This paper first investigates why the main strands in conventional subcultural and post-subcultural research have neglected the collective and material aspects of subcultural practice. It then investigates more recent attempts to include collectivity and materiality in the analysis and seeks to further develop such perspectives. In this way the paper seeks to demonstrate the need for a new embedded perspective on the material and collective dimensions of subcultural practice. In the first part of the paper, I embark on a critical reading of the traditional ‘schools’ of subcultural and post-subcultural theory. I seek to show that they all suffer from a blind spot in regard to collective and material embeddedness. In the second part, I analyse a number of ‘thick’ empirical accounts of subcultural collectivity, creativity and interchange with material and musical objects. I attempt to develop these descriptions further and seek to show how they may benefit from having more attention paid to collective and material embeddedness, as well as to the interchange between these two dimensions in subcultural practice. I hope to thus demonstrate how the embedded perspective may contribute to analyses of subcultural creativity and lived subcultural experience.


This paper investigates why the main strands in conventional subcultural and post-subcultural research have neglected the collective and material aspects of subcultural practice. It then visits more recent attempts to include collectivity and materiality in the analysis of subcultural practice and seeks to further develop these perspectives.

After the heydays of structuralist and poststructuralist inspirations in the 1970s and 1980s, subcultural research turned in the 1990s and early 2000s to more individualist or subject-centred ‘post-subculturalist’ perspectives. In the last decades, so-called ‘material culture’ and ‘new materialist’ perspectives have found their way into youth cultural research and popular music studies, with the collective dimension also receiving more attention. Still, it is the claim of this paper that there is more work to be done. I attempt to demonstrate the analytic potentials of an alternative embedded approach to the collective and the material aspects of subcultural practice.

In the first part of the paper, after a brief theoretical sketch, I embark on a critical reading of conventional subcultural theory. Through a critique of four well known ‘schools’ of subcultural and post-subcultural theory, I illustrate the need for a new embedded perspective on the material and the collective. I demonstrate how the opposition between actor and structure, the focus on signs and discourse and the concept of identity – important theoretical ideas in these traditional paradigms – makes it difficult to access this embedded space. This means, as I attempt to show, that subcultural research ends up betraying one of its original goals, the promise to access the lived subcultural experience of the subculturalists and their creative ‘resistance’.

In the second part of the paper, I engage in a positive dialogue with a number of ‘thick’ empirical accounts of subcultural collectivity, creativity and interchange with material and musical objects. First, I revisit Paul Willis’ classic study of English working-class school culture, then I move on to different types of music ‘scene’ literature and recent developments in the field of music heritage studies. In contrast to the four schools of traditional subcultural theory, these selected examples do articulate dimensions of collective and material embeddedness. Through analyses of these descriptive accounts, I seek to demonstrate and theorise how embedded aspects of materiality and collectivity surface in each example chosen. However, I also attempt to develop these descriptions further. Notably, I seek to show how they may benefit from attention to the dynamic interplay between the collective and the material dimensions in subcultural practice. I hope to thus demonstrate how this doubly embedded perspective may contribute to subcultural research in general, and to analyses of subcultural creativity and lived experience in particular.

A note on theory

In contrast to much recent work on material culture and material agency, often rooted in archaeology or cultural theory, this paper is predominantly inspired by traditional sociological sources, namely by Emile Durkheim’s late work on collective ritual in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Citation1995). Durkheim describes in several instances a unique relation between collective ‘effervescence’ and creativity, whether in larger epochal contexts (215–216) or in minor forms of intense group formation (216–221). This perspective on the social differs decisively from the one found in his early programmatic work (Durkheim Citation2013). Whereas the early work is essentially orientated towards a normative and disciplining concept of the social, the later work is inspired by notions of collective affinity, by metaphors of energy and intensity, empirical accounts of indigenous religious ritual and by mass-theoretical ideas. Collective ‘effervescence’ is first and foremost energetic and affective. Durkheim’s later analyses are based, moreover, on an interactionist concept of the social, in the sense that they place the individual in a concrete collective setting around an emphatically shared ‘object’ (Citation1995, 232); the younger Durkheim, in contrast, tended to see the social as a decontextualised and ‘decollectivised’ normative structure internalised by the individuals separately.

Each in his own way, American interactionist Randall Collins and French sociologist Michel Maffesoli have taken up these ideas. Collins has systematised Durkheim’s concept of collectivity (collective effervescence) through a formalisation of the ‘ingredients’ of interactionist ‘ritual’ (Collins Citation2004), whereas Maffesoli notably has investigated its intensive and vital dimensions in a more theoretically informed style of writing (Maffesoli Citation1996). However, Collins and Maffesoli both understand collectivity as the fundamental social dynamic, present each and every time a sense of group participation and belonging is present, every time borders are drawn between us and others, every time we emphatically share a certain practice, interest or object. For these authors, collectivity is not necessarily something exceptional and ecstatic – although it can be! – but rather a fundamental energy or intensity found in all collective situations in which we feel comfortable; just compare bodies sitting alone to bodies in conversation or in interaction with other bodies. Bodies which are collectively embedded are typically also vitally or intensively embedded.

In the central chapter, seven, of Book I of The Elementary Forms (Citation1995, 207–241), Durkheim gives these ideas a phenomenological and object-oriented twist. We rarely separate the sensation of collective energy from what we are collectively oriented towards or around – rather, what we talk about, centre on, gather around, gains a sort of phenomenological surplus. The object placed at the centre of collective agitation becomes, as it were, ‘sacred’; it gains new properties and capacities, it gains importance, power, attraction, it claims our attention, it gathers us, it animates us. Conversely, consider how unreal or bland the otherwise high-profile soccer match feels when the live audience is absent (or the sound of the broadcast is switched off).

It is this basic dynamic between the collective and the objective which constitute the basis of this paper. I wish to understand these dynamics concretely, however, as empirically analysable forms of collective enactment: we ‘talk up’ the pop idol or the band before the concert, the fashionable gadget, the cool subcultural item – and we do so together, in a strange phenomenological space where both collective and ‘objective’ energies and investments grow and intermingle without really being separate: this is the intensive space of collective and material embeddedness. Being part of the crowd on the dance floor is part of the (experience of the) rave music. A combination of Northern Soul dance steps feels different when practised alone at home compared to when enacted together with hundreds of other dancers who appreciate the same moment and the same music at the actual event. The collective mythologising of the ‘warm’ sound of the pick-up needle gently touching the vinyl disc makes it even warmer and more nostalgic, just as the collective cult around a Gibson Les Paul guitar adds to its feel, its looks and its sound. In this phenomenological sense an object gains remarkable properties because of its becoming popular, just as much as it gains popularity because of its remarkable properties. It is this reciprocal or self-reinforcing dynamic which informs the present paper. It is, as far as I can see, a dynamic which is largely ignored by subcultural theory and is even absent from more recent appreciations of both the collective and the material moments of subcultural practice.

Below, I seek to unite this Durkheimian impulse with the contemporary tendency in cultural sociology and cultural theory towards an appreciation of the co-constitutive role of things, artefacts and objects in our practices. Thus, besides the Durkheimian impulses, the paper leans just as much on some of the same theoretical sources that a lot of current subcultural or music cultural work on material agency or material culture does (e.g. Baker Citation2015a; Bennett and Rogers Citation2016; Driver and Bennett Citation2015). Inspired, notably, by British feminist and cultural theoretician Sarah Ahmed (Citation2006), but also by the action-theoretical reflections of French sociologist of science Bruno Latour (e.g. Citation2005, 43–86), I wish to move closer to ‘experience’ and to the phenomenology of creative subcultural practice. I wish to investigate how objects actually help the subculturalists in their practices, how they may even initiate action, calling upon the subjects or actors to do something, how the participants enact cultural or musical objects while equally becoming enacted by them. To be sure, it takes years of work and hard-won experience to learn to become ‘performed’ and ‘determined’ in the right way by the music at a Northern Soul event. In this sense, the moments of ‘flow’ or self-forgetting in immersive practice are the moments when objects and materialities start to ‘take over’ what is going on and, at least partly, to take control of the practice in question.

So, while Durkheim’s point was that collective intensity may carry us towards the objects, we now see that the objects may also carry us towards other people: a good joke wants to be told, a groove moves you towards other bodies on the dancefloor, a melody wants to be shared or sung with others, a first interested encounter with a subcultural item may lead to a more obligatory form of membership. In other words, collective embeddedness enforces material embeddedness and vice versa. The happy opening out of this circuit leads to creative moments; it opens up a space of collective agitation where also the objects start to vibrate and emit signals and suggestions for further action. In a sense this is what a subculture is. We could say that action takes place between or among the collective, the objective (or cultural or material) and the subjective.Footnote1

First part: from subculture to post-subculture and back

The Birmingham scholars

To understand the attitude in the tradition of subculture studies towards the collective and the material, we need to go back to the beginning in British subcultural theorising: the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Research (CCCS) or, simply, the Birmingham School. Taking a closer look at the seminal study by Phil Cohen, ‘Subcultural conflict and working-class community’ ([Citation1972] Citation2007), it becomes clear that the very concept of subculture is inscribed in – constituted by – a lack of collectivity. Cohen’s text is a tragic text. Its drive is the disappearance of traditional forms of solidarity. Subculture is from the outset seen as an impossible attempt to ‘retrieve some of the socially cohesive elements in the parent culture’; this attempt must falter, however, which explains why the young seek – ‘magically’ – to compensate for the disappearance of the collective through music and style (Cohen [Citation1972] Citation2007, 545). Symptomatically, even though Cohen insists on a ‘phenomenological analysis of the way the subculture is actually lived out’ (545), the ‘lived reality’ of the subculturalists, let alone its collective and material aspects, is given little or no weight in the text except for a few allusions to ‘argot and ritual’.

If we read the 1975 Birmingham School manifesto, Resistance through Rituals (Hall and Jefferson Citation2006b) in this critical and privative light, interesting ambivalences are revealed. On the one hand, we do find testimonies to the collective and object-oriented character of subcultural practice.

[Working class subcultures] explore ‘focal concerns’ central to the inner life of the group: things always ‘done’ or ‘never done’, a set of social rituals which underpin their collective identity and define them as a ‘group’ instead of a mere collection of individuals. They adopt and adapt material objects – goods and possessions – and reorganize them into distinctive ‘styles’ which express the collectivity of their being-as-a-group. These concerns, activities, relationships, materials become embodied in rituals of relationship and occasion and movement. Sometimes, the world is marked out, linguistically, by names or an argot which classifies the social world exterior to them in terms meaningful only within their group perspective and maintains its boundaries. (Clarke et al. Citation2006 [1975], 35)

The condensed passage contours a broad and informal sense of collective ‘ritual’. It also underlines the importance of ‘material objects’ at the centre of subcultural experience. These objects ‘underpin’ the ‘collective identity’ of the subculturalists and help them to ‘express their collectivity or their being-as-a-group’. The passage even mentions the constant ‘maintenance’ of ‘boundaries’ as part of this ritual and thus conceives of border-drawing and subcultural identity as fundamentally collectivity-generating.

On the other hand, as far as I know, these ideas were never operationalised in any empirical programme. No CCCS scholar ever engaged with these collective aspects of subcultural practice in any depth. Despite phenomenological ambitions, and despite its prominence in the CCCS programme – even present in the manifesto’s title – the concept of ‘ritual’ is never developed as to its concrete collective or material embeddedness.

This blind spot, I think, is a result of the Birminghamians’ adherence to the actor–structure template. In a new introduction from 2006, leading scholars Hall and Jefferson (Citation2006a, vii–xxxii) indeed recognise this dualism as central to the CCCS programme.

The task, then, was both to understand how [the young] experienced and acted in a changing world and, at the same time, how they were socially positioned by and in it – ‘subjects’ but also ‘subjected’ to wider structures and longer histories. Generally speaking, both the interpretative and the contextualising moments are unavoidable in cultural studies [...]. (Hall and Jefferson Citation2006a, xxii)

The wish to understand young (‘lived’) experience relates back to Cohen. Yet the 2006 reformulation is less collectivist than ever. On the ontological level, we are dealing with a ‘subjectivity’ which is placed in lonely opposition to an abstract notion of ‘wider structures and longer histories’. Hall and Jefferson insist that this ‘interpretation’ should be carried out as a form of ‘contextualisation’, that is, that ‘understanding’ the subject means placing it in the ‘whole ensemble of social relations’ (Hall and Jefferson Citation2006a, xxii). For all the brilliance of Birmingham contextual analysis – a good example is, again, Cohen, with his analysis of the encroaching ‘embourgeoisement’ and ‘commercialisation’ of working-class culture – each and every individual faces this context, these societal changes and pressures alone. Conversely, when Hall and Jefferson blame their critics for ‘side stepping’ this contextualisation of the subject, they do not regret the lack of interest in concrete collective aspects of subcultural practice among their adversaries, but merely insist on the continued relevance of the structural and societal context for the ‘subject’.

The CCCS perspective on the objective or material dimension is equally interesting. The Birmingham School approach went hand in hand with a predilection for semiotics. Semiotics, however, cannot but treat the objects instrumentally, merely using them, consciously or not, to signify or transmit something.Footnote2 This way they are pacified. They cannot act back upon the subcultural subject, help it in its practices or generate a shared point of fascination. But, to be sure, in the embedded state, a fascinating object fascinates you. The reduction of objects to signs effectively blocks an analysis of the intensive relations to the object in question.

This disembedding of the subculturalists’ practices is underwritten, finally, by the general ‘critical’ attitude of the Birmingham programme. The subculturalists’ semiotic appropriations, their relations to objects, are to be understood as critical ‘reactions’ to a hostile and repressive societal structure. Clearly, a perspective which constantly emphasises the felt opposition to the collective and material surroundings does not make it easier to enter into relations of collective and material embeddedness.

To illustrate in more detail how this collective and material privation occurs, I shall take a short look at an important instance of Birmingham analysis, namely, some of Angela McRobbie’s celebrated work on female working-class culture.

[C]ulture is about the pre-structured but still essentially expressive and creative capacities of the group in question. (McRobbie Citation1991, 36)

Yet, in the actual analysis, the young women only form a ‘group’ in a rhetorical sense. They may have a structural ‘position’, a number of ‘pre-structured’ ‘capacities’ in common, but they do not actively share anything. They do not really enact their music, their idols and pop stars or their dancing together. The objects do not stand at the centre of shared practices in any emphatic sense. Nowhere are collective energies and sentiments allowed to animate the ‘expressive and creative capacities’ of the young women. Instead, sentiments of collectivity are rationalised as ‘functional’ for other purposes.

Some of the cultural forms associated with pre-teenage girls, for example, can be viewed as responses to their perceived status as girls and to their anxieties about moving into the world of teenage sexual interaction. One aspect of this can be seen in the extremely tight-knit friendships groups formed by girls. A function of the social exclusiveness of such groupings is to gain private, inaccessible space. (McRobbie and Garber Citation1991, 14)

McRobbie and Jenny Gerber basically see the collective bonding of the girls as a means to withstand sexual pressure and a disquieting adult world. ‘Bedroom culture’ is a result of a need to stick together, to create a ‘safe space’. There is undoubtedly some truth in these observations. Nevertheless, the perspective inadvertently constructs the collective dimension as a mere ‘response’ to hostile social (and sexual) surroundings. It is not enjoyed for its own sake.

On the other hand, McRobbie also insists on (glimpses of) subject-centred agency: we thus learn that the young adults are ‘being active’ and that their material practices, for all their inoffensive blandness, contain potential moments of ‘freedom’ and creative ‘resistance’ (Citation1991, 14). McRobbie is forced by the actor–structure dichotomy to understand creativity as disembedding, that is, in terms of a subjective ‘freedom’ from a determining ‘pre-structuring’. Again, the individual is detached from her collective and material surroundings.

In this way, effectively, the collective and the material tend to disappear from the investigation. There is little analysis in the Birmingham corpus of how collective sentiments and energies help to create intensity and investment, to breathe life and agency – and physical attraction – into shared idols and role models, to cultivate and enact songs and dances, sexualities, clothing items or other objects. Symptomatically, despite naming the female subculture in question after the ‘bed’, McRobbie and Gerber do not delve into its completely central place in ‘bedroom culture’. The two authors simply do not have the tools at their disposal to investigate how the teenage bed helps to construct and enact the young womens’ bodies, their ways of listening, of laughing and conversing, their cultic practices and emphatic forms of being-together, and thus to analyse how it contributes to the creation of collective energies, intimacies and sentiments among them.

David Muggleton’s ‘post-subcultures’

From the beginning of the 1990s a critical alternative to the CCCS emerged: so-called ‘post-subcultural’ theory. Its most developed expression is to be found in David Muggleton’s Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style (Citation2002) – a title directed polemically against Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (2010), which is not, in Muggleton’s eyes, ‘inside’ or empirical enough. Hebdige’s semiotic perspective is criticised for being insensitive to the youths’ own voices. The structural point of departure and the use of semiotic methods allowed the Birminghamians to ‘read’ the young from afar. This betrays the claim to depict their ‘lived reality’. Consequently, Muggleton turns from a structural emphasis to an emphasis on the actor. He insists on a ‘neo-Weberian’ re-positioning of agency in the ‘subculturalists themselves’.

A Weberian study of subcultures must be based upon an interpretation of the subjectively held meanings, values and beliefs of the subculturalists themselves. This is the premise upon which Weber’s verstehen methodology is founded, the literal translation of the term verstehen being ‘human understanding’. Put simply, humans (social actors) possess ‘inner states’ by which they understand, interpret and evaluate the courses of action open to them. We must therefore take seriously the subjective meanings of subculturalists, for these provide the motivation for their conduct. This makes the subjective dimension a central component in any explanation of social phenomena. (Muggleton Citation2002, 10)

Instead of the CCCS’ idea of a primordial and structured ‘social totality’, we are to take as our point of departure the living and breathing actors, ‘humans’ or subculturalists, with all their ‘subjective meanings’, ‘inner states’ or ‘subjective dimensions’ to be understood and interpreted.

Yet in my view, it is far from evident that solid ethnographic work necessarily goes hand-in-hand with a placement of all agency within the subject. As already intimated, constructing (subcultural) ‘experience’ or (planning of) action as an ‘inner state’ detaches the subject from the objects and artefacts that co-animate and guide action and experience in the embedded state; ideally it sees action in terms of a subject who alone masters her ‘own’ agency. Again, an opposition is installed between subject and object – this time, however, on individualist premises.

Here we need to pause for a second: it is not entirely true that Muggleton gathers all agency inside the individual. Above, he writes about certain ‘courses of action’ open to the subjects. In actual fact, in essence, just as do the Birminghamians, Muggleton wishes to place the individuals in a cultural and social ‘context’.

In placing emphasis on both meaning and probability, Weber was acknowledging that individual actions are tempered by social and cultural constraints. (Muggleton Citation2002, 10)

The reader should remark how the social and cultural context emerge as ‘constraints’, as something that opposes the individual. We now see that that there is more continuity between the CCCS scholars and Muggleton than meets the eye. Both conceive of the social as mere restrictions and limitations on a lonely or at least de-collectivised actor. We are dealing with essentially the same ontology: freedom is pitted against necessity (determinism), spontaneous activity against passive activity (mere restriction), individual against society, the mental or psychological against the material and physical. The difference comes down to which side is considered primordial and where explanatory power is really placed. However, in all these parallel instances, the hierarchical asymmetry of Western dualism systematically blends out the embedded registers of practice where the material or objective side takes a positive and active role.

Andy Bennett and the neo-tribes

Yet there are other recent lines of research in the youth cultural field which have more feel for the collective. Andy Bennett is the instigator of the so-called ‘neo-tribal’ string in post-subcultural theory (see, notably, Bennett Citation1999, Citation2011; but see also Malbon Citation1998, Citation2001). The interest in Maffesoli’s concept of ‘neo-tribalism’ (Maffesoli Citation1996) separates his approach from Muggleton’s. Bennett’s work has been highly agenda setting and remains productive (e.g. Bennett Citation2011; Hardy, Bennett, and Robards Citation2018; Woodman and Bennett Citation2015).

These merits aside, it is my view that Bennett’s formative interpretation of Maffesoli is selective. Again, we meet the same ambivalence. On the one hand, there are signs in Bennett’s original paper that point towards a heightened appreciation of the collective. Not only does the very metaphor of the ‘neo-tribal’ carry collectivist tonalities, but Bennett duly notes Maffesoli’s critique of the concept of self-identity, of the modern ideal of a unified self and of the goal-oriented subject (Bennett Citation1999, 605–606); he celebrates Maffesoli’s interest in ‘collective sensibilities’ and in the collective ‘ambiences’, ‘feelings and emotions’ of subcultural experience (Bennett Citation1999, 608). It shouldn’t be forgotten, either, that Bennett’s brilliant 1999 paper is spurred by an empirical interest in ‘club-culture’ and (embedded) rave-experiences.

Yet on the other hand, surprisingly, Bennett seems to have no difficulty in placing his work within the individualist post-subculturalist programme contoured by Muggleton. The following quotes are illustrative.

Once again, the central implication here is that a fully developed mass society liberates rather than oppresses individuals by offering avenues for individual expression through a range of commodities and resources which can be worked into particular lifestyle sites and strategies. At the same time, however, Maffesoli’s notion of an emphatic sociality allows for the fact that such sites and strategies are in no way fixed but may change, both over time or in correspondence with the different groups and activities with which individuals engage in the course of their everyday lives. (Bennett Citation1999, 608)

[T]he nature of the urban dance-music event is becoming increasingly a matter of individual choice, the type of music heard and the setting in which it is heard and danced to being very much the decision of the individual consumer. (Bennett Citation1999, 611)

Once more we witness how the dichotomy between actor and structure creates or enforces oppositions. Apparently, criticism of the concept of structure – here by the name of societal ‘oppression’ – can only be made in the name of ‘liberated’ ‘individuals’ or ‘individual consumers’. These individuals, moreover, behave ‘strategically’. They make increasingly ‘free’ ‘choices’ as to ‘avenue’, ‘site’ or ‘setting’ and as to which ‘commodities and resources’ they wish to ‘work into lifestyles’. Maffesoli’s notion of ‘emphatic sociality’ is reduced to a mere placeholder for these individual ‘strategies’ and their fluid and ‘changing’ character. Bennett’s work on subculture contains little about how ‘emphatic sociality’ is actually experienced, little interest in the non-intentional or non-instrumental attitudes engaged in on such embedded occasions.Footnote3 In such a strategic and individualist perspective, the embedded dimension cannot but disappear: the pumping music, the other bodies, the affective ambience cannot really seize the actors. The reason is simple: when all explanatory force remains locked up inside the individuals, it becomes impossible to describe how these individuals must lean on the music, how they trust it to draw them into the dance, and how the ‘effervescent ambience’ helps them to enact the music and electrify their bodies.

Bennett’s individualism curtails the Maffesolian inspiration. He takes from Maffesoli the idea of a liberation of the individual from ascriptive limitations, but he does not, like Maffesoli, re-embed this individual in collective ties and emotions; he does not investigate the puissance of collectivity, its inherent intensities and binding forces (e.g. Maffesoli Citation1996, 10–11). Granted, Bennett does write about the importance of collective, ‘aesthetic’ and ‘affective’ registers to ‘post-subcultural’ experience, but he rarely describes these experiences in any phenomenological detail. In fact, in Bennett, Maffesoli’s concepts of sociality and neo-tribalism rather denote a certain ‘fluidity’ of engagement, a lack of binding of the individual, a liberation and a distance from structure, rather than a concrete enjoyment of cultural objects and a cultivation of collective energies and sentiments together with others. In a word, it seems that Bennett overlooks that the subtitle of Maffesoli’s The Time of the Tribes (Citation1996) in fact ushers in ‘the decline of individualism’.Footnote4

Reviving the Birmingham school: Shane Blackman

The last perspective I shall visit is the attempt by Shane Blackman and colleagues to resuscitate the CCCS legacy (Blackman Citation2005; Blackman and Kempson Citation2016; see also Shildrick and Macdonald Citation2006). Their work undoubtedly presents one of the most competent contemporary defences of the CCCS structural programme. Yet here, also, the opposition between actor and structure blocks collective and material embeddedness.

Again, on the face of it, Blackman is not lacking interest in the collective dimension. In fact, just as I do, he directly criticises the neo-tribalists for ‘down-play[ing] the collective nature of subcultural practice identified by Maffesoli’, and for ‘giv[ing] priority to the individual’ (Citation2005, 12). Thus, apparently, Blackman indeed wishes to resuscitate the collective dimension.

[The post-subculturalists] ignore the collective response by young people over the past 10 years at festivals, raves and at anti-capitalist demonstrations where diverse and unified forms of subcultural identities and affiliations have performed rituals of resistance. (Blackman Citation2005, 14)

Blackman clearly mentions strongly collective settings – ‘festivals, raves and anti-capitalist demonstrations’ – and even (affective) ‘affiliations’. Yet it seems that he, like the Birmingham scholars he admires, reduces the collective to forms of protest or ‘rituals of resistance’. At the same time, he also inherits this tradition’s other omissions: just like his idols, Blackman never explains how the concepts of ‘solidarity’, of ‘collective response’, or even ‘ritual’ are really to be understood. He does no better than his Birmingham models when it comes to demonstrating the importance of ‘solidarity’ or the ‘collective basis’ of ‘subculture’ (Blackman Citation2005, 15). As far as I can see, there is no true acknowledgement of collective aspects to youth culture in Blackman’s subcultural work, at least, not if what is meant by collectivity is the active and affective sharing of practices or objects with concrete others.

Worse, Blackman never clearly demarcates the concepts of collectivity and ritual from a more structural concept of the social. On the contrary, he repeatedly uses the concepts of the collective or the social or structural interchangeably in a merely ad hoc way. This confusion is striking in the following formulation.

The post-subcultural disengagement with a collectivist understanding of youth subcultures through their commitment to individualist postmodern ideals means young people are disconnected from their diverse locations in the social structure. (Blackman and Kempson Citation2016, 6)

After all, the critique of post-subcultural or neo-tribal ‘individualism’ – for ‘disengaging’ with a ‘collectivist understanding’ – has little to do with any attempt to strengthen Maffesolian collectivity. Rather, the opposite is the case: suddenly a ‘collectivist understanding’ means placing the individual in a structural ‘location’. This way, opening up the black box of collectivity in Blackman’s writings, we simply retrieve our de-collectivised notion of social structure. Just as in much CCCS work, each individual has a whole ‘society’ around herself but no friends; there are individuals and society, and nothing in between.Footnote5 Ultimately, it remains unclear whether or how Blackman actually distinguishes a structural ‘position’ from concrete collective engagement.

Finally, following his CCCS models, Blackman does not see that the actor–structure template hinders him in really explaining subcultural creativity. He insists that.

[i]n Marxist and structuralist theory subcultures became part of a collective critical vanguard, to challenge bourgeois order and celebrate creative resistance to authority. (Citation2005, 16)

Yet again, the concept of creativity remains vague. It is not further developed. One suspects that the ‘Marxist and structuralist’ tradition simply does not possess the conceptual means to ‘celebrate’ subcultural creative and expressive practices. The reduction of the collective to a structural ‘location’ blends out the concrete relations to others and thus the creative effects of collective ‘effervescent’ embeddedness; it tends to explain subcultural practice and commerce with cherished objects merely by resorting to the variables of class, gender and ethnicity. It is these entities which really control what goes on. Again, the view to the co-initiating and equally energising impulses coming from the subcultural objects is clouded. This means that any in depth description of creative processes is made impossible.

Second part: objective and collective embeddedness

Above, I have voiced a critique of prominent traditions and scholars in the field of youth culture studies. My claim is that they all neglect the collective and object-oriented space of actual youth cultural practice. We find no true access to the engine room of youth cultural creativity, I believe, if we do not allow for these collective and material entanglements to enter the analysis. This I seek to show, below, in the final section of this paper. Here I clarify my ideas about collective and material embeddedness, as well as developing my thoughts about the centrality of the interchange between these two dimensions. I do so by way of example. I start by revisiting Willis’ classic text from 1977 (Willis [Citation1977] Citation2000), and then move on to more recent work in and around subculture and music culture. Notably, I engage contemporary work on musical ‘scenes’ and DIY heritage work in music cultures. The selected excerpts are chosen because they all testify to dimensions of collective and/or material embeddedness. These passages are all merely descriptive; all belong to empirically orientated passages or sections in their respective works. I shall seek to show that, even though they already testify to the importance of the collective or material dimensions, they can be further unfolded and developed. Ultimately, I wish to demonstrate how allowing for material and collective embeddedness allows me to articulate and develop creative aspects of youth culture in new phenomenological detail.

Paul Willis’ lads

Without implying that Willis’ lads in any way form a ‘subculture’, there is no doubt that Willis’ descriptions of their interactions with their material culture is of great interest to subcultural theory. The following excerpts come from Learning to Labour.

Outside school visits are a nightmare for the staff. For instance, the museum trip. The back seats of the coach are left ominously empty for ‘the lads’ as they arrive late. There is soon a pall of blue smoke at the back of the coach though no red ends are ever visible. When the coach is returned, the manager finds all the back seats disfigured with names and doodles in indelible ink. [...]

In the museum ‘the lads’ are a plague of locusts feeding off and blackening out pomp and dignity. In a mock-up Victorian chemist’s shop with the clear and prominent injunction ‘Please do not touch’, ‘the lads’ are handling, pushing, pulling, trying, testing and mauling everything in sight. Handfuls of old-fashioned cough sweets are removed from the tall jars on the counter, and the high-backed chairs are sat upon and balanced back on their legs ‘to see how strong they are’.

A model village is surrounded and obscured by fifteen backs from a now and for once attentive attendant. Spanksy says with mock alarm, ‘Oh a tram has chrashed’, as he gives it a good flick with his finger, and Joey takes one of the carefully prepared and stationed little men, ‘I’ve kidnapped one of the citizens’. (Willis [Citation1977] Citation2000, 31)

It is impossible not to notice the completely crucial role of material objects in Willis’ descriptions. These artefacts are not to be reduced to a mere structural background or context. They participate actively in the lads’ exploits; they even initiate and incite them: take a pen in your hand and you will soon start to ‘tag’ or make ‘doodles’ with it (to this see also Fremaux Citation2015, 147). Seeing a small-scale model of a ‘tram’ wagon, the size of the nail on your index finger, you may feel tempted to give it a ‘good flick’. Just as, being forced to sit still on a chair for longer periods, you may, sooner or later, spontaneously start to balance on it.

These ideas should not be misunderstood as a form of ‘objective’ determinism. The lads’ provocations are intentional, of course. They want to write on the seats in the bus, they deliberately steal the sweets at the counter. Still, the lads do not really know what happens next – otherwise, probably, it wouldn't be exciting! If we move closer to ‘lived experience’, we see how intentional or instrumental action is permeated with non-intentional and non-instrumental lapses, with moments of self-surrender to the suggestions emerging from objects and artefacts. If we open up the (individualised) subject, we do not (only) find structures inscribed in its flesh, but rather (also) its integration into the objective or material surroundings. All the ‘handling, pushing, pulling, trying, testing and mauling everything in sight’ is as much sparked by the objects as by the lad himself.

Moreover, rather than being appropriated or used to signify subcultural identity or membership, these objects are indeed, as Willis wants it, being ‘tested’. The fundamental approach to them is experimental, open to the impulses or questions they suggest in our engagements with them. Whether it be in the back of a bus, in school, when trying out clothes before the party or perusing the second-hand store, when coming across new moves in dancing, when playing music, when tagging names with a spray can instead of a pen, when donning a fur-suit or putting up a picture of a music idol on the wall, unexpected ‘things’ happen. These objects emit signals and new ideas, reach out for new combinations with other things, new ways to deal with them, new forms of appreciation, new bodies and new practices.

Now, add to this the collective dimension. As Willis clearly sees, collective sentiments and energies permeate everything the lads do. ‘The back seats of the coach are left ominously empty for ‘the lads’’, as the other pupils are waiting for the bus to be filled with the disrespectful energy they exude qua collective – their collective entrance, their provocative and contemptuous bustle, their laughter and their agitated voices, their hitting and kicking of seats and bags as they move down the aisle – and, of course, they arrive together and too late, thereby further agitating energies by enforcing collective borders. The smoking, the doodling or tagging, the many ways of noise-making, of kicking or pushing the back of the seat in front, the different ways cigarettes can be held, hidden and shared in the bus, obviously, all the creative improvisation with these objects is further animated by collective energies, just as, in turn, these artefacts and the actions they provoke contribute to further agitating the collective. When fifteen ‘hyped’ teenage bodies gather around the showcased model village, all looking for trouble and waiting for something to happen, energies and excitement levels grow and prompt cascades of initiations and suggestions for agency, which in turn further agitate the pupils’ bodies.

What Willis really describes here is how the intensity of the objective relations resonates with the intensity of the collective ones. The objects and the actions they initiate spark collective energies and sentiments – laughter, joking, entraining, milling, sharing, provoking, border-drawing, resisting and so on – just as collective affect makes objects vibrate with possibilities. Again and again in their actual being-together, the lads are drawn into a swirl of intensity where objective enactment and collective energies reinforce each other. It is within this circuit that subcultural creativity – and youth culture – resides.

Music scenes: the post-subculturalist string (Andy Bennett)

Another field of interest to a subcultural theory focusing on material and collective embeddedness is the ‘music scene’ perspective. Going back to the beginning of the 1990s, this literature is vast and heterogenous. Tellingly, while some of it is rather empirically orientated, the authors closest to cultural studies and subcultural theory take on a rather discourse or ‘text’ centred view of the empirical. This goes, not least, for the founding rather theoretical texts of American cultural scholars Will Straw (Citation1991) and Barry Shank (Citation1994) which are repeatedly referenced by Bennett in the latter’s own important work on scenes. In Straw’s seminal text the reader is somewhat unsure – as when reading the Birmingham manifestos or Hebdige – whether the collective really exists and in what sense. Sometimes the social is described as a mere ‘ideological effect’, just as sentiments of ‘unity’ are reduced to an instrumental ‘unity of purpose’ (Straw Citation1991, 273–274). Admittedly, Straw delivers a masterly overview of the relations of ‘articulation’ between global and local ‘cultural texts’, but his work says little about collective sentiments or material relations in a subcultural scene. Shank moves closer to the empirical scene (to this, see also Hesmondhalgh Citation2005). Yet here, also, the collective dimension is sifted through a language-oriented (yet psychoanalytical, Lacanian) perspective: allegedly, the individual seeks to fill up an existential vacancy ‘inside’ and to consolidate a stable ‘identity’, and this explains the search for collective unity constitutive for a scene. Moreover, rather than focusing on the production of collectivity in any concrete sense, Straw centres characteristically on the ‘excess of signification’ typical of a bustling and creative venue.Footnote6 Again, the discourse and/or identity-centred perspectives impose a fundamentally instrumental relation on the objects and the social, which blocks reciprocity and intensive embeddedness. Sadly for a collectivity and materiality interested scholar, it is these exact texts which inspire Bennett (see Bennett Citation2011; Bennett and Peterson Citation2004) in developing his post-subcultural work and in much of his collaborative work on scenes.Footnote7

Nevertheless, compared to the subcultural or post-subcultural framing, the focus on the scene seems to usher in a new susceptibility to one of the strongest (sub)cultural objects of all: music. This also goes – to a certain extent – for the post-subculturalists’ writings on scenes (e.g. Bennett and Peterson Citation2004, 1, 8–9; Hodkinson Citation2004, 138–139; Straw Citation1991, 279). Moreover, even though many of these scenes are ‘trans-local’ or even global or ‘virtual’ (see Peterson and Bennett Citation2004), the literature delivers examples of the search for intensive co-presence (see Collins Citation2015, 85–86; Hodkinson Citation2004, 135–137).Footnote8 It also recognises the role of objects in assembling the social. Here is Bennett writing about the internationalised scene for Canterbury art-rock.

Given the absence of the physically defined fan base which typically characterizes geographic scenes, Canterbury Sound fans look for other ways to collectively celebrate their common musical taste and thus forge a sense of fan community deemed central to any music scene. In this sense the city of Canterbury itself plays a crucial role. (Bennett Citation2004, 209)

Though it is difficult to find theoretical admissions in Bennett’s texts of the inclination towards physical co-presence (as a way of intensifying the collective dimension) or the principal role of objects (notably, of course, the music itself) in keeping the scene together (see Hesmondhalgh Citation2005, and avant la lettre Cohen Citation1991, 7), his work does contain passages where the affective potential of ‘strong’ objects asserts itself (see, for instance, Bennett and Dawe Citation2001). In such instances, the objects stop merely reflecting an existential need for subcultural ‘identity’ and start to initiate a search for like-minded relations, people to share with; they start to (help to) draw the subject into the subculture in question. However, not only do the objects help to create intensities and assemble bodies in a very concrete sense – on the dance floor or in the concert venueFootnote9 – but they also set in motion intellectual capacities and more discursive ways of being together at the scene – ways which are nonetheless equally enthusiastic and affective. Here it is Hodgkinson who remarks that

[s]ome fanzines are the work of ordinary fans, teenagers and students sufficiently enthused by what they have heard to feel they want to say something about it to the world at large. (Hodgkinson Citation2004, 227–228)

It is not only discourse which ‘articulates’ the music and the scene. It also works the other way around: the music animates and breathes life into the self same discourses. How could it be otherwise?

Finally, it should also be recognised that Bennett, in recent co-edited papers on scenes, goes much further towards a recognition of collective and material embeddedness (e.g. Bennett and Rogers Citation2016; Driver and Bennett Citation2015) than he does in his programmatic writings (e.g. Peterson and Bennett Citation2004). The following description by an informant of becoming embedded – the passage is about entering the ‘mosh pit’ at ‘Hard Core’ concerts – is second to none.

I feel like if you’re in there getting amongst the energy it’s something you didn’t think about, it just started to happen. Obviously, you’ve seen other people do it and said that looks like a way to get it out but when it’s happening to me, if it’s authentic, you didn’t even think about it, it just started. And when it’s finished you don’t know why it happened – it just did [...]. (Driver and Bennett Citation2015, 109)

As Driver and Bennett infer, this is a description of ‘becoming competent’ in a certain practice (Driver and Bennett Citation2015). They also connect this with an ability to react to the object, with learning sensitivity and ‘dexterity’. In other words, here it is not structural competencies or restrictions – say, a Bourdieusean notion of habitus – which explain action; rather, Driver and Bennett re-insert the actors in their actual material relations. Nor is it, as is clear, a transparent goal-oriented Weberian individual, mastering his actions, consciously seeking out means for conscious goals. The citation is really, we see, about entering a space somewhere between subject and object, between self-determining and becoming determined. As in Willis, it is obvious that the subculturalists do not enter this space on their own. The individual does not ‘lose’ herself, forget herself in what she is doing, of her own accord. She needs help. She needs to be ‘taken over’ by what she does; she needs to become invested, engaged, intense. This is not possible within an instrumental monopolisation of agency by the individual. She needs to distribute action, both to the object and to the collective. I think that Driver and Bennett see this. Still, maybe because they combine these intense and phenomenological impulses with a rather restrictive and individualising notion of the (individual’s) body, which threatens to tear it from its relations, they cannot really develop the embedded space. Also, instead of concurring with sociological or crowd-theoretical notions of collectivity, they seek to make strong a rather vaguely defined and derived one from recent work in so-called affect theory (Ahmed Citation2006). Driver and Bennett (Citation2015) could have developed these descriptions through a more systematic investigation into the interchange between susceptibility to the music and the presence of contagiously agitated bodies in the mosh pit; yet again, as in much of Bennett’s work, the collective dimension remains vague and underdeveloped.

Music scenes: the ethnographic string (Sara Cohen and Sarah Raine)

However, the scene literature also contains a less theoretically informed – or even ‘under-theorised’ (Hesmondhalgh Citation2005, 29) – string. This work, often building on extensive fieldwork, goes back to seminal work by Ruth Finnegan (Citation1989) and, notably, Sara Cohen (Citation1991), but the spirit is continued in recent publications by Sarah Raine and others (see Raine Citation2020; Wall, Raine, and Smith Citation2019). In Cohen’s investigation (into two bands from Liverpool), objective and collective registers naturally coalesce.

A band could provide a means of escape where fantasies were indulged but it could also play an important cultural and social role, providing an outlet for creativity and a means by which friendships were made and maintained. Basically, most people were in bands for these social and cultural factors. They enjoyed it. They loved playing, performing and socializing, and [...] alongside that there always existed the possibility of making it [...]. (Cohen Citation1991, 3)

To be part of a band is basically to be ‘creative’ – make music – within concrete collective relations. The ‘social’ – collective – energies animate the ‘cultural’ production, the creative work with the music, and vice versa. This is what the members really ‘love’ about being in a band, this is what they ‘enjoy’. In fact, they talk music all the time (Cohen Citation1991, 28, 30). And even though it remains rather implicit in Cohen’s account how all this talk is stimulated in concrete terms by the ‘affective’ energies of the material or by the collective energies it produces, there can be little doubt the music is as generative of the discourse as the discourse is generative of the music (Cohen Citation1991, 7). Moreover, as is also clear, the question of hierarchy, stratification or subcultural capital – or of ‘making it’ – is here seen, at least partly, in direct extension of the collective situation. The desire to ‘make it’ is really a desire for scene status in very concrete terms, a longing for a place at the centre of positive collective attention (Collins Citation2004), a longing for becoming, oneself, or together with the other band members, the charged object which assembles the scene.

We find a number of other interesting observations of collective and material embeddedness in Sarah Raine’s wonderful book on the Northern Soul scene.Footnote10

A record sounds out across the room. The one I have been waiting for but couldn’t predict. It moves me to move, from my seat into a space, and I become part of the motion on and off the dance floor. (Raine Citation2020, 2)

Those around me move into the in-between spaces, a harmonious ebb and flow of step and slide, a relationship of movement that binds me into a kaleidoscope for those on the balcony above. My claim to the space of the dance floor accepted by those dancing around me, the five years spent dancing, watching, practising in quiet moments channelled into a public demonstration of belonging. My tentative first steps begin to mature, to sync seamlessly with the rhythm. My head raises, my arms are more expressive. I look around and away from myself to the arms and faces of others, dancing alongside me: a mutual tuning-in relationship, bodies connecting without previous planning and yet avoiding contact. And I feel bound to this: to these people with whom I share the floor, and to the music that captivates my body and my thoughts. (Raine Citation2020, 3)

Raine enacts the music to become enacted, ‘moved’. There is no strong ‘I’ or subject in these descriptions. Action is distributed. The music performs her in ways hard to ‘predict’, simply because she is not in full control of what goes on. She is part of a scene in an emphatic sense, part of the motion, part of the dance. Here, all instrumentality has vanished or is at least mixed up with non-instrumental or non-teleological impulses. She is ‘led’ into (Raine Citation2020, 32f.) giving herself over to the music by the music, which ‘captivates’ her ‘body’ and her ‘thoughts’; she is ‘led into’ embeddedness, into distributing action, into focusing, into following, into becoming interested and invested.

At the same time, it is clear, this is also a profoundly collective sensation. She ‘shares’ the music, she shares these moments, this focus, with others; she ‘tunes-in’ with others and is tuned-in by others who are just as attentive and absorbed as she is and who know and demonstrate – implicitly, ‘without previous planning’ and yet by ‘avoiding’ direct ‘contact’ on the floor – that they also feel and appreciate this relation (see also Wall Citation2019, 52). This explains the ‘emergent’ collective patterns observable from the ‘balcony’. Raine’s sensation is one of gratitude towards other people – she is thankful to be part of this; and she attaches affectively to these people with whom she shares and constructs the event. However, finally, the reader should notice that a collectivity-oriented reading in no way needs to be harmonistic. Interestingly, as is clear from the citation above, Raine’s book is very much a book on the enactment of borders and status differences: between generations, but even more, between experienced and inexperienced dancers. Still, Raine’s ‘claim’ to ‘belonging’ is not explained by a quick recourse to status or class background; rather it is analysed and enacted in lived situations. It is a claim to feel ‘accepted’ or even admired in the collective and material ‘space’ of practice she is in: it is part of her dancing, part of her enjoyment.

Still, for all the phenomenological brilliance of these works, both Raine and Cohen could have benefitted from paying more systematic attention to the dynamic interchange between the collective and the material dimensions. This would have made it possible, I think, to develop even further the phenomenological and creative aspects to the analysis: notably to further investigate how the collective dimension contributes to the agency of the music.Footnote11

Popular heritage studies (Sarah Baker)

Just as the Northern Soul scene has reached a stage where it self-consciously celebrates and enacts its proper ‘myths and ‘material culture’ (Raine and Wall Citation2019, 144ff.), scholars interested in contemporary heritage and popular music attend to a recent mushrooming of ‘archiving’ or ‘collector cultures’ of popular music communities (e.g. see the contributions in Baker Citation2015c). Probably, due to their obvious interest in theories of ‘material culture’ or so-called ‘new materialist’ and ‘affective’ impulses coming from recent cultural theory, many of these scholars are inspired by some of the same ideas as is the present paper (see also, again, Driver and Bennett Citation2015): much of this work highlights the importance of the material dimension and the affective attachments to it and seeks to draw it into the ‘action’ in one way or other (Baker Citation2015b; Raine and Wall Citation2019, 144ff.).

At the same time, many of these studies also place emphasis on the collective dimension: all highlight the ‘DIT’ (‘do-it-together’ (Collins Citation2015)) character of these communities, their bottom-up emergence, their participatory use of (digital) technology and their pre-institutionalised – we could say Maffesolian – nature (Allen Citation2015; Baker Citation2015a, Citation2015b, Citation2015c; Collins and Carter Citation2015; Fremaux Citation2015). The authors of these contributions all exploit the circulation of collective energies and sentiments in these subcultures, and directly relate these affects to the sharing of objects. Music heritage scholar Sarah Baker is most explicit.

[C]ollecting collectively helps foster a strong sense of community among workers and emotional connections between volunteers and objects in their care. The chapter considers how collective collecting is a central feature of the DIY practice of archiving affectively. [...]

The artefacts in the collections discussed in this chapter provide opportunities for volunteers to share knowledge and deploy expertise, an affective act based on love and care for the music, the artefacts, the institution and its workers. Feelings of love, care and emotion between the volunteers and the things they are looking after results in a different kind of archival and/or museal space, one in which affect is fostered and, indeed, privileged. Thus affect itself makes a contribution to the enterprise of cultural preservation. (Baker Citation2015a, 47–48)

One can only marvel that such affective and intensive perspectives on the shared and treasured objects have been so rare in subcultural or post-subcultural studies – or limited to certain strongly affective exteriors, such as the clubbing scene or rave (see, again, Malbon Citation1998, 201). To be sure, just like the amateur archivists in Baker’s study, subculturalists ‘love’ their objects; they ‘care’ authentically about their artists, their music and their artefacts. In no way does the typical subculturalist ever choose – at least not in any literal sense – to like a certain genre of music or feign such affective relations exclusively to express or signify identity or membership. No body has ever, in any emphatical sense, chosen to dance if not also moved by the music.

However, as I have tried to demonstrate above, I think we could enact and develop the creative dimension if we took these impulses coming from the object even more literally than Baker does: speaking phenomenologically, it is really the things and their need for ‘love’ and ‘care’ which engenders concrete exhibition practices; it is the enthusiasm attaching to the recently acquired artefact which energises bodies, and carries them towards other bodies in a wish to share, show and exhibit; it is the objects and their selective wish to approach certain other objects which then initiate new ideas about further possible constellations and curating practices which must be tried out, and so on.

By the same token, the collective dimension, also, can be further developed. In this regard, as in my critique of Driver and Bennett (Citation2015), above, I ask myself whether Baker would not have benefitted from seeking out observations found in late Durkheim, Collins or Maffesoli rather than in the work of feminist cultural theoretician Sarah Ahmed. Note the following paragraph.

Collective collecting in the DIY institution is perhaps less about the objects being collected and more about what the object offers the community of volunteers as collectors and custodians of music heritage. In DIY archives, museums and hall of fame, the value of the object is in the affect it generates. [...] In some cases items become part of a collection because they make a connection in a materialised form to the people they represent and can even stand in for the people themselves. While objects in these collections might be considered auratic, their aura comes from their association with the people who once touched them. (Baker Citation2015a, 59)

One the one hand, here the collective dimension comes into its own. What is significant, rather than the object ‘itself’, is really ‘the affect it generates’, what it ‘offers’ the community in terms of a possible intensification of collective affects. Clearly, as described above, a Durkheimian concept of fetishism or totemism seeks to articulate precisely such a collective enactment of the object in question, which charges it with affective and cognitive force. In a word: Elvis’ slippers are not affectively charged because they once belonged to Elvis, but because Elvis was – better, is – popular, himself a cherished and charged collective symbol in a living cult. On the other hand, we should take care not to think about all objects like fetishes. To be sure, as Baker implies, certain subcultural objects – music being the paradigmatic example – may be so ‘strong’ that they do not even need an initial collective enactment and thus may take on a truly constitutive role in the practices in which they take part. Undoubtedly, in this regard Ahmed has more to say than Durkheim or Collins. Ultimately, in the embedded condition, it makes little sense to separate the collective and the material too categorially; the two forms of affect blend and reinforce each other in different ways and combinations in each concrete case.


In this paper, I have tried to show that the main strands of youth cultural research suffer from a lack of attention to collective and material embeddedness. I have sought to reveal some of the reasons behind this neglect: the predilection for the actor–structure template, for semiotics or for a too identity-centred perspective which instrumentalises material and collective relations. Basically, if you place all the action either within the individual or behind his or her back, you cannot decentralise and ascribe some of that action to artefacts or other bodies, and thus cannot really allow that the latter to participate in what goes on.

On a more positive note, I have sought to demonstrate that creative subcultural practice entails a ‘forward’ decentralisation of agency and thus is co-constituted by artefacts and collective intensities. To illustrate this, I have revisited and re-enacted Paul Willis’ descriptions of his ‘lads’ creative behaviour, along with assorted observations and empirical studies from post-subcultural research, and recent work in different genres of music ‘scene’ literature and heritage studies. All these examples highlight forms of material and or collective embeddedness. If we transfer these observations – together with my enactment of them – to a subcultural setting, they demonstrate how the embedded relation to a subcultural material culture is strongly collective and how this collective intensity, in turn, sparks intensive material embeddedness. Coined in the terms of traditional subcultural theory, I hope to have demonstrated how work on subcultural ‘creative resistance’, with all its forms of ‘bricolage’, its experimenting with style, its use of objects and abjects, could benefit from being more attentive not only to material and collective embeddedness but also to the dynamic interplay between the two dimensions in actual subcultural practice. I hope to have shown how such analytical sensitivity permits us to do justice to the phenomenological ambitions of the very text which initiated subcultural research in the first place, that is Phil Cohen’s original 1972 paper [2007]. Without recourse to concepts of material and collective embeddedness there is simply no way to describe subcultural creativity or lived subcultural experience.

Disclosure statement


1 A last word on materiality and objects. When using the concept of the object or writing about ‘material agency’ generically I mean to cover any thing or entity to which individuals connect or attach in their actions or experiences, alone or collectively; importantly, the concepts are also meant to cover immaterial participants or objects (say, a religious being, or a song, a groove, a joke or a certain idea or ideology).

2 Here I am particularly thinking of the classic work of Dick Hebdige (Citation1979). However, I am thankful for a reviewer’s insistence upon the richness of some of Hebdige’s actual descriptions. Note, for example, the following paragraph: ‘Although Althusser is here referring to structures like the family, cultural and political institutions, etc., we can illustrate the point quite simply by taking as our example a physical structure. Most modern institutions of education, despite the apparent neutrality of the materials from which they are constructed (red brick, white brick, tile, etc.) carry within themselves implicit ideological assumptions which are literally structured into the architecture itself. [...] [T]he hierarchical relationship between teacher and taught is inscribed in the very lay-out of the lecture theatre where the seating arrangements [...] dictate the flow of information and serve to ‘neutralise’ professional authority’ (Citation1979, 12). Hebdige clearly has an eye for the ‘performative’ role of architecture. Still, he predominantly sees the lecture hall in terms of a ‘reproduction of ideology’; it is about the ‘frames’ of ‘our thinking’ and less about creative agency; it is about how the social and hierarchical processes are, in fact, hidden from view.

Likewise, of course, the intensive and extremely agentic side to musical objects asserts itself in a number of Hebdige’s descriptions. Interestingly, here, ‘ideological’ and cultural conventions ‘imposed’ on the objects from ‘our’ side come together with more direct intensive and bodily attachments coming, as it were, from the side of the object: ‘Glam rock contributed narcissism, nihilism and gender confusion. American punk rock offered a minimalist aesthetic [...], the cult of the street and a penchant for self-laceration. Northern Soul [...] dedicated to acrobatic dancing and fast American soul of the 60s [...] brought its subterranean tradition of fast, jerky rhythms, solo dance styles and amphetamines; reggae its exotic and dangerous aura of forbidden identity, its conscience, its dread and its cool. Native rhythm ‘n blues reinforced the brashness and the speed of Northern Soul [...]’ (Hebdige Citation1979, 26). It is clear that we are dealing with extremely strong objects here. However, again, Hebdige is predominantly interested merely in the cultural enactments of these objects. Ultimately, it seems, Hebdige only really allows for semiotic enactments; objects can be made ‘cacophonic’ and ‘eclectic’. They can be made to talk, but not to act.

3 A rare exception: see Bennett’s discussion in relation to a citation of McRobbie about non-teleological aspects to (womens’) dancing (Bennett Citation1999, 603). To this see also Schiermer, Gook, and Cuzzocrea (Citation2022, 11).

4 In fact, Maffesoli considered the ‘post-modern’ individualism popular ‘these days’ ‘a common enough blunder’; this blunder consists in ‘analysing the retreat from the political and the loss of a social sense in terms of a resurgence of individualism’ (Maffesoli Citation1996, 86).

5 Take, for example, the following programmatic formulation: ‘The promise of The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills (1959) is built on the aspiration to integrate culture and society, through understanding and explaining social worlds at the micro level of the individual and the macro level of social structures’ (Blackman and Kempson Citation2016, 1).

6 Here, I disagree with Driver and Bennett (Citation2015, 101) who see in Straw’s paper a focus on ‘collectivity’ and ‘connectivity’. I cannot follow this reading. However, see also Driver and Bennett (Citation2015, 104).

8 An excerpt from Hodkinson’s book on Goth-subculture: ‘There is little doubt that for the Goths the most important practical activities were going out to events and socialising with other members. Some 66% of the Whitby Festival Questionnaires selected ‘nightclubs and pubs’ among the three most important aspects of the Goth scene for them, and 43% indicated that ‘socialising’ was the single most important activity to their subcultural interest’ (Hodkinson Citation2002, 85). Hodkinson leaves little doubt as to the importance of collective sentiments in subcultural practice. However, again, as far as I can see, this realisation is not followed up.

9 Not each and every time of course; only when it really ‘happens’. Grazian thematises some failed rituals (see Grazian Citation2004, 37–38; see also Driver and Bennett Citation2015, 110).

11 In other contributions to the Northern Soul scene literature, the individual actor resurfaces with her making of ‘choices’ and her control of the dance; here we also find arguments to the effect that a focus on embodiment should detach the dancer from the surroundings or from more cognitive or ‘meaning making’ perspectives (see Smith Citation2019b, 64; Wall Citation2019, 43). I hope to have demonstrated that that it is not so. Open up the body phenomenologically, and you will retrieve all the relations to (meaningful) objects and other bodies. Unsurprisingly, the individual-centred arguments resurface in texts which affiliate with post-subcultural theory. Thus, for instance, even after having duly focused on Maffesoli’s concept of ‘sociality’, Nicola Smith (Citation2019a, 62–63) ends by instrumentalising and individualising the collective. Again, the music comes dangerously close to ending up merely serving other needs: the need for identity, for distancing oneself from ‘the mainstream’ (Smith Citation2019b, 101).


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