Life is pretty bland today! Indeed, we’re the cozy spectators of
homogenization through globalization, pushed by a series of ephemeral
trends, one dying after another, and carried by consumer society. It’s
as if the cultural vibes all seem to walk in the same direction. What is
this direction? Where did novelty go, have countercultures disappeared? Yet,
they were omnipresent, bubbling and thriving, in yesteryears.
What is a counterculture anyway?
A counterculture is a mode of thinking created, instantiated, through behavior and meaning making. By adopting it, one embraces an alternative system of meaning for both society, culture, and the self. It is, by definition, counter to the mainstream culture, replacing and optimistically rejecting its status quo because of a disagreement regarding a sudden loss of values.
Countercultures stand in contrast with subcultures. They deviate from each other over a few criteria: subcultures are more fragmented, narrow, niche, and thin. Additionally, they aren’t all-encompassing, nor involve innovative meaning-making, and are targeted only at a few specific aspects of life that is important to a distinct audience. Chiefly, subcultures eventually get assimilated in the mainstream culture, along with the Overton window that moves on this singular topic. Hence, they evolve similar to trends, lifestyles, and aesthetics.
Endorsing novelty incurs a cost that cannot be hoisted by everyone. This cultural shift can only breathe through fringe figures that can afford it. Indeed, a sacrifice needs to be given to attain this new system, it’s akin to luxury behavior and belief. From elites, bourgeois, intelligentsia, renegades, homeless, avant-garde, etc… all are looking for antidotes away from the commonly agreed framework of the establishment.
Nonetheless, everyone wants to be part of something bigger than themselves, they have a desire for distinction, change, action, justice, peace, and progress. Despite this, the mainstream culture stays attractive and protective of its ways. Like a living body, it defends itself by offering and manipulating people into fake revolts, which are distributed and sold as packages that only exist to reinforce the state of affairs. A trick to dilute minds through subcultures and make people think they’re part of a counterculture.
So why aren’t there more prominent countercultures today, are there any? Is there now only a single culture that is fragmented into an infinite amount of subcultures? What is mainstream culture today?
Culture is shaped and defined by the medium used for information
exchange — what people use to interact. It’s notable to mention that
actual power is about controlling the means by which lesser power is
displayed. Accordingly, power today lies in tech hegemony. The platforms,
be it real entities or virtual ones, are the ones in which the adherents
to this culture are bound to get their fill of social essence and
status seeking anxiety.
To be countercultural is by definition to be counter-mainstream, to be counter-hegemonic. Thus, in an era of tech hegemony one has to abandon the oligarchic online platforms, divert, or abuse them to be countercultural.
The internet giant platforms are overarching powerful deities and
every new mainstream cultural phenomenon happens under their gaze and
is distributed by their emissaries. At first glance it appears that
there isn’t any majority culture out there, no monoculture, a free for
all melting pot. However, in reality, the subtle differences on these
platforms are subcultures that got absorbed into a single ecosystem that
follows the same rules.
As we previously said, the need for change, individuation, expression, differentiation, and identity is captured as resource and sustenance and growth for the ecosystem. Indeed, the previous old countercultures that were wars of personal expression, e-deologies, and identity are used as personal branding, an alibi to drive engagement and lucrative profit. “Self-fulfillment as a product.”
The simulated diversity of opinions, and the unwillingness to dismiss the advantages of being a loyal servant to this cultural machine, thwart genuine connection and rebellion against it. The age of hyperconnectivity is one in which we are all connected to machines but not to one another.
What’s the dominant cultural norm brought by this? What does it mean to be mainstream today?
Culture today is not much different than the culture that started to
appear 50 years ago, that is the one of mass media, neoliberalism,
and globalization, nonetheless it is now greatly amplified and catalyzed
by the internet. In the same way that cities were the expression of
modernity, the never-ending competition for growth and forced collective
participation, the internet is similarly the place where the culture is
expressed in a hyperreality.
If in the past someone was deemed an outcast if they wanted to live outside the neoliberal free-market capitalist economy, now one is deemed an outcast if they want to live away from constant connectivity and availability, phone, self-branding, social media, etc… Practically, it translates into a capitalization/ marketization and politicisation of everything, turning them into micro-trends and subcultures; that’s how the mainstream perceives, expects, and accepts the world as.
The monetization of personal data and attention by marketers, the assumption that any content is a package to transmit a tertiary message, the never-ending omnipresent tracking and gathering of information, metrics, optimizations, and models as powerful assets simplifying reality, self-branding (and branding in general) as an essential socialization behavior, the democratization of speech and its drawbacks of narrative warfare, computational propaganda, and more are all the current leaves on the tree that grew from this culture. Individuals are cogs in the machine, homo œconomicus, oiling and polishing it. Nevertheless, they implicitly agree to its inner workings because of the advantages it confers.
Let’s expand on this topic, even though it is something that goes
With late stage capitalism applied to a technocratic corporatocracy, we’ve noticed the advent of the monetization and metrification of all features of life. Since the acquiring of trinkets is the pre-culture, the new culture is about going on a quest to seek status in this new sphere. In this fantastic world, we’re presented with idols, a leisure class of highly successful heroes under the name of influencers, and the followers of their scriptures. These followers are categorized, placed into neat boxes, cookie-cutter templates that are taken from these mystical beings and then given as tokens. The average person is content with how their portrait reflects on these treasures, thinking they are the protagonists. Even though it is a fake sentiment of individuality, they still strive to be something, to be grandiose and create their own self-brand, to capitalize on their identity, to be æsthetic, to be instagrammable.
We then consider ourselves, our identity, as a product, as a piece in this grand equation, a project, a personified capital that we have to tap into. We live underneath all this, but we’re hooked in the metaphors and have to accumulate symbols and a storyline to advertise ourselves to the abstract audience and fame of the internet. By and large, this is the internet version of keeping up with the Joneses. We are both master and slave incarnated, self-exploiters, struggling against oneself.
Ultimately, our image is calculated, unrealistically honed to suit every context, we’re paralyzed, self-constrained, yet we want to innovate, we see ourselves as “achievement-subject”. We don’t want to be canceled, don’t want to be shunned from the promised land, neither by people nor bots nor algorithms.
Our prayers are given with our attention, our consumption of the
holiness found in advertisements that are beautifully crafted to
directly inject themselves in our cerebrum. Like a flock, we’re
domesticated, over-socialized, analyzed like wild animals that need
to be tamed. Likewise, our preferences are used for engagement, yet
information is everywhere, more accessible than ever, but fraught of
any meaning if not wrapped in the sweet caramel of drama. Infobesity,
in the information age, is the new pandemic which we suffer from, and
there’s an industry bribing everyone into saying that it’s for our own
good, that it’s for the best. Undoubtedly, its growth becomes a goal in
itself, a fabricated dream we all agree to.
Internet consumption and participation is our surrogate activity.
We keep hearing that it’s democratic, liberating, but is it really? Since that is what the mainstream is, then what are the current countercultures of this time?
There are only two directions that are countercultural: one that is the current mainstream but exaggerated to limits beyond the acceptable, and one that is completely outside and rejecting its inner core.
Pushing the culture to its logical extreme until it distorts into
something else, is often called accelerationism. This is the philosophy
of running into the storm, and going straight to the catastrophe, trying
to walk past it.
In short, this is a form of rebelling without rebelling, to pursue the exact same ideals as those pushed by the culture, except better. In our case, this means fully embracing the algorithms, understanding and warping them to our needs, and using branding as a powerful weapon.
Anyhow, this genre of counterculture is only accessible to an elite that already has certain powers to wield platforms to their needs. Consequently, these mostly consist of tech-millionaires and celebrities.
The other option to be countercultural to techno-capitalism is to find its purest attributes, its definition, and do the opposite. While this may sound like a simplistic contrarian idea, we need to beware of it being applied only for its shallow appearance of provocateur.
Let’s first tackle the obvious: no, it’s not as straight forward as “just touch grass”. The sentence itself emanates from the mainstream and hence cannot be part of the countercultural.
From what we’ve seen, the principles go deeper, they’re about
capitalization/ marketization and politicisation combined with
technology. It still follows the old myth that growth is abundance, and
that abundance is democracy, but twisted to fit the online narratives
for profit motives.
So what would be the behaviors and beliefs that would highlight the cultural ambiguities and structural shortages to such extent that it would be considered countercultural?
The first detachment should be related to value and belief. Anything
that is apparently valuable from within the spectacle of the mainstream
culture should be seen for what it is: a fake relative substance. One of
the prominent in this sphere is metrification and optimization (growth)
of our persona and life. They seem valuable and have extensive social
narrative backing them up, everything needs to be a maximization of life,
but when viewed skeptically from outside the system they are much less
important than the trusted social consensus would lead us to think.
It’s extremely hard to not define ourselves through our role in that
“mass society”, one of worker, of producer of goods for other consumers, or
the theatre that we’re striving for it. We derive value and status
and compete for a position in this virtual hierarchy.
The clear reverse of this is to take our time, slow down, close our eyes and stay still, to do nothing, be satisfied with what we have, to disconnect or turn off the phones, to not be directed by expectations, to not define ourselves by our job and cultural status within this culture, to defeat the screeching voices that are trying to tell us who we are and instead listen to ourselves. However, the obstacle here is that the ecosystem will try to absorb this behavior into a form of self-brand, or measures of self-improvement. In that case, the behavior is going in one direction and the mindset in another. Furthermore, there’s also the issue that the behavior can’t be afforded by everyone.
Since the information age created a market for attention, this is another
attribute that is a candidate for counterculture. Evidently, it is taken
for granted that we will trade the continuous voracity of our eyes for
immediate temporary bursts of pleasures and possibilities on the attention
market. We don’t have a right to not be happy, it is unacceptable, we need
to possess and try everything.
Then, to contradict this, we’d have to both modify how we value the content that is present, and modify how we perceive ourselves as consumers; to modify our model of meaning-making.
To achieve this it requires a distance towards the technology and its methods of cultivating and morphing us into acceptance by passively amplifying our emotions. The separation should be accompanied by active knowledge and consideration on how to interact with the information, or with a complete disconnection from this style of media altogether.
The latter is the reasonably easiest path, even though it comes with
the heaviness of suddenly being completely shunned from what might have
been a source of revelation and meaning before. Stopping technological
and non-technological consumption equates with redefining the self as a
non-consumer, which is radical. However, it shouldn’t be confused with
the ostentatious meta-consumption, a branding of austerity and minimalism. Think of it as cousins of anti-consumerist or culture jamming movements.
In this category of people we can name the homeless, the wanderers and nomads, the “old money” class who has no need to seek fame or prove anything and that you’ve never heard of, the people choosing to purposely disconnect and live “off grid”, the prisoners, the pirates, and all the people who don’t yet have access to the mainstream information era. In a way, these are modern day Diogenes, they see the circus for what it is, yet follow different rules, signs, and language of meaning.
Otherwise, the other countercultural idea when it comes to information is about deliberately picking it: choosing what is hidden, unplatformed, not paid attention to, what others wouldn’t interact with because it wouldn’t survive in the culture. The types of things that aren’t attractive to the attention economy are either too banal or too esoteric.
Similarly to being satisfied with what we have when it comes
to self-worth, a countercultural notion is to not be an information
hunter and take a new look at the common and ordinary instead of seeing
everything in terms of attraction and surprise. To stare and not be blind
at the things that are incidental, ordinary, average, and occurrences
of daily life is definitely not sexy. It’s boring, but these are the things
that ground us.
The age of the media has a preference for what is swift, digestible, caters to a wide audience, is emotionally packed, has shock value, offers escapism fantasies, cheap pornography for the mind, and comparable feelings. When everything is packaged, limpid, filtered, and reduced, the countercultural reaction is to uncompress, unpack, and unfilter things. This is the difference between entertainment and art, between hearing and listening, between Dionysian and Apollonian.
Entertainment always gives us what we expect, it’s emotional, but the emotions are packaged to be delivered in a certain way. Meanwhile, art is challenging, it is rough, it doesn’t ply and isn’t predictable, it opens our minds and our minds need to be open to accept it. Yet, this shouldn’t be confused with snobbish self-styled modern art that only offers pseudo-intellectual masturbation, creative art is more like intercourse, involving seduction and connection. What’s more, is that we also shouldn’t muddle it with imagery. In this era, the image and simulations are sometimes given more importance than the actual object. Things are not seen for what they are but for how society at large perceives them (Dadaism). For example, this translates into a meal being more about what it represents: the restaurant, the brand, the quality of the picture taken, the reaction of other people towards it, and more.
Furthermore, we can think of the dynamics of behavior and information as push and pull. Someone has to generate something so that others experience it, which is then scattered with massive media. If we want to be active differently, we’d have to create regardless of the marketability of the output, to create with a separate mindset. Instead of waiting for things to come to us, we’d have to go and fetch them deliberately. The complication in this case is how to find the motivation to conceive or to seek things outside the realm of current cultural values. Very few are the people that don’t want their creation to be ogled by everyone, few are the ones that do not care about fame or ways to prove themselves. Not having status anxiety is countercultural.
The last point we have to tackle is the politicisation of
everything. Beyond any doubt, the current culture is profiting from
clashes of ideologies, making a scene at every rapid news cycle, and
following political trends and influencers like paparazzi. In such case,
the countercultural approach is about the clash between public discourse
and private, aka un-indexed, life. If the culture is about over-sharing,
then the counterculture is about staying away from the clearnet, hidden
on the darknet.
The political counterculture is private, either completely alone and anonymous, or through gatekeeping with a hyper-specific and tight community that has deep ties. These are forms of anti-participation towards the echochamber of online political madness. As they say, “The revolution will not be televised/ streamed”.
The communal regrouping will take place elsewhere. Naturally,
people have always and will always look for a third
place, and this can’t happen
on the big online platforms, they will need to find new ones. Instead
of only being based online, the unpoliticised actions will need to take
place offline, since anything that isn’t accounts for meaningless shouts.
In fact, it’s all about trying to understand the world without making a mess of it. It is to be part of it without shock value, without looking only at a mirror but looking at the real thing. I conceded, maybe, “touch grass” applies here.
You might find this article futile in the face of a hegemonic system, a system you probably find meaning in. I do too. What do I know, I’m a bozo on the internet, and far from being countercultural myself? I do realize that this article’s conclusions aren’t dashingly attractive nor have the pep that the title has promised. It doesn’t offer anything truly novel or extraordinary, it’s a rehash of what people have been saying and kept saying for the past 10 years. In spite of this, I feel we’re slowly but surely piercing the mainstream mindset, and isn’t that what we should reflect on. So why not keep writing about it, it’s banal and boring, and encouraging to strive in that direction.
Have a great day!
Some people with interesting ideas:
- Jean Baudrillard
- Guy Debord
- Byung Chul Han
- Umberto Eco
- Hannah Arendt
- Pierre Bourdieu
- Roland Barthes
- Marshall McLuhan
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