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Aftershocks: The End of Style Culture
Steve Beard
London: Wallflower Press, 2002.
£12.99, 208 pages, ISBN 1-903364-24-8.

Richard Butsch
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 Hebdige’s 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.

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 Hebdige’s 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 looking back.

Beard’s essays also remind me of Thomas Frank’s anti-consumerist Baffler magazine. Frank’s book, The Conquest of Cool was a more traditional scholarly treatment of the commodification of style cultures, a topic underlying much of Beard’s writing. Frank explored how signs of counter culture such as hippie dress were quickly incorporated into fashion, and mass produced as commodities. Frank and Beard both explore what Raymond Williams called incorporation, the opposite of resistance, and both come to pessimistic conclusions. Hebdige mentioned incorporation in Subculture: The meaning of style but did not develop it, as he was optimistic about style as resistance.

Beard’s columns, Frank’s 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 one’s 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 fieldworker’s 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 of examination.

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. Beard’s 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, critics 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 yesterday’s 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 don’t see that they contribute to any larger project of understanding—or 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 I’m 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 I’m 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 Kevin Mitnick.

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 analytic—but more important, it is synthetic, and good. High theory is no longer my thing—enjoying 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 own—rather 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.

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