Thursday, February 24, 2022

How Limits Create Subcultures

If you've read all the war news and still can't focus, here's an interesting distraction: Tyler Cowen interviews culture critic Chuck Klosterman, focusing on his new book The Nineties. I was fascinated by Klosterman's notion that music subcultures don't really exist any more because they were created by scarcity:

The idea of the physical mass subculture is probably gone. And of course, these are easy things to be wrong about, but part of that had to do with the fact of scarcity — not that the records didn’t exist, but that you had to pay for them, and people in teen culture had a limited amount of funds.

If you went and you bought it, you had enough money to buy one CD, so you bought The Cure, and you listened to that real intensely because it’s the only one you got that week. When you go back in two weeks, maybe you buy Sisters of Mercy or Nine Inch Nails or something that vaguely tied to it. Then you realize that the people who like The Cure seem to shop at this place called Hot Topic, so maybe you start shopping there.

The next thing you know, you’re part of this subculture because you had a real limitation. You were limited in your choice, and you were limited in the number of directions you could go.

I believe this is one example of a very broad and important fact: that powerful cultural connections are created largely by limits on what is available. The loosening of those limits is freeing but prevents the formation of strong cultural ties within groups, or at least makes them much more elusive. There is a real trade-off.

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