Friday 25 September 2020

Subcultural Capitalists

I'm kind of assuming that everyone's already read Lily Waite's thing for Good Beer Hunting about the postmodernist reading of craft beer and NEIPA as a simulacrum by now. If you haven't then stop what you're doing and go and do it now.

I'm not going to say anything specific about that bit except that it's really good, but if it's Critical Beer Theory week now then I might as well get around to writing something about another bit of theory that I've read that I keep coming back to when I'm thinking about beer.

Club Cultures is a 1995 book by Sarah Thornton that picks apart the inner workings of dance music subcultures. It was original in the sociology of the time for studying night clubs and dance music culture neither as simply a mechanism of pacification by the capitalist entertainment industry, nor as a form of collective resistance to a dominant culture, but just as the location of a microsociety of their own, with their own systems of status and distinction and mythology to be studied. As a book, it's a fascinating read for a non-specialist like me - I came to it as someone who was into dance music rather than someone who was into sociology. Thornton develops interesting theoretical constructs to describe what she sees, while grounding them in enough of concrete examples of the sort of behaviour that she's talking about that make the book approachable.

One of the key ideas that the book deploys is subcultural capital. This is inspired by the idea of cultural capital, which the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced in the 70s to describe the accumulation of knowledge, cultural artifacts, behaviour and social contacts that can help "the right sort of chaps" to smooth their way through life, particularly in the public and professional spheres, even without needing to be particularly rich in cash. Thornton's subcultural relocation of the idea refers to tangible and intangible stuff that makes a clubber "hip" - the clothes, the dance moves, the hairstyle, the collection of white-label vinyl, and the stock of stories about legendary clubs and raves they've been to and scene insiders that they've hung out with. Unlike Bordieu's original idea of cultural capital, your subcultural capital is unlikely to be something you can build a career on - although for DJs, designers, promoters and journalists it's stock in trade - but it is what gets you past exclusive door policies, sees you invited to the best afterparties and even if you don't think about concrete advantages, it's what gives you a sense of worth in the value system of the scene.

A feature of subcultural capital is something that as carefully as you accumulate it, it can appreciate or depreciate just like regular capital - your collection of vintage soul records won't get you as much cred if your mates have all suddenly got into acid house, but you might hit the jackpot if the great little night you've been going to turns out to be the epicentre of the new scene that everyone's talking about.

We can sort of see where this is going, right? Because club scenes aren't the only subcultures that this stuff applies to.

Beer culture, in its full breadth, would be hard to describe as a youth culture. It maybe doesn't have the same intensity as dance music culture, either - it's hard to compare a Meet the Brewer night or a CAMRA branch meeting with an all-night rave, and even people who are "into beer" generally find it less of an all-consuming lifestyle than a really dedicated live-for-the-weekend clubber. But it does also fit the basic template of what Thornton calls a "taste culture", and it's hard not to see the logic of subcultural capital playing out.

"It's great that they've managed to get Batham's Bitter for this year's festival!" "Oh, the bitter's good but the mild is really where it's at..."

"We were really lucky - Armand himself was around when we were visiting and he gave us a quick tour of the barrel store..."

"Well, I was in Boston for work, so obviously I had to get out to Trillium..."

Obviously it'd be daft to claim that all of this stuff is just status games - I mean, sought-after beers and legendary pubs are often worth seeking out regardless of any bragging rights - but what I do end up wondering about is how we guard the capital that we've already accumulated.

A standard beery moan on social media is that not only do I not like this beer, not only is this beer bad, but that those people who like this bad beer are wrong to be enjoying it, and their enjoyment of it demonstrates their lack of moral fibre, and shouldn't they be drinking proper beers like the ones that I like? And this sense that not only do we not like certain beers but we feel actively upset by their popularity starts to feel a lot less like honest personal enjoyment and a lot more like wrangling over subcultural capital - who's going to care about my encyclopedic knowledge of British family brewers if all the young people are drinking kegged American IPAs? Who's going to be interested in my trip to the West Coast to drink Pliny at source if they're all chasing the latest hopgravy? Is anyone going to care that I've brought Westvleteren to the bottle share if they're all more interested in whatever dessert-flavoured lactose nonsense Omnipollo have cooked up now? We don't just not enjoy this stuff - we're actively threatened by it.

Is this the whole story? I'm not sure. But you don't have to spend long watching beer culture to realise that there's maybe a bit more going on than just how much people enjoy pouring different liquids down their throats...

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