In today’s globalized world, a world at serious risk of collapse under capital’s influence, savvy companies generate unimaginable profits through the distilling, bottling, and selling of subcultures and movements. In the words of David Harvey in his 2002 article ‘The Art of Rent: Globalization, Monopoly and the Commodification of Culture’, “That culture has become a commodity of some sort is undeniable” (Harvey: 94). Despite many subcultures’ and subculturists’ oppositional stances toward capitalism, consumerism, and mainstream culture more generally, they are often the target of commodification, diffusion, and defusion. This process has become effectively unavoidable for any subcultural group in modern day society, so an understanding of how commodification occurs is essential to understand how subcultures exist in today’s world.
Commodification is a process that almost all subcultures seem to encounter at some point in their life cycle. Once a particular subculture reaches a certain level of popularity in its membership, or at least once the general public’s awareness of it reaches a certain level, companies
begin marketing the identifying visuals or popular behaviors of that subculture for profit outside of the subculture itself. Items and ideas that once were once primarily used by members of a subculture get marketed to others, sometimes initially by members of that subculture, but always eventually by larger organizations for the economic benefit of the surrounding society. It is often these fairly capitalist ideals of individual gain, profit, and prioritization of economic growth that subcultures attempt to resist, however with the deviant behaviors of subcultures often being alternative forms of consumption, commodification can be nigh on impossible to avoid (Haenfler 2014: 93-4). A subculture’s alternative behaviors are often based around buying and attending different things, due to the alternative ideas and beliefs these subcultures have, so any subculture gaining popularity and public awareness will eventually reach a point where their ideas and behaviors become easier to market for profit.
Commodification of a subculture’s items and practices often occurs according to a certain cycle through which these features lose their initial meaning and significance. These behaviors and items often begin within a subculture as symbolic forms of resistance, attempting to subvert the societal norms these groups deviate from. Eventually, however, those outside the subculture take an interest in these behaviors, making them more easily marketable, and diffusing these ideas throughout mainstream society. After this, the behaviors and items are defused from what they originally represented, coming to represent something more mild and non-deviant for mainstream society. At this point, what were once important signifiers of a deviant subculture become a commodity as they lose all their original significance for an extended time, until mainstream culture changes such that they can gain new significance or be subversive again. Each of these steps is significant in understanding the process by which commodification has continued to occur in our society.
Two Forms of Incorporation
In his foundational text, ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’ famed subcultures scholar Dick Hebdige points out that the growth of subcultures “invariably ends with the simultaneous diffusion and defusion of the subcultural style” (93). While we find this idea not entirely true, finding that movements and subcultures can, in fact, stop their movement and aspects of it from being undermined by Diffusion and Defusion, Hebdige’s ideas of the two are central to both of the following sections.
Diffusion involves the spreading of subcultural ideas, values, fashions and creations into more mainstream society. Diffusion works as a part of the commodification process as capitalists target items or concepts for commodification and then spread them through the promotion and sale of goods. Diffusion sometimes initially happens organically as non-members of a subculture take an interest in the items or concepts that are part of it, which then leads to the commodification of these things. Subcultural non-members that purchase subcultural goods can move quickly and freely from one style to another without considering their significance because they have no ideological commitment to any particular subculture (Arthur 2004). If follows that the diffusion and commodification of subcultural goods, ideas and practices can threaten the integrity of these differentiating symbols and lead to defusion (Arthur 2004; Haenfler 2014: 97).
In Subcultures: The Basics, author Ross Haenfler describes diffusion. First, cultural diffusion is described as “the spread of all sorts of cultural artifacts between individuals and groups” (Haenfler 2014: 128). Centralized diffusion entails governments or large corporations purposefully and sometimes aggressively promoting objects or ideas (Haenfler 2014: 128). In contrast, decentralized diffusion is characterized as less organized and managed. Subcultural diffusion is both centralized and decentralized (Haenfler 2014: 128-9). Consumerism and the market are a large part of what fuels this diffusion, with consumers crossing boundaries in order to pursue and further their “identity projects,” appropriating items or symbols they like in order to portray themselves in a way that is consistent with how they view themselves and/or wish to be perceived (Fernandez & Figueiredo 2018: 297).
Claude Fischer, in “Toward a Subcultural Theory of Urbanism,” discusses diffusion between subcultures, as opposed to between a subculture and mainstream society. Fischer asserts that the rate and direction of diffusion depends on the size, intensity, level of similarity, extent of contact, relative power and prestige and “the utility of the borrowed item” (Fischer 1975: 1327). While this diffusion does have the potential to harm the integrity and resistance potential (see defusion) of a subculture, it can also lead to “social innovation” through the mixture and recombination of (sub)cultural elements (Fischer 1975: 1328).
Not to be confused with diffusion, defusion describes the depoliticization of something and its transformation into a new and less ‘radical’ version of what it was. It is often a result of commodification and diffusion and is a symptom of the process of companies and ‘social-capitalists’ (individuals who gain popularity by strategically deploying things and ideas) using the, often altered, image of the original thing for their own economic or personal benefit.
The process of defusion can be thought of as cutting the fuse off of something or, in other words, removing/destroying/sabotaging it’s potential to be subversive or change anything and, although it may still look like it did prior to the process, leaving it inert.
If commodification can be thought of as the bottling and selling of something and diffusion the widespread dissemination or spreading of it, defusion can be thought of as the impact the previous two have on the thing that experienced this process. When applied to subculture studies, we see defusion take shape after commodification and diffusion have made participation in the subculture a purchasable commodity and substantially broadened the reach or visibility of it. When we look closely, we can see defusion in the examples provided for both commodification and diffusion, to see it more clearly we will further explore these aforementioned groups and how defusion has impacted them, and then look at how a group of anti-gentrification activists are currently fighting their movement’s defusion.
This process of commodification occurs most often in regard to things that identify a subculture visually, such as clothing and symbols, but also takes advantage of the ideologies surrounding all the alternative behaviors of a subculture. How features of a subculture become
commodified is illustrated well by the subculture of bikers and motorcycle groups, who have been heavily influenced by corporate interests as they’ve developed. This occurs most obviously from the selling of the motorcycles themselves, as owning a motorcycle is essential to participate in these groups that spend much of their time traveling across parts of the country together. As these groups become more popular however, while money can obviously be made from the marketing of motorcycles, other items such as leather jackets, helmets, and the symbols of different biker groups can as well be quite profitable. Within the subculture,these other items serve a primarily practical value for members to identify fellow members as well as for safety reasons when riding a motorcycle; they have a different value for the general public however, who enjoy the novelty and statement that owning subcultural items can have. This is why commodification is effective and profitable, subcultural items that are often initially deviant can develop a certain “cool” as a subculture grows, particularly when they begin to be marketed to the those outside of the original group (Haenfler 2014: 94-5). To help sell products linked with the motorcycle subculture, companies strategically hijack the associated ideologies for marketing purposes, emphasizing the freedom of the open road while minimizing the violent and criminal associations of “outlaw” biker groups (Haenfler 2014: 95-6).
In “alternative to what? subcultural capital and the commercialization of a music scene,” author Ryan Moore provides an example of subcultural diffusion. Moore studied the alternative rock subculture in the 1990s and the way that advertisers used the subcultural symbols, images and ideas of a group that in some ways defined themselves by their “commercial independence and autonomy from mainstream culture” in order to market their products and services to a younger demographic (Moore 2005: 236). After the success of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the alternative rock or “grunge” subculture became available to a mass market. Both the punk and heavy metal subcultures influenced the grunge or alternative rock style, which seemed a highly unlikely candidate for adoption into the commercial culture (Moore 2005: 238). In fact, one of Nirvana’s most popular and commercially successful songs was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which Moore describes as “an indictment of the ways young people had been sedated by media and consumerism” (Moore 2005: 238). Despite the anti-commercial nature of the subculture, the culture industry converted the sense of “authenticity, rebellion, and coolness” into an attractive commodity (Moore 2005: 232).
The style and innovations of the alternative rock/grunge subculture spread rapidly, “suddenly, … ‘grunge’ seemed to have captured the angst of millions of young malcontents” (Moore 2005: 238). The style section of the New York Times even weighed in with stories like “Grunge: A Success Story” (Moore 2005: 239). The look that distinguished members of a subculture that considered themselves “the enemy of commercialism and mainstream society” was now available in stores across the country (Moore 2005: 241). Even today, a quick Pinterest or Ebay search of “grunge” will result in countless outfits or items available for purchase.
Corporations were eager to align themselves with music, fashion and celebrities that were perceived as authentic and cool. “Ironically, ‘alternative was used as a buzzword to try to convince young people” that they were buying something somehow inherently different than the other packaged goods on the market (Moore 2005: 239). When subcultures experience diffusion, however, reaching a larger audience and widening their presence in mainstream society, they can lose the sense of authenticity that likely contributed to their initial appeal. They then cease to be perceived as cool or rebellious, thus also limiting their meaning to both those within and those outside the subculture as well as decreasing their profitability in the eyes of marketers. Moore describes the paradoxical effect that public reactions to subcultures and deviance can have; while authorities often amplify deviance in the process of trying to eradicate it, corporations often squash the very rebellious qualities from which they are trying to profit (Moore 2005: 235).
When we look closely, we can see defusion in the examples provided for both commodification and diffusion, to see it more clearly we will first revisit the aforementioned examples and how defusion has impacted them then we will look to how a group of anti-gentrification activists are currently fighting their movement’s defusion.
U.S. Motorcycle Riders:
In the case of the commodification of motorcycles and the subculture of those who ride them, defusion can be seen as the ‘taming’ of the average motorcycle rider which has occured as more and more people begin to participate and, in doing so, further defuse the original subculture and its radical potentials (both for what you might think of as both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deviance). Motorcycle riders who were in gangs are, barring some sort of change of heart, still of course deviant and dangerous to others, however, the act of riding a motorcycle is now seen by the general population as being largely neither of those things. This is reminiscent of how Dylan Clark describes commodification, diffusion, and defusion of the punk subculture/movement in his article ‘The Death and Life of Punk, the Last Subculture’ in that, though many more people are now ‘punks’, with that diffusion, the radical nature and significance of punk as a subculture (that was[is] a threat to the dominant culture which relied[relies] on a passive response to hierarchy and oppression) is diminished, however, in spite of the change in the subculture as a whole, a small cohort who embody the original ethos still remains among the larger group (Clark 2003).
U.S. Alternative Rock:
For the example of ‘alternative rock’ in the 1990s, one can see that as the music became increasingly popular, along with the music itself, its elements, aesthetics, and themes began to appeal to mainstream audiences and, consequently, appear in advertising more and more. These shifts show both diffusion and commodification but they also show defusion in that the ‘edgy’ and ‘alternative’ aspects of the genre began to be subsumed into the dominant culture that it sprang up as an alternative to.
U.S. Anti-Gentrification Activists:
Though, as you can imagine and have just seen, there are endless examples of defusion ‘succeeding’, it would be an error to think of it as an unstoppable force. Recently Los Angeles, California anti-gentrification group Defend Boyle Heights worked to kick a TV show they felt made light of and exploited their struggle out of their community. The show Starz ‘Vida’ which is set in east Los Angeles, is about the life of two sisters, the circumstance of their lives, and the fight against gentrification in east L.A. and in a statement on their website they say the show:
…tastelessly exploits the anti-gentrification struggles of Boyle Heights. It pokes fun at the serious movement organizing around tenants rights, deportation defense, and police brutality…The process of stealing [activist groups] image for profit is a clear example of using an autonomous group’s experience to get famous while these producers & artists take ZERO responsibility for supporting tenants rights struggles or helping people fight ICE deportations. How are these folks different from Disney trying to copyright Dia de los Muertos? Shame on these T.V. actors, actresses, and producers for sucking the life out of our community just so hipsters can watch the show and continue to romanticize Boyle Heights as some exotic ethnic enclave.
This statement shows they recognize the show’s portrayal of life in their community and their movement against gentrification’s drivers is a part of the process of commodification, diffusion, and, eventually, defusion which stands to undermine their mission and destroy their community. The statement as a whole, and particularly the end, show that the group recognizes that their way of life and community are being made into a commodity. This is in line with Harvey’s idea that “The perpetual search for monopoly rents entails seeking out criteria of speciality, uniqueness, originality and authenticity…” (Harvey 2002: 100). In other words, in their search for the newest, ‘hottest’, and ‘realest’ thing to attract viewers and gain relevance, participants of the culture industry (TV executives in this case) have used (or tried to) Boyle Heights’ way of life and anti-gentrification movement as a symbol or prop (commodity) that can be used to sell their show to viewers. Put simply, the show is stealing the authenticity of the community and their movement to legitimize itself. Beyond that recognition, Defend Boyle Heights then worked to nip the process in the bud. As a means of doing this, they worked with other local groups to stage a boycott and went on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to raise awareness among their allies and the public about problems with the show and its potential impacts. All in all, as their movement gains steam and racks up a string of victories, Defend Boyle Heights is seeking to prevent the commodification, diffusion, and defusion of their struggle and, with their serious stance and actions, they seem to be holding their ground.
This video shows the group with other allied groups protesting an art opening. A few members of Defend Boyle Heights went from Los Angeles to New York City and worked with a number of similar groups in New York to protest a big opening by a high-level gentrifying artist.
The music video for the popular aforementioned Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
This article is mentioned in the text, “Grunge: A Success Story” by Rick Marin, and was published by the New York Times in 1992. The article discusses how grunge transitioned “from subculture to mass culture.”
This article, titled “Defining and Defying the Times: How Soundgarden Made ‘Badmotorfinger’” is about an alternative rock band and touches on the making of alternative rock as well as other bands that influenced Soundgarden including Nirvana. In the interview, they touch briefly on ideas of diffusion.
This statement (click first two words for link!) from Defend Boyle Heights titled ‘Solidarity Or Shame; The Revolution Will Not be Columbused by Tanya Saracho’ shows the group’s objections to the TV show ‘Vida’ and their filming in East L.A.. It also shows the group clearly recognizes the role this show could have in commodifying, diffusing, and defusing their movement.
This video depicts a typical anti-gentrification protest from the group Defend Boyle Heights. They make signs then protest in an uncivil and effective manner.
In this article, Damien Arthur describes the process of subcultural diffusion. Focusing on the case of Australian Hip Hop, Arthur introduces ideas applicable to the diffusion of many subcultures.
In this work, Clark describes how contrary to the idiom ‘Punk is Dead’, punk has actually shed its skin and lives on in the actions of those who embody its ethos. The work explores themes of commodification, diffusion, and defusion, but more importantly how a subculture or movement can avoid the trio’s negative impacts.
In this article, Karen V. Fernandez and Bernardo Figueiredo analyze the boundaries present in markets. The “bridging” of boundaries by consumers is connected to our themes of commodification, diffusion and defusion.
In “Toward a Subcultural Theory of Urbanism,” Fischer uses subcultures as a lens for examining cities. In doing so, Fischer touches on the process of diffusion.
Our text for this course provides a background on the study of subcultures and information about each of our three specific topics. This served as the basis for much of our conceptualization.
In this article, David Harvey describes the commodification of culture, introducing the concept of monopoly rent. Harvey helps situate the way that culture is construed and used in a capitalist society.
In this foundational text, Hebdage explores Brittain’s post-war youth subcultures and makes a case for their style as a form of resistance. His idea of incorporation and its parts diffusion and defusion were crucial for this work.
In this article, Ryan Moore writes about the commercialization of subcultures. By focusing on the alternative rock or “grunge” subculture, Moore provides a powerful example of the ways in which the culture industry can take subcultures that are, at their core, anti-capitalist and commercialism, and use them to make a profit.