The postmodern condition  

Jean-François Lyotard describes postmodernity as a time in which “the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses” (37). Large social institutions—such as nation-states, political parties, and historical traditions—have lost their attraction and been replaced by “nodal points” which individuals move between and among.

It may even be said that the system can and must encourage such movement; . . . the novelty of an unexpected “move,” with its correlative displacement of a partner or group of partners, can supply the system with that increased performativity it forever demands and consumes. (15)

It is exactly those nodal points that the subcultures of this genre represent. Just as actors like Tom Cruise (and, we may predict, Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez—each of whom have appeared in two so far) can appear in one subculture movie after another, so can audiences go to one after another and find something with which to identify. The individual in postmodern society finds himself in a state of flux with regard to the world around him. As a result, his own identity may indeed be more fluid—and more fractured.
    In his analysis of postmodern political economy, David Harvey expands on this idea of the fractured society. Harvey identifies a “sea-change” in the manifestations of capitalism since 1973 (189). The economic boom which followed World War II was based on a set of practices commonly referred to as Fordist (or Fordist- Keynesianist, or Taylorist-Fordist, etc.). One characteristic of that system, among others, was an approach to the marketplace as a sort of coherent monolith which demanded (or more appropriately, could be induced to demand) a set of standardized, efficiently produced commodities. The Fordist labor market, likewise, was standardized and rational. As the three “major actors”—large corporations, the nation-state, and organized labor—controlled the mechanisms, the American economy seemed quite stable (133). After the first major recession of the postwar period (in 1973), however, a new approach was called for.
    The post-Fordist markets (both labor and consumption) are recognized as diverse and volatile. After 1973, “on the consumer side, there was more than a little criticism of the blandness of the quality of life under a regime of standardized mass consumption” (Harvey 139). On the production side, meanwhile, there was also unrest. “Denied access to privileged work in mass production, large segments of the workforce were equally denied access to the much-touted joys of mass consumption. This was a sure formula for discontent” (138). The new system which arose in respond to these circumstances is what Harvey refers to as flexible accumulation. Essentially, capitalists began to count on “flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption” (147). Niche marketing, the outsourcing of labor, and production abroad characterize post-Fordist capitalism.
    The post-Fordist consumer has also taken a new position. Under Fordism, individuals sought commodities which largely resembled each other. In purchases, utility was a more significant factor than the expression of the buyer’s identity. Taste was standardized to some degree, over time and space, throughout mainstream culture. But with post-Fordism, “the relatively stable aesthetic of Fordist modernism has given way to all the ferment, instability, and fleeting qualities of a postmodernist aesthetic that celebrates difference, ephemerality, spectacle, fashion, and the commodification of cultural forms” (Harvey 156). It is this postmodern condition of fracturing that is most evident in the subculture genre.
    The cultural effects (and, to some extent, evidence) of this change have been widely noted. Television, in particular, has reflected it. Certainly, post-Fordist television offers a multitude of choices which might be taken as symbolic of the postmodern condition. But more significant to our analysis here is the change in what is expected of the television audience itself. “Whereas the ‘lowest common denominator’ philosophy had defined popularity in terms of brute ratings, the emergent philosophy reshaped popularity in terms of the quest for ‘quality demographics’—a giant step toward the ‘niche audience’ strategies of the 1980s and 1990s” (Reeves, Rodgers, and Epstein 271).
    The post-Fordist focus on niche marketing, in particular, has been significant. Consumers are no longer compelled to identify (commercially) with the market at large. Rather, corporations have capitalized on the flexible identity in order to sell an ever-changing image to the individual consumer. The “difference, ephemerality, spectacle, [and] fashion” to which Harvey refers have become pinions of the overconsumption which characterizes the last three decades. As Jean Baudrillard describes it, the postmodern market is spread throughout a “consumption society.” The postmodern market, as he describes it, is based on models, pre-packaged sets of tastes and desires with which consumers identify. “As a result, to differentiate oneself is precisely to affiliate to a model, to label oneself by reference to an abstract model, to a combinatorial pattern of fashion” (88). This affiliation is not strictly conformity—individuals do not model themselves after other individuals, or even after the group to which they belong. Rather, individuals subscribe to codes—the “combinatorial patterns of fashion” to which he refers above—and, in doing so, find that they share common identities with others who subscribe to the same code.
    There is an obvious parallel with subculture films. This entire genre of films center on niches spread throughout society. Each individual movie, on its own, is a celebration of a particular subculture, a strong, clear focus on its members, its language, its arcana, its fetishes. Each movie provides a new code for its audience to identify with, however temporarily. The genre as a whole, of course, is a celebration of the subculture itself—the niche, the codified identity—in American society. Whether the codes are created by market capitalists themselves, or spontaneously arise from society at large, the end effect is the same: these codes can be (and are) commodified, packaged and sold. Sarah Thornton refers to club cultures as “taste cultures.” Club-goers, she says, “generally congregate on the basis of their shared taste in music, their consumption of common media and, most importantly, their preference for people with similar tastes to themselves” (3). For the most part, participation in the club culture (as Thornton describes it) is in line with Baudrillard’s description of the consumption society.
    Given such a description of society references to “the mainstream” may seem contradictory. If society is simply composed of multiple “nodal points,” how can one make references to a broad entity—the mainstream—against which any particular nodal point is contrasted? The concept of the mainstream, however, does remain a significant factor—even if its base in reality is shaken. As Thornton has pointed out:

Dichotomies like mainstream/subculture and commercial/alternative do not relate to the way dance crowds are objectively organized as much as to the means by which many youth cultures imagine their social world, measure their cultural worth and claim the subcultural capital. (96)

  Home
  Introduction
  Genre Analysis
  Characteristics
  Westerns/Mobs
  Race, Gender,
    and Class
  Naturalization
  The Postmodern
    Condition
  Conclusion
  Appendix
  Works Cited and
    Films Referenced
  Suggestions?
The same is true, I think, of most of the movies within the subculture genre. Whether or not there is an identifiable mainstream to which any particular subculture is opposed, the concept of the mainstream is widely held, and is a firm enough station to allow subcultural subjectivity to be based upon it. “While there are many other scenes, most clubbers and ravers see themselves in opposition to the ‘mainstream’” (Thornton 99, emphasis hers). It may even be possible to view the mainstream as “a cluster of subcultures” (Thornton 109) and yet still treat it as a monolith against which to contrast a particular subculture. In Rounders, for example, Mike and Worm move in and out of many diverse subcultures—judges, law school, the ivy leagues, prison, country clubs, Atlantic City tourists, cigar shops, policemen, etc.—but none of these is well defined, and most are defined primarily by the fact that Mike and Worm are clearly opposed to them.




Rounders (77 sec.)
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