded today because it has been reclassified. As much as that in 2011 a glass wall had to be put up to protect his grave from the lipstick that the kisses of his fans left on it (Condé, 2019). Why? Because he embodies authenticity. He is considered to have been sacrificed for artistic production from an outsider position, which contributes to legitimizing the identity contrary to the status quo as something authentic. Today Wilde represents the archetype of the modern celebrity and its connection to the queer world. A modern celebrity that unites the cult of personality just in a social moment where gender identity is celebrated.
Is there room today for rebellion and transgression?
In summary, we must take into account the functioning of the decadent role. There is a group that labels, which in return is labeled by another group, producing a cultural circle between the marginal and the mainstream. But it must be taken into account that power will always be on the side of the mainstream: the marginal is what becomes mainstream, but the mainstream never becomes marginal (Conté 2019).
We are immersed in that circle in which more and more people are marking as decadent the foundations that have sustained Western society. All of us, as a majority, have exercised a decadent role and we are telling the rest that gender, climate, equality, sexual freedom … are issues of culture more than counterculture.
The ones that finish closing the circle are brands, because when they acquire that role for commercial purposes they are helping the majority to assimilate the counterculture, positioning rebellion as a totally legitimate aspiration.
We consider this to be positive insofar as these are reaffirmations of our cultural identities and it may be the first time in history that new political-social meanings are being generated from a commercial point of view (Conté, 2019).
This also has its counterpart. Currently, most of us have assumed a decadent role, which makes transgressing very difficult. When everyone has part of transgressor, we have deprived artistic production of that privilege. Since we could all be artists or aspire to be one (Instagram has contributed a lot to this). And if anyone can transgress, transgression no longer exists, at least in the short and medium term in our social horizon. In order for us to speak of transgression, society would have to stabilize the status quo, and agree on its norms again. Currently, as we have seen, there is no agreed norm, so there is no room for transgression, since it can come from any front.
In this decadent role, anyone can feel like a transgressor. In fact, these days an interview was published by Pablo Stefanoni, author of the book ‘The rebellion turned to the right,’ who assures that young Europeans feel conservatism and liberal ideology as something transgressive and cool.
If this continues, what will the brands do?
Madrid, Carlos. 24/08/2020.Cuando las revistas culturales hicieron creer que todo era posible. The Objective. Recovered from: https://theobjective.com/further/cuando-las-revistas-contraculturales-hicieron-creer-que-todo-era-posible.
Frank, Thomas. 1997. The conquest of cool. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. Recovered from: https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/259919.html
Love on haight: The Grateful death and San Francisco 1967. 2014. Digital Exhibiton from University of California. Recovered from: https://exhibits.library.ucsc.edu/exhibits/show/love-on-haight/death-of-hippie#:~:text=’%E2%80%9D&text=Death%20of%20Hippie%20was%20a,underground%20newspapers%20and%20hippie%20clothing
Robert Hazlitt. 2016. Bitcoin le dio nueva vida a la revolución cyberpunk. Diario BitCoin, Recovered from:https://www.diariobitcoin.com/articulos/opinion/bitcoin-le-dio-nueva-vida-a-la-revolucion-cyberpunk/
Riba, Pau. 2019. Dylan, un dios contracultural y underground. La Vanguardia. Recovered from: https://www.lavanguardia.com/cultura/20161014/41986819229/dylan-un-dios-contracultural-y-underground.html
Europa Press. Agosto 2019. Rocío Márquez asegura que en el flamenco “lo que antes era contracultura” ahora “ha pasado a ser cultura”.Santander
Recovered from: https://www.europapress.es/cantabria/noticia-rocio-marquez-asegura-flamenco-antes-era-contracultura-ahora-pasado-ser-cultura-20190807161803.html)
Condé, Alice. 2019. ‘Decadence and Popular Culture’. En Literature & Decadence. ed., Jane Desmarais and David Weir. Cambridge University Press.
Sachs, Jeffry K. 2019. ‘The Sociology of Decadence’. En Literature & Decadence. ed., Jane Desmarais and David Weir. Cambridge University Press.