Bohemias and the outside

I’m currently reading William Gibson’s latest novel Zero History – the third in his series of post 9/11 realistic novels set in the near-present.  This turn in his writing emerges because of the acceleration of global capitalism, which makes traditional science fiction cultural extrapolation redundant almost before the novel is published.  Gibson’s work, as Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson once said, aims at a  (necessarily incomplete) comprehension of the technological sublime–the totality of the communication and capital networks that surround the world.  Gibson registers what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire call the “informatization” of capitalism, the ways in which data itself becomes a form of commodity.

Anyway, Gibson has had a lot of interesting interviews promoting the book, which reflect intriguingly on the ways in which communicative capitalism and its technologies modify the ways we relate to art.  I particularly like this segment from an interview with the UK Wired, which touches on the difficulty of thinking an “outside” to a capitalism that commodifies everything and co-opts resistance as soon it occurs:

I know that you’ve talked for a long time about bohemias being rapidly gobbled up by the corporations. Do you think that capitalism is so rapacious now that bohemians don’t stand a chance before their scene gets sold back to them?

That continues to be an important question for me. I can only keep my eyes open. I think a lot of what we think about bohemia depends on whether we look at it as having been historically some sort of mechanism of industrial society. As far as I know, prior to the beginning of industrial society there hadn’t been anything like that, there were criminal enclaves, there were perhaps groups of libertines, but not bohemians as we know them. These were people defined by certain demanding lifestyle codes, they dressed a certain way, had certain sexual mores, drank certain things and not others, and dreamed up new worlds, which the increasingly industrial society around them could feed on. So they became an enclave of walking imagination for a society that otherwise doesn’t value the imagination that you’re offering.

Over the course of the 20th century we saw the mechanisms of industrial societies and the commodification of bohemias just become so swift as to be almost instantaneous. I was saying that over a decade ago, so now a decade later I don’t actually know. Cory Doctorow and I were talking about this and my conclusion was that bohemias had become fully distributed globally. Cory’s way of paraphrasing it was: “There’s no Emo quarter.”


4 Responses to Bohemias and the outside

  1. Very interesting post. If we proceed from the assumption that there is no outside to power and so forth, we find something that is as liberating as it is troubling.

    It is true that what we think of as “Bohemia” didn’t emerge until the 18th Century probably, but I think that to a great extent this relates to a question I’d been pondering of late- how ideas evolve, and why they come about when they do. We could make the same argument about the triptych of Abolitionism, Feminism, and Socialism; I don’t think their status as unintended consequences of capitalism and imperialism necessarily undermines them, but it’s quite compelling to consider.

    Compelling because if there is no ‘outside’, as it were, and co-opting is inevitable then you can plan for it. Secondarily, Gibson is entirely correct that such enclaves (and to this I would add countercultures in general in case it is not implied by him) often serve as the wild imagination of capitalism that robber barons themselves lack. These enclaves are often a consequence of the growing totality of industrial society, they provide an oasis of ideas that are otherwise (openly) not present in the broader industrial cityscape. But we return to co-opting… does it make things hopeless? Well, no. For every idea that our beloved robber barons can exploit, we produce those that could be the death of the system.

    From a functional perspective, countercultures serve as vents in society- ways of diffusing radical and dangerous ideas in such a way as to be harmless, and as an incubator for any useful ideas that can be co-opted. But does what we do *really* dissipate? I don’t think so.

    As I said earlier, look at what we got culturally out of three major 19th Century countercultural ideologies, which were unintended children of the Enlightenment. That was the consequence of us taking the white male rulers of our societies at their word when they said we’re all equal, we all have natural or inalienable rights, and so forth. While you can compartmentalise these movements and slough off their more radical potentialities, what they are nevertheless doing is grinding society forward. Capitalism co-opts feminism by producing women who can become overlords, yes, but in order to make that possible for capitalism those at the top also have to tolerate all the other wonderful ways we’re chipping at the foundational assumptions of patriarchal capitalism. It works both ways.

    The battle isn’t over just because we find Che Guevara T-shirts for sale at 19.99.

  2. queenemily says:

    I think you’re onto something yes, working from the idea of power as both repressive and productive. Capitalism unwittingly sows the seeds of its own destruction, like Marx long ago pointed out. Gibson appears to suggest that there’s very few if any left anymore (which I’m not sure I buy, but it’s a provocative thought), where do you see the counter cultural spaces currently in operation?

    • Questioning Transphobia for one. “Space” means something very different today than it did even thirty years ago. Neighbourhoods and physical spaces still matter, and indeed one can find plenty of those right around the world that are incubators of various sorts of radicalism. But the advent of the Internet has given us online space that transcends many of the limitations and boundaries a neighbourhood can impose, and thus blogs, websites, or IM windows can become “countercultural spaces in operation” very readily.

      Even then, the boundaries between countercultural space and hegemonic-cultural space are very strangely fluid, to the point where even the metaphor of a boundary (understood as a line of some sort) becomes impossible to sustain. In my recent writing on gaming, I talk about how individuals or small groups of people can use their imaginations to undercut the dominant culture in spaces that might otherwise be culturally hegemonic.

      (As you can tell I’m in quite the cybery mood today).

      But I guess the point is that since “space” has become much more fluid, sits of resistance are multiplying rapidly and sharp distinctions between cultural and countercultural are not always useful- which excites me a lot. Co-opting remains a threat, but it’s also becoming easier to wiggle around and do interesting things even while under that threat, in part because of the newly evolved nature of space.

      • GallingGalla says:

        I like your thinking, Quinnae. It’s like were in a much more fluid medium, and we can slip in between and around whatever barriers and traps hegemony tries to set up.

        They’re the dam, we’re the leak.

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