The dilution of avant-garde subcultural boundaries in network society
Jimison, David M.
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This dissertation identifies the diluting effects that network society has had on the avant-garde subcultures, by first building a framework through which to understand the social structure and spatial production of the historical avant-garde, and then comparing this with contemporary avant-garde movements. The avant-garde is a cultural tradition that originated in modern 18th century Europe and North America, that critically responds to hegemonic power structures and mainstream cultural assumptions. I use the term “avant-garde subcultures” because my research focuses on the entire social group of the avant-garde. Most scholarship on the avant-garde has overlooked the importance that social relations, in particular supportive actors, and collaborative spaces have served in the creativity of the avant-garde. During the past twenty years, as society has shifted into a dependence on networked interactive technologies, the boundaries which protect these avant-garde spaces and social relations were diluted. As a result, avant-garde subcultures have entered a phase of recursively repeating themselves and culturally stagnating. I begin by reviewing the historical avant-garde and subcultures, building an overarching theory that explains that avant-garde is a type of subculture. Using past scholarship that maps the conceptual lineage from early bohemians to 1970s punk rock, I synthesize a set of traits which all avant-garde subcultures exhibit, and which can be used to build their genealogy. I then extend this genealogy to contemporary art practitioners, to prove that the avant-garde tradition continues to this day. Next, I develop a philosophical understanding of the importance of space for hegemonic power structures, based largely on the work of Henri Lefebvre. I explain how avant-garde subcultures produce spaces of representation in the cafes, bars and night clubs they inhabit, which challenge hegemony by being different from normal values and aesthetics. I reference first-hand accounts of these spaces of representation, to show how they enable the collaboration and creative thinking that is most often associated with the avant-garde. The avant-garde protect these spaces through a set of cultural boundaries: fashion, slang, esoteric knowledge, accumulation, and physical space. Manuel Castell's concept of network society depicts how hegemonic power structures have become pervasive, and thus can overcome the boundaries of avant-garde subcultures. As a result, avant-garde subcultures have increasingly become retrogressive and fluid. Some avant-garde practitioners, such as tactical media, have evolved methods for addressing these problems. While these are effective in continuing the avant-garde tradition of introducing difference, there are no adequate methods for producing new spaces of representation. I examine Eyebeam, an arts and technology center, which has since 1997 provided a space for many contemporary practitioners. While unique in its circumstances, Eyebeam has adopted several processes which have enabled it to overcome the diluting effects of network society, thereby providing a potential model for building future spaces of representation.