The ghost of fashion

The city I live in is awash with goths. Unlike the Joy Division and Bauhaus fans of the 1970s and 80s, these latter day demons are not content with a t-shirt and dyed black German army coat. No, they go the whole hog. In fact, in their camp, Nazi bondage gear, it is fair to say that they have ingested the entire porcine drove.

They are, literally, designing a culture for themselves.

At one level, this is perfectly normal - even a positive development. Youth subcultures have long differentiated themselves through music and fashion. When your world is as small as that of a teenager, self-declared tribal identities matter and at least in developing their own subculture they are aspiring, if not actually achieving, to something other than mediocrity.

But what interests me is why 'goth' should come back into fashion.

The original goth scene developed in the North of England, largely Leeds, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a working class youth culture that grew out of punk as a response to industrial chaos, the beginning of the destruction of working class life, the disaggregation of traditional solidarities and the rise of militant Thatcherism and its attendant economic theory of Monetarism.

Today's goths are most assuredly not working class. Of course, the working class of today is nothing like the working class of 1982, but it is fair to say that today's goths are simply a manifestation of a desire to define oneself in opposition to the perceived authority, in this sense no different from any other youth subculture.

The self-professed morbidity of the nouveau gothic subculture is not rooted in the death of industry and destruction of livelihoods, as that of its moody primogenitor was. Instead, it's an exaggerated response to typical teenage feelings of angst and alienation. The alienation felt is a combination of hormonal changes, confusion at what is expected of them in the world and, most likely, not 'fitting in' with the cool kids at school. On top of this, there is a growing sense of wariness in the world, in our interpersonal relations and in our politics - perhaps the alienated stance of the goths suits our alienated age.

What it is not, however, is the alienation described by Karl Marx as resulting from the worker producing "objects in practice by subordinating his products and his own activity to the domination of an alien entity, and by attributing to them the significance of an alien entity, namely money."

How could it be? Teenagers are not economically productive outside of some having poorly paid part-time jobs. However, it's not just teenagers that are defining themselves by what they consume rather than what they do - that is how people are now defined en masse.

Today, consumption rules the economic roost. In fact, consumption probably overtook production during the 1980s, the decade during which financial speculation overtook industry in terms of economic importance to Britain.

What is most interesting is that now, as a result of technological innovation - principally the internet, but also satellite and digital television and radio and mobile telephones - the common points of consumption have fragmented into a thousand pieces. This at the very same time as consumption becoming the key indicator of status and societal role.

All that consumers have in common with one another is that they consume and that they define themselves by that act. What they actually define themselves as is not shared.

Bound up with consumption is the issue of identity. Like consumption, identity is a nebulous idea. In the past, identities were largely class-defined. Now, they are self-chosen and related not to what one does for a living, but how one sees oneself in the world. As a result, we are seeing the emergence of ever-smaller niché identities and markets which cater to them.

Hurrah, say the proponents of the 'long tail', the idea that today we can all gorge ourselves individually at the trough of personal choice. Hurrah, perhaps, say the designers whose appetites are whetted by the thought of having to deliver dozens of different designs, each tailored for a micro audience - think of all that extra work.

Unfortunately, this designers' paradise is coming at the cost of turning us all into not only mere consumers, but atomised individuals unable effect any change more meaningful than a product redesign or rebranding.

Ironically, the goths and other youth subcultures desperate to stand out from one another will ultimately fail as everything becomes simply a manifestation of surface, rather than substance. All looking different, but all the same. Even worse is the spectacle of adults defining themselves by the music they listen to, the shoes they wear, the newspaper they read and the food they eat.

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