Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Essay: Subculture as Language

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

I'm a social hermit, simply sticking to my books and websites that talk about writing and writers. While this gives me an edge when talking to fellow bibliophiles, it's also hampered my ability to bond with other people. Whereas the man or woman on the street might talk about the heroines in the most recent TV soap opera, I'm befuddled as I listen to them chat. And this fact extends to anything outside of my own immediate interests. The gap between them and me isn't language per se as we're capable of carrying out the most basic--or superficial (the weather anyone?)--of conversations. But just as human life isn't simply eating, sleeping, and working, there's another layer that needs to be mined when communicating with people. It's about tapping into a common paradigm, our zeitgeist, that transforms dialogue into a personal relationship.

This isn't a profound realization. In fact, it's the opposite. At the very least, on a subconscious level, we're well aware of this fact. It's why parents tend to raise their children to grow up like themselves. Or why people group into cliques, factions, and parties. Most of our deepest bonds are with people who talk the same language as us, not in terms of phonemes and allophones, but in terms of how we live life and how we want to experience it. This is where subculture comes in, whether it's the books we read, the music we listen to, the shows we watch, or the games we play. Unlike the basic necessities of life such as eating and sleeping, the activities of the various subcultures (usually hobbies or interests) is something we volunteer for (which isn't to say that peer pressure can't coerce you). It's where our passion lies and the connection we form with fellow enthusiasts is the difference between lighting a cigarette with a match and lighting it with a flamethrower. Mention someone's favorite band for example and a new world of possibilities open up: what are their favorite songs, favorite albums, musical influences, etc.

What I'm interested in is the opposite. What happens when two people don't find common ground? I can talk about Borges and Kafka and Nabokov but outside of the literary circle, they are literally foreign names. Or in the case of Nabokov, people might cling to the most stereotypical belief: didn't he write that pedophilia book? Never mind the love story behind it, the meta-textual content with its use of cliches and conventions, or the fact that it was simply well-written. That's not to say "the other" is always at fault. We're caught up with our own biases as well. How many science fiction fans skip a heartbeat when they pass through the aisles of the romance section? Or are aware of the intricacies of a pastime like stitching, gardening, or football?

In many ways, the Internet is very different from real life in the sense that one can remain with one's herd. As a speculative fiction buff for example, you don't see me browsing through sports websites or political forums. I can simply stick with my mailing lists and my bookmarks. There's a certain tyranny with social media sites like one's Livejournal Friends page, the people on your Twitter list, or who friended you in Facebook. Gone is the situation where you're forced to talk to an absolute stranger who has little in common with you. It's too easy to shut them out and add them to our ignore list. Compare that to something like the office environment where you're forced to cooperate with people you dislike or even loathe. Heck, even high school is a reminder that not everyone is going to be your friend yet you need to deal with the bullies just as you need to get along with the jocks and the nerds.

Unlike languages, there's no hard and fast rules on how to become part of a subculture. There won't be an "official guide to becoming a Battlestar Galactica fan." We pick up things informally, whether it's learning the cues from the society we're part of, interacting with the members, and deciphering the non-verbalized taboos. It's mostly unconscious and feels natural that few seldom take the time to think and analyze. That's not to say that this is a bad thing, simply that it's a phenomenon that needs to be articulated. Heck, because of my own unique interests, I'm sure not everyone will get all my references and there's probably one or two examples that might have baffled you.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Well said, man. The best thing about subcultures, though, is that when they're big enough they have their own inner tribes-within-tribes, like a microcosm. Of course, as good as that is, it can lead to warring factions... from which *our* shared subculture is far from immune! ;)