Aftershocks: The End of Style Culture
London: Wallflower Press, 2002.
£12.99, 208 pages, ISBN 1-903364-24-8.
Rider University, Lawrenceville
I thought this book would be a scholarly exercise in examining
the decline of style cultures, sort of a 1990s sequel to
Dick Hebdiges 1970s Subculture:
The Meaning of Style. The title promised valuable reading and perhaps a
significant new contribution to cultural studies. It is something quite different.
Aftershocks is a collection of short columns on movies, rock and celebrities
reprinted from hip and left English magazines of the 1990s. Most are from i-D,
a London fashion and style magazine, and from Arena. Peculiarly, at
the back of the book is a quite different, longer, scholarly chapter critiquing
post-structural theory of culture and consumption.
The columns are written in a flashy journalistic style, rapidly dropping
names the reader can use to gauge if they are deck. They are more like
some of Hebdiges essays in Hiding in the Light (The last chapter, Ejected
meta-narratives is more akin to Subculture). The columns remind
me of some recent cyber studies whose writing style mimics the flashing screen
of video games or the Internet, or like lit crit done at a fast pace without
Beards essays also remind me of Thomas Franks anti-consumerist Baffler magazine.
Franks book, The Conquest of Cool was a more traditional scholarly
treatment of the commodification of style cultures, a topic underlying much
of Beards writing. Frank explored how signs of counter culture such
as hippie dress were quickly incorporated into fashion, and mass produced
Frank and Beard both explore what Raymond Williams called incorporation,
the opposite of resistance, and both come to pessimistic conclusions. Hebdige
incorporation in Subculture: The meaning of style but did not develop
it, as he was optimistic about style as resistance.
Beards columns, Franks Baffler, the cyberpunk essays all
share the characteristic of immediacy that is one of the traits
of a new generation of cultural studies as defined in Hop on Pop by
Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc, who jettison the scholarly
tradition of writing from a distance. Jenkins et. al. evoke an
awareness of the impossibility of objectivity and therefore the necessity to
acknowledge ones own involvement in the subject of study. This was a
trend in sociology about two decades ago calling for researchers to be self-reflexive.
Anthropology went through a similar self-reflection about acknowledging the
fieldworkers relationships to the people s/he studied. With immediacy Jenkins
et. al. mean not only to use that recognition as a preface, but as a method
Jenkins et. al. also consider accessibility of their writing as an important
guiding principle. Ironically, being a fan of popular culture can clash with
accessibility. Beards essays are a good example of this. Jenkins et.
al. are concerned with the overly academic or theoretical language excluding
non-specialists. But, as Joli Jensen and Jenkins himself have noted, fans
are specialist too; and fans can write in an exclusionary way. Similarly,
like Beard write from within their specialized world. Indeed it is a hallmark
of one brand of criticism to primarily address those within that world, rather
than the lay reader. Beard writes from inside the world of popular culture
professionals and celebrity, dropping names and terms like trees dropping
leaves in the autumn, and so excludes those not immersed in it.
However, the real issue is not style, as method or otherwise, but: Are the
reprints worth reading ten years after the fact? Do they go beyond the moment
for which they were written? Or are they just yesterdays news/fashion/gossip?
They might have been valuable insights at the moment, contributing to our understanding
of our situation at the time. But are those insights still relevant to our
present project or situation? This is the danger of immediacy as a method.
The articles are sophisticated journalistic vignettes of the 1990s. But I dont
see that they contribute to any larger project of understandingor change.
Nor are they self-reflexive. They are more entertainment than anything else.
The essays you may want to read depend on your specific interests. I found Moral
Panics from The Observer/Life and Celluloid binge from The
New Statesman of interest since Im working on a piece about the addiction
metaphor applied to media. I liked Beard's quick but interesting take on the
cultural meaning of Viagra though Im not interested in Viagra. The rock n roll
essays will probably interest those who are heavy into the 1990s rock scene, Rolling
Stone sort of pieces.
The principal shortcoming of the essays is their shortness, several less than
one page and most less than three pages, too short to develop analysis or context,
to contribute to a larger project. No doubt this was a constraint of the magazines.
There are interesting subjects and some ideas, but they go nowhere. The longer
essays of four pages or so tend to be more satisfying, e.g. the one on hacker
The last, longer chapter, Ejected meta-narratives is another matter.
This is valuable reading to those interested in post-structuralism or cultural
studies. It is his unfinished dissertation. (How many people get to publish
their unfinished dissertation!) It is quite analyticbut more important,
it is synthetic, and good. High theory is no longer my thingenjoying
the exhilaration of skating around on new theoretical surfaces, as John Clarke
once described the experience. Yet this is a valuable contribution. Unfortunately
it breaks off unfinished. It requires another chapter substantively and in
order to qualify as a book. Perhaps the excuse of the magazine reprints is
that they pad out enough pages to warrant publishing the dissertation chapter
in a book. But the dissertation deserves to be published on its
ownrather than buried behind old magazine columns. It attempts
theoretically what many talk about, synthesizing political economy and cultural
theory. I wish Beard had concentrated on expanding this rather than recycling
his journalism, regardless of how entertaining it is.